Book Reviews - US Review of Books

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space

by Janna Levin
Knopf

“We see evidence of black holes destroying neighboring stars. We see evidence of super black holes in centers of galaxies… But we have never really seen a black hole, which only adds to the thrill of the prospect of hearing them.”

Astronauts returning on the space shuttle once told this former satellite designer and space program physicist: “You have no idea how much gravity is pulling down on all of us.” Home from the sheer joy of weightlessness in space, the dynamics of gravity were suddenly made real, pulling their shoulders and compressing their spines closer to Earth. It was a reminder of one of the universe’s illusive mysteries—gravity. We can measure and explain it, but we cannot see or hear it… yet. Physicist and writer Janna Levin takes us on the journey to detect, listen for, gravitational waves as the byproduct of a gigantic collision between black holes.

In simple terms, black holes form an incredibly dense mass. For scientists, this is where the fun begins. Since mass is an essential component of gravity, the extreme density of black holes will crush atoms and even bend light under its own weight. Yes, light has weight, and therefore one cannot really see a black hole, because light becomes trapped inside of it.

Decades ago, the movie Black Hole depicted a spacecraft passing through a black hole. This is science-fantasy. Anything with mass in close proximity to a black hole will not pass through it. Instead, the atoms of the spacecraft and the crew inside will become so densely packed that the result will no longer be visible to the naked eye, not to mention eliminating the viability of the spacecraft and its occupants. A black hole generates pressure of astronomical proportions. In a world of unnecessary hyperbole, it’s literally appropriate to apply the description “astronomical proportions” to a black hole.

For the purposes of Levin’s book, as two of these monster black holes draw near, anomalies in gravity will create waves that ring through space, but by the time they reach the Earth, they will be so slight that they will not be felt or heard by even the knowing. So what device will be needed to detect this phenomenon? By the mid-twentieth century, planning for and construction of full scale gravitational wave listening devices began on several international fronts. The devices needed to be big. The largest, called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), is run by Caltech and spans four square kilometers at two separate locations. Within its vacuum environment, LIGO waits for disturbances in a reflected laser beam as a means of sensing and measuring the dragon itself—gravity in the form of waves. It’s an enormous undertaking of scope, time, and funding.

With crisp storytelling, Levin tracks the creators of LIGO as it moves from thought to reality. Decades in the making, the success of this device is yet to be seen and, as some might say, hardly the point. It is another step in unlocking the mysteries of the universe. The geniuses of science will continue to tweak their experiments, conjure new frontiers to explore, and draw us closer to understanding. The field of scientists pursuing gravitational wave detection come from all corners of the world, and they are uplifted and hindered by their personalities. Humanity is the factor in the equation that’s impossible to measure. Beyond anticipated brilliance, we find professional paranoia, backbiting, and of course politics. However, the work proceeds with the relentless dedication of a monk, the ambition of a CEO, and at times the ruthlessness of a pirate.

Levin sketches the story with impressive color, while providing Polaroid-like narratives of the people and places along this scientific frontier. She is the type of science writer who can explain complex topics in understandable terms. In relating the beloved wizards and weirdos of the laboratories, she has brought the high-minded down to earth. That feat is as rare as hearing gravity, and it reveals the genuine process of discovery. History often documents invention as brilliant strokes of insight wrought to fruition, but Levin shows its plodding pace that spans decades, as well as its inevitable wrong turns into blind alleys and heartbreaking miscues that destroy careers. No doubt, her students at Barnard love to sit in on each lecture—scientists and laymen alike. If we had a device that measured passion, Levin would ring the meters and sound the alarms.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Your Literary Estate, Part One: Assigning a Literary Executor

No one likes to think about wills or insurance policies. It’s the stuff that reminds us of our mortality, yet helps define our legacy. Legacy planning requires thoughtful reflection and the selection of the correct, living people to manage it. When you’re gone, you’ll have little control over what happens next. You can either prepare for the best outcome while you walk the Earth or leave your heirs with chaos, feuding, and probate courts. Your heirs will have varying degrees of concern for your legacy, ranging from not-at-all through avarice to sincere compassion for your work. Get control of the process now.

