Sunday, 2 October 2016

Four scientists: Janna Levin

Last night my partner-in-life and I were at a performance of Beethoven's 5th symphony. “Da da da daaah”, et cetera. Les Violons du Roy were conducted from the violin by Anthony Marwood  - it was brilliant, visceral. Seated 6 rows from the front we were immersed in the music, from the French horns on our left through the strings and woodwinds in front of us to the drums and trumpets on our right. At the end our hearts were pounding. The musicians gave everything, Marwood ripping in to his violin to the point of almost toppling over, the orchestra's concertmaster and first violin Pascale Giguère matching his performance whilst also somehow managing to turn the pages of Marwood's score every ten seconds.

Beethoven's 5th is a work of music and it's a story. Fate, that “da da da daaah”, dominates the opening but after a vigorous struggle it is ultimately overpowered in the last movement by reason and beauty. The story is told compellingly, there could be no better way of telling it than through this music.

I'm an engineer with a degree in mathematics - I am rational, a latecomer to the arts. There are several scientists whose work I follow quite closely, and they are masters of reason and of story-telling; it's their ability to combine these two aspects of humanity that makes their work so fascinating.  I'd like to tell you about four of them, two women and two men, two of them pragmatists and two theorists: Janna Levin, Dan Ariely, Jennifer Jacquet and Nick Bostrom.

Janna Levin is an astrophysicist, professor of physics and astronomy at Columbia University. She's an expert on black holes, gravitational waves, and multi-dimensional space. Levin's web site is a treasure trove of fascinating ideas but the best way to approach her work is to listen to her telling a story, beginning with one that has relatively little to do with astrophysics: a story of her own love affair, of reason and music, laughter and ideas, as she told on NPR.


In 2011 she gave a TED talk on “The sounds the universe makes”, explaining the concept of gravitational waves through the metaphor of music. In 2016 gravitational waves became big news as their discovery was confirmed - but this talk by Levin from five years ago is still the best way of understanding them, especially if you like music and love a good story.



 I'll have posts on the other three of my fab four scientists in the next few weeks months years.