Cosmologist and Author
“If Hunter Thompson had taken a break to get a PhD in physics and then become obsessed with gravitational waves, he might have written a book like this. And maybe not. Janna Levin’s book is smart, hip, and resonant with the sounds of scientists at work.”—Alan Lightman
“This is a beautifully written account of the quest to open the ‘gravitational-wave window’ onto our universe, and use it to explore our universe’s warped side...I applaud Janna Levin for capturing so well our vision, our struggles, and the ethos and spirit of our torturous route toward success.”—Kip Thorne
Janna Levin is a gifted young cosmologist whose debut book, How the Universe Got Its Spots, fused geometry, topology, chaos and string theory to show how the pattern of hot and cold spots left over from the big bang may one day help reveal the true size and shape of the universe. Her next book, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, bridged fiction and nonfiction to tell a strange story of coded secrets, psychotic delusions, mathematical truth, and age-old lies. Now with her new book, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, she provides a fascinating, firsthand history of the scientific pursuit to detect gravitational waves: the holy grail of modern cosmology, the soundtrack of the universe. Her talks re-open the long dormant questions we all have about the nature of reality, and make cutting edge science accessible to anyone willing to expand their mind.
Levin has worked at the Center for Particle Astrophysics (CfPA) at UC Berkeley, the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP) at Cambridge University and the Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing at Oxford University, where she won an award from the National Endowment for Science, Technology, and Arts. Levin holds a BA in Physics and Astronomy from Barnard College with a concentration in Philosophy, and a PhD from MIT in Physics. She was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2012.
The Mysteries of the Cosmos
In this talk, Janna Levin illuminates the mysteries of the universe, taking audiences on a witty, intriguing, and epic tour through new discoveries in modern cosmology. From some of humankind’s basic questions—What else is out there? How did the universe begin?—to this decade’s big scientific breakthroughs to a preview of what’s next, Levin, a cosmologist and 2012 Guggenheim Fellow, makes clear sense of a fascinating but often befuddling topic. How has our understanding of the cosmos changed from when we first set out to look at the stars? What does this new knowledge mean for us? With storytelling panache, Levin (who is also a novelist!) takes us to literally the highest reaches of science, but grounds her talk in a relatable tale about humanity and discovery.
Songs from Space
A billion years ago, somewhere in the observable universe, two black holes have collided. In the final seconds of their long life together, the black holes banged out a rhythm like mallets on a drum, creating waves in the shape of spacetime. That song reverberated outward at the speed of light and is on its way here. Over the billion years since, we evolved and pointed telescopes at the sky, discovered a universe in which we are not central, squabbled, and warred, and have nearly driven ourselves to extinction. In the past decade or so, a few experimentalists, disconnected from mainstream concerns, struggled to devise observatories to do the improbable if not outright impossible: record Lilliputian waves in the shape of space. As the echo of those black holes lies just beyond our solar system, billion dollar instruments are being upgraded for Earth and planned for space. As the instruments come online—a sophisticated global microphone pointed at the sky—it will get here, faintly captured beneath experimental static, the swan song of a black hole pair. And not just black holes, but exploding stars, colliding galaxies, even the origin of the universe contribute to the universe in audio. In the next few years, the sounds from space will be recorded for the first time in human history, thereby turning up the volume on the soundtrack to the Universe.
Creativity From Limits
Insurmountable limits can beget exhilarating outbursts of creativity. There is a fundamental limit in the speed of light. Constrained by this limit, Einstein discovered the relativity of space/time and launched the discovery of black holes and the big bang. There is a fundamental limit to Mathematics--there are facts even among numbers that we will never know are true or false. Constrained by this limit, the brilliant code breaker Alan Turing invented the computer and dreamed of artificial intelligence. There is a fundamental limit to certainty in any measurement. Constrained by this limit, Heisenberg, Bohr, Einstein and others discovered quantum mechanics and posed a challenge to conventional ideas of reality. Limits can be worthy adversaries that bring out our best, most inventive, most agile natures. Surrendering to constraints can inspire great gestures of creativity and moments of discovery that change us forever.
