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Listening in on the ‘Black Hole Blues,’ the soundtrack of the universe

February saw one of the most important astronomical breakthroughs of the decade, as a team of scientists “heard” gravitational waves -- a key postulate of Einstein’s theory of relativity -- for the first time in human history. Now, astrophysicist Janna Levin recounts that incredible discovery, and the human drama behind it, in her new book “Black Hole Blues.” Levin joins Jeffrey Brown for more.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It was big news in February when scientists announced they had at long last detected gravitational waves from space. Albert Einstein had predicted the existence of these waves in his general theory of relativity, but they’re rather hard to see or, as we learn in our latest “NewsHour” Bookshelf conversation, to hear.

    Jeffrey Brown has that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The sound lasted about a fifth of a second, but it represented gravitational waves created by the collision of two black holes with the combined mass of about 62 of our suns a billion light years away.

    “Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space” is a story of things extraordinarily small and hard-to-comprehend large, and of the human drama in discovering them.

    Author Janna Levin is a physicist and astronomer at Barnard College. She’s also author of a novel, “A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.”

    So, the blues, we’re sort of in the realm of metaphor here, but the idea is to hear the universe, at least as aspects that we can’t possibly see.

  • JANNA LEVIN, Author, “Black Hole Blues”:

    Yes, most of what we know about the universe really does come to us from light.

    And we have telescopes that span the range of light to take pictures of the sky. This is utterly different. This is not a form of light. So when the black holes collided, they were like mallets on the drum. They rang space-time itself.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But you have got to be able to hear them.

  • JANNA LEVIN:

    Right. So, you have to be able to record the shape of the drum.

    And that’s basically what this experiment did. It recorded the shape of the ringing drum from two black holes that collided 1.3 billion years ago.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, so step back and explain to us as simply as you can, what is a gravitational wave? And why is it important to our understanding of things?

  • JANNA LEVIN:

    Yes. Yes.

    So, a gravitational wave is really a ripple or a change in the shape of space and time itself. So, if you were floating near these colliding black holes, you would literally be squeezed and stretched. And you would experience this squeezing and stretching. It emanates from this collision. It causes these ripples in space, kind of like fish swirling in a pond causing water waves.

    And then they emanate out. They travel at the speed of light, even though they are not light. And eventually they make it here to the Earth. If you were floating nearby, you might even literally hear the wave, because your ear could respond to the vibrations.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But you’re telling it through the human drama. You have got some really incredible characters, three of them most of all, who are at the beginning. Tell us a little bit about that.

  • JANNA LEVIN:

    So, I really do think it was kind of a climbing Mount Everest story, an adventure story.

    People like Rai Weiss, who just dreamed up this idea of, how could you record the shape of space-time ringing? And it was sort of what he called a haiku, didn’t even believe anything real could come of it. He started this in the late ’60s.

    Later comes Kip Thorne, who is a brilliant theoretical astrophysicist. And they kind of pull resources. And eventually Ron Drever comes in. And now, after 50 years, there’s 800, 1,000 people working on this campaign.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And they in a sense sort of bet their careers, right?

  • JANNA LEVIN:

    At the time that when people like Rai and Kip were dreaming about these things, people were not even sure that black holes were real.

    And there was a lot of argument in the astrophysics community even about gravitational waves themselves, if they were real. So, they were doing this almost out of a compulsion. It really is like climbing a mountain. They just couldn’t stop. And the whole community was not in favor of this experiment. I think that is not as widely know when we celebrated the discovery, that there were a lot of people that were not in favor of building this machine.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In telling the story of the human drama, inevitably, you get into jealousies, you get into failures, you get into all kinds of human dramas.

  • JANNA LEVIN:

    Yes. Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But that is part of the story.

  • JANNA LEVIN:

    Well, I think what people don’t appreciate is, that’s really how science is done.

    People think that we just come down with these answers. As scientists, we are full of answers. That’s really not what it is like. Scientists are full of questions. Sometimes, the questions don’t lead you to the answer, but, sometimes, they do, and there is this great discovery.

    But, yes, there is fighting along the way. There is competition. There are failures and successes. And at the end of the climb, some people made it to the summit, and some people didn’t.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Tell me about your own way into this. You write. You study this. You write about black holes.

  • JANNA LEVIN:

    Yes.

    I have spent a lot of time thinking about black holes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • JANNA LEVIN:

    And I’m a theoretical astrophysicist. So I work on pen and paper.

    It is very abstract. It is kind of solitary. And I originally wanted just to write kind of abstract treaties about black holes, but I got lost into this LIGO story in part because I became so enamored of the physicality of the experiment. I went out to the sites, these four-kilometer-long machines.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes, we should say LIGO is the name of…

  • JANNA LEVIN:

    LIGO is the name of the two machines that together form this network of observatories.

    And I just couldn’t believe that they were pulling it off, and I just loved going to the sites and watching people install the components and make this real, make it physical, metal and glass.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That side of you that is a writer as well — I mentioned you are a novelist.

  • JANNA LEVIN:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So you like combining the storytelling of the science.

  • JANNA LEVIN:

    Right.

    So, I would be talking to Rai Weiss, who was one of the original architects. And the way he spoke about some of his original ambitions and how he couldn’t stop, and even a month before the discovery would say things to me like, if we don’t discover black holes, this thing is a failure.

    And I became so sort of caught up in that, I realized that this could actually read like a novel. And if you followed these characters, you could understand not only the process of science, but the internal ambitions and the drives.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So you are doing all this work for the book. In the meantime, the work is going on.

    And then there is this announcement that we all get in February.

  • JANNA LEVIN:

    Yes. Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It was a shock that it came that quickly, right?

  • JANNA LEVIN:

    Whenever I asked people, will you make a discovery in the science round — this was September of 2015 — everyone said, there is no way. There is no way. They said, it will be 2018 at the earliest.

    And then it struck, and it caught everybody off-guard. They actually weren’t really ready to make the detection. They were still kind of testing the machine and banging on it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And then?

  • JANNA LEVIN:

    And then it struck. It came from 1.3 billion years ago. It struck Louisiana. About 10 milliseconds later, it crosses the continent and hits Washington state and rings that machine.

    It is a spectacular detection.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And let me ask you finally, Kip Thorne, one of the scientists behind all this, you quote him as saying that our ability to measure gravitational waves will — quote — “open a new window on the universe.”

  • JANNA LEVIN:

    Yes. Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So when you look at what comes from this, give us some sense of what it might mean.

  • JANNA LEVIN:

    So, I remember when I was a young student listening to Kip talk about this, before LIGO was even built, and just before 2000, he always talked about a new window.

    And we liken it to maybe the first that anyone pointed a telescope at the sky. You know, Galileo was just looking at the moon and Saturn. He didn’t foresee that there were hundreds of billions of stars in collections called galaxies, or that there were quasars powered by black holes.

    These were things you couldn’t foresee. And I think what Kip hopes and what a lot of us hope is that the future will be so vast, beyond what we have even imagined, that there are dark sources out there that will ring these detectors, they will record the sounds of space, and there will be things we have never even predicted before.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, the new book is “Black Hole Blues.”

    Janna Levin, thanks so much.

  • JANNA LEVIN:

    Thanks so much.

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