Janna Levin on Extra Dimensions, Time Travel, and How to Overcome Boots in the Face (#445)

“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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The transcript of this episode can be found here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

#445: Janna Levin on Extra Dimensions, Time Travel, and How to Overcome Boots in the Face


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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


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.

#39: Maria Popova on Writing, Work Arounds, and Building BrainPickings.org



  • Connect with Janna Levin:

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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.