The Joy of x

Janna Levin on Seeing and Hearing Black Holes

The astrophysicist Janna Levin describes the fierce scientific beauty she finds in black holes and reveals why she took a major risk early in her career.

Black holes have always fascinated Janna Levin. In this episode, the Barnard College astrophysicist and Pioneer Works science director describes the fierce scientific beauty and poetry she finds in them. She also talks with host Steven Strogatz about the importance of extreme creativity in scientific discovery, and why she took a major risk early in her career. This episode was produced by Dana Bialek. Read more at Production and original music by Story Mechanics.

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Janna Levin: Are we in it? Are we going? I wasn’t sure if we were still preloading. Are we in it?

Steven Strogatz: No. We’re not really preloading. The whole thing is real and, um —

Levin: Okay, so let’s go, yeah.

Strogatz [narration]: From Quanta Magazine, this is “The Joy of x.” I’m Steve Strogatz. In this episode, Janna Levin.


Levin: So let me tell you about SciCon.

Strogatz: Yeah.

Levin: “Scientific Controversies” started as kind of an alternative to being on stage and speaking by myself. Somebody here at Pioneer Works was asking me to give a lecture, and I don’t know if you have this feeling, Steve, but sometimes I just have had enough lecturing. And I thought, “I’ve been on stage so many times,” and I just — I just had a very strong feeling of what I would want to do as a guest.

Strogatz: Mm-hmm.

Levin: So SciCon is very much about unsolved problems and it’s very much about the process of thinking through when you don’t know the answer. So there’s this false impression that scientists are coming down with tablets of facts and that’s not what we do, as you well know.

Strogatz: Sure.

Levin: We love stumbling around in the dark. That’s the most fun.

Strogatz: [LAUGHS]

Strogatz: Janna Levin is an astrophysicist, specifically, a cosmologist. That’s somebody who studies the cosmos as a whole, the whole universe. She’s especially interested in how the universe evolved, how it went from the Big Bang to what it is today. I met Janna around 2003. It was right after she published her first book, How the Universe Got Its Spots, and I was completely enthralled by that book, spellbinding. I mean it’s so poetic, so intimate, and — and scientifically accurate.

There was so much to learn from it, and I just I felt like I was dying to meet her, and I arranged for her to come to Cornell for a session I had arranged about popular science writing, and we’ve been friends ever since.

Janna is a professor of physics and astronomy, but she’s also a director of sciences at a cultural center in Brooklyn called Pioneer Works. Her programming there involves a lot of unsolved mysteries.

Levin: So “Scientific Controversies” is two scientists on stage addressing an unsolved problem. So the controversy isn’t between the scientists, necessarily, so much as it — as it is between the scientists and nature.

Strogatz: Yes, I see, so they — they are not necessarily rivals in any sense.

Levin: No, not at all, and as I think you’ll also agree, that’s not how you do it. You don’t stand at a chalkboard with another scientist and try to win an argument. That would be extremely unscientific. What you’re trying to do is understand, and if the person you’re talking to has a better point that you missed, that you didn’t think of, you immediately concede or you’re not behaving scientifically.

Strogatz: It’s a really delightful thing, isn’t it? Because you don’t see that too much in our world, that two people in whatever it is, whether it’s politics or art or anything else, that they’re both after the truth, whatever that means. And then, you know, so we’re not fighting with each other. We’re fighting against a — maybe fighting isn’t even the word, but we’re both on a quest or, or in pursuit of something we’re both deeply curious about.

Levin: Yeah, and that’s why — so let’s omit the word fight, but even the word debate, yeah, I just don’t think is appropriate for this. You don’t try to win a debate in science. That is — that is very antithetical to the program and to the process. What you really want to do is argue your case as the best you see it in case that you’re right in, in the hopes that maybe you’re on the right track. But if somebody can compel you to shift gears, or to be orthogonal, or to move, pivot, you must. That’s the only way to behave properly. And so I think a lot of what we’re doing on stage is the opposite of a debate. It’s not, “I want to win,” ego, me, my case.

It’s, “Wait. I’m really struggling with what nature’s telling me about the world. And, and this person next to me, I admire, I respect, and I’m in a conversation, and they’re showing me something I hadn’t thought of.” And maybe in a whimsical response, you’ll push the whole conversation forward.

Strogatz: Something I love about Janna’s work, in her writing, in her cultural work with scientists, is that she helps us understand that, that all working scientists, great scientists or just ordinary scientists, that we’re all fundamentally people. Before anything else, we are people, and — and this just comes through so clearly in the stories of her own life, the stories of scientists that she writes about. You always get the feeling of a full human being, somebody who’s really struggling to understand themselves, but more often, to understand the thing that they’re studying, whether it’s the universe, gravitational waves. In her work, scientists come across as strivers, and that’s what she always gets me thinking about: the struggle, the quest.

Strogatz: We often tell our students wrong ideas are crucial, and helpful, and fruitful, and they think, “Yeah, come on. I know you’re giving me a grade and I’ve learned all through school up to this point that wrong ideas just give me a lower grade, but…”

Levin: [LAUGHS] Right.

Strogatz: Right? But in — when you’re, when you’re trying to understand something that’s out there in nature, or in math or wherever, those wrong ideas… You know what else your comments remind me of is vulnerability and the importance of trust.

Levin: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Strogatz: That, that if we’re going to really collaborate on something hard and try to figure it out together, we might have to be — we might have to let our iron plate down.

Levin: Yeah, and, and you have to put the ego aside, which is hard, right? So one of the premises of especially theoretical physics and math is that there is this objective reality and she does not reciprocate your affections.


Levin: So if you’re wrong, you know, you’re brutally wrong, and — and even more so, yes, it was Einstein who uncovered the theory of relativity, but it didn’t need to be Einstein, and that’s personally very hard. Somebody would have discovered relativity inevitably.

