Issue 18’s Review

Black Hole Blues by Janna Levin

A review by editor Jessica Gately (this review can be found in issue 18: Black Hole)

The timing of this book falling into my hands could not have been better. Apart from the impending release of this issue of Underground, whose theme is also somewhat coincidentally timed with current affairs, early last month scientists embarked on the next great endeavour in our search for understanding the cosmos: the world’s first photo of a black hole. The international collaboration made headlines at the beginning of April when observatories around the world synchronised together on atomic time to become known as the Event Horizon Telescope. For one week they moved in unison to glimpse the centre of our galaxy. Complex algorithms are currently working to piece together the images taken from around the world, some 500 terabytes worth of data from each of the six observatories. The end product will, hopefully, be a photo of the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy: Sagittarius A*. Other than providing one of the most tantalising cosmic photos we could have dreamed of, the project will also potentially allow scientists to map the event horizon of the black hole, the point of no return, which they can then compare to Einstein’s theories of gravity and general relativity. Do Einstein’s theories still hold up under such extreme conditions?

The promise of the Event Horizon Telescope follows from last year’s success from the LIGO project, the subject of Janna Levin’s book. On Monday September 14th, 2015, scientists working on one of the biggest astrophysical experiments to date detected gravitational waves for the first time. The gravitational waves they detected came from the clash of two black holes millions, possibly even billions, of years ago. It says something of the enormity of the discovery, one hundred years after Einstein published his paper on gravitational waves, that the team approached this first detection with such scepticism that it was several days before they truly believed they had discovered anything at all! In the beginning they sought for evidence of a mistake, testing, even hackers.

Janna Levin’s account of LIGO’s history is equal parts compelling and intriguing. I have enormous appreciation for her focus on the historical background of the project; delving into the lives of the driving scientists in the field as well as their parents’ backgrounds and the political climate that shaped them, their interests, and their decisions. Although some of the terminology throughout the book borders on arduous and some of the tangents and in-depth scientific information can be somewhat cumbersome to the overall narrative, Janna effectively represents the chaotic order that is scientific endeavour. The first few pages of the story are melodic, reading like the music of the stars, although I feared to begin with that her representation of science was somewhat romanticized. This gave way towards the end of the book as the nitty gritty details and laborious processes involved in a project of this magnitude became apparent. Levin’s book reminds me particularly of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything in its style. It reads like a history of how we got to where we are in our understanding of black holes.

Of particular interest to me was the recurring theme of politics and how it shapes science and technology. Our understanding of the nature of stars, for example, comes from the work done on nuclear weapons. One has only to look at the scientific and technological achievements that came as a result of World War I, World War II, and the Cold War to wonder what scientific breakthroughs are currently happening as a result of the war in Syria or Iraq. It’s a horrible thought, but there seems to be an economy in war that provides for scientific progress. Suddenly, daring missions and bulk funding to large-scale projects becomes important to politicians during war, and the pay-off for scientists who agree to help in war efforts is the extended funding to expand their research. That’s not to say that all technological advancements or big breakthroughs are rooted in war and destruction, but there seems to be a correlation between the two. Or maybe that’s just coincidence. Scientifically, I don’t have the data to support that hypotheses. After all correlation is not causation.

But with such huge currency involved in space exploration, people want to see the results here on earth. What technology exists now as a result of our fascination with space? LED lights, Infrared Thermometers, artificial limbs, anti-icing systems in aircraft, firefighting equipment and personal protective equipment, enriched baby food, portable vacuum cleaners, solar power, water purification systems, various types of computing software… I could go on. All of these are inventions or ongoing systems that are continuously developed and improved by programs run by the likes of NASA. The Hubble Space Telescope, Mars Rover, Juno Satellite, New Horizons and all the other various space missions have all impacted us in more ways than just pretty pictures of another planet.

Space continues to captivate us. With fears for the viability of Earth, the possibilities offered by space are endless. Literature and pop culture have clung to space and its infinite possibilities. Novella and movies such as Enders Game, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Interstellar, Star Wars, Star Trek, and Guardians of the Galaxy– each take on something that we’ve learnt of the space in which we live. Most never dare to even leave our own galaxy. The universe is just so vast. And here on this little rock, surrounding this little sun, in this little patch of space dust, is a world of sentient beings, pondering their place amongst it all. Some make sense of it with poetry and prose, others make sense of it with mathematics and physics, but in the end we find some strange coalescing that allows both sides of the spectrum to meet halfway in a beautiful, exciting, and ongoing adventure.

Underground Team

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