On the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s prediction that gravitational waves distort space-time, an acclaimed astrophysicist provides a thrilling insider’s look at the extraordinary scientific team that devised and built the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, which conducted the first experiment to ever observe gravitational waves.
In Einstein’s 1916 paper describing the general theory of relativity, he predicted that gravitational waves—such as those created when two black holes collide—would warp the fabric of space-time in predictable patterns. A century later, scientists at LIGO empirically verified his claim by detecting waves that have been “ringing” through space since the moment of collision over 1 billion years ago. Levin’s (Physics and Astronomy/Barnard Coll.; A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, 2006, etc.) authoritative account of the brilliant physicists and engineers who envisioned such a remarkable experiment places readers right in the middle of the action, tracing LIGO’s evolution from an inspired idea in the 1970s to the most expensive project in the history of the National Science Foundation. She perfectly captures the fast-paced, forward-thinking, bureaucracy-averse atmosphere of a large-scale scientific experiment, but she also lays bare the decades of interpersonal strife that, at times, threatened to undermine the experiment’s success. The author’s portrait of these pioneers is especially engaging for her ability to contextualize humanness not just within the scope of the physical experiment, but in the face of such dizzying stakes—surely a Nobel is on the line and has been since the beginning. Levin herself is also wondrously present in this narrative, nimbly guiding readers through scientific jargon and reminding us of the enormous profundity of modern physics. “A vestige of the noise of the [black hole] crash,” she writes, “has been on its way to us since early multicelled organisms fossilized in supercontinents on a still dynamic Earth.”
A superb alignment of author and subject: Levin is among the best contemporary science writers, and LIGO is arguably the most compelling experiment on the planet.