[Marxism] Astrophysics books
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Sun Apr 24 09:09:40 MDT 2016
NY Times Sunday Book Review, Apr. 24 2016
Maria Popova Reviews Janna Levin’s ‘Black Hole Blues’
By MARIA POPOVA
BLACK HOLE BLUES
And Other Songs From Outer Space
By Janna Levin
241 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.
In 1977, the Voyager 1 spacecraft carried the Golden Record into space —
a disc containing a representative selection of Earth’s sounds, ranging
from an erupting volcano to a kiss to some of humanity’s greatest music.
It was an endeavor more poetic than scientific, which Carl Sagan saw as
sonic proof of our being “a species endowed with hope and perseverance,
at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable
zest to make contact with the cosmos.”
Meanwhile, a small community of experimentalists were attempting the
reverse in a rigorous scientific endeavor with poetic undertones. They
were trying to build an apparatus that would detect the sonic message of
the cosmos as it made contact with us via gravitational waves — ripples
in the fabric of space-time, first envisioned by Einstein in his
pioneering 1915 paper on general relativity.
In “Black Hole Blues: And Other Songs From Outer Space,” the
astrophysicist and novelist Janna Levin chronicles the decades-long
development of this magnificent machine — a quest marked by the highest
degree of human intelligence, zest and perseverance. Taking on the
simultaneous roles of expert scientist, journalist, historian and
storyteller of uncommon enchantment, Levin delivers pure signal from
cover to cover.
For Einstein, gravitational waves were an entirely theoretical concept —
he couldn’t imagine a human-made tool that would detect them. But our
imagination and our tools shape one another. As technology advanced,
scientists set about proving Einstein’s vision, culminating in the Laser
Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. “An idea sparked in the
1960s, a thought experiment, an amusing haiku, is now a thing of metal
and glass,” Levin writes of the scientific collaboration known as LIGO —
the costliest project the National Science Foundation has ever funded,
exceeding $1 billion in total. Its story is proof that hardly any field
is as laced with stubbornness and sensitivity as science.
Levin profiles the key figures in this revolution with Dostoyevskian
insight into the often irrational human psychology animating this
rigorous project of reason. She counters the mad-genius archetype with
evidence that trailblazing scientists accomplish great feats not because
of their idiosyncrasies and ferocious egos but despite them, often
skirting self-destruction with only a measure of luck and a generous
dose of forgiveness from sympathetic peers.
Central to LIGO’s success are its three original architects, known as
the Troika: Rainer Weiss, the brilliant ruffian who invented the
apparatus at the heart of LIGO; Kip Thorne, the revered astrophysicist
and relativist with the wildly speculative yet mathematically precise
mind, whose charisma saved the project from going under; and Ron Drever,
the prickly Scottish genius considered a scientific Mozart — “a
childlike spirit attached to a wondrous mind that just seemed to emanate
astonishing compositions.” People, Levin intimates, are fragmentary but
indivisible — they bring their aptitudes and their flaws to the work.
Rigor and self-righteousness often go in tandem, as do idealism and
egotism. These scientists all contain multitudes.
Levin harmonizes science and life with remarkable virtuosity. As a boy,
Drever made gadgets from bits of rubber tubing and sealing wax and built
an entire television — possibly the only one in his Scottish village —
on which locals watched the queen’s coronation. He carried this hacker
spirit of zeal and frugality into his ingenious prototypes for LIGO.
Thorne’s Mormon mother found her feminism incompatible with their faith,
and the family broke with the church — the seedbed of the rebelliousness
that made him a visionary scientist. Weiss’s youth in the golden age of
high fidelity and his romance with a pianist catalyzed his obsession
with making music easier to hear; he later envisioned an instrument to
make the sound of space discernible. “LIGO covers the same frequency
range as the piano,” he tells Levin.
These aren’t coincidences, Levin suggests as she dismantles the eureka
convention of science, exposing the invisible, incremental processes
that produce the final spark we call genius.
Predating the Troika was the lone pioneer Joseph Weber, who built a
different, much cheaper instrument in the 1960s. Claiming to have
detected a gravitational wave, he became a scientific celebrity
overnight. But as peers failed to replicate his results, he plummeted
from grace and spent the next 30 years defending himself. Weber both
expanded the field and contracted it — without the thrill of his initial
claims, gravitational astronomy wouldn’t have galvanized the community;
without the skepticism his disrepute spawned, a LIGO-like undertaking
might have materialized much sooner. After slipping on ice in front of
the one-man observatory he stubbornly continued to operate into his 80s,
Weber died a tragic hero. He never lived to see the discovery to which
he had dedicated his life, nor the redemption of being thanked as a
trailblazer in LIGO’s announcement of that very discovery. His widow,
the astronomer Virginia Trimble, captures the larger truth
unsentimentally: “Science is a self-correcting process, but not
necessarily in one’s own lifetime.”
