Meet Janna Levin, the Chillest Astrophysicist Alive
The astrophysicist and author Janna Levin has two main offices: One at Barnard College of Columbia University, where she is a professor, and a studio space at Pioneer Works, a “center for art and innovation” in Brooklyn where Levin works alongside artists and musicians in an ever-expanding role as director of sciences. Beneath the rafters on the third floor of the former ironworks factory that now houses Pioneer Works, her studio is decorated (with props from a film set) like a speakeasy. There’s a bar lined with stools, a piano, a trumpet and, on the wall that serves as Levin’s blackboard, a drink rail underlining a mathematical description of a black hole spinning in a magnetic field. Whether Levin is writing words or equations, she finds inspiration just outside her gallery window, where a giant cloth-and-paper tree trunk hangs from the ceiling almost to the factory floor three stories below.
“Science is just an absolutely intrinsic part of culture,” said Levin, who runs a residency program for scientists, holds informal “office hours” for the artists and other residents, and hosts Scientific Controversies—a discussion series with a disco vibe that attracts standing-room-only crowds. “We don’t see it as different.”
Levin lives in accordance with this belief. She conducted research on the question of whether the universe is finite or infinite, then penned a book about her life and this work (written as letters to her mother) at the start of her physics career. She has also studied the limits of knowledge, ideas that found their way into her award-winning novel about the mathematicians Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel.
Lately she has been developing the theory of an astrophysical object she calls a “black-hole battery,” a circuit created by a black hole and an orbiting neutron star that discharges in a sudden flash of electricity, rather like a lightning strike in deep space. Her latest book, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space, rushed into print at the end of March, chronicles the dramatic history of the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) experiment, from its fanciful conception in the 1960s to its recent, triumphant detection of gravitational waves—ripples in space-time coming from the distant merger of two black holes.
“I had a crush on the experiment,” Levin said at her speakeasy studio last month. Originally contracted to write about black holes themselves, she became increasingly drawn to the story of the scrappy scientists who built a fantastically complicated machine to detect them. “They’re after this abstract, arduous, difficult-to-understand thing, but there’s also this running theme of risk and obsession and curiosity and ambition that is universal, not specific,” she said. “The fact that the experiment turned out to succeed was just a gift.”
The New York Times Book Review called Levin a writer who “harmonizes science and life with remarkable virtuosity,” a description that could just as easily apply to her as a person. Quanta Magazine joined Levin in her speakeasy on a recent Thursday afternoon, in time for the happy hour she put on before dashing off to a speaking engagement at the French Embassy. An edited and condensed version of that conversation and a subsequent email exchange follows.
QUANTA MAGAZINE: How did you manage to become both an astrophysicist and a writer?
JANNA LEVIN: I’m more surprised people become only one or the other. All kids are scientists, and all kids are artists. They all read. How is it that we give up such big things? That’s the question if you ask me. I just didn’t give stuff up.
Is there an inner conflict or can you just go into either mode?
I don’t switch between the modes very easily. I can’t write in the morning and then do a calculation in the evening; that’s absolutely not how it’s going to work. If I’ve been calculating all day, I can’t even socialize later; I am so not in English mode. And if you look at my notes when I’m doing physics—very sparse on words. I’m usually only using a lot of words when I don’t know what’s going on. So it’s like, here you’re in language mode, and then you dig, dig, dig and get into this total math space, and then it’s just all calculations—pages and pages of calculations, not a word of insight. And then you come to an answer that you’re not sure you know how to interpret properly, and then you have to do the reverse movement until you can say it in plain English again.
Do you think language is a more approximate form of expression than mathematics?
Yes and no. I can’t figure out the charge on a black hole with words. But there are different levels of understanding. I thought I was a master at general relativity until I taught it. Having to explain the subject out loud, I had a whole new level of understanding. Is that approximate, intuitive? Maybe visceral. Maybe deeper in some sense. Less precise but deeper?
What did you plan to be?
I didn’t think I’d be a scientist. No way. I think our idea of what a scientist is has evolved a lot. We now think of a scientific person as curious, someone who asks questions. I thought a scientific person played with a chemistry set in the basement, and I didn’t do that. I thought physicists built bombs and memorized equations and were unoriginal, so that wasn’t very interesting.
