Black Hole Hunter: Janna Levin

  • Posted 01.10.18
  • NOVA

As a kid, Janna Levin loved cosmology—now, she’s an award-winning author and host of “Black Hole Apocalypse.”

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Running Time: 04:15

Transcript

Black Hole Hunter: Janna Levin

Published January 10, 2018

Janna Levin: I think I’ve always been interested in anything that has to do with space and time: The big bang. You know, when was space itself created? When did clocks start to tick? And most recently, black holes.

I'm Janna Levin, astrophysicist and author.

Onscreen: Black Hole Hunters

AS A KID, WERE YOU A SCIENCE GEEK?

Levin: No! I was definitely not one of those kids with the chemistry set in the basement. I did not see myself as a scientist, but now I see the pieces. I remember looking out my window, into the dark of the sky and inventing theories of the universe. My first theory of cosmology was that, if the earth was round, I thought we lived inside the globe. I used to wonder: how far away is the eggshell of the sky? I was stunned when I realized we lived on top of the globe! I mean, that was even crazier.

Onscreen:PIONEERS OF SCIENCE

Levin: Right now we’re in my studio at a place called Pioneer Works. The cultural center where I'm director of sciences. This building was originally an ironworks factory. I've taken over the third-floor. This is our scissor-lift, which is our alternative to an elevator. Scientists come here and do research. We have workshops. These are a series called Scientific Controversies: Many Worlds, Times Arrow, Can We Explain the World? It’s a real experiment in the role of science in culture.

Onscreen: WHAT’S YOUR LATEST BOOK ABOUT?

Levin: The LIGO Project, the discovery of gravitational waves.

Onscreen: WHAT IS A GRAVITATIONAL WAVE?

Levin: Einstein first proposed gravitational waves as, literally, a squeezing and stretching of space and time, caused by the gravitational pull of objects that passes through like a wave. The LIGO experiment tries to record existence of these ripples in space-time, and it’s a massive undertaking: an experiment in Louisiana and another in Washington state. People laid down their lives to build this crazy instrument. And they did so without any guarantee that the ringing of space-time would ever be loud enough to detect. I mean, even Einstein said, “Aaaah, we’ll never detect them…Never!”

Onscreen: WHY NOT?

Levin: Even the gravitational waves caused by the Earth and the Sun’s motion is so tiny that it's imperceptible. The only objects capable of creating big enough gravitational waves are things like big black holes colliding…stars exploding. By 2015, they’re near four billion dollars. People who started this experiment in their 30s and 40s are in their 80s now; they're getting kind of nervous, whether it's actually going to make a detection. But it did. In the middle of the night, a signal comes from the southern sky that's been traveling 1.3 billion years, rings the instrument in Louisiana, cruises across the continent and rings the machine in Washington state. That was a great day, I cannot deny.

Onscreen: LIGO SCIENTISTS WON THE 2017 NOBEL PRIZE IN PHYSICS FOR THE OBSERVATION OF GRAVITATIONAL WAVES

Levin: If you think about the span of time between two black holes colliding over a billion years ago, and the time it washed over the Earth: when they were emitted, multi-celled organisms were just differentiating on the Earth…and it's near a nearby star system when Einstein's born…and a hundred years after that, enters the Solar System. It is this beautiful cosmic event that SO precedes human history…and made human history.

Credits

PRODUCTION CREDITS

Produced and Directed by
Vincent Liota
BLACK HOLE APOCALYPSE
Written, Produced and Directed by
Rushmore DeNooyer
Executive Producer
Chris Schmidt
Editors
Ryan Shepheard
Rob Kirwan

FOOTAGE AND GRAPHICS

Visuals
CalTech-LIGO
Getty
NASA
Shutterstock

SFX

Music
­APM

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