Strogatz: Huh.

Strogatz: Einstein’s general theory of relativity is all about gravity and its effects on space. It’s about how gravitational force works, and the picture that’s often used is that we think about space and time like a fabric. You could picture it like a trampoline that would curve if you put a bowling ball on it and it would bend under the weight of that bowling ball. Then if you throw some little balls on that bending trampoline, that curved fabric, like a little marble, that marble will roll around and move toward the bowling ball.

That, in Einstein’s theory, is sort of what gravity is doing. It explains why the marble curves in towards the heavier object in the middle. So in this picture, gravity is the curving of the space-time fabric, of the three dimensions of space and time.

One of the strange implications of general relativity is that space and time can sometimes curve so intensely that they form this bizarre object that we now call a black hole.

Strogatz: This question of would someone have discovered relativity in the same form, in the same — with the same style, I mean, of course it’s tempting to believe it.

Levin: That’s a really great question.

Strogatz: Yeah, because, I mean, I know what you mean when you say it.

Levin: Yeah.

Strogatz: There’s certainly been lots of historical cases. Say, Fermat and Descartes both discovered analytic geometry. It doesn’t look exactly the same but they’re both discovering it at — around the same time independently. And, and we know lots of cases of that in the history of science, so you could say, of course it’s just a historical fact that these things can be discovered by two different minds. But, but I mean, I’m struck by you of all people, because I think of general relativity — you know, your thing — as one of the most personal and creative visions that happens to also be scientifically correct. And I, I kind of wonder if someone would have discovered general — maybe only 200 years later or something.

Levin: I completely agree. It is one of the gestures of extreme creativity in the face of limits and constraints. It is one of the most glorious examples. You know, here’s this person who obsesses not about freedom… Like, “relativity” was used socially to imply anything goes, right? That became the kind of informal usage, but actually, Einstein gets to relativity by pursuing so rigidly a single absolute, which is the absolute nature of the speed of the light and its speed, under the pressure of that extreme constraint, does something phenomenally creative.

I utterly agree it’s creative. I think your question is so important because when I say somebody would have discovered the theory of relativity, I don’t mean necessarily in the way that Einstein gave it to us, which is a gorgeous, eloquent formulation based on curved space-time. And it very well could have been that 20, 30, 40 years later, it would have been discovered as a field theory, not as a curved space-time —just as a there are gravitons which are quanta of gravity and they’re exchanged by particles, much more particle theoretic — and we would not have needed, in some sense, all of the machinery that goes into the curved space-time description — is, I mean, a lot of extra machinery to speak in that way. It’s much more beautiful, but I don’t know that it’s more true.

But I love about when he thought about the general theory was that it combined two incredibly simple ideas. One was gravity is not feeling heavy in your chair, heavy on your feet or heavy in a bed. All those things require something that’s not — has nothing to do with gravity, a chair, a floor, a bed. So Einstein’s great idea is, remove all those things. You know, you’re in an elevator cab and you cut the cable. Remove all those things. What is gravity really if it’s just you communing with the Earth, or the Earth communing with the sun? It’s falling. It’s falling freely in the absence of interruptions like a chair, and a floor, and a bed.

And that simple insight, which you’re right, is so Einstein in character [LAUGHS], leads him to what he calls the happiest thought of his life: Gravity is falling freely in space-time. That’s the true experience of it. And then he notices, “Look. If I throw things in space-time and I don’t interrupt their fall with floors, and walls and other physical things, they don’t travel straight lines. They travel on curved arcs.” And from those two incredibly simple observations, he comes up with the concept that space-time must be curved. Things are following the natural curves in space-time.

I mean that’s — it’s a stunningly huge leap and you’re right. It seems to come out of nowhere, but it’s from those two very simple observations. And then, of course, he struggles for 11 years or so to mathematize it, which wasn’t easy.

Strogatz: Yeah, yeah. No, right, and fortunately, he had some good friends, and one in particular, Marcel Grossmann.

Levin: Oh, Grossmann, absolutely.

Strogatz: So yeah, so the old story is that he had this friend who was a very good student, whereas Einstein, although, you know, you hear this nonsense about him failing math. That wasn’t true. He was always good at math and science, but he has this very nice friend, Marcel, who knows Riemannian geometry, the kind of tensor calculus, the math that Einstein needs but doesn’t know exists because he was busy skipping class thinking about whatever or going out with his girlfriend.


Strogatz: The idea of black holes comes out of work from Albert Einstein around 1915 in his majestic theory of gravity and, and the structure of space and time that we call general relativity. So it’s, it’s in the, you know, beginning of the 20th century. So 1915, Einstein comes up on a purely imaginary — I mean, just it’s a tremendous act of human imagination that he comes up with this theory of how gravity works and how it bends space and time, whatever that means, that it’s connected to the geometry of the universe.

We have indication that Einstein didn’t even believe one of the predictions of his own theory, that space and time could collapse into this infinitely dense or at least extremely dense thing that we call a black hole that is so compact and so massive that even light cannot escape from it. So, so in that sense, black — and not just light can’t escape from it, nothing can escape from it, no information, no signal of any kind.

And so Einstein, who liked to believe in the smoothness of, of space and time, would have been revolted by this idea that there could be kind of an edge, like a, a crinkle — some kind of nasty end to space and time that would happen inside a black hole, and, and the laws of physics would break down in there. We still don’t even know what would happen inside of a black hole. So I think as far as we can tell, Einstein thought it was a mathematical illusion, not something real in his theory, but as the decades have passed, we’ve been getting more and more evidence that they’re not just mathematical illusions, that they’re really out there.

