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Black Hole Blues

Book Notes

When I joined the Caltech Alumni Book Club, I didn't realize what the theme of the book club would be. After this book and the last one, I can say with a good level of confidence that the theme is "has to do with Caltech." And really, that's expected and probably in the book club description that I didn't read when I joined ("A book club? SQUEEEEE! Join!"). The book club reads more slowly than I read, which is to say, more slowly than the maximum library checkout time, so I've been finishing these books faster than the book club. Not a great thing when I want to be participating in the book club.

Phew. That all said...

This book is, unsurprisingly, about the gravitational wave experiments, the people involved in it from the beginning, the stumbling blocks, the successes, and the failures. It's a great scientific tale that I enjoyed reading about.

That some of it occurred while I was AT Caltech reminds me of just how f---ing oblivious I was when I was at Tech, as well as how oblivious I must still be about my world. I want to believe I'm more aware, and more appeciative, of things around me. NO IDEA IF I AM.

That this book was published before LIGO succeeded is delightful. That LIGO succeeded is even more delighful. I enjoyed this book, enjoyed reading about people who love science as much as I do, and had the courage to pursue that love.

I recommend this book to anyone who has a slight interest in the biographical information about the LIGO project, black holes in particular, or science in general. Fun read.

“I went to MIT for college—I wanted to learn how to do audio engineering well, because that was all I knew. But I very rapidly realized that I didn’t want to become an engineer. I switched to physics, and I don’t know why…. No, I’ll tell you; it was really stupid. The Physics Department had fewer requirements than the others, and I was totally undisciplined—I didn’t want any requirements.”
Page 11

I understand this.

“Anyway, I was totally gaga, crazy in love. I didn’t think of what the consequences of that would be. Of course, the girl went off with somebody else. You can never fall in love — I mean, you’re not allowed to do that. You know how it is. So I came back."
Page 14

"But I would have stayed a graduate student forever, because it was fun. I could go from one experiment to the other, and I never thought about money or any of that stuff, so I did one experiment after the other. Some of them were pretty zany.”
Page 15

The hasty construction of the Palace reflected an unpreparedness the government intended to amend in the wake of World War II. Roughly shaken out of introversion, the country did not have an army of trained scientists and engineers, and this deficit was believed to hamper military research. Under the pressures of the war, incited by that urgency, technologies were constructed as suddenly as the building, if with higher production value.
Page 19

Which is, sadly, HOW THE UNITED STATES IS BECOMING NOW. Both with its anti-immigration policies and with its attack on science and the truth.

This saddens me beyond belief.

In the quirky climate of the Plywood Palace, the notorious academic pressure to publish or perish also abated, so that Rai could adhere to simple principles and high standards.
Page 20

How wonderful would this be!

Rai was bold and practical and effective but not politically ambitious. He pursued experiments out of raw curiosity, indifferent to his career trajectory. He says, “I didn’t even think of the tenure clock. It was not in my consciousness. I was a professor, they had just hired me, and I was going to try to do the most interesting thing I could think of. The hell with it.” His unfettered attitude let him explore and take risks.
Page 21

Love this. I wish everyone who loved the hard sciences could be like this.

With prerogative and talent as cargo, under obligation to a comprehensible universe, he wandered unfamiliar streets on a trip to the Northeast in the hopes that a brisk constitutional could dislodge an answer to the question, “What am I supposed to be doing with all that I have?”
Page 25

Wheeler turned to relativity as he emerged from the nuclear weapons program. He helped to design and to use the plutonium production reactor in 1942 until the end of the war.
Page 27

The Trinity test of the plutonium fission bomb detonated the mortifying equivalent of 20 kilotons of TNT, lighting up an American desert and inspiring Oppenheimer’s memorable translation of the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Page 27

... despite his friendships with the intellectual émigrés, including his close friendship with Albert Einstein, he found the rumors of German atrocities impossible to believe. He didn’t believe them.
Page 28

It is impossible to see what you do not want to see, and harder to believe.

In his autobiography, Wheeler describes his sympathy for the German state, his conviction that German dominance would translate to European stability, his parents’ chastisement, and the gradual ebbing of his sympathy for Germany as the war progressed. He writes frankly about his error in judgment, which he fully accepted, along with his parents’ assessment, as news of atrocities accumulated. He admits, “It is hard now, more than fifty years later, to recapture my frame of mind at that time…. Even when I was doing everything I could to help defeat Germany, I clung to the belief that people are fundamentally decent everywhere…. By the end of the war I knew better. But not until I visited Auschwitz in 1947 was the full horror of German barbarism brought home to me.”
Page 28

I understand this desire to want to believe people are fundamentally decent.

