Reading about the LIGO project … their struggles and coming of age

Modified from an email written on Aug. 14, 2016:


9780307958198I’ve just finished reading a new book “Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space” published a few months ago, written by Janna Levin who is a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University.  Somehow, my summer student this year is from Barnard College which is a women’s college that somehow doesn’t merge fully with Columbia U. (unlike Radcliffe and Harvard) while Columbia U. accepts their own women students.  ( I haven’t heard of Barnard College before I read my student’s resume earlier this year. )

The book is better than I have expected in terms of the descriptions about the internal struggles and conflicts in the LIGO collaboration, especially in their earlier history. The book tells you something about cosmology and astrophysics but I don’t think one would easily find inspiration from this book in this aspect.  It’s the human characters, their chaotic behavior and the process how to get to build a BIG project that I have gained the most satisfaction.  You need to fight with and/or convince your colleagues and then the NSF (in this case, not DOE) and the Congress etc.

I have always heard of LIGO like everybody else but I had treated it like another desperate effort for decades (almost like SUSY or superstring theories … though not quite as they’re after all largely an experiment).  Though I feel I know about Kip Thorne (from his books or recent involvement in making movies like “Interstellar” etc.), I’ve never heard of the other two LIGO founders, Rai Weiss and Ron Drever.  In this book, the most you’ve learnt are about these two persons (among other characters) in addition to the entire LIGO project/experiment.  I didn’t even know that at least in the early days, LIGO was mainly a collaboration between Caltech (Kip & Ron) and MIT (Rai).

The author herself is a cosmologist and astrophysicist but in writing this book, she’s more like a journalist.  Almost always, she’d tell you where the quotes or the stories have come from …. almost as “rigorously” as in physics journals.   Her writing style in this book is often poetic.  But mingling this feature with the scientific description and personal gossips seems to form a bizarre product.  I’ve often needed to consult with dictionaries even for some words that I thought I knew.  Maybe, the author could be even less self-aware of herself while writing the stories of this book. [ A cruel comment (from me) ! … I know 🙂 ]  It’s probably really difficult to get rid of a physicist’s ego.

I guess the book is published this year mainly because of the announcement/publication of LIGO/VIRGO’s “Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger”.   From reading most of the chapters, I’ve felt that she didn’t know of the discovery while writing most of the book.  The last chapter “Epilogue” was probably added almost like an after-thought.  In the “Acknowledgments” (the last line on p.213 and the first line on p.214), the author reveals that the book was originally meant to be longer.  It now has only 215 pages up to the Acknowledgments (with additionally LIGO/VIRGO collaboration list + Notes + Index → >~240 pages).

The entire LIGO project at the end integrates to about a billion dollar (3rd line from the bottom on p.185) compared to the initial ~$194 million dollars (5th line on p.135) in their 1989 proposal under the leadership of their first director Robbie Vogt.   My laboratory is trying to build a new collider called eRHIC (on top of RHIC) and the general belief is that we need to build it under a billion dollar; otherwise there is no chance for funding approval.   The LIGO/VIRGO collaboration list in their paper has more than 1000 authors but it’s still not nearly as many as (say) the Atlas Collaboration, one of the LHC experiments at CERN.  I’m well aware of the internal fights and conflicts that can happen in a big collaboration.   I read with amusement how Rai found it difficult to work with Ron in the early days and how ugly the fight between Ron and Robbie was.

When the speaker from LIGO/Columbia University came to our laboratory to give the talk about the gravitational wave discovery, he kind of predicted at the very beginning of his talk that Thorne, Weiss and Drever would get the physics Nobel Prize this year 🙂  This is quite likely even though it may not be this year.  But this book’s author actually reminds us that the LIGO events have not been corroborated by some sort of  telescope measurement (LIGO not being a telescope) as Jerry Ostriker has advocated all along (p.156-157).  From this book, one reads that Ron Drever didn’t seem to be able to work well or share decision-making with other people ; whereas Rai probably seems to be the most down-to-earth experimentalist who is still trying to improve the precision of their instruments and reduce the noise here and there, when he’s now over 80 ages old. In the later stage, Ron has largely left the picture (though Rai, Kip and latter LIGO directors all tried to get him back to LIGO) while Kip has had other endeavors (such as movies !).  Rai seems to be the constant in the LIGO project.  It’s sad that Ron now apparently suffers from dementia (just like my mother !).  { I wonder whether this may prevent him from getting the Nobel Prize ?! }  I certainly didn’t know about Ron’s sickness when I watched the discovery announcement in Feb. 2016.

At the end, it’s probably always the personal interactions that are the most interesting in all the book reading.  Though not as shocking as when I first read about Schrödinger’s private life in P. Woit’s book “Not Even Wrong”, I feel that I’ve learnt quite a bit about the personalities of Kip, Rai and Ron and LIGO even seems to have a pseudo-personal character in my mind.  Furthermore, though I’ve read about Joe Weber’s bar measurement story before, his image and character (to me) has now become even more vivid than before.

One new word to jot down here is “inspiral” : when two binaries (black holes or stars) generate ripples at the expense of orbital energy, they spiral a bit closer to each other → “they inspiral” (12th line on p.152).


p.69 (10th– 11th lines): I think “It is” in “It is true central operations are primarily maintained in a trailer” should be “Its”.  p.106 (10th line from the bottom): “principle” in “…the principle reason to do …” should probably be replaced by “principal”.  p.120 (14th line) : “malintentions” should probably be “malintents” ?!

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About kinyip

An experimental particle physicist ...
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