I started college as a philosophy major, and I was interested in art history, the arts. But I grew to hate certain things in philosophy. I was really frustrated that people were trying to figure out what a long-dead man meant when he said something. Nobody is tearing their hair out saying, “What did Einstein mean by relativity?” Once he shared it, he shared it. It was ours. It’s when I discovered the difference between solving problems outright, and solving problems with this sort of polysyllabic obfuscating jungle, that I made the switch.
So you had no idea up to then that you’d be good at physics?
I never studied math or physics in high school. I didn’t really finish high school—I don’t have a high school diploma.
How did that happen?
I was a passenger in a pretty bad car accident in my junior year. We hit a footbridge and landed upside down in a canal, wheels whipping water around. We swam out the windows through broken glass and emerged bloody. I was 16 turning 17. Everybody just sort of insisted: Go to college. For reasons unknown, Barnard took a look at my application. I have no idea why; decisions had long been made for admissions. Anyway, a month later I was on my way to New York, a bit scarred from the accident but otherwise intact.
Why did they encourage you to leave home? Were you getting into trouble?
I can’t say I was a troubled teen; I was reckless at times. It’s hardly the first time I was injured. At 11 I was skateboarding and I grabbed onto the bumper of a passing car to gain speed. Ended up with a concussion, amnesia a few hours later. Eventually I was knocked out in a 24-hour coma in the hospital. My mom once quipped, “Imagine how smart you would have been.”
By junior year I was behaving maybe even more recklessly than usual and definitely getting into some trouble. I just think anyone who cared about me thought I’d be safer and make everyone less crazy if I moved on than if I stayed.
When did you start writing books?
Basically as soon as I could. I wrote my first book when I was a postdoc, after graduate school. And that’s just not done. I was told not to do that by everybody who cared about me. They said, you’ll never get a job as a scientist; nobody will take you seriously. Keep your head down; get your work done. But I did it anyway.
I very much have to write to please myself. I think some popular science doesn’t do that, and I think that’s where it stumbles. If you’re not writing for yourself, you’re always being a little bit disingenuous.
Now you’re tenured at Barnard College of Columbia University. How did you wind up in your role here at Pioneer Works?
I could not imagine writing my book in my office at Columbia; it would have felt punitive. It’s wonderful to be in that office when I’m talking to physicists about physics; it’s a beautiful experience. But when I am doing something else, I just feel isolated. Before I came here, I was in another artists’ studio, a fantastic place, just to get some inspiration. Everybody was working like crazy, stuff was falling off the walls, people were welding, sawing, sparks were flying, and I was like, perfect, now I can get something done! It’s similar here. I came to Pioneer Works because this is a little more public-facing. I could do events here because of the beauty of the space, but it’s the community that makes me want to come back.
What I see in common among the people at Pioneer Works is that they want to live in a bigger world. They don’t feel that their inspiration is fueled by isolation. I am always looking out that gallery window, at who is building something.
In 2014, you launched Scientific Controversies, which has brought Nobel Prize winners to Pioneer Works. What’s the story behind that?
When I started here as scientist in residence, they asked me to give a talk, but I thought it would be much more fun to listen to a conversation. So I said, here’s what we should do: not a panel, not a debate, just two guests who aren’t trying to win an argument — who are having a genuine and extemporaneous conversation about topics we don’t know the answer to. That’s the idea and it came nearly instantly. Because I had done a lot of talks and other events, it was really clear to me what I would enjoy.
Clearly the public enjoys it too; the place is always packed.
Science is such an important force in culture, and we’re only beginning to understand how that is playing out. I feel like people’s interest in science has spiked, but we still see it as “other.” People’s avarice for information about science is really growing. It’s much different, I feel, than it used to be.
Let’s talk about your new book, Black Hole Blues. It’s basically a story about people building a machine.
I know! My friend was like, it’s totally postmodern!
When you started writing about LIGO and the search for gravitational waves, it wasn’t clear there would be a happy ending to report.
