Space, Physics, and Math

Janna Levin on the ‘Line

Cosmologist and author Janna Levin talks about art, science and her new book.

August 23, 2006
Cosmologist and author Janna Levin.
Cosmologist and author Janna Levin.

Janna Levin is comfortable on the outskirts of the physics community. The Barnard College and Columbia University cosmology professor found herself in a very small crowd when she and a few of her colleagues suggested that our universe could have finite dimensions and may not be infinite, as physicists have thought for decades. Years later, physicists accepted this once-radical idea as an actual possibility. But Levin is now again on the fringes. Since the days of Einstein, scientists have sought a single theory to describe all of the fundamental physical forces that govern our universe. Levin, however, theorizes that the universe may be so inherently complex that it’s impossible to describe all of its physical forces in one neat equation.

While she is contemplating the ideas of chaos and complexity in the cosmos, Levin is also distinguishing herself from other physicists outside of the laboratory. As a scientist who writes about physics and mathematics in a unique narrative style, Levin is still sometimes surprised to find her recent book, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, on the fiction shelves, far from the texts of some of her colleagues. In the book, Levin imaginatively reconstructs the lives of the 20th century mathematicians Kurt Godel and Alan Turing.

Nine months pregnant and bubbling with enthusiasm, the 39-year-old recently talked about art, science and her new book.

Scienceline: You spent a year as a scientist-in-residence at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in the U.K., and you could be considered both a scientist and an author. What are some of the similarities and differences between scientists and artists?

Levin: I find that artists aren’t interested in answering questions—they’re interested in raising questions. And, they’re not interested in resolving ambiguity. That’s antithetical to the scientist who wants to answer questions and eliminate ambiguity. The ultimate ambition of scientists and artists is different, but I think what is similar is their interest in the question.

Most people think artists are totally free-form, but actually great artists limit their material and scope. They set their limits clearly and then they work within them. I thought about this while I was constructing the new book. I was thinking these are my constraints: I want this to be very close to fact, and I want it to be a narrative like a novel. The tighter you stick to these principles, the stronger the work is. I think scientists are very similar to artists in this regard. They lay out tight definitions from the beginning, and they work within that defined framework.

Scienceline: Whether you’re a scientist, an artist, or both, do you feel you are popularizing science?

Levin: I’m interested in exploring the relationship between science and art, science and literature, science and our worldview, more than I am in doing pedagogy or not necessarily teaching people about science and its role in society. That would be a slight distinction I would make. If people want to call me a popularizer of science, that’s fine. It’s like calling me an astrophysicist—it’s not exactly the right term, but it’s close enough.

Scienceline: Why do you feel it is important for people to understand abstract scientific ideas like cosmology and complex mathematics?

Levin: It’s similar in my mind to knowing that the Earth is not the center of the solar system. We cannot even begin to estimate the impact on all the dimensions of people’s lives knowing that we are not at the center of the solar system. With that came enormous conflicts with religion, a huge shift in our worldview, and a completely different notion of self—what we’re doing here and what it means to us.

Scienceline: Your first book, How the Universe Got Its Spots, was told through a series of letters to family and friends about your work on the then-controversial idea that the universe is finite. What was your goal in writing about your theory in that style?

Levin: The book was very ambiguous. It said this idea might never come to fruition, we might never answer this question, and it might even be wrong. It’s about two things: One is just about discussing what it’s like to work on ideas that may never come to fruition. The other is just to think critically about the world we live in. There are all these small petty dramas that people are focused on, yet there is all this stuff going on in the universe that is mysterious and totally unknowable. I think that somehow gives you this feeling of the grand scale of things. I think it was more about the visceral impact of the beauty of it all and how that can affect us.

Scienceline: Why did you decide to write about the lives and work of mathematicians Kurt Godel and Alan Turing in your new book?

Levin: The book is really about mathematical truths, and it plays on the idea that there are some things that we can never know. It’s written in a fictionalized style even though it’s very much factual. It’s about two mathematicians, Kurt Godel and Alan Turing, who are both famous in the scientific community but not so famous outside of it. Their most important work in my mind was that, taken together, they essentially proved that there is no mathematical theory of everything and that there are some mathematical truths that cannot be proven in the context of mathematics.

I was also fascinated with their personal lives. They converged on this intense mathematical study but diverged totally in their beliefs. Where Kurt Godel believed in transmigration of the soul, Alan Turing went from being a kind of confused religious child to being an atheist and concluding that we are no more than biological machines. Then they have these tragic ends: Godel starves himself to death because he was so frightened of being poisoned and Alan Turing actually eats poisoned food. They never met, but they were very much aware of each other and they were working in a relationship with one another. And yet they had these very strange parallels and anti-parallels in their lives.

In writing the book, I wanted to play on the idea that on assembly of these facts of their lives or their discovery yields truth to some theorem. I cannot present to you, “Here is the truth of their lives.” I wanted to play to the idea that some truths are fundamentally elusive. We can almost grasp them, but only sort of indirectly.

Janna Levin’s new book, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, will be available on August 22, 2006.

About the Author

Alison Snyder

Correspondent from the western edge…


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