A New Experiment in the Third Culture
For over half a century, there has been a chasm between the arts and the sciences--creating a gulf that has hindered the growth of both sides. Janna Levin's work as an award-winning author of literary fiction, a Fellow at the Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing in Oxford, and a professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College, Columbia University exemplifies a growing movement deemed "The Third Culture." In this talk, Levin discusses the crossover between the arts and the sciences, sharing stunning examples--such as a Brooklyn collective of artists, designers, roboticists, engineers, and biologists--of a new intellectual culture being born.
Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space
From one of our most eminent theoretical astrophysicists and an award-winning writer, a fascinating, firsthand history of the scientific pursuit to detect gravitational waves: the holy grail of modern cosmology, the soundtrack of the universe.
In 1916, Einstein became the first to predict the existence of gravitational waves: sounds without a material medium generated by the unfathomably energy-producing collision of black holes. Now Janna Levin, herself an astrophysicist, recounts the story of the search over the last fifty years for these elusive waves–a quest that has culminated in the creation of the most expensive project ever funded by the National Science Foundation ($1 billion-plus). She makes clear how the waves are created in the cosmic collision of black holes, and why the waves can never be detected by telescope. And, most revealingly, she delves into the lives and fates of the four scientists currently engaged in–and obsessed with–discerning this soundtrack of the universe’s history. Levin’s account of the surprises, disappointments, achievements, and risks of this unfolding story provides us with a uniquely compelling and intimate portrait of the people and processes of modern science.
A Madman Dreams of Turning Machines
A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines bridges fiction and nonfiction to tell a strange if true story of coded secrets, psychotic delusions, mathematical truth, and lies. This story of greatness and weakness, of genius and hallucination, is based on the parallel lives of Kurt Gödel, the greatest logician of many centuries, and Alan Turing, the extraordinary code breaker during World War II. Taken together their work proved that truth is elusive, that knowledge has limits, that machines could think. Yet Gödel believed in transmigration of the soul and Turing concluded that we were soulless biological machines. And their suicides were complementary: Gödel, delusional and paranoid, starved himself to death fearing his food was poisoned. Turing ate a poison apple, driven to suicide after being arrested and convicted of homosexual activities. These two men were devoted to truth of the highest abstract nature, yet were unable to grasp the mundane truths of their own lives. Through it all, the narrator wonders, along with these two odd heroes, if any of us can ever really grasp the truth.
How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space
Is the universe infinite, or is it just really big? Does nature abhor infinity? In startling and beautiful prose, Janna Levin's diary of unsent letters to her mother describes what we know about the shape and extent of the universe, about its beginning and its end. She grants the uninitiated access to the astounding findings of contemporary theoretical physics and makes tangible the contours of space and time--those very real curves along which apples fall and planets orbit.
Levin guides the reader through the observations and thought-experiments that have enabled physicists to begin charting the universe. She introduces the cosmic archaeology that makes sense of the pattern of hot spots left over from the big bang, a pursuit on the verge of discovering the shape of space itself. And she explains the topology and the geometry of the universe now coming into focus--a strange map of space full of black holes, chaotic flows, time warps, and invisible strings.
Levin advances the controversial idea that this map is edgeless but finite--that the universe is huge but not unending--a radical revelation that would provide the ultimate twist to the Copernican revolution by locating our precise position in the cosmos. As she recounts our increasingly rewarding attempt to know the universe, Levin tells her personal story as a scientist isolated by her growing knowledge. This book is her remarkable effort to reach across the distance of that knowledge and share what she knows with family and friends--and with us. Highly personal and utterly original, this physicist's diary is a breathtaking contemplation of our deep connection with the universe and our aspirations to comprehend it.