And when I listen to Janna talk about them, they seem to be almost like dear old friends, you know, or pen pals that we’ve been hearing about them. They’ve been writing to us from a distance but we never actually got to see them or meet them up close, and now, you know, just in this past year, we have our first photograph of some — I mean you could ask what does that mean, a photograph of a black hole, if it’s — it doesn’t emit light, but you can see the photograph of, of the gas swirling around a black hole. So we, we know that they’re real now, but we, we had good reason to believe in them for a long time.

Levin: I went out to the National Press Club for the announcement. When the Event Horizon Telescope calls a press conference with the National Science Foundation, you know what they’re going to announce. I mean it wasn’t a tremendous mystery — although there was one big surprise, uh, which we’ll talk about in a second — but you know that they’re going to announce that they’ve imaged a black hole for the first time. So many people were so surprised when I told them it’s the first time. They thought, “Haven’t we seen black holes?” [LAUGHS]

And, and I try to explain, we’ve detected indirect evidence for black holes. We’ve detected pretty direct evidence for the collision of black holes through gravitational waves. It’s very direct but it’s not an image. This is the first time we’ve literally taken a picture where we’ve resolved the shadow that the black hole casts on a bright background.

So I went out there, and when it was revealed, it’s very moving, not because the image was a surprise. It was exactly what we anticipated. It was really sort of this feeling that this experiment required telescopes around the globe acting as a composite to look at something 55 million light years away. And I felt in that moment of the reveal that, oh, we’re like a species. It’s a composite of —

Strogatz: [LAUGHS] Beautiful.

Levin: — of individuals around the globe looking together at something looming over us 55 million light years away. And so I, I think of the significance of the detection not just of the image of the picture, not just as a scientific accomplishment, but as a human accomplishment, and also collaboratively what it means for hundreds of people, thousands of people internationally from so many countries to work together, uh, ceaselessly for this one objective.

Strogatz: Hm. The number 55 million strikes me, too, because of something that is at the end of one of your books. It’s one of the most haunting and, and lyrical images, I think, I’ve ever read in anything. It’s where you’re talking, in Black Hole Blues, when you tell us about the gravitational waves that were headed our way from a time before we were — before we were human beings. We’re — we’re not even — I mean like 65… So if we said 65 million years ago, that’d be dinosaurs getting wiped out, so I’m thinking of us as little mammals now. It’s 55 million years ago. We’re the leftovers of that big cosmic, you know, cataclysmic extinction event. We’re certainly not primates yet. We’re, we’re rodents or something [LAUGHS].

Levin: Yeah [LAUGHS].

Strogatz: Right, when that — when —

Levin: I love the use of “we” in that context, yes, we are. That’s us.

Strogatz: Well, but it’s us. We’re, we’re inhabitants of Earth.

Levin: Yeah, inhabitants of Earth, exactly. So the big surprise and the only surprise really in the reveal was that it wasn’t the super massive black hole at the center of our own galaxy. We all thought they were looking at Sagittarius A*, which is so named because it’s the direction, in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. It’s about four million times the mass of the sun. At 26,000 light years, it’s incredibly close, obviously the closest supermassive black hole in the universe because it’s the one that anchors the center of our Milky Way. Resolving that is equivalent to resolving a piece of fruit on the moon and everyone thought they were going for Sagittarius A*.

Strogatz: [LAUGHS] Oh, man.

Levin: At some point, they said, “You know what? There’s this other galaxy not too far away. It’s called M87. It’s 55 million light years away but it has a much bigger black hole, 6.5 billion times the mass of the sun, enormous.” And at the greater distance but the bigger size, it’s also like resolving a piece of fruit on the moon.

Strogatz: Oh, really?

Levin: So the big surprise was that it was M87. It wasn’t Sagittarius A*, which is what everyone thought it was going to be. That was the moment for me, I can definitely tell you, where I was knocked back and — and really excited that it was M87. I don’t know when we’re going to see our own supermassive black hole. It might be that we need more observations, but M87 is a much more active black hole and it is, again, further away, perhaps brighter, and so that may well be why they imaged it first.

But to your question, 55 million… So instead of 26,000 light years ago, or 26,000 years ago, rather, we would be talking about where human beings were moving on continents. That’s the light we’re receiving from our own galaxy.

Instead, we’re talking about something 55 million light years ago, and I love thinking about that, this kind of comical race between the light coming to us that we just happened to intercede and building these telescopes in our ambitions on Earth and just even the fact that human beings are so compelled to try to understand what’s in the sky above them. And you’re right. Had we still been rodents, we would not be building — I don’t know if we were rodents then. We need an anthropologist.

Strogatz: I’m not sure.

Levin: We need an archaeologist.

Strogatz: Yeah, yeah

Levin: But whoever was roaming the Earth at that point, presumably was not as interested in manipulating their environment or observing their environment.

Strogatz: What is it about them for you?

Levin: Black holes are unlike any other object in the universe. They’re not like chairs or even like stars. So I can have two stars and they’ll never be exactly alike. They’ll have slightly different compositions, slightly different temperatures, different sizes. Black holes are somehow fundamental. They’re… A black hole of a certain mass, and charge, and spin is absolutely indistinguishably identical to another black hole with those same values, and that’s much more like an electron than it is like a star. So there are fundamental particles in nature that are defined by their mass, their charge and their spin, and they are identical. There is no such thing as, “Oh, this is the electron that went on that trip with me.”

Strogatz: [LAUGHS]

Levin: They’re indistinguishable. They have no history. They have no future that’s distinguishable from any other electron, and black holes have that quality about them. It’s like they’re perfect fundamental particles of gravity, and that is something so profound and so unusual that it’s, to my mind, quite thrilling that nature figured out a way to make them and, and so they’re provided for us as this link between our origins.