As LIGO evolved, there was inevitable friction. To speak of bruised egos
would be to trivialize how deeply invested these scientists were in the
project, how reason and emotion entwined. In one emblematic scene,
Drever bemoans a feud with his boss: “He kept accusing me of not using
the scientific method. And this hurt me tremendously.”
Add to this the ultimate wild card: nature. In between complex
calculations, the scientists crawl into the belly of LIGO’s
sophisticated instrument to fight infestations of mice, wasps, spiders,
snakes and, in one particularly fable-like incident at the Louisiana
site, a mysterious invasion of bass. In this endeavor to hear the
deepest bellows of the cosmos, nature herself chimes in with her own
reminders that not everything can be controlled and accounted for.
Still, against a backdrop of ceaseless and varied obstacles — clashing
egos, brushes with the F.B.I. and K.G.B., creationists holding town hall
meetings across the street, enormous administrative entropy swirling
between vision and reality — this discordant cohort of idealists
persevered for half a century. I think of the recruitment ad Ernest
Shackleton was reported to have placed for his pioneering polar
expedition as Einstein was drafting general relativity: “Men wanted for
hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete
darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition
in case of success.”
One September morning in 2015, success arrived unannounced. During a
warm-up for the first official run of Advanced LIGO — the pinnacle of
this half-century odyssesy — a gravitational wave strummed the
instrument. Conditioned by decades of disappointment, the scientists’
first response was doubt. But this was real — this was honor and
recognition, a century in the making. Two enormous black holes had
collided somewhere far away, a long time ago.
After half a millennium of exploring the cosmos through light, we have
entered a new era of sonic exploration. Even as he dethroned us from the
center of the universe, Galileo couldn’t envision the galaxies and
faraway marvels that astronomers would see with more powerful
telescopes. The sonic universe might serenade mysteries just as enormous
and just as unimaginable to us today.
But as redemptive as the story of the countless trials and unlikely
triumph may be, what makes the book most rewarding is Levin’s exquisite
prose, which bears the mark of a first-rate writer: an acute critical
mind haloed with a generosity of spirit.
Maria Popova is the founder of Brain-Pickings.org and an M.I.T. Futures
of Entertainment fellow.
‘The Universe in Your Hand’ and ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics’
By JENNIFER OUELLETTE
THE UNIVERSE IN YOUR HAND
A Journey Through Space, Time, and Beyond
By Christophe Galfard
386 pp. Flatiron Books. $27.99.
SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS
By Carlo Rovelli
Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre
Illustrated. 86 pp. Riverhead Books. $18.
Jennifer Ouellette’s most recent book is “Me, Myself, and Why: Searching
for the Science of Self.”
The collision of two black holes is seen in this still image from a
computer simulation. Credit Caltech/MIT/LIGO Laboratory
Have you heard the joke about the elderly rabbi who tries to settle a
bitter dispute between two men? The rabbi listens to one man’s case and
pronounces him right. Then he hears the second man’s case, and concludes
the second man is right. At this point his eavesdropping wife steps in
and points out that both men can’t possibly be right. To which the
rabbi replies, “And you are right as well!”
That conundrum lies at the heart of two new books: Christophe Galfard’s
“The Universe in Your Hand,” and Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons
on Physics.” Rovelli uses the case of the indecisive rabbi to illustrate
the dilemma faced by theoretical physicists in the 21st century, except
in this case what is under dispute are two competing “rule books” for
reality: Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics.
Each functions perfectly well within its specific realm: Quantum
mechanics governs the subatomic world of the very small, while general
relativity describes how the world works at very large scales. But
neither offers a complete description of how the world works.
Galfard is a protégé of Stephen Hawking’s, co-authoring a young adult
book with Hawking and his daughter, Lucy, in 2007 (“George’s Secret Key
to the Universe”). Those Y.A. roots show in “The Universe in Your Hand.”
There’s a lot to be said in defense of plain, simple language, but in
this case it proves a mixed bag. The earlier chapters read more like
draft scripts for the television series “Cosmos,” covering very familiar
ground (the sun, the moon, our solar system, stars and galaxies) without
doing much to make the material seem fresh.
More problematic is Galfard’s frequent use of the second person — no
doubt to provide a stronger sense of immediacy for the reader — which
wears thin rather quickly and adds a whiff of condescension to the
overall tone. He also tends to repeat himself a great deal; for Galfard,
if a point is worth making, it’s worth restating at least twice more.