As an author, you have a special addendum to your legacy known as your literary estate. This involves the administration of your published and unpublished work, letters, papers, royalties, and contracts. You’ll need someone you can trust to manage your literary estate who will look after both your interests and integrity as an author. The reason why you don’t see the Ernest Hemingway Big Game Rifle or the Jack Kerouac Touring Tires is because they have the correct person managing their legacies. The person who will manage your literary estate is known as a Literary Executor.

Most people are familiar with an Estate Executor—the appointed person who manages the affairs of a dearly departed. State laws moderate what an estate executor can do and how much he/she can be paid for doing it. This person is often an attorney who knows how to navigate the law and has experience dealing with heirs. Unfortunately, this person has general experience for estates and often little to no experience with the literary world and all of its pitfalls and trap doors. For that, you’ll want to appoint a Literary Executor to administrate your literary estate apart from your general estate concerns.

Your literary executor would optimally be someone who is both involved in the business of publishing and is familiar with you and your heirs. It could be an editor, agent, or fellow writer. He/She should understand both your work and intentions. This is uncovered through knowing you and maintaining an ongoing dialogue about your work. After your death, your literary executor will act in your place, even appointing the next literary executor to succeed him/her.

In the years leading up to his death, bestselling author Robert Gover asked me to become his literary executor. I was the natural choice. He was my writing mentor before I was published. I admired and understood his work. Over the years, we became peers in the industry, and in addition to being published on my own, I edited his latter novels. We were friends, and I came to know his wife and children (i.e. his eventual heirs). This is the optimal of all situations. While you’ll benefit from assigning someone who knows your heirs, aim for a literary executor who understands the business first, and then your work next.

Gover knew that his heirs would trust me and my eventual decisions, but I was powerless in managing his literary estate unless it was official. However, I learned that almost no one had information on this topic. I am a member of the Author’s Guild, which defends authors on various copyright and literary concerns, but even their legal council had no advice other than a general disclaimer that they would not be advising me on this matter. Furthermore, Gover had limited funds near the time of this death, and so hiring the correct yet expensive attorney to draw up paperwork was out of the question. If you own a wealthy literary estate or you possess the financial means, you should hire a publishing-experienced attorney to establish your literary legacy. Unfortunately for most authors, the cost of this attorney would erase any hope of profit and thereby eliminate a primary factor of managing a literary estate in perpetuity.

In the case of Gover’s literary estate, I sought a document that assigned my position. The answer was a simple letter from Gover, declaring me as his literary executor to manage all of the aforementioned factors that go with those duties in the event of his death. In his advanced age, I typed it up for him and had a professional notarize the document. A Notary Public can be found at a nearby bank, post office, shipper, or even an attorney’s office. You might have one in the family. The point was to have Gover assign me as his literary executor (and my appointed duties) in clear language on a document with a witnessed signature. Having secured that, I was a literary executor for the first time. Without that document, all control of his literary estate would be left in the hands of his heirs.

If your literary estate is significant—that which will generate an inheritance tax for example—consider having your literary executor specified in your will. This will require a visit to an experienced attorney. It’s also a good idea to sit down with your heirs in advance and explain to them who will be managing your literary estate if it will not be your heirs directly. You want no surprises. Your death will be an emotional time, and surprises will create unnecessary contentions with or among your heirs. Keep in mind that after your death, your literary executor conceptually will be the steward of your work, but in reality will be working on behalf of your heirs.

In the second installment, we’ll discuss the functions of a Literary Executor and the factors involved in managing a literary estate. (see Your Literary Estate, Part Two: Managing Your Work)

The above article is practical advice for authors, not legal advice for individuals setting up a will. Probate laws and requirements vary from state to state. Seek professional advice where necessary.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including and the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future.