It very well may be that those supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies are structuring, shaping, sculpting the way galaxies form. They’re also, uh, telling us something about the fundamental laws of nature because they are fundamental particles. They’re also telling us something about our future because that’s where we’re likely to end up, in the centers of black holes. We are orbiting the black hole in the center of our galaxy. That is why the galaxy orbits. We orbit that black hole. So it’s not just this, oh, another object out there. This is something that speaks largely to our origins, to our understanding of fundamental physics, and to our future.

Strogatz: Whoa. I am — my mouth has been hanging open for the whole riff.


Strogatz: And not just me, but Bert sitting here, my sound engineer. He’s also got his hands flapping around and I mean that’s just in a very —

Levin: It’s a lot, yeah.

Strogatz: No, but it’s a very unusual formulation and I have to say I’m surprised at your answer in a way that’s very satisfying. Partly because it’s to me, it’s, well, it’s so unexpected that the featurelessness of black holes, that they’re almost, you know… Like so often the thing we celebrate is diversity, particularity, you know? This person has a funny nose or that, you know. Like the fact that black holes are so fundamental and so indistinguishable, except for, as you said, what, their mass, their charge, and their spin?

Levin: Yeah. If we were being very abstract, we’d say their quantum numbers. That’s all that matters. These numbers.

Strogatz: That’s crazy, though.

Levin: This handful of small numbers. It’s crazy because that’s —

Strogatz: They’re big — they’re big but they have quantum numbers, like if, as you said, as if they were electrons.

Levin: Right, as if they were microscopic particles.

Strogatz: Except they’re not big. Well, are they big?

Levin: They’re not big. They’re small. They’re heavy.

Strogatz: Yeah, they’re heavy but tiny.

Levin: They’re heavy but they’re physically small. So if it was a black hole the mass of the sun, it would be about six kilometers across. That would fit in Manhattan, and I know I’m very New York-centric in my references.

Strogatz: Yeah, thank you [LAUGHS].

Levin: [LAUGHS] The black hole at the center of our galaxy, four million times the mass of the sun, is only — is less than 20 times the width of the sun across. Think about that, like 20 times the width of the sun, 17, I think, is the number, and you’re jamming in four million times the mass. That’s spectacular. This supermassive black hole that was imaged in M87 would fit in our solar system, yet it’s 6.5 billion times the mass of the sun. So they’re actually small, and that’s super interesting that black holes are small.

Strogatz: The mathematician in you loves their simplicity, it sounds like.

Levin: Absolutely. We can do these very stylized mathematical solutions around the black hole space-time because it’s so stunningly simple. It’s not like we took an idealized black hole. We took a black hole, period. That’s what they’re like.

Strogatz: [LAUGHS]

Levin: And, the interesting thing is if you try to make a mess on a black hole, like you took Mount Everest and you tried to stick it at the event horizon of a black hole, the beautiful thing is it connects with the other major black hole discovery of the century, which is the gravitational wave discovery. If you tried to do that, the black hole would shed away all its imperfections. It’s not that you can’t put it on for a second. You have to be able to. I mean, imagine I — I throw in a lump of matter from one side. That’s very not perfect. But what the black hole will do is it will shake it off in the ringing of space-time, in the gravitational waves, in the ripples in space-time. So the gravitational waves carry away the imperfections until the black hole settles down to be perfect.

Strogatz: Hm.

Levin: So when we witnessed through the gravitational wave recording basically of the sound of space-time ringing, when we recorded two black holes of comparable size colliding, in between, they were this messy blob, but very, very quickly it shed off all the imperfections and settled down to be a bigger black hole, about 60 times the mass of the sun, that went quiet, and when the imperfections went away, the gravitational waves went quiet.

Strogatz: Hm. It’s an interesting —

Levin: So at the end of the day, what we had was this perfect object.

Strogatz: There feels like there should be some —

Levin: But we can’t see it or detect it anymore, but there is.

Strogatz: Yeah, there should be some kind of poetry in that, a thing that’s perfect, and when it merges, or gets a little hair or dirt on it, kind of shrugs it off and becomes another perfect thing.

Levin: Shrugs it off, yeah, and it shrugs it off in the sound of the space-time ringing. It’s one of those examples where something people thought only existed in math on paper manifests in astrophysics. I mean, Einstein for decades thought black holes did not exist and he knew the mathematical solution was correct, and sound, and he thought about gravitational waves but he didn’t think this happened in nature, in reality. He thought these were just in the mind, just in the mathematics.


Strogatz: After the break, Janna schools me and she also tells me about why a decision that she made early in her career might have been career suicide. We’ll be right back.


Strogatz: You’re in some interesting place that I haven’t visited yet in Brooklyn called Pioneer Works, right? That’s where you’re talking to us from?

Levin: Yeah.

Strogatz: Can you paint it for us?

Levin: Pioneer Works is a cultural center that started as a complete experiment with artists. We have a lot of artists and residents that rotate every three to six months. There’s music. We have a lot of music venues and huge exhibitions.

And when I came in as the director of sciences, the idea was to take over a floor in the building and make it a real center hub of the whole building. Artists would be welcome, musicians would be welcome. You can view the exhibitions from there, the shows from there, and that we would bring in scientists into conversation and the motto is very much that science is part of culture. It’s not that we go to an arts center and we hide science in the walnut of art or in the expression of music, although that’s great if that’s what artists and musicians want to do, but that we bring science here unfiltered as its own discipline, as its own pillar, as part of culture.

Strogatz: Mm-hmm.

Levin: And the response has been beyond our expectations. We’re responding to the response.

Strogatz: Yeah.

