Janna Levin’s ‘Black Hole Blues’

0424-BKS-Cover-master315Maria Popova at The New York Times:

Central to LIGO’s success are its three original architects, known as the Troika: Rainer Weiss, the brilliant ruffian who invented the apparatus at the heart of LIGO; Kip Thorne, the revered astrophysicist and relativist with the wildly speculative yet mathematically precise mind, whose charisma saved the project from going under; and Ron Drever, the prickly Scottish genius considered a scientific Mozart — “a childlike spirit attached to a wondrous mind that just seemed to emanate astonishing compositions.” People, Levin intimates, are fragmentary but indivisible — they bring their aptitudes and their flaws to the work. Rigor and self-­righteousness often go in tandem, as do idealism and egotism. These scientists all contain multitudes.

Levin harmonizes science and life with remarkable virtuosity. As a boy, Drever made gadgets from bits of rubber tubing and sealing wax and built an entire television — possibly the only one in his Scottish village — on which locals watched the queen’s coronation. He carried this hacker spirit of zeal and frugality into his ingenious prototypes for LIGO. Thorne’s Mormon mother found her feminism incompatible with their faith, and the family broke with the church — the seedbed of the rebelliousness that made him a visionary scientist. Weiss’s youth in the golden age of high fidelity and his romance with a pianist catalyzed his obsession with making music easier to hear; he later envisioned an instrument to make the sound of space discernible. “LIGO covers the same frequency range as the piano,” he tells Levin.

These aren’t coincidences, Levin suggests as she dismantles the eureka convention of science, exposing the invisible, incremental processes that produce the final spark we call genius.

more here.