Black Hole Blues (and other songs from outer space)

With a title like that, I thought I was attending a musical event right in the middle of the Sydney Writer’s Festival.

Black Hole Blues is music, but not as we know it Jim.

I arrived and there was Adam Spencer, interviewing a woman I’d never seen before with an inter galactic background.

Janna Levin, the interviewee, is an astrophysicist; a theorist who had authored several scientific books. And she was talking about gravitational waves. Which chimed a small bell in the back of my head. I had heard of gravitational waves : theoretical, thought of as undiscoverable and then a few years ago they had been found.

Her book was about the improbable theory and discovery of gravitational waves. To add a soundtrack, she played the sounds of black holes colliding and the waves themselves. I thought she had smuggled in a Moog synthesiser. But no, these were the sounds themselves. Apparently they are available as ringtones!

But Janna Levin was telling the story : a story over 50 years old and involves three men : Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne (better known as the scientific advisor to Interstellar) and Ron Drever. These crazy guys thought that Einstein’s theory predicting gravitational waves was correct and that they could detect them.

But to do so required an extremely sensitive interferometer , the LIGO : which is a laser beam suspended in a vacuum.Janna Levin mentioned that the LIGO was so sensitive that it detected normal natural phenomena easily, and then gravitational waves.  It was no easy feat to fund the detector,  build it,  test it and then wait for an event (another 50 years perhaps).

But detect gravitational waves, they did. The LIGO detected a wave released by the collision of two black holes. It was the second largest release of energy in the universe after the Big Bang. And Janna Levin, played its soundtrack : an electronic wave that doesn’t break.


This story was absolutely fascinating as I knew small details of the story but not the incredible luck they encountered when they detected that wave.

Science has its stories too.

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