[Marxism] Astrophysics books

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
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’

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’

A Journey Through Space, Time, and Beyond
By Christophe Galfard
386 pp. Flatiron Books. $27.99.

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 
own rhythm.”

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 
processes themselves.”

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 
of reality.

Jennifer Ouellette’s most recent book is “Me, Myself, and Why: Searching 
for the Science of Self.”

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