“I used to resent obstacles along the path, thinking, ‘If only that hadn’t happened, life would be so good.’ Then I suddenly realized, life is the obstacles. There is no underlying path.” — Janna Levin
Janna Levin (@jannalevin) is the Tow Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. She has contributed to an understanding of black holes, the cosmology of extra dimensions, and gravitational waves in the shape of spacetime. Janna is also director of sciences at Pioneer Works, a cultural center dedicated to experimentation, education, and production across disciplines, as well as Pioneer Works’ virtual home, The Broadcast.
Janna’s books include How the Universe Got Its Spots and the novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, which won the PEN/Bingham Prize. In 2012, she was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a grant awarded to those “who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship.” Her last book, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, is the inside story on the discovery of the century: the sound of spacetime ringing from the collision of two black holes over a billion years ago. Her new book, Black Hole Survival Guide, is scheduled for publication near the end of 2020.
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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.
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Want to hear an episode with Universe in Verse’s co-conspirator? Listen to my conversation with Maria Popova in which we discuss how to live a meaningful life, how to write for an audience of one, Maria’s note-taking system, and much, much more.
SELECTED LINKS FROM THE EPISODE
- Connect with Janna Levin:
- Pioneer Works
- The Broadcast
- How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space by Janna Levin
- A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin
- Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin
- Black Hole Survival Guide by Janna Levin
- Columbia University | New York City
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- The Trolley Problem Explained | World Science Festival
- Understand Calculus in 35 Minutes | The Organic Chemistry Tutor
- The Trolley Problem and Self-Driving Cars | Foundation for Economic Education
- Quantum Physics May Be Even Spookier Than You Think | Scientific American
- The Large Hadron Collider | CERN
- How the Higgs Boson Was Found | Smithsonian Magazine
- The Higgs Boson Was Initially Called the ‘Goddamn Particle’ | ZME Science
- Two Things Are Infinite: the Universe and Human Stupidity | Quote Investigator
- Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity: A Simplified Explanation | Space
- If You Keep Going Around the Universe, Will You End Up Where You Started? | Gizmodo
- Rippin’ the Rainbow a New One | Radiolab
- True Facts About The Mantis Shrimp | Ze Frank
- What Is a Four-Dimensional Space Like? | Einstein for Everyone
- Life on a Möbius Strip: The Greatest Moth Story Ever Told, About the Unlikely Paths That Lead Us Back to Ourselves | Brain Pickings
- The Moth
- The Mathematical Madness of Möbius Strips and Other One-Sided Objects | Smithsonian Magazine
- The Handedness of the Universe | Scientific American
- The Human Genome Project | NIH
- Why I Teach by Eric S. Lander | The Moth
- The Long Ukranian Winters by Roald Hoffmann | The Moth
- Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
- White Noise by Don DeLillo
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- Knopf Doubleday
- Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang
- Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
- Arrival | Prime Video
- Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee
- Levels of the Game by John McPhee
- Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays by David Foster Wallace
- John McPhee, The Art of Nonfiction No. 3 | The Paris Review
- Little, Big by John Crowley
- Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli
- The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli
- 5 Real Possibilities for Interstellar Travel | PBS Space Time
- Interstellar | Prime Video
- The Science of Interstellar by Kip Thorne and Christopher Nolan
- Gravitational Waves Detected 100 Years After Einstein’s Prediction | LIGO Lab, Caltech
- From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time by Sean Carroll
- “I Think We Have to Take Peyote and Speak to the Pangolin” | Twitter
- What Is the Big Bang Theory? | Space
- Stars: We Are Their Children | Cosmos
- Pandemic, Recession, Unrest: 2020 and the Confluence of Crises | US News
- Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe by Brian Greene
- Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World by Tim Ferriss
- The Universe in Verse | Brain Pickings
- A Brave and Startling Truth: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan | Brain Pickings
- Earthrise | NASA
- Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) | The Bible
- The US Military Has Officially Published Three UFO Videos. Why Doesn’t Anybody Seem to Care? | The Conversation
NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: Timestamps will be added shortly.
- As a self-confessed reckless kid, does Janna recall any notable instances of getting in trouble in her youth?
- The car accident that, for the sake of Janna’s parents’ sanity, led her to college.
- What did Janna think she wanted to be when she graduated from college, and what seemed to point in this direction rather than where she wound up? How did she become an omnivorous reader?
- What are the differences between the answers that Janna got in pursuit of philosophy and the answers that she later sought from science — and what made her switch tracks?
- What did Janna’s college chemistry and math teachers see in her that led them to suggest physics as a potential focus? What might have indicated an inclination toward science from an even earlier age?
- Favorite philosophers Janna might recommend to a philosophy newcomer.
- As the classic trolley problem has moved from undergrad philosophy thought experiment to real-world application in the development of autonomous driving, what quantifiable answers can we start to expect from the field of theoretical physics?
- In order to understand how it’s possible that the universe might be finite, one only needs to ask: how is it possible that Pac-Man is a donut that doesn’t live in a higher-dimensional space?
- The power of math to extend beyond the limits of human perception.
- Janna talks about Life on a Möbius Strip, called “the greatest Moth story ever told” by mutual friend Maria Popova.
- Why did Janna initially keep this story a secret — even from her closest friends?
- How did Janna feel during and after giving the talk? Has she taken other types of internal pressure, angst, or emotion and turned them into art?
- How Janna thinks of writing as sculpture, and who stands out for her (and me) as truly masterful “sculptors.”
- Janna shares her physicist’s-eye-view of time and what the math tells us about how interstellar travel would work.
- Janna speaks to the tension between the vast, macro-longitudinal picture of the universe we’re stretching to reach and the comparatively minuscule day-to-day political and biological realities we’re currently enduring here on Earth.
- What new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved Janna’s life, and what led to this realization?
- Why privilege can be more of a disadvantage than a boon when adversity eventually comes knocking.
- As a girl of words who became a woman of numbers, Janna has been taking part in poetry readings lately. What’s the story behind the poem she chose to read at the 2018 Universe In Verse?
- Wine, UFOs, and other parting thoughts.
- Toni Morrison
- Philip Roth
- Ernest Hemingway
- Immanuel Kant
- Albert Einstein
- Martin Heidegger
- David Albert
- Carl Sagan
- Bertrand Russell
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
- John Locke
- George Berkeley
- David Hume
- René Descartes
- Leonard Susskind
- Sean Carroll
- Brian Greene
- Warren Malone
- Eric Lander
- Roald Hoffmann
- Catherine Burns
- Kazuo Ishiguro
- Don DeLillo
- Cormac McCarthy
- William Faulkner
- Dan Frank
- Ted Chiang
- Jorge Luis Borges
- John McPhee
- Clark Graebner
- Arthur Ashe
- David Foster Wallace
- Carlo Rovelli
- Kip Thorne
- Lynda Obst
- Nick Wechsler
- Roger Penrose
- Maria Popova
- Emily Levine
- Maya Angelou
- Lia Halloran