… A small community of experimentalists build an apparatus that would detect the sonic message of the cosmos as it made contact with us via gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of space-time, first envisioned by Einstein in his pioneering 1915 paper on general relativity.
Central to LIGO’s success are its three original architects: Rainer Weiss, the brilliant ruffian who invented the apparatus at the heart of LIGO; Kip Thorne, the revered astrophysicist and relativist with the wildly speculative yet mathematically precise mind, whose charisma saved the project from going under; and Ron Drever, the prickly Scottish genius considered a scientific Mozart — “a childlike spirit attached to a wondrous mind that just seemed to emanate astonishing compositions.” People, Levin intimates, are fragmentary but indivisible — they bring their aptitudes and their flaws to the work. Rigor and self-righteousness often go in tandem, as do idealism and egotism. These scientists all contain multitudes.
Still, against a backdrop of ceaseless and varied obstacles — clashing egos, brushes with the F.B.I. and K.G.B., creationists holding town hall meetings across the street, enormous administrative entropy swirling between vision and reality — this discordant cohort of idealists persevered for half a century.
One September morning in 2015, success arrived unannounced. During a warm-up for the first official run of Advanced LIGO — the pinnacle of this half-century odyssesy — a gravitational wave strummed the instrument. Conditioned by decades of disappointment, the scientists’ first response was doubt. But this was real — this was honor and recognition, a century in the making. Two enormous black holes had collided somewhere far away, a long time ago.