Levin: Sometimes we’re quite naïve, so when we had the Great American Eclipse a couple of Augusts ago, I thought, “Oh, I’ll get 150 solar glasses and we’ll — we’ll have some telescopes in the garden,” because we have a stunning garden, and we’ll put some solar filters on. And we just sort of opened up, let people know, made a vague announcement, “Oh, we’re going to open up on the day of the eclipse.” The eclipse was underway in New York at 1:00 PM and it’s a partial eclipse in New York City. The total, uh, totality did not sweep through New York City, so we did not anticipate what happened, which was that by 9:00 AM, people were lining up around the block.

Strogatz: [LAUGHS]

Levin: We — we occupy a very large, large city block and it doubled, doubled the line to the point where, by the time the eclipse came, we were carrying telescopes out on to the street. People were sharing goggles. I think we had 4,000 people descend and it was this moment of, “Oh, whoa.” We’re not — we’re not — we’re talking about how science is part of culture, how this is how people are seeing themselves in the world, but we’re not believing that other people agree with us.

Strogatz: Yeah. You don’t believe your own message.

Levin: Yeah.

Strogatz: It sounds like — wow, that’s interesting. But so what do you make of it? Is it a Brooklyn phenomenon or do you think this would happen —

Levin: Oh, no.

Strogatz: No, okay.

Levin: I don’t believe for a second it’s a Brooklyn phenomenon. I think this is very much people wanting to understand themselves in the world and, and not wanting to lie to themselves to understand themselves in the world, and being very excited about the hard problems, and very excited about curiosity, and wanting to be part of the conversation.

Strogatz: So both of us are interested in — in communicating science, and public outreach, and all that, and a lot of the ways that we and our friends that also try to do it, have tried to do it, doesn’t always work. Like if you think of science museums, people usually see it as a place to bring their kids. I, I can see why you might have thought there wouldn’t be that much hunger for grownups to come and do a serious science — or maybe I shouldn’t say serious, maybe playful. I don’t know.

Levin: Yeah, or both, you know?

Strogatz: But, but apparently there’s a way of pitching it that people will show, and not just show, but they’re lining up around the block.

Levin: Yeah, I, I think you’re exactly right. I even think that I don’t like calling it outreach because I don’t… When an artist comes to Pioneer Works to exhibit her work, she’s not saying, “Well, I’m doing outreach.”

Strogatz: [LAUGHS] You’re right. You’re right.

Levin: “I’ve been allowed out of my artist studio. Now I’m doing outreach.” She sees a culmination of all of her work precisely that moment of exhibiting. And I think we do, too, but we think of it as publications for our very, very small community. We don’t as much think of it as having the conversation with the society that has decided that science is worth supporting, that science is something society does.

Strogatz: Wow.

Levin: And so I don’t see it as outreach any more than an artist hanging a piece on a wall.

Strogatz: I love this. So how about if we shift gears a little bit and talk about you, the scientist, or you, the young scientist. I mean I’m thinking — it’s kind of amazing to me that you, uh, you wrote a book when you were just a postdoctoral fellow.

And I know that that was a risky thing to do, and I mean there’s so many things I want to ask you about. I mean you — you’ve been interested in black holes for a long time. You seem to be, oh, where to start? I don’t know. I mean one thing that really hits me is your interest in madness —

Levin: [LAUGHS]

Strogatz: — and mental health, and obsession, and, uh, you know where I’m going with this, right?

Levin: Yeah.

Strogatz: I mean, tell me about this or maybe help — help anyone who doesn’t know your work. What — what is it? What am I even thinking of here when I bring this up with you?

Levin: Well, you’ve brought up a few things. One is that as a careerist, you wouldn’t write a book at the age that I wrote my first book because it’s career suicide. I was advised by people who cared about me very much and had my best interest at heart, do not do this. Do not do this, in no uncertain terms, and I felt, at the time, that I realized I love physics and I love to calculate. And I — that’s what I want to know, but I don’t know that I can stop eating food or sleeping because I love it so much.

Strogatz: [LAUGHS]

Levin: And I don’t know if I cannot read novels and I don’t know if I cannot write them.

Strogatz: Yeah.

Levin: So I had this very strong feeling if I’m going to survive, it’s not for everybody, but if I — this particular psychology individual is going to survive in this field, I need to be able to do these other things or it’s just not going to go well for me. I’m not gonna — my work won’t be as good. So I won’t be as prolific. I won’t write 19 publications a year for Physical Review D but I’ll write one book every few years, instead. And I found that to be a balance for me. It was not accepted in the field. It was not culturally accepted. The fascination with madness [LAUGHS] isn’t, I hope, personal.

It’s more that I understand that there’s a certain mind that looks at the world and says, “I’m okay with losing out on a lot of these creature comforts, or social status, or escalation monetarily, in favor of a land of ideas like physics.” I don’t think other people understand what a tremendous dichotomy that can be. There’s many people who go into physics who could, had they applied their intellects to more self-serving purposes, would be living extremely affluent, more pleasurable lifestyles [LAUGHS] but have said to themselves, “That’s not me.”

Strogatz: Mm-hmm.

Levin: “That’s not going to make me happy. That’s not the world I can live in.” They probably haven’t even phrased it that way, so many people. It’s just obvious. The land of ideas is more important than anything else. And, and so I do have a fascination with those great minds that go in the direction where they pursue things to the detriment of their own well-being.

Strogatz: Mm-hmm.

Levin: And to some extent, I see the LIGO campaign, which I wrote about in my last book, in Black Hole Blues, as being very much like that, people who pursued something to the detriment of their own well-being.

Strogatz: Well, that’s why I want to say, it’s not just about madness. I mean obsession, we, you know, we — it can be the obsessive quest for something worth questing for, as in the case of the gravitational wave hunters.

