Illustration by Chantal Stein, CC '13
Renowned theoretical astrophysicist Janna Levin has mastered the art of simplifying the overwhelmingly complicated into something tangible. She wakes up every morning looking to explain the mysteries of the universe, which, she tells us, has a great soundtrack. While holding the position of Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard, Levin’s research interests include the early universe, chaos theory, and black holes. In her free time, Levin writes fiction; her novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines was a runner up for the Hemingway award and brought home the Bingham Fellowship. She recently found some time to chat with Senior Editor Anna Bahr about splattering stars, avoiding the role of the anomalous “woman of science,” and making Star Trek a reality. Read this and more in the April issue of The Blue & White.
The Blue & White: For those of us whose knowledge of physics doesn’t extend past Bill Nye, Can you talk, in a general sense, about your research involving the early universe, chaos theory, black holes, etc.?
Janna Levin: I’ve been most interested in the idea that two black holes can orbit each other. So, just like we orbit the sun, there are situations where you had two stars have long lives together and at the end of their lives collapsed to become black holes. It’s the death state of these two stars. It’s very likely that there are many pairs of black holes that are absolutely invisible to us. They don’t emit light, they don’t reflect light. You’re never going to point a telescope to a bare black hole and be able to say something about them; we could point one right at a black hole and just not see it. We can use telescopes in other ways, like, you can see a black hole tear up a neighboring star; that’s a very violent event and you can see the light from the star being torn apart—the star literally splatters on the black hole. A lot of people have been trying to measure gravitational waves [around the black] holes. When black holes orbit around each other, the shape of space actually starts to wobble around them. The fabric of space starts to squeeze and stress. The waves moves outward, just like water waves would. There are waves passing through us right now that are squeezing and stretching us slightly. It’s happening because a billion years those two black holes orbiting each other collided. And when they collided, the result was so energetic—that wave was so strong—that it traveled for a billion years and right now is uselessly passing through us and we don’t notice it. If I measure this changing shape, it’s literally like measuring the beats of a drum.
B&W: You’re telling me that the universe makes audible music?
Read on for the sounds of the cosmos and of course, Star Trek