Down to Earth: A Conversation with Janna Levin

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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?

JL: Yes! It’s like you can take an electric guitar and record it without hearing any sound and when you play it back you hear a sound. So, you can measure the wobbling drum—which is the shape of space—and play back a sound. And some of the frequencies are actually in the human auditory range, which is crazy. Some are not. A lot of my mathematical calculations are predicting the sounds the universe will make.

B&W: Are we talking a Top 40 hit?

JL: No, no. They’re a little disappointing and most don’t sound like much. But they are banging sounds.

B&W: It’s interesting—you mentioned earlier the opposition of a contingent of physicists against designing this experiment—and it’s true that there’s a lot of controversy over even the most basic principles of science today. You believe that the universe is limited—making you a part of a shrinking group of people still attached to that theory. What attracts you to a finite universe?

JL: It’s not that I believe it’s finite. I don’t actively believe it; I just think that it’s a possibility. It’s a possibility that we haven’t ruled out. It’s a pos- sibility that in some ways makes more sense. For example, there are some cases where if you told me the universe unfolded in some specific way, then I would say, “Oh it’s infinite,” and would be abso- lutely fine with that. But if you’re saying it began by some quantum fluctuation event and it came out of nothing and then it was instantaneously infinite, I really have to scratch my head. You start to realize it is possible for it to be finite. There’s an infinite number of ways for the universe to be finite, but a finite number of ways to make it infinite. In some strange sense there are many more ways the universe could be small than in which it could be infinite.

B&W: What is it that makes the infinite universe the popular platform of choice these days?

JL: It’s an unnecessary complication that we’re not forced to confront. People can say, “Maybe it’s finite, maybe it’s infinite. But you know what? We can only see so far because we’re bound by light travelling from the origins of the universe, we can’t see deeper back than that. If it’s bigger than that it might as well be infinite.” And that’s a perfectly fine attitude. So, totally—if that’s the case, then we’ll never know and we just throw our arms up. But there is so much talk now about string theory that there are extra special dimensions and that those dimensions are finite. And it becomes really weird: you’re telling me the universe was created with ten dimensions, three became infinite, but seven are finite? No way. In that case, everything is finite and everything is blown out of our frame of view.

B&W: So what drew you to theoretical physics as opposed to experimentally-based, more provable sciences?

JL: The bottom line is that’s where my aptitude lies. I’ve been known to fail at boiling water. A soft boiled egg is nearly impossible. I’ll just walk away from whatever I’m doing and an hour later be like, “Oops…what was I doing?!” I’m just not an experimentalist by nature. It’s hard for me to pay attention to things like that. I’m very interested in theoretical questions. I want to know how the universe began; I want to understand its shape and size. I realized that there were things that you could know through math; I was absolutely blown away. That realization came to me quite late. I thought I was going to study philosophy. I like the abstract. You just have to go, “I don’t quite understand this, and then keep scratching away at it.”

B&W: I’m curious as to how you actually visualize a lot of these more abstract concepts. Particularly because most of the measurable experimentation is only applicable to your work in the data it produces. You aren’t involved in the actual procedure.

JL: Right. So we do it mostly in our minds. Which is very strange. Sometimes I want to go to the experiment to remind myself that that it is real stuff—that it doesn’t just go on in my mind.

B&W: Just how far off base do you think the layman is when he throws in some black hole, string theory jargon while trying to impress someone? How does the colloquial understanding of physics match up to its reality?

JL: It’s funny because some things do sink in well and other things don’t. One of the things I’m writing about narratively, outside of my research, is this idea of fearmongering and how much it cracks me up. Like, everything has to be scary. Black holes will suck everything up and destroy the universe. If our sun were replaced by a black hole tomorrow, we would not fall into it any more than we fall into the sun. It will no more suck us in than the sun sucks us in. It would be exactly the same. It’s the same solution, mathematically.

Illustration by Lily Keane, BC '13

B&W: Except for the whole light and heat thing.

JL: Except that it would be really cold and really dark and we’d be dead. Except for that part. But our orbit would be fine! Black holes are not vacuum cleaners. That concept is funny. You hear all of these metaphors on science shows like, “The beast swallowing his insatiable hunger.” But things aren’t as interesting without a little drama.

B&W: Your book, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, received accolades from reviewers everywhere—it was even a runner-up for the Hemingway award. You have a lot of work that exists in a completely different academic focus. How do you feel your interdisciplinary interests affect your teaching style?

