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Janna Levin and Black Hole Blues

Janna Levin is a professor of astrophysics at Columbia University. Her newest book, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, was published this spring by Knopf Doubleday.
Black Hole Milkyway (photo credit: CC-BY-SA  Ute Kraus, Wikimedia Commons)
Black Hole Milkyway (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Ute Kraus, Wikimedia Commons)
Karl Schwarzschild writing in his study in Potsdam (Wikimedia Commons)
Karl Schwarzschild writing in his study in Potsdam (Wikimedia Commons)

Janna Levin is a professor of astrophysics at Columbia University. Her newest book, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, was published this spring by Knopf Doubleday. Levin is used to writing about mind-bending topics. Her previous books were A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines and How the Universe Got Its Spots.

Levin’s grandparents had a strong sense of Jewish tradition and kept kosher. Her parents grew up speaking Yiddish and instilled in her a strong sense of her family’s Jewish history. Yet Levin herself was never taken to shul and never practiced Judaism.

Looking back at her childhood, Levin can remember that it was the big philosophical questions that really interested her. She was absolutely mesmerized by astronomy and cosmology. She can remember asking questions about what we are doing here and what it means to be a part of the cosmos. Although initially repelled by the stereotype of physicists having to memorize equations, she found questions concerning the origin of the universe gratifying because of the way they captured her imagination.

At first a philosophy major in college, her life took a turn toward physics when a visiting scientists gave a guest lecture in her philosophy class. Among other things, he discussed quantum mechanics and Einstein. What impressed Levin was the awkward way her philosophical classmates had nothing to say. Their philosophy could not prove or disprove anything that was being said. The work of physicists to verify the predictions of abstract mathematical equations by means of experiment provides interesting content for the book.

Levin’s book tells the story behind the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the discovery of gravitational waves that was announced to the world on February 11. Gravitational waves traveling away from colliding black holes had been predicted many years ago. Yet it took an observatory costing hundreds of millions of dollars to detect them. LIGO is the most sensitive measuring device ever built by the hands of man and can measure distances 1/10,000th the width of a proton.

It is well known that black holes cannot be seen, but as is implied by the title of the book, they can be heard with a sensitive enough listening device. At a distance of 1.3 billion light-years, the collision of two black holes was heard as a kind of chirp at the LIGO facilities in Louisiana and Washington state.

Levin is not the first to refer to music in the sky. Pythagoras proposed that celestial spheres in our solar system would produce a kind of hum, although the tenor of sounds would be physically inaudible to our ears. Thus, like the intervals between harmonious sound frequencies form numerical ratios, the music of the spheres could be expressed by numbers, angles, and shapes.

The huge contributions made by Jews to the study of black holes is disproportional to our small percentage of the general population. Albert Einstein is often regarded as the most famous Jewish scientist. Although gravitational waves traveling out from the colliding black holes can be traced to Einstein’s relativity, it took another Jew, Karl Schwarzschild, to provide the first solution of the field equations in the limited case of a single spherical non-rotating mass.

Although the Schwarzschild radius is the size of the event horizon of a non-rotating black hole, it took additional insight to produce the modern concept of black holes. This was accomplished in a 1939 paper by another Jewish physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer. It would later take Rainer Weiss, whose father was Jewish, to design the laser interferometric technique, which made it possible for LIGO to hear the “chirp” of gravitational waves resulting from a black hole collision 1.3 billion light-years away.

LIGO’s amazing triumph did not come without a heavy price. Although the “blues” in Levin’s book title can refer to a kind of soundtrack of the universe, the difficulties experienced by the scientists were another kind of “blues.”

Schwarzschild, just a year after producing his famous solution to general relativity, died of pemphigus, an autoimmune disease particularly affecting Ashkenazi Jews, while serving in the German army at the Russian front during World War I. Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project, was accused in 1954 of being a communist and died of throat cancer. Although solutions of Einstein’s general relativity originally predicted black holes and turned the physics world upside down in so many other ways, he never received a Nobel Prize for his work on relativity although countless experiments have confirmed the equations’ predictions.

The Jewish contributions to the world’s understanding of black holes, in general, and LIGO’s scientific quest to detect the gravitational waves emitted by them, in particular, is a story of starts and stops, disappointments, misgivings, failings, and occasional successes in the midst of personality conflicts and competition. Yet successes in the end produced one of the most astounding confirmations of general relativity’s equations in modern times.

LIGO is a new window on the universe. The detection of gravitational waves will permit us to “hear” the heavens in such a way that will, no doubt, lead to discoveries that scientists cannot yet even imagine. Janna Levin is to be applauded for making the story so accessible to us. She is contributing to Jewish history and culture in a very special way.

Janna, you make us proud. And I’m sure your family is proud, too.

Yoeli’s Mandate: Leave your mark, make a difference for the good, and do your part to make sure that they never again devour Jacob or make his habitation waste.

You may write to Yoeli Kaufman at ocfidina@yahoo.com

About the Author
Yoeli Kaufman earned his bachelor’s degree in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and then worked as an analyst and Arabic translator for U.S. Army Intelligence. His master’s degree was in Educational Administration from Temple University in Philadelphia. Eli now regularly writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel, and Diario Judío México.
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