When challenged on the use of the atomic bomb, he would respond as he did in his autobiography: “One cannot escape the conclusion that an atomic bomb program started a year earlier and concluded a year sooner would have spared 15 million lives, my brother Joe’s among them.”
Page 28

He was not entirely against the anticommunist fervor that purged academics from their ivory-tower ranks for crimes of silence either.
Page 29

Kip was among the first generation of physicists bred on relativity. He had the good fortune to mature in a time of significant unsolved astrophysical problems that awaited relativity for their unlocking, and he had the brilliance to make the most of his good fortune.


Kip perceived paranoia and ignorance as driving factors in the Cold War arms race. But Wheeler’s controversial involvement in the escalation of the thermonuclear weapons program was an undeniable part of the intellectual context he offered.
Page 33

Ron cultivated the aura of a scientific Mozart — Rai’s analogy — a childlike spirit attached to a wondrous mind that just seemed to emanate astonishing compositions. Everyone around him was forced to play Salieri, unfairly catalogued as a plodding technician in the shadow of Mozart’s genius. Talented scientists felt miscast by Ron in the lesser role. The laboratory was his private Exploratorium.
Page 50

The atmosphere was good in Scotland, a culture he better understood, that he perceived as more open and collaborative. He felt the scientists, even the students, at Caltech were discouraged from collaboration, were unwilling to work together, were more competitive.
Page 53

I ask Kip, “Was he argumentative?”

Kip laughs. “No, because nobody was arguing with him.”

“I sensed some jealousy on his part,” I say.

Kip concedes, “Oh yes, there was a lot of jealousy. That was a real problem.”

I reply, “There was such paranoia and also real complaints all folded together.” Kip agrees. “That’s how these things always are. All tangled together.”
Page 104

He was advised he could get a $ 10 million allowance in a payoff for the libel, but it would take at least five dedicated years that Joe was not prepared to spend in court. “It’s a question of what you want to do with your life,” Joe says.
Page 105

“I simply cannot understand the vehemence and the professional jealousy, and why each guy has to feel that he has to cut off a pound of my flesh. Ah, it’s a waste of effort. I’m in good health. Boltzmann committed suicide with this sort of treatment. But I just, I don’t have suicidal tendencies, I just, ah, keep wondering what the point of it all is.”
Page 106

Joe: "If you do science the principle reason to do it is because you enjoy it and if you don’t enjoy it you shouldn’t do it, and I enjoy it. And I must say I’m enjoying it.”

Kip: “I agree with that philosophy completely.”

Joe: “That’s the best you can do.”
Page 106

“Oh, it’s terrible. Freeman feeling responsible for encouraging him, he writes Joe a letter imploring him to stand down.”

Kip laughs, clearly stunned, and says, “Wow, he must be a very… ah… a very optimistic person.”
Page 107

"... A great man is not afraid to admit publicly that he has made a mistake and has changed his mind. I know you are a man of integrity. You are strong enough to admit that you are wrong. If you do this, your enemies will rejoice but your friends will rejoice even more. You will save yourself as a scientist, and you will find that those whose respect is worth having will respect you for it. ..."
Page 108

“Science is a self-correcting process, but not necessarily in one’s own lifetime,” she tells me rightly.
Page 108

Twenty-three years her senior, he always insisted she do what she wanted and needed to do.
Page 110

These partners are the best partners to have.

“This takes a lot of patience,” I say, not proud of the obviousness of the statement.

“Are you patient?” I ask, undeterred.

“No, and neither are you,” he says.

“You can tell?”

“Yes. You keep finishing my sentences,” he says, not unpleasantly.

I’m chagrined. He waves away any criticism: “It’s okay. It’s good.”
Page 123

“Ron was very difficult to deal with. At the time, I had a lot of respect for Ron, of a different kind. I began to understand Ron better as a scientist. I also found out why he was impossible to deal with: He doesn’t think the way you or I think; he thinks in pictures. And he doesn’t remember what he thought the day before, so you could never make a decision. You could watch his process. He’d go through the same logic about a decision on how big the laser beam should be or how many mirrors there should be—I don’t know, pick anything in the interferometer. And you would discuss this with him, and you would get to the same point, and he would agree that his viewpoint was not right—or maybe he wouldn’t quite agree—and then the conversation would start all over again the next morning, from exactly the same place. And we’d come to the same conclusion. This would go on day after day; you’d never come to a resolution. That was one of the troubles."
Page 124

How frustrating!

Rai had his own ideas about the instrument, about design implementation. But he had to put his own ego aside, not without some personal suffering, to get the thing done. He worked on site selection, or an industry study, tested mirror coatings, built his own laser.

