Janna Levin’s Theory of Doing Everything

Natalie Wolchover in Quanta:

ScreenHunter_1931 May. 08 18.07The 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.

More here.