science | November 11, 2012

Curiosity Is Essential For Innovation: Science Speaker Janna Levin [VIDEO]

When you think of the study of cosmology, generally notions of high-tech telescopes and complex lab equipment come to mind. Science speaker Janna Levin, however, likes to do things a little bit differently. "I really like to work in pen and paper in math," she explains in an interview with the BBC. What is she working out, exactly? Chaos theory, black holes and the early origins of our universe, naturally. This is not to say, however, that the Guggenheim Fellow and TED speaker never goes to the lab. Rather, she just prefers to research new concepts in a more theoretical way first, so she can weed out any impossible theories before taking them to the experimentation phase.

A great deal of her work, she says, builds on Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. Despite being one of the oldest sciences around, Levin teaches her students at Columbia University—where she is the Professor of Physics and Astronomy—that understanding this branch of astrophysics is as essential to our future as it is to our past. "Understanding the phenomenon of black holes and astrophysics," she explains in the interview, " part of recognizing who we are in the bigger scheme and how were all together on this little planet." Further, she explains that funding for scientific space exploration and research is sadly lacking. "Curiosity and individual participation is really essential for innovation," she argues, adding that we need to ensure that funding does not continue to deteriorate lest we lose out of this vital part of the human condition.

As well as being a gifted cosmologist, Levin is also an accomplished author. Her debut work, How the Universe Got Its Spots, is an inter-disciplinary approach to understanding how the remnants of the Big Bang can help to reveal the shape and size of the universe. Her most recent book, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, won the PEN/Bingham Fellowship for Writers. She explains that writing and researching are very different entities, but both her work in cosmology and literature deal with the exploration of the world through science. "Writing books, for me, was a very good way of having another outlet to sort of examine the human implications of what it is to do science," she says. Levin's ability to make even the complex world of physics accessible to non-specialists in a humorous and entertaining way makes her not only an excellent scientist and writer—but a truly eye-opening public speaker as well.

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