The book could easily be trimmed by a third by eliminating some of those
That chatty plain-spoken approach pays off, however, once Galfard digs
into the headier realms of special relativity, quantum mechanics, black
hole physics and string theory. As befits a Hawking protégé, he’s quite
skilled at clever analogies. For instance, the excitation of atoms is “a
bit like children being offered sweets at a party,” and the sweets that
the children prefer are analogous to which kinds of light an atom will
absorb, seen in the absorption lines of atomic spectra. And he deftly
sums up why distances must contract and time must dilate under the rules
of relativity: Something has to give in order for the speed of light to
remain constant regardless of the viewpoint of the observer.
Where Galfard really shines is in his crystal-clear explanation of
quantum field theory — a welcome inclusion for a popular physics book.
Most stick with the intuitive description of matter being made of atoms,
and atoms being made of elementary particles, with those particles being
composed of quarks. But in reality, the world is made up of fields.
Particles are just what we see as a manifestation of those fields. Case
in point: The electromagnetic field is “a sea of force out of which
virtual particles of light can pop at any moment.”
Galfard even dares to venture where many popular science writers fear to
tread with a careful breakdown of how physicists deal with infinities.
If we wish to calculate the probability of two electrons bouncing off
each other, for example, we can use a classical equation describing how
billiard balls scatter as a first approximation. Physicists would
typically then make successive small tweaks to arrive at the correct
answer for two electrons. But in quantum field theory, such tweaks give
an answer of infinity. This is clearly wrong, since any probability must
be less than one.
There is a mathematical trick to get the correct answer, essentially
akin to sweeping the infinities under the rug and pretending they don’t
exist. As Galfard puts it, “One does not need to know about atoms to
compare apples on a market stand.” And it works. Once that is done, the
predictions of quantum field theory match experimental results to an
accuracy of one part in a billion.
But this doesn’t work when it comes to gravity. As Galfard explains, the
essence of quantum field theory is that the elementary particles
associated with any given field are made of the field itself. With
gravity, that “field” is space-time. So space-time is fundamentally
different in general relativity and quantum field theory. Finding a way
to reconcile the two has thus far eluded physicists.
It happens that Carlo Rovelli is one of the founders of loop quantum
gravity and one of the leading candidates for achieving that
reconciliation, along with string theory. So naturally it informs his
outlook in “Seven Brief Lessons.” This slim volume expands on his very
short essays for the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore on the biggest
physics breakthroughs of the 20th century and beyond: general
relativity, quantum mechanics, the cosmos, elementary particles, quantum
gravity, probability and black hole thermodynamics, and our own humble
place in all of this.
In clear, elegant prose, Rovelli guides the reader through a whirlwind
tour of some of the biggest ideas in physics. His passion for his chosen
field is evident on every page. For him, general relativity is on a par
with such masterpieces of human genius as Mozart’s Requiem,
Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and the Sistine Chapel. In the opening essay,
he recalls a summer at the seaside in Calabria when he was still a
student. He watched the water’s surface ripple and sway, as space-time
curves in response to matter and energy, and understood for the very
first time the elegant simplicity of Einstein’s equations — and also its
revolutionary implications. “Within this equation there is a teeming
universe,” he writes.
Rovelli never once mentions string theory in his essay devoted to
quantum gravity, but he has plenty to say about loop quantum gravity,
which is far less familiar to general readers. Loop quantum gravity
dispenses entirely with continuous space-time, describing it instead as
being made up of billions upon billions of grains, or loops, that
Rovelli likens to “atoms of space.” The equations of loop quantum
gravity determine how these atoms evolve, and it’s the connections
between these loops that give the theory its name. In Rovelli’s
worldview, space and matter continually interact with each other: “Space
is created by the linking of these individual quanta of gravity,” he
writes. “Every process dances independently with its neighbors, to its
This notion of interconnection is a recurrent theme for Rovelli, for
whom reality is “only interaction.” He sees it not only in the interplay
between space-time and matter, but also in the probabilistic nature of
thermodynamics, and in how time’s apparent flow arises from the
“intimate connection between time and heat,” with implications for
memory and consciousness. He even sees it in the different languages we
use to describe our complex world and our place in it. These also
“intersect, intertwine and reciprocally enhance one another, like the
Despite the similarity in subject matter, these two books target
different audiences. With its breezy conversational style, “The
Universe in Your Hand” is well suited for the general reader with little
to no prior knowledge of science, particularly the earlier chapters.
Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons” has a deeper philosophical bent — it’s a
rare science book that cites Lucretius — and should appeal to readers
with a similar sensibility. One can easily imagine perusing these essays
while comfortably ensconced in an overstuffed chair by the fire, a
snifter of cognac in hand.
Given that there are so many popular science books available that cover
this very well-trodden ground, the real question is, why should readers
buy these books rather than any of the others? Ultimately, both Galfard
and Rovelli succeed in putting their own unique stamp on the material.
The reader will come away from either book with a deeper understanding
of how modern physics has brought us closer to an ultimate understanding
Jennifer Ouellette’s most recent book is “Me, Myself, and Why: Searching
for the Science of Self.”
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