Gravity’s Black Rainbow

A simulation of the collision of two black holes, which merged about 1.3 billion years ago to form a single black hole sixty-two times the mass of the sun. In the first discovery of its kind, the gravitational waves were detected simultaneously last September by the two branches of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), located in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, and announced in February 2016.
LIGO/NSF/Aurore Simonnet, Sonoma State University
A simulation of the collision of two black holes, which merged about 1.3 billion years ago to form a single black hole sixty-two times the mass of the sun. In the first discovery of its kind, the gravitational waves were detected simultaneously last September by the two branches of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), located in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, and announced in February 2016.

The magnificent success of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity—the modern theory of gravity, space, and time that supplanted Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation—promoted the popular misconception that major advances in fundamental physics and cosmology are the province of theoretical physicists working at blackboards or at their desks. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cosmology, like the rest of physics, is an empirical science. Progress is usually made when new experimental tools become available that produce discoveries that force scientists to adjust to new realities, or when ingenious experimentalists set out to build new devices to probe unexplored aspects of the universe and thereby make discoveries that force scientists to adjust to new realities.

Two new books examine—in very different ways—these two facets of scientific progress by discussing discoveries that have affected our understanding of the universe. Black Hole Blues by Janna Levin provides a case study of how a small group of scientists overcame enormous challenges to build a seemingly impossible experiment that recently made one of the most exciting scientific discoveries of this century. Mapping the Heavens by Priyamvada Natarajan explores how our scientific perspective has changed over millennia as we have learned about the large-scale structure and evolution of our universe, the nature of the Big Bang, and the existence of black holes—the very objects that are central to the discovery described in Levin’s book. The two books, though different in style and content, provide a strong case that science evolves by anything but a straightforward linear progression, and that often it is the scientists involved in making progress who have the hardest time adjusting to new scientific realities. As Max Planck once suggested, science advances one funeral at a time.

Black Hole Blues explores the fascinating, if sometimes tortured, history associated with the building of one of the most ambitious projects ever constructed to advance science—LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. LIGO consists of two huge sets of vacuum-filled tunnels, each four kilometers long and outfitted with powerful lasers. One set is…


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