Columbia’s Black Hole Expert on the End of the World as We Know It

'The sun will blow up long before anything else happens,' says Dr. Janna Levin, author of the new book Black Hole Blues

Artist's rendering of a black hole.
Artist’s rendering of a black hole.

Black holes may be dark regions of nothingness in space from which not even light can escape, but that’s exactly why Dr. Janna Levin finds them so alluring.

“They’re very special in the sense that they’re pure spacetime,” Dr. Levin told the Observer. “They’re not normal objects like stars. With black holes, there’s nothing there anymore.”

Dr. Levin, a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University, isn’t the only scientist concerned with black holes. In fact, her new book, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, which will be released March 29, profiles a group of researches who made black holes, and the relationship between them, the centerpiece of their work.

The book traces the history of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a project headquartered at Caltech  in Pasadena, and funded by the National Science Foundation, to detect gravitational waves. These ripples in spacetime were first proposed by Albert Einstein in his 1916 theory of relativity.

“Everybody really responded, and their curiosity really seemed to be ignited by something they couldn’t wrap their heads around.”

While LIGO itself has only been around since the 1980s (and its machines weren’t built until 2000), the scientists involved have been studying black holes and gravitational waves for nearly 50 yearsDr. Rainer Weiss’s first LIGO prototype in the 1960s ended up being 3,000 times smaller than the eventual four-kilometer-long behemoth.

Making the LIGO team’s work even harder was that, as with any scientific endeavor, there was no guarantee it would work.

“A lot of people didn’t think LIGO would succeed, so they had to push past all that skepticism and have the long view,” Dr. Levin said.

Of course, as the world now knows, LIGO did succeed. On September 14, 2015 two black holes merged, creating a gravitational wave and proving Einstein’s spacetime ripple.

Dr. Janna Levin.
Dr. Janna Levin.

Dr. Levin’s book ends with this discovery, but because of publishing deadlines she could not write about the February press conference at which gravitational waves were revealed to the world. She vividly remembers the time leading up to it, however.

“We were all so excited for so many months,” Dr. Levin said. “There was a sense of it being a dream, of it not being real.”

The public response was swift and positivegravitational waves became a trending topic on social media, much to Dr. Levin’s delight.

“Everybody really responded, and their curiosity really seemed to be ignited by something they couldn’t wrap their heads around,” she said. “The world seemed to stop and pay attention. It was a breath of fresh air between reports of catastrophes.”

While Dr. Levin knows that black holes weren’t in everyone’s public consciousness before the wave announcement, she stressed that research into this phenomenon has been ongoing for years, even outside of LIGO.

“There’s a lot of activity in this area,” she said. “The black hole in our galaxy is four million times the mass of the sun. But it’s inactive, not bringing much in.”

Outside of the Milky Way, however, black holes are incredibly active. Last week, scientists revealed that black holes can produce cosmic rays, space radiation that can enter the atmosphere and bombard the Earth (though not to a harmful extent).

“The darkest place in the universe can create something,” Dr. Levin said.

The cover of Black Hole Blues.
The cover of Black Hole Blues.

This talk of deep space may seem dark and mysterious, and the final pages of Black Hole Blues seemingly frame it as suchDr. Levin discusses the potential of universes “evaporating into oblivion.”

But those of us living on Earth don’t have anything to worry about—at least not yet.

“The universe is gonna end one way or another, and that’s OK,” Dr. Levin said. “It’s 14 billion years old already, and its future looks to be much longer than that.”

Besides, as Dr. Levin added with a touch of dark humor, there will be some warning signs before the Milky Way and its black holes are destroyed.

“The sun will blow up long before anything else happens,” she said. Columbia’s Black Hole Expert on the End of the World as We Know It