Levin: Yeah. I mean Rai Weiss is just an extraordinarily wonderful person who was one of the Nobel Prize winners alongside the incomparable Kip Thorne and Barry Barish, and Rai just talks so frankly about being a young physicist. And people were telling him, “You’re never gonna get tenure and what you’re working on is crap.” And he thought to himself, “What’s tenure? What do I care?”


Fifty years later, 50 years later, Rai is still walking the instrument, the four-kilometer long instrument. He’s one of the first people to open up the tunnels to walk alongside the,  the tubes that carry the light to — got fungal pneumonia and he’s doing this in his 70s, and I cannot tell you how many times people at LIGO on the ground said to me, “We better ask Rai.” And Rai’s into his 80s now, and that is obsession but it’s a healthy [LAUGHS] obsession in the sense that it led him somewhere he wanted to go.

Strogatz: The other thing, though, about this, you’ve said — given a little bit of a different explanation elsewhere — that I found had a lot of sympathy for… When you mentioned that there’s, there’s hero worship as a default mode when we talk about a lot of the great scientists of the past, and that by, by highlighting that some of them were imperfect — in fact, probably all of them were imperfect, and some of them had pretty significant, well, what? I mean they were — they were human beings in the — in the most human sense. I mean they had flaws. They had vulnerabilities. They had weaknesses. And some of them were, were very strange, and yet you seem to find — you seem to be touched by that or you find that more interesting than the simple hero worship of, you know —

Levin: Oh, yeah. I mean the simple hero worship is kind of, I think, dangerous. I think I was raised on the simple hero worship as a grad student and undergrad in physics and it’s, it’s dangerous. It’s not true.

Strogatz: Mm-hmm.

Levin: And it’s confusing, and I think it’s much more… I, I’m… The Greeks — the Greeks gave us a lot of really good stuff, and one of the good ideas that the Greeks gave us was of the tragic hero.

Strogatz: Mm-hmm.

Levin: I mean it’s one of the most important literary observations. It’s not — it’s not a foisted conceit. It’s an observation that the hero, what character makes them great is their downfall.

Strogatz: Oh, I love it, yeah.

Levin: And that, again and again, is something that we see, I think, in reality. I don’t like the cliché that geniuses are mad. We know many geniuses who are not mad.

Strogatz: Sure.

Levin: Some of the great geniuses of all time have not been insane. I don’t like that pairing, but it does suggest that the person who is willing to follow something to the ends of what their own mental state can tolerate might have also leanings to open their minds to other strange ideas [LAUGHS].

Strogatz: Well, there’s a certain courage involved, isn’t there, to, to that sort of pursuit?

Levin: For sure. Oh, absolutely, absolutely, and again, the careerist… You know, Einstein was not a careerist.

Strogatz: No.

Levin: He, he was, as you said, not a great student because he was lost in other thoughts. His — wasn’t doing well when he was hoping to get a job after graduate school, and he was working as a clerk in a patent office. These are not careerist people, the people who are pursuing ideas above all else to the end risk kind of their sedate happiness sometimes.

Strogatz: Well, so I, I see you doing some of that in your own life. It seems you’ve taken — I mean, aside from this careerist risk that we’ve talked about with you writing your first book at a, at a very early stage in your career, it seems like you’ve repeatedly done risky things and that you have quite a bit of courage yourself. So I — I mean, I guess you are inspired by some of these models that you’ve written about.

Levin: Well, let’s talk about why we have hero worship in the first place.

Strogatz: Okay, yeah.

Levin: We have hero worship in the first place because it inspires us. It’s not that we think, “Oh, I’m gonna be Einstein,” or “I’m gonna be that,” but it’s inspiring to see people who have done such wonderful things, and so that’s why I think the hero worship balanced by the reality of their weaknesses allows us to be inspired by them in a way that we can relate to more humanly and not be so terrified… That is “other,” those people are other.

They were people with — whose weaknesses exceeded our own and whose greatness exceeds our own and, and sometimes they came hand in hand. So, I think, yes, I definitely sought inspiration from people in history and, and people I admired, and I never wanted to be a careerist. I was terrified of that and taking the risk to write a book at a very young age when I was told it would ruin my career, it was scary. It was really scary, but there was a part of me that thought, “You know, I might just never fit in this field in a normal way [LAUGHS] and why not risk everything if my odds aren’t so great?”

Sometimes I felt sorry for my friends and colleagues who could fit in really well. I thought, “Oh, you know, in some sense, it’s more oppressive for them because they’re expected to walk the walk, talk the talk, look the look.” You … phrase things a certain way.

Strogatz: [LAUGHS]

Levin: And I, in some sense, was relieved of that pressure by nobody thinking I could do those things. So, so yeah, I — it, it definitely was the right — it saved me, I would say. I would say stronger than it was just an act of defiance. It definitely, I don’t think I would have had the career I had had I not taken such huge risks.


Strogatz: Let’s talk a little, if you will allow us to, about this first book that I keep mentioning, because people may not know it. It’s how you and I met.

Levin: Yeah.

Strogatz: I mean, I… So you wrote a book called How the Universe Got Its Spots that to my mind is one of the most — oh, God. I don’t know what adjective. Fill — insert superlative adjective.

Levin: [LAUGHS]

Strogatz: It’s just one of the most beautiful and original books I’ve ever read in any genre. I think it’s practically its own genre. It’s, I mean, I don’t know what to call it. It’s, it’s a science book that’s an intimate diary, that’s an epistolary novel except that it’s not. It’s you writing letters to your mother about your science, about your life, about your relationship with your now, I think, husband.

Levin: Yes.

Strogatz: And teaching us about topology, and about black holes, and about the history of science, and about madness, but with some of the most lyrical descriptions of science, and scientific objects, and mathematical ideas. I — I — don’t let me keep going on [LAUGHS].

Levin: I love it. Keep going, Steve, keep going [LAUGHS].