The suspense of not knowing is, to me, what the book became about. Even in August, LIGO co-founder Rai Weiss was saying things to me like, “This could be a failure.” That was the universal theme I felt I was writing about. And so, yeah, I was doing the same thing at the same time, taking this big risk that I’d write this book about a failed experiment. That’s the combination I love — the tension when you’re between something great and something that could just be a tragedy.
You got interested in LIGO by way of your research on black holes. Could you talk about this concept you’ve been developing—the black-hole battery?
It started really naively. A neutron star has a giant magnetic field—it could be a thousand trillion times the magnetic field of the Earth. If you throw that into a black hole, the standard story is that the black hole can’t keep the magnetic field, because that would violate the black hole “no hair” theorems—the magnetic field would be “hair,” so the black hole has to shake it off. I’ve been taught that my whole life, and I just thought, something about that isn’t right.
So we did this calculation, with postdoc Sean McWilliams, where the neutron star is in orbit, which means you have a waving magnet around the black hole. You can create electricity from a waving magnet—if I unplug a lightbulb from that lamp, and I wave a magnet around, the bulb will light up. So we said: Look, we’re waving a magnet around; what lightbulb will turn on? I don’t know why no one else said it first.
So when LIGO detects a black hole swallowing a neutron star, you expect to be able to see a concurrent flash of light from the discharging battery?
Probably X-ray, gamma ray, maybe radio. Lately we’ve been talking about which wave band we would see it in. That’s a hard step, but we think all three, probably.
Your 2006 novel, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, deals with the concepts of infinity, truth and the limits of knowledge—themes you also explored in your research in cosmology, on the question of whether the universe is finite or infinite. You tell the story through a fictional account of the lives and horrible deaths of Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel. Could you talk about what their work revealed about the nature of truth?
Gödel’s theorem says that there are facts that are true, but that can never be proved to be true. There are facts among the numbers that we will never know are true or false. When Gödel showed that — never mind when Turing came along and showed that most facts among the numbers are things about which we will never know anything—that was a shock. It means there is no “theory of everything” in mathematics. It was such a big blow.
I liked the idea of playing on Gödel’s theorem with a narrative in fiction where I’m telling a true story, even though I’m not doing so by only listing factual information. There’s a feeling of the truth of a fictional story—in a way, maybe more of a visceral experience of the truth, maybe a more lucid, bigger-picture feeling, than if I had just listed all the biographical facts.
I also just feel that science is part of culture, which motivates my connection with Pioneer Works. Why can’t I write a novel about science? You can write about domestic violence. You can write a novel about the shipping industry in Boston. Why can’t I write a novel about mathematicians? It’s just a natural part of culture.
Seeing as you’re a physicist who has thought so deeply about Gödel’s theorem, do you think the absence of a theory of everything in mathematics suggests there might be no theory of everything in physics?
I totally think about that. Why should we think, since physics is so rooted in mathematics, that there is going to be a physical theory of everything? The way we usually think about the Big Bang is: The universe is born, and it’s born with initial data. There are laws of physics, and somehow the initial data is just… something else. We really are dishonest about where that comes from. What if the law of physics that describes the origin of the universe is something that has to make a claim about itself, which is a classic self-referential Gödelian setup for a tangle. [A Gödelian tangle is an unprovable, self-referential mathematical statement, such as, “This statement is unprovable.”] What if the laws of physics have to make a claim about themselves in such a way that they themselves become somehow uncomputable?
I’m also super interested in the idea that the initial data of the universe could contain irrational or uncomputable numbers. Then the universe could never finish computing the consequences of the initial conditions. Maybe we can’t predict what’s coming next because every digit of the initial data is a toss of a coin.
But it’s not enough if I only have words, and I’ve never found something to write down in math, so I’ve just kind of waffled. I think a smart thing to do would be to look at a specific Gödelian tangle that exists in mathematics and try to map that to fictitious laws of physics. Then you would have a universe in which there was a Gödelian tangle. There are constructive things to try.
Is it something you plan to pursue?
Yeah, it always comes back around eventually. Right now I’m talking to somebody about a self-referential Big Bang again. Drawing up notes on the ideas, really. The notes help clarify what you know, what you understand, what you don’t really understand.
Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.
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