Even now he’ll work wherever on whatever is needed whenever, sweeping away wasps, walking the tunnels, testing systems, building electronics. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone say, “We better ask Rai.”
Page 125

Despite the prophetic name, Robbie says of himself, “I am well known as a person who detests any authority.”
Page 129

“No one was more insightful and creative than Robbie, no one better at solving a problem. And no one was better at creating one.”
Page 134

"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."

—MACHIAVELLI, The Prince (1513)
Page 134

The selection of the sites was going to be announced in the Senate Building at a press conference, and he wanted Robbie there to back him up. Robbie relays the exchange: “And I say, ‘Walter, what did you pick?’ He says, ‘You’ll find out when you get here.’ ”
Page 140

I f---ing HATE this. DO NOT tell me to come see, tell me what the f--- you want me to know. YEARGH.

Maine had invested heavily to support the site selection. Mitchell had fought hard for LIGO, but Maine was also scientifically the better site. Vogt eventually learned that the turn was specifically political. The Republican White House made the decision to punish Mitchell, the Democratic majority leader of the Senate.
Page 140


Robbie’s skunkworks management style was motivated by his archetypal hatred of authority. His contempt for executive supervision often drove him. He would accept an administrative job due to this loathing.

Learning of the alternative to his nomination, he would think, “Not that idiot” and begrudgingly accept the position in order to spare everyone. He says, “Whenever I held office I was always convinced that the office above me was an idiot and that I had the most important job. And as I moved up the ladder I found out there was always someone above me that was an idiot.”

To avoid this recurrent problem, Robbie was determined that there be no one above him, not even the NSF. They were to deliver the funds and stay out of the operation. There would be essentially no bureaucracy and no obligation to justify the rolling decisions the scientists made, to the NSF or to anyone else.

“If an authority wants power they have to persuade me I respect them. If they are bureaucrats, I will simply not respect them, and if I don’t respect them I will not cooperate. I have not cooperated since and it has gotten me in a lot of trouble. But it has given me a personal comfort that that’s what I wanted to live like.” Robbie explains, “Anyone who lived under the Nazis should hate authority.”
Page 144

“Incidentally I have always had a prejudice in favor of women because I felt they were not getting equal rights, and not because I was a white knight or a good person. And the reason is my mother had been running a big industrial operation because she had been the only daughter of a man…. And I admired my mother. My mother was the most beautiful woman in the world and the most able woman in the world…. And she took me to her plants, which I understood…. And I had female professors who were very good so I was prejudiced in favor of smart women.”

“It’s a good prejudice to have,” I congratulate him.
Page 144

I do, too.

Many Germans suffered under the Nazis, he wants me to understand. “Other Germans were not victims like the Jews, but life under the Nazis was indescribable,” although he tries. “At that time the Nazis had a very powerful method of discouraging people from opposing them. When they arrested a man they arrested his wife also.” The orphaned children of political prisoners were placed in cadet schools, then sent to fight. A fourteen-year-old could be charged with an entire troop of child soldiers. A child had “a body that could stop a bullet and that’s all they needed.” The children would have no military training. They had pickaxes and shovels. When the invasion happened in 1944 and the British broke through, the German Army issued bazookas and rifles and would send these “kids” into combat. None of them would survive.

Robbie’s rage and deep-rooted contempt for authority surfaces vividly as he describes the atrocities. “The government had power over its citizens and used it ruthlessly.”
Page 145

“I will not be a celebrity or made a hero by anybody. I want to be anonymous.”
Page 146

Kip has heard this before, the accusation of optimism, which he patiently refutes with references, documents, and published graphs.
Page 149

Love this.

“For the record,” says Kip, “I think the bet hung on the wall continuously except for a few days when I took it down to sign my concession.”
Page 154

Jerry was cross that all of the major projects over the past many decades were vetted by the Decadal Survey, but not LIGO. He was upset, as were others, that money was spent on tunnels and not on graduate students. On this issue Kip protests, “A key point is that LIGO was being funded out of the Physics Division of NSF, not the Astronomy Division. The Astronomy Division was never in the loop in any significant way; it was always Physics.
Page 154

Although Kip outgrew the tedious moralizing, the sexism, and the religiosity of his Mormon roots, the suggestion was that he never shed the urge to proselytize for a righteous cause and LIGO was that cause.

Why was LIGO funded despite the staggering cost and the tremendous risk? Because Kip was a very charming and very convincing advocate. He was also very thorough scientifically, clear in his analysis and reviews of the state of the art, and respected for his integrity. Kip could make you believe.
Page 155

In the beginning of Vogt’s term as director, Drever says he was not entirely unhappy, although Vogt did make many organizational changes and, unconcealed, did cart around a difficult temperament. The operation overall became more professional, more effective, and substantially funded. At first Drever thought Vogt was “quite okay,” although he was sore that not all of his technical decisions were implemented immediately.