Strogatz: No, but anyway, I mean it, it showed so much guts, this book, because it was, like I say, it was — its whole new… I don’t know any book like it. It’s, it’s a genre creator, but it’s more than that. I, I really would urge anybody who’s listening to this, if you haven’t read How the Universe Got Its Spots, that would be a great place to start, but I love your other books, too. It’s just that I, I excerpted a little thing here. Do you have that piece of paper I made?

Levin: I do. I actually love this passage you picked.

Strogatz: Do you?

Levin: Yeah.

Strogatz: Okay. Are you okay with reading that, that page?

Levin: I’ll try it. I’ll try it, but I just want to say one of the great things about writing How the Universe Got Its Spots was that I had, in some sense, I didn’t think anybody was watching or reading.

Strogatz: Okay [LAUGHS].

Levin: And so there was this feeling of, oh, I’m going to write this crazy book. It’ll never get published.

Strogatz: Yeah, it is crazy.

Levin: Yeah, it’s crazy and that nobody’s gonna, whatever, and that is such a freeing and liberating state of mind, and… I know you know of the Plywood Palace, which was this ramshackle building thrown up on the MIT campus during the war effort, which was also, in some sense, not meant to live or last, and because of precisely that removal of pressure, it was one of the most creative centers in the history of science.

Strogatz: Oh, that’s interesting.

Levin: Nine or ten Nobel Prizes came out of the Plywood Palace. They were breaking holes in the walls. They were kicking out windows. They didn’t care, right? [LAUGHS] They blew through ceilings. They stole each other’s electricity.

There was this rough and tumble way about it precisely because there was no reverence for the structure, and in some sense, feeling the removal of that pressure, I was not a famous scientist coming down from the mountain with my tablets and I wasn’t under scrutiny. I felt much more free to try something that I really wanted to try, and I think that gave me a little window of opportunity to explore.

Strogatz: Well, I think people will hear some of that freewheeling or devil may care. I don’t know how I would describe, but I mean there’s clearly you doing some things that are not normal [LAUGHS] in this passage that really make it — make it transcendent. So go ahead. Give me — give it to me.

Levin: So this is a passage written about my then boyfriend [LAUGHS] and I moving to England, and also about some of the ideas that we were exploring. So I was moving to Cambridge to be a research scientist at Cambridge from Berkeley.

“Warren keeps telling everyone we’re going back to England, though as you know, I never came from England. The decision is made. We’re leaving California for England. Do I recount the move itself, the motivation, the decision?

“It doesn’t matter why we moved because the memory of why is paling with the where. I do remember the yard sales on the steps of our place in San Francisco. All of my coveted stuff, my funny vinyl chairs and chrome tables, my wooden benches and chests of drawers, it’s all gone. We sit out all day as the shade of the building is slowly invaded by the sun and we lean against the dirty steps with some reservation. Giant coffees come and go, and we drink smoothies with bee pollen or super blue-green algae, an homage to California, as a neighborhood parades past and my pile of stuff shifts, and shrinks, and slowly disappears.

“We roll up the cash with excitement, though it is never very much. When it gets too cold or too dark, we pack up and go back inside. I’m trying to finish a technical paper and sort through my ideas on infinity.

“For a long time, I believed the universe was infinite, which is to say, I just never questioned this assumption that the universe was infinite. But if I had given the question more attention, maybe I would have realized sooner the universe is a three-dimensional space we live in and the time we watch pass in our clocks. It is our north and south, our east and west, our up and down, our past and future. As far as the eye can see, there appears to be no bound to our three spatial dimensions and we have no expectation for an end to time.

“The universe is inhabited by giant clusters of galaxies, each galaxy a conglomerate of a billion or a trillion stars. The Milky Way, our galaxy, has an unfathomably dense core of millions of stars with beautiful arms, a skeleton of stars, spiraling out from this core. The Earth lives out in the sparsely populated arms orbiting the sun, an ordinary star, with our planetary companions, our humble solar system.

“Here we are, a small planet, an ordinary star, a huge cosmos, but we’re alive, and we’re sentient, pooling our efforts and passing our secrets from generation to generation, we’ve lifted ourselves off this blue and green water-soaked rock to throw our vision far beyond the limitations of our eyes.”

Strogatz: Mm, thank you. So you say you, you actually like this passage yourself.

Levin: I do. I loved the… It’s funny, you know, not being self-critical in a literary sense but just, I enjoyed the pacing of it when I wrote it. It’s more experiential [LAUGHS]. It’s like, I don’t know. Maybe musicians who play music enjoy playing it, and there was a sense where I enjoyed writing this passage.

Strogatz: It — it comes across. There is a clear pacing in it that is remarkable. I mean I — there, there… Well, first of all, I particularly love the scenery of you [LAUGHS] in San Francisco selling off all this stuff that you’ve, you’ve built up over the years. It’s all disappearing.

Levin: Which we’ve all experienced as research scientists, moving every two to three years. We’ve all done it.

Strogatz: Well, that is a constant theme in this book of How the Universe Got Its Spots, that you’re moving and move — in fact, you even use a sentence like that at some point, “Moving, moving, moving.”

Levin: Yeah [LAUGHS].

Strogatz: [LAUGHS]

Levin: I think a lot of this book was about not, not knowing the answer to something you’re working on. Wondering if it will ever be known, wondering if you’re working on something useless that you can’t share with other people because it’s so alienatingly difficult, and, and also, the toll it takes actually on your life. We’re human beings doing this thing.

Strogatz: Yeah.

Levin: And I noticed in your notes when you sent it to me, you circled the blue — the repetition of the blue-green. I love when people notice these small things.

Strogatz: Was that intentional or was that just your subconscious?

