Is the universe infinite or just really big? With this question, the gifted young cosmologist Janna Levin not only announces the central theme of her intriguing and controversial new book but establishes herself as one of the most direct and unorthodox voices in contemporary science. For even as she sets out to determine how big “really big” may be, Levin gives us an intimate look at the day-to-day life of a globe-trotting physicist, complete with jet lag and romantic disturbances.
Nimbly synthesizing geometry, topology, chaos and string theories, Levin shows how the pattern of hot and cold spots left over from the big bang may one day reveal the size and shape of the cosmos. She does so with such originality, lucidity—and even poetry—that How the Universe Got Its Spots becomes a thrilling and deeply personal communication between a scientist and the lay reader.
JANNA LEVIN is a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. She is also director of sciences at Pioneer Works, a center for arts and sciences in Brooklyn, and has contributed to an understanding of black holes,… More about Janna Levin
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“[Levin] covers … fascinating ground….She writes passages that may make you either feel claustrophobic for only living in three visible dimensions or see the night sky in an entirely new way.” —Baltimore City Paper
“Science as it is lived…. [Levin’s] book is a gift to those people who want to think big but came to a screeching halt about two dozen pages into… A Brief History of Time.” —Discover
“Levin unpacks the technicalities with a skill honed from giving many lectures. . . . A book to be applauded.” — The Scotsman
“Lovely and utterly original. . . . Mixing lucid arguments with anecdotes and personal experiences, Levin makes it easy to understand seemingly complicated subjects such as transfinite arithmetic, naked singularities and compact spaces. . . . A marvelous diary that makes a reader long to meet the author. —American Scientist
A Conversation with Janna Levin, author of HOW THE UNIVERSE GOT ITS SPOTS
Q: What inspired you to write HOW THE UNIVERSE GOT ITS SPOTS as a series of letters to your mother?
A: In part, I didn’t want to fall into an authoritative tone, the scientist coming down from the mountain and bringing knowledge to the masses. I didn’t feel in a position to be so proud and I wanted to be natural, able to admit I didn’t know things, and generally be human. It was easier to write home this way than it would have been to address a nonspecific audience and I guess it also gave me something to hold on to when the scientific life left me feeling dislocated.
Q: Why was your mother the perfect audience?
A: My mom’s curious but not the least bit inclined to read a science book of any variety. And that’s the audience I wanted to reach, more so than adolescent boys with chemistry sets in their basement—which is not to say that I don’t appreciate the special charm of adolescent boys with chemistry sets in their basement. It’s just that there are science books written for them already. There weren’t any for my mom. I guess I wanted her to know what it was all about, why I had gone off in this seemingly intangible direction and why the gulf between me and those I was closest to had become so wide.
Q: Many famous mathematicians have suffered from mental illnesses. Are scientists really more crazy than every one else?
A: Maybe not. On close inspection most people are pretty crazy, no?
I definitely do not believe overt craziness is a prerequisite to being a great scientist, but, maybe a little insanity puts people off center just enough so that they are less concerned with ordinary social norms, monetary gain, social status.
There are some brutal tales of desperation and isolation and delusion. Ancient Greeks drowned themselves when their discoveries defied their religious numerology. Cantor, the mathematician who first understood infinity, died in a sanatorium despondent and rejected. The brilliant statistician Boltzmann hung himself after a few less successful attempts at suicide. Many years later his greatest student, Eherenfest, killed himself. Turing, the indispensable code breaker and mathematician, ate an apple laced with cyanide and Gödel, the greatest logician possibly of all time, died paranoid and delusional.
Maybe those are the people most willing to spend their days and nights buried in obscure and difficult topics for very little money and probably no recognition ever. It seems heroically tragic and touching and wretched that such intellectual greatness, almost preternatural mental strengths, should be vulnerable to mental illness too.
Q: How can cosmology be relevant to the man (and woman) on the street?
A: Before Copernicus we thought the Earth was at the center of the universe. It seems to have had a huge cultural impact to know that we’re not at the center of the solar system, or the galaxy, or the universe. I suspect it changes everything from what we care about to what we believe in.
Q: How might Einstein react to your theories about infinity?
A: Einstein did say, “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity—and I’m not sure about the universe.”
Q: So, is the universe infinite or just really, really big?
A: I don’t see why the universe should be different from any of its progeny. Nothing else in the universe is infinite, why should the universe itself be any different? The universe seems to have been born in something like a big bang. I don’t like the idea that it was born instantaneously infinite. But in the end it’s not up to me, it doesn’t matter what I like or don’t like. Ultimately it’s nature’s call and we really have to just look at the sky and see. To date, cosmological observations can’t tell us conclusively the shape and size of the universe but some recent satellite data may show evidence of a limit to the extent of space and so has sparked renewed interest in a finite universe.
Q: Is the universe 3-dimentional?
A: It’s quite possible that there are other dimensions than the 3 we freely occupy. String theory, which suggests that fundamental particles are not points but rather vibrating bits of fundamental string, is often cast in more than 3-dimensions. The reason for this is vaguely akin to the reasons why musical instruments are built to be a given shape and size, that is, in order to get the right notes. In order for fundamental Strings to play the right notes and create the universe we see, spacetime has to have a certain shape and size—and dimensionality. String theories can call for 10 or 27 dimensions, depending on the model, in order to play properly.
It might be a long time before we know if these theories are right or if we can ever observe the existence of extra dimensions. It may be that the extra dimensions are like the wrapped up direction of a straw and are just too small for us to notice or it might be that we’re trapped on a 3-dimensional surface that floats in a higher-dimensional space.
Q: You didn’t graduate from high school. If you could, would you do things differently?
A: Definitely, but not that. I think my options were to finish high school while polishing my belligerent, troubled teenager routine or to go to college in New York. Despite the appeal of petulant adolescence, it was a pretty easy decision. It was an easy decision for my parents too. After they fished me out of a car wreck in a local canal, bandaged me up and stuck a pen in my hand, I wrote an apparently convincing appeal to Barnard College to let me in. Some time ago I stopped worrying that someone would notice I had no high school diploma and initiate a series of retracted university degrees.
Q: What is your greatest achievement?
A: Getting up in the morning.
Q: How did writing this book affect your personal relationships?
A: Has it improved my sex life? I have had a couple of marriage proposals arrive through the post including Polaroids of perspective suitors variously posed, credentials and descriptions of hobbies. I’m keeping them on file just in case. Luckily no one’s sent me their underwear.
Q: What’s next for you? What’s next for science?
A: The most outrageous creations of Einstein’s theory of curved spacetime, black holes and the big bang, are still mysteries. To understand them we need to flush out a theory of Quantum Gravity, the overlap of physics on microscopic scales with physics on the vastest scales. Without Quantum Gravity our knowledge of the origin of the universe can only be sketchy at best. We know the universe began in something like a big bang, an energetic creation of not just matter but all space and the beginning of time. But the details are a fog. There are those who believe the answers are in fundamental strings and others who emphasize that space and time will come in discrete bundles or quanta. Some even argue that time doesn’t fundamentally exist. Quantum Gravity will also tells us about the cores of black holes which can in some respects look like a big bang.
So, what’s left for cosmologists to work on? The big bang, black holes, time machines, strings, all the cool stuff.