Books : reviews

Janna Levin.
How the Universe Got Its Spots: diary of a finite time in a finite space.
Phoenix. 2002

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 1 November 2003

This is a combined tutorial on the topology of the universe and a personal diary, cast as letters home to mother, explaining the work being done.

I found the cosmology fascinating: it starts off as a fairly standard coverage of relativity and the geometry of the universe, but about half way through it gets on to new stuff about the topology (connectedness) of the universe, in contrast to its geometry (curvedness). Levin explains how a flat or negatively curved universe can nevertheless be finite, with a suitable choice of topology, and the observational consequesnces of this.

The diary part I found rather less satisfactory. A junior to mid-career academic constantly moves from post to post: this diary shows the unhappy effect on personal relationships. But the detail is either too much, distracting from the science, or not enough, failing to show when, why, and how these changes occur. (This is not helped by a confusing part in the middle when Levin admits the dates are mixed up, leading to a feeling she is living two parallel lives at one point.) Additionally, this particular approach -- personal private live interwoven with impersonal cosmological descriptions -- misses out her personal scientific life: apart from a description of a conference or two, there is nothing on the day-to-day life in science. She must really enjoy the work, to let it affect her personal life so much, yet I didn't get a feel for the passion.

Janna Levin.
Black Hole Blues: and other songs from outer space.
Bodley Head. 2016

This is the full inside story of the detection of gravitational waves at LIGO, one of the most ambitious feats in scientific history.

Travel around the world 100 billion times. A strong gravitational wave will briefly change that distance by less than the thickness of a human hair. We have perhaps less than a few tenths of a second to perform this measurement. And we don’t know if this infinitesimal event will come next month, next year or perhaps in thirty years.

In 1916 Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves: miniscule ripples in the very fabric of spacetime generated by unfathomably powerful events. If such vibrations could somehow be recorded, we could observe our universe for the first time through sound: the hissing of the Big Bang, the whale-like tunes of collapsing stars, the low tones of merging galaxies, the drumbeat of two black holes collapsing into one. For decades, astrophysicists have searched for a way of doing so…

In 2016 a team of hundreds of scientists at work on a billion-dollar experiment made history when they announced the first ever detection of a gravitational wave, confirming Einstein’s prediction. This is their story, and the story of the most sensitive scientific instrument ever made: LIGO.

Based on complete access to LIGO and the scientists who created it, Black Hole Blues provides a firsthand account of this astonishing achievement: a compelling, intimate portrait of cutting-edge science at its most awe-inspiring and ambitious.