Levin: Yeah, I mean, that’s intentional. There are some things that are unintentional, of course. Like any writer, I don’t realize I’ve done something. That’s why we have editors. They point it out to us [LAUGHS]. But this was intentional and I — I love that every once in a while, the rare reader picks something up like that, which just really feels great.

Strogatz: Well, I don’t know…

Strogatz: So, right, so just what’s gone on here is I took a little snapshot of a page of the book and then sent it to Janna, and I have marked up this book very thoroughly over the years and Janna can see what I marked, and I did circle blue — when she mentions that she’s drinking smoothies with bee pollen or super blue-green algae, which sounds so California.

Levin: So California, right [LAUGHS].

Strogatz: And then later talks about the blue and green water-soaked rock as a way of describing our planet, um —

Levin: Yeah. I think what I was feeling there is the ordinariness of our human observations, our senses, our relationship to colors, to things, to experiences, are the same, to some extent. What we’re drawing on when we’re asking questions and why we’re feeling the questions are important.

Okay, maybe I don’t need to reflect on super blue-green when I’m calculating, but I might need to reflect on it when I’m feeling that this is worth asking about, or worth thinking about, our blue and green water-soaked rock. So I think that those ordinary human resources come into play.

Strogatz: You used a phrase once that struck me about when you’re doing your work, there’s this feeling of sometimes being between — well, the phrase that I’m thinking of is “discovery and oblivion.” Like the nature of being a scientist, or maybe any creative person, where you’re on this funny razor’s edge between doing something that’s going to make a dent and something that’s going to be a tree falling in the forest that nobody hears.

Levin: Yeah, yeah.

Strogatz: And like how do you, you know, get up in the morning knowing that that’s the game you’re playing?

Levin: Yeah. I think it’s a struggle for any original scientist or a scientist who at least strives for doing something original that you are trying to navigate a world where your work might be so obscure that you just fall into oblivion. Or you make a huge discovery, and obviously everyone wants a huge discovery because ultimately we are human beings and we’re not completely egoless. But sometimes even great, wonderful ideas fall into oblivion because they just don’t turn out to be true, and that’s just — that’s just part of the game. If you look at really interesting ideas in particle physics, like technicolor, or ideas that were explored at the superconducting supercollider about gravity and black holes being created at the accelerator experiments.

Great ideas, but they will fall into oblivion because nature just didn’t reproduce them in that way, and we live in one universe, and the universe is a specific way. And it just might not be your reward that you get to make that big discovery.

So I think part of writing the books is about celebrating ideas, not just discoveries, and I think that’s also what we’re trying to do here at Pioneer Works is celebrate the process as much as the compilation of the composite portrait of the universe that we live in.

Strogatz: Mm-hmm. Because… So, in other words, some of the, the ideas that actually escape oblivion and go on to be, well, immortal, or at least appreciated for a long time, maybe they’re partly lucky that the universe happened to do things that way, but the other ideas were all part of the similar process. They just didn’t turn out to be the way this universe does it, yeah.

Levin: Oh, yeah, so let’s look at the gravitational wave experiment. It’s incredibly lucky that black holes turned out to be much heavier than anticipated and much more populous. That is lucky. That’s nothing else but lucky because we actually made predictions that said the opposite.

The number of people that told me we will not detect black holes maybe ever with these experiments or we won’t detect them for years and years and years. And yet it was black holes all the time for the first couple of years, and that’s just fortunate that those were the sources provided. If you look at the Event Horizon Telescope, it’s similar. It’s just a lucky coincidence that the entire Earth made up of telescopes is just on the cusp by a handful of pixels of the right size to take a picture of either M87 or Sag A*, those two supermassive black holes, and it’s also an incredibly lucky coincidence that the moon completely occults the sun in a total eclipse.

The moon, a much smaller object much closer to us, just happens by accident to be exactly the right size to completely eclipse the sun, and that’s what you need to be able to see behind the sun. You need to blind, cut out the sun’s rays. And so all of these lucky accidents are peppered throughout history and throughout science.

Strogatz: What about thought when we do our work, I mean I’m guessing you must have some, some research that falls into this category where you — you’re using your craft, your training as a physicist, or astrophysicist, or mathematician, and you could… Like, if someone asks you to predict is this likely to either pay off or be true, you might say, “No, but I just — I just like thinking about it or I just like, you know, I like doing the calculations.”

Levin: Oh, yeah, and I hear that from my colleagues.

Strogatz: Is there a side of you that does that? Yeah?

Levin: Oh, yeah, and I hear my colleagues doing that all the time, just saying, “You know, I just really like to do this.” [LAUGHS]

Strogatz: [LAUGHS]

Levin: And I don’t think there’s any other way except to follow what you’re good at, and just to hope that you’re exercising good judgment, and you’re pivoting when you need to. I’ve worked on lots of things that are extremely obscure.

How the Universe Got Its Spots is about a topic that will probably never be verified experimentally but is important theoretically and is — sparks our imagination, blows our minds, and I felt that writing the book was a way to put it in other people’s minds, which is the only place it’s going to live.


Strogatz: [LAUGHS]

Next time on “The Joy of x,” mathematician Tadashi Tokieda stumps me, spins me around and explains the magic and the science of that wonderful toy, the slinky.


“The Joy of x” is a podcast project of Quanta Magazine. We’re produced by Story Mechanics. Our producers are Dana Bialek and Camille Petersen. Our music is composed by Yuri Weber and Charles Michelet. Ellen Horne is our executive producer. From Quanta Magazine, our editorial advisors are Thomas Lin and John Rennie. Our sound engineers are Charles Michelet, and at the Cornell University Broadcast Studio, Glen Palmer and Bertrand Odom-Reed, though I know him as Bert. I’m Steve Strogatz. Thanks for listening.


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