JANNA LEVIN is the Tow Professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University, and has contributed to an understanding of black holes, the cosmology of extra dimensions, and gravitational waves in the shape of spacetime. She is also director of sciences at Pioneer Works, a cultural center dedicated to experimentation, education, and production across disciplines. Her books include How the Universe Got Its Spots and a novel, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, which won the PEN/Bingham Prize. She was recently named a Guggenheim Fellow, a grant awarded to those “who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship.” Her latest book, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, is the inside story on the discovery of the century: the sound of spacetime ringing from the collision of two black holes over a billion years ago.
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
Failure is highly underrated. There’s an anecdote about Einstein I only came across very recently. In 1915 he thought gravitational waves—ripples in the shape of spacetime—were the most important consequence of his general theory of relativity. He reversed himself a couple of years later, claiming they did not exist. He goes back and forth like this for a bit. Several years on, he submits a paper for publication asserting they do not exist. Somewhere between acceptance and going to press, he slips in an entirely new manuscript that says they do. A friend warns, “Einstein, you have be careful. Your famous name will be on these papers.” Einstein laughs. “My name is on plenty of wrong papers,” he says. In the 1930s he declares he does not know if gravitational waves exist but it is a most important question. In 2015, 100 years after Einstein first proposes their existence, a massive billion-dollar experimental undertaking records gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes over a billion years ago, waves emitted long before humans emerged on the Earth. We discourage failure and by doing so we subtly discourage success.
My favorite personal failure is my first cosmological theory. When I learned the Earth was round, I believed we lived inside the sphere. I was knocked back and simultaneously thrilled to see another possibility come into focus. We live on the sphere. Incredible. Science isn’t about being right preemptively or knowing the answer. Science is motivated by the human drive to struggle to discover.
What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
I recently renovated about 3,000 square feet in Pioneer Works, a spectacular cultural center for art, music, film, and now science. The facility is housed in a former ironworks factory on the water in Red Hook, Brooklyn. We had no architect for the renovation, no plans, no drawings, no measurements. I stood with the founder, Dustin Yellin, and the director, Gabriel Florenz, mostly yelling and laughing and yelling and arguing. Someone would declare: I want a room there. I want all glass. I want no glass. I want walls. I want no walls. A door here. And each of us would occasionally concede to the others while the incredibly talented builder, Willie Vantapool, listened and integrated our ideas and implemented what emerged as a surprisingly coherent design. As a very theoretically leaning physicist, this was the most physical expression of any creative project I’ve undertaken and was one of the riskiest investments I’ve considered. I’m now here in the new Science Studios as I write these replies, and I marvel at the outcome. The space is stunning and inviting and inspiring. We’re building the world we want to inhabit and, by doing so, we’ve constructed a remarkable, unusual space for the sciences in an unconventional setting. Science belongs in the bigger world because, as I’ve gotten into the habit of saying, science is part of culture.
In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
I used to resent obstacles along the path, thinking, “If only that hadn’t happened life would be so good.” Then I suddenly realized, life is the obstacles. There is no underlying path. Our role here is to get better at navigating those obstacles. I strive to find calm, measured responses and to see hindrances as a chance to problem-solve. Often I fall back into old frustrations, but if I remind myself, this is a chance to step up, I can reframe conflicts as a chance to experiment with solutions.
In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to?
I am terrible at saying no. Truly terrible. I’ll be reading the other responses for advice here.