Janna Levin spoke on her research, and looking for meaning in the cosmos.
Fumbling with her laptop to find the correct presentation mode, Janna Levin started her Presidential Lecture Series discussion disclaiming, “I’m just a theorist.” This is a bit of an understatement. Levin is a theoretical physicist working as a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University and, as of 2012, a Guggenheim fellow in the field of science writing.
Her most recent publication, “Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space,” chronicles the journey of astrophysicists Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne and Ron Drever in developing the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO. Although it had been developed over half a century, just before the publication of “Black Hole Blues” in 2015, the machine finally accomplished its goal — it detected the sound of two black holes crashing together.
To preface the investigation of LIGO itself, Levin spoke about the importance of this kind of pursuit. Black holes, she teaches, cannot be seen directly because they do not produce light, but rather they suck the light into themselves. However, almost everything we know about the universe we understand because of light; light is how we are able to see into the cosmos and learn about the 300 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy or about the hundreds of billions of galaxies. This poses a problem, for most of the universe is dark. Because of this, Levin says, “Some of the most interesting phenomena in the universe we can never see through light.”
The study of black holes can be traced back to Einstein, who published a basic definition of the phenomenon in his writings about the theory of relativity in 1915. About 50 years later, Rai Weiss, a professor at MIT, started what was originally a three-year investigation into how to detect gravitational waves. LIGO only saw success 50 years after the beginning of Weiss’s research, which cost approximately $1 billion. Although his tenure at MIT was threatened, Weiss continued to develop the LIGO technology. With his entire career at stake, he continued to work on an incredibly expensive, time consuming and unsuccessful project.
After extensive hardships, the LIGO machine detected the sound of a collision between two black holes with individual masses 30 times larger than our sun that would have occurred 1.3 billion years ago. At that point in the history of Earth, multicellular organisms were still differentiating. The recording of this massive event in the history of the universe sounded remarkably like a slider whistle after the sound traveled all the way to Earth. Last year, Weiss, along with Thorne and Drever, were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.
During the Q&A portion of Levin’s lecture, she evaluated the importance of humanities in the public perception and reception of scientific breakthroughs. When asked how these scientists knew to keep going — in spite of all of their obstacles and not seeing success for 50 years — she answered that this idea was exactly what “Black Hole Blues” is all about. Through these stories, we can understand, as Levin says, that “science is crucial and discoveries are crucial, but so is the narrative that goes along with them.” Without this narrative, it is next to impossible to conceive of just how significant these discoveries are and just how important LIPO is in the study of the universe. “Nature doesn’t care about us,” she tells the crowd. We have to find meaning in spite of this by telling personal stories that reconcile this impersonal relationship between humans and the world around us.