He complained that it was hard for anyone else on the team to fully understand the status of operations at all levels, Vogt so tightly controlled the flow of information — Ron’s impression, not, for instance, Kip’s.
Page 158

I struggle mightily in environments where this is acceptable behavior, hoarding information that is needed for everyone to do their jobs well (cough, cough, TWITTER, danm, Arnaud, asshats both of them).

Maybe not with the full force of his rancor, but with enough of it, Vogt began to attack Ron in the weekly group meetings. “Particularly he kept accusing me of not using the scientific method. And this hurt me tremendously.”

Ron attributes the techniques he learned in the United Kingdom to Rutherford’s influence. He cut corners without compromising performance, did many experiments very quickly, skipped extraneous details, and moved very fast. His practices should not be misinterpreted as slipshod.

And there is no doubt that Ron invented an impressive collection of ingenious experimental techniques and designed significant original elements still crucial to the machines today. He protests, defensive, that his methods had put them ahead. He could work twice as fast as traditional groups and, always frugal, for less money.


“I would take a step that wasn’t obvious, and it would work. Robbie would say, ‘He guessed!’ Well, I didn’t guess. My intuition was very powerful—it is very powerful… but I found it difficult to explain it.”

Ron continues, “But he became more and more against me, and I didn’t know at the time quite why.”
Page 161

Peter Goldreich, professor emeritus at Caltech and Princeton, recounts, “I remember Ron telling me one time, ‘This is awful. This is awful.’ Robbie would be yelling at him. And I’d say, ‘Why don’t you just walk away if he starts yelling at you?’ Ron said, ‘Could I do that?’ And I said, ‘Of course you can do that. You are a professor here.’… I couldn’t believe that Ron was so naïve.”
Page 161

Forbidden by Vogt to do so, he presented anyway.
Page 163

Yeah. Understand this, too.

Maybe Vogt hoped Drever would just resign, go back to Glasgow, as any person with a more conventional and reactive psychology might. Ron’s unconventional mentality could have made him oddly resistant to ordinary manipulation. Push him unremittingly in one direction and he could still move unpredictably in another. Apparently his primary reaction to the pressure was an impassive bewilderment instead of a spiteful resignation. He lived for the work, for the lab, for the implementation of his inspired ideas. LIGO was centered at Caltech. There was nothing else for him and nowhere else to go.
Page 164

“Before Robbie became director, Ron had already alienated most of the members of the LIGO team, and in subsequent years the alienation grew…. Among the factors contributing to the team’s alienation from him were his effort to maintain full and sole control of his group’s research, using other scientists as his assistants and rarely granting any significant responsibility or authority to them.”
Page 166

And that’s, I think, fundamentally what finally happened to them. Ron pushed a button that made Robbie feel like a second-rate person, and Robbie couldn’t deal with that.”
Page 167

Aware that his reputation preceded him, in the fifth hour of our conversation Robbie says, part defense, part confession, “The mistakes I made were because of the information I had at the time.”
Page 169

Jamie says, “It’s a kind of celebrity.” Part of Rana’s charisma is related to the social power of indifference. He’s not generally indifferent, though. He listens to other people sometimes with uninterest, true, and that could be interpreted, wrongly, as diffuse indifference. He might occasionally remark on someone’s contribution to the conversation, usually with mild derision, his voice so smooth and calm you’re expecting consensus, and then the meaning slowly resolves as mockery.

Part of Rana’s social power lies in his seeming indifference specifically to external validation. He doesn’t need for you to like him, self-esteem wise. I doubt this self-assuredness is humanly possible, but the impression, the illusion created is powerful.
Page 173

“All I had to assess was if I thought I could make a difference.”
Page 180

In sum total the apartments say, “I don’t plan on being here forever,” even when the resident unexpectedly stays in that noncommittal arrangement for years. Two or four or five, traveling from that base, never quite settling in, never quite committing.
Page 188

Or my last five years, one could say.

Scientists are like those levers or knobs or those boulders helpfully screwed into a climbing wall. Like the wall is some cemented material made by mixing knowledge, which is a purely human construct, with reality, which we can only access through the filter of our minds. There’s an important pursuit of objectivity in science and nature and mathematics, but still the only way up the wall is through the individual people, and they come in specifics—the French guy, the German guy, the American girl. So the climb is personal, a truly human endeavor, and the real expedition pixelates into individuals, not Platonic forms. In the end it’s personal, as much as we want to believe it’s objective.
Page 189

"It is sad that I’m no longer part of Caltech now…. I’ve had many setbacks but every setback, somehow life compensated me again for it in some way. At the moment I got fired or if I had to step down or… it was very hurtful. It was devastating… but there were always people at the right moment who gave me an assist. Every time there was a change in my life, there was always a human being involved to help me. I was lucky."
Page 197

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