Meet Janna Levin, the Chillest Astrophysicist Alive

The astrophysicist and writer Janna Levin has two main offices: One at Barnard College of Columbia University, where she is a prof, and a studio space at Pioneer Works, a center for arts and invention in Brooklyn where Levin runs 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 homes Pioneer Works, her studio is decorated( with props from a film set) like a speakeasy. Theres a bar lined with stools, a piano, a trumpet and, on the wall that serves as Levins blackboard, a drinking rail underlining a mathematical description of a black hole spinning in a magnetic field. Whether Levin is writing terms or equations, she detects inspiration just outside her gallery window, where a giant cloth-and-paper tree trunk hangs from the ceiling virtually to the factory floor three tales below.

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Original narrativereprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine , an editorially independent division of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by encompassing research the progress and trends in maths and the physical and life sciences


Science is just an absolutely intrinsic part of culture, told Levin, who runs a residency program for scientists, holds informal office hours for the artists and other residents, and hosts Scientific Controversiesa discussion series with a disco vibe that attracts standing-room-only crowds. We dont 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 received their way into her award-winning fiction about the mathematicians Alan Turing and Kurt Gdel.

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 starring that discharges in a sudden flashing of energy, instead like a lightning strike in deep space. Her latest book, Black Hole Blues and Other Ballads 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 notion in the 1960 s to its recent, triumphant detection of gravitational wavesripples in space-time coming from the distant merger of two black holes.

I had a crush on the experiment, Levin told at her speakeasy studio last month. Originally contracted to write about black hole themselves, she became increasingly drawn to the story of the scrappy scientists who constructed a fantastically complicated machine to detect them. Theyre after this abstract, arduous, difficult-to-understand thing, but theres also this running theme of hazard and preoccupation and curiosity and ambition that is universal , not specific, she told. 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: Im 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? Thats the issues to if you ask me. I simply didnt give stuff up.

Is there an inner conflict or can you just go into either mode ?

I dont switch between the modes very easily. I cant write in the morning and then do a computation in the evening; thats absolutely not how its going to work. If Ive been calculating all day, I cant even socialize subsequently; I am so not in English mode. And if you look at my notes when Im doing physicsvery sparse on terms. Im usually merely using a lot of words when I dont know whats going on. So its like, here youre in language mode, and then you excavate, excavation, excavation and get into this total math space, and then its simply all calculationspages and pages of calculations , not a word of insight. And then you come to an answer that youre not sure you know how to interpret properly, and then you have to do the reverse motion until you can say it in plain English again.

Do you think language is a more approximate form of expression than maths ?

Yes and no. I cant figure out the charge on a black hole with terms. But there are different levels of understanding. I supposed 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? Perhaps visceral. Perhaps deeper in some sense. Less precise but deeper?

Im also super interested in the idea that the initial data supplied by the universe could contain irrational or uncomputable numbers. Then the universe could never finish calculating the results of the initial conditions. Perhaps we cant predict whats coming next because every digit of the initial data is a toss of a coin.

But its not sufficient if I merely have words, and Ive never found something to write down in math, so Ive simply kind of waffled. I believe a smart thing to do would be to look at a specific Gdelian tangle that exists in maths and try to map that to fictitious the statutes of physics. Then you would have a world in which there was a Gdelian tangle. There are constructive things to try.

Is it something you plan to pursue ?

Yeah, it always comes back around eventually. Right now Im talking to somebody about a self-referential Big Bang again. Describing up notes on the ideas, really. The notes help clarify what you know, what you understand, what you dont really understand.

Original narrative reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by encompassing research the progress and trends in maths and the physical and life sciences .

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