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Big science, small science.

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space

Janna Levin

Alfred A. Knopf

256 pages, ISBN 9780307958198, $26.95, hardcover

BLACK HOLE BLUES, Janna Levin's new book on LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) and the search for gravitational waves, builds on a deep literature analyzing "big science"--big-facility projects that employ large numbers of scientists and staff from various institutions, all supported by massive budgets. In its current state, LIGO epitomizes big science: the detection of gravitational waves required multiple teams at multiple institutions to develop multiple instruments at multiple sites over multiple decades. But as Levin shows, the early work in the field of gravitational waves resembled more closely "small science," with research conducted by individuals or small teams bound to a single university or institution. In a small science setting, the scientists functioned semiautonomously and so were able to respond to data and ideas with as much or as little flexibility as they saw fit.

In Black Hole Blues, Levin documents LIGO's transformation from small to big, chronicling particularly well the growing pains during its development from a few ideas at individual labs to one of the largest projects ever funded by the National Science Foundation. She tells LIGO's story through biography and anecdotes, many of which were related to her during interviews with several of the primary actors from the project's early years. These include Rainier Weiss and Kip Thorne, two of the three physicists referred to as LIGO's troika (as explained late in the book, out of necessity Levin relies on an oral history recorded in 1997 for most of her discussion of the third physicist in the troika, Ron Drever). Personality as much as practicality shaped the founding years of LIGO, and as the search for gravitational waves stretched over years and even decades, succeeding generations of scientists and administrators inherited a project formed by the competing approaches of these three physicists.

While descriptions of the work at and the facilities of LIGO are scattered throughout the book, most of the chapters in Black Hole Blues are framed around individual voices -those of Weiss, Thorne, and Drever, but also of physicist Joe Weber and astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell, as well as LIGO administrator Rochus "Robbie" Vogt. Levin is at her best when she comes closest to ethnography. The ideas and motivations of the troika and collaborators ring through distinctly, despite her mediating prose. In fact, as I read, I found myself becoming more invested in the lives of the individual actors than in the project itself. Admittedly, I knew going in that Advanced LIGO (a series of upgrades moved LIGO's instruments from "initial" to "advanced" via an "enhanced" state) had successfully detected gravitational waves on September 14, 2015. I was much less sure about the outcome for the people who started the project, however. As it turns out, I had good cause to be worried about a few of the book's protagonists.

Black Hole Blues should appeal to anyone interested in the workings of big science, whatever the field--physics, astronomy, molecular biology. The workings of these massive research projects, the balancing of demands made by the various stakeholders, from scientists to adminstrators, are not often seen by the public, simply because it's hard to get a bird's-eye view of such large endeavors. While there are better and deeper explanations of gravitational waves already written, Levin gives her readers a satisfying look at how big science starts, develops, and--in the end--succeeds.

Johnson-Roehr, S.N.

Observing Editor S. N. Johnson-Roehr divides her time between staring at the sky and staring at the pages of a book.
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Author:Johnson-Roehr, S.N.
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Article Type:Book review
Date:Aug 1, 2016
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