JL: People rarely ask me about teaching. That’s one place in which it comes together very effectively. It helps a lot for teaching. I’m teaching an introductory physics class with 45 students. Very few of those want to go onto physics. Most of the students I’m talking to are not that interested in physics. They have all of these hang ups about whether they are good at math or not good at math—there’s a little bit of defensiveness that’s a barrier. So, the fact that I’m comfortable reaching for an anecdote in a novel makes them more comfortable. It’s natural for me to do that. And I pick up some crazy stuff listening to [my colleagues in other fields]. Life forms with non-DNA, terrestrial, alien life, people who are growing meat in laboratories. So If I’m teaching physics and most of my students are more interested in biology or medicine or basically anything else, it makes them happy that I can reach for it. I think that it really just points to how there shouldn’t be such separations in disciplines, anyway.

B&W: You’ve spoken a little bit about your disinterest in being pegged as “the woman physicist” and you avoid taking on the responsibility of speaking on women in the sciences panels. Why is that?

JL: The reason for someone to invite me on the radio is hopefully because I have a different take, or something interesting to say about something they know nothing about that I’ve worked really hard to understand. And gender issues are not something I’ve worked hard to understand. I don’t feel I’m an expert in it. I’m one example. I don’t want to generalize from me outward. I feel frustrated if you invite me on to a show to talk about my work and then ask me about being female. I don’t see that happening to my male colleagues. I don’t see Brian Greene being invited on television to talk about string theory and then they start probing him about his masculinity. If he can talk string theory, why can’t I talk black holes?

B&W: Still, physics, and the sciences in general, are, statistically, at least, boys’ clubs. Was there ever a point at which you did feel the impetus to make these gendered issues more public?

JL: Let’s say I wake up and say I have a responsibility to honor women. How am I going to get that job done best for them? Is it going to be by half-assedly talking about something I have very little insight? Or is it because I really am excited about this discovery about black holes. I think it’s a false dichotomy. That by not talking about it I’m neglecting women. Maybe that’s not the case. Maybe it benefits the next generation to see a possibility in real life. There’s something inherently that bugs me about people being only interested in themselves. Shouldn’t I also talk equally about the lack of African Americans or Latinos in the sciences? Why isn’t that my concern? Because people assume I don’t know anything about it. Well, I don’t know anything about women. I don’t know anything about other women. We don’t think all alike. I don’t have advice that will make sense for anybody else but me and my crazy trajectory.

B&W: And yet, you chose to teach at an all-women’s college.

JL: Yes. But I also could not have. I do love Barnard. Barnard happens to be an awesome school. If it were co-ed and maintained a lot of the same qualities, I would still think it’s an awesome school, and would love to teach at it. I didn’t choose Barnard because it’s an all female school. I like the Barnard-Columbia combination because I have a full research university but I have the attitudes and philosophies of a small liberal arts college. That’s a really beautiful combination to me. Barnard has a broad sense of scholarship. I felt very comfortable thinking I [as a scientist] could write a novel. I didn’t think I would feel that comfortable at a typical university. It’s those things. High intellectual coals with a broad sense of art and culture that New York provides—these are special attributes. The being all-female turned out to be something I really did appreciate as a professor, but I didn’t know that before I started teaching.

B&W: Last question, and you have to take it seriously. Could the warp drive work as explained in Star Trek?

JL: [laughing] There have been serious papers written about warp drive with solutions to Einstein’s general relativity, where you literally have a certain kind of energy that causes space to come closer to you, and then causes space to expand again. So, yes, in principle I could bring alpha centauri closer, travel there, and then push it far away again. But it would require an energy density that we don’t know exists.

B&W: So Spock was a liar?

JL: Maybe it just has yet to be discovered.

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  1. SEAS guy  

    marry me, and take all my finals for me. I will thank you with endless fellatio.

  2. Anonymous  

    Barnard has Science?

    • Anonymous

      Yep! It's where Prof. Levin went for undergrad in the first place (which this article fails to mention)! Imagine that!

    • Anonymous  

      Did somebody really say that? That's actually funny. Barnard famously has amazing science professors and world class mathematicians. As of course does Columbia. Some departments are particularly collaborative across the Broadway divide.

  3. Anonymous  

    also she was on the colbert report. SUCH A BAMF.

  4. i completely love her take

    on talking about gender/not talking about gender

  5. CC '15  

    I'm actually working for her this summer doing simulations of the black hole scenarios she's talking about. Really remarkable stuff!

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