Levin, Janna

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Levin, Janna

PERSONAL:

Born in TX; married; children: one. Education: Barnard College, Columbia University, B.A (magna cum laude), 1988; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ph.D., 1993.

ADDRESSES:

Office—Department of Physics and Astronomy, Barnard College of Columbia University, 3009 Broadway, New York, NY 10027. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

University of Toronto, Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, postdoctoral fellow, 1993-95; University of California—Berkeley, Center for Particle Astrophysics, President's Postdoctoral Fellow, 1995-98; University of Sussex, Brighton, England, postdoctoral fellow, 1998-99; Cambridge University, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, Cambridge, England, faculty member, 1999-2003; Oxford University, Oxford, England, visiting fellow in astrophysics and scientist in residence at Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing, 2003-04; Columbia University, Barnard College, New York, NY, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, 2004—.

MEMBER:

Phi Beta Kappa.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Henry A. Boorse Prize in Physics, 1987; Columbia University, Associate Alumnae of Barnard College Fellowship; Jeffrey L. Bishop Fellowship, 1994; University of California Berkeley, President's Postdoctoral Fellowship, 1995; P.P.A.R.C. Advanced Fellow, 1999; Clare Hall Research Fellow, 2000; British Association Lord Kelvin Award Lecture, 2002; Dream Time Fellowship, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, and Kilby Young Innovator Award, Kilby Foundation, both 2003.

WRITINGS:

How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space (nonfiction), Weidenfeld & Nicolson, (London, England), 2002.

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines (novel), Knopf, (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor of articles to numerous publications.

SIDELIGHTS:

Janna Levin is an astrophysicist whose primary research and academic interests are theories of the early universe, chaos, and black holes. In her books she has attempted to make science accessible to general readers; these works include the popular-science book How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space and the novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.

Levin set out to put a human face on the stereotype of the "mad scientist" in How the Universe Got Its Spots. While historically physicists have worked to prove that the universe is infinite, Levin and her colleagues have found evidence that there is, in fact, an end to the universe. Lauren Pocaro, writing in the New Yorker, explained: "Levin writes of those who ponder the largest questions of existence, and she wonders whether such mental strain causes madness." Levin also steers the reader through the experiments that have enabled scientists to chart the universe, and investigates the Big Bang Theory. She covers such topics as gravitation, infinities, and topology. Levin's research led her to recognize parallels between science and her personal life, as well. How the Universe Got Its Spots begins as a series of letters to her mother and develops into a diary that connects Levin's personal experiences to the scientific theories she deals with every day.

Several critics praised the book's mix of the cosmic and the mundane. "The grand scale of cosmology, a world inhabited by eminent figures like Einstein, is put into scale by the everyday issues of Levin's life," noted Ann Sundquist in M2 Best Books. Sundquist found the book not exactly an easy read, however, because "the reader is tricked into relaxing by the notes of everyday life … then thrown into deep cold water when the author returns to cosmology after a paragraph or two of light reading." Alejandra Gongui, writing in American Scientist, called the book an "intimate account of the life and thought of a physicist … personal and honest, clear and informative, entertaining and difficult to put down." Ed Copeland, reviewing for Physics Web, remarked: "This is a special book, written by someone who has a gift for science together with the skill and bravery to place that science in the context of her personal life."

When asked by New Scientist interviewer Stephen Battersby why she chose to write a book that was so candid and personal, Levin reflected: "I had just written yet another set of academic papers and finished a mountain of academic work. I felt that there was something I wasn't saying … I wanted to do something honest and sincere, which wasn't about pressing a scientific premise."

On her Home Page, Levin related that in How the Universe Got Its Spots, "I wanted to stretch beyond what I could possibly do in technical writing. I wanted to find a voice and tell a story. And when that was done, I wanted to go further and write a book structured on ideas that was purely narrative and hopefully beautiful." The result was A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, based on the lives of mathematicians Alan Turing, an Englishman who broke the German Enigma code during World War II and pioneered the computer, and Kurt Gödel, an Austrian whose work inspired Turing, though the two never met. "This book is being published under fiction but the kicker is that the core stories are entirely true," Levin noted on her Home Page. "And those stories are stranger and more incredible than anything I could make up."

Turing, for instance, was persecuted and eventually faced criminal prosecution for his homosexuality. After his conviction, he committed suicide by eating a poisoned apple. Gödel became mentally ill, suffering from the delusion that people were plotting to poison his food, and starved himself to death. In Levin's novel, scenes alternate between Turing's life and Gödel's as an unnamed narrator attempts to understand the two men.

Some reviewers found Levin's dual portrait intriguing and valuable. A Science News contributor called it "an imaginative perspective" on two of the most fascinating men in mathematics, while Library Journal critic Edward Cone deemed it "illuminating." Some, however, thought it provided little new insight. A Kirkus Reviews commentator remarked: "Levin writes with elegant precision, but ultimately her account … adds little to what's already available." In a similar vein, a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote: "Levin is sympathetic to all concerned, but doesn't quite make a larger point." Jim Holt, though, writing in the New York Times Book Review, characterized the novel as "no mere assemblage of biographical transcriptions." He continued: "We are very much within the mind of an unreliable narrator, one whose dark existential obsessions resonate with the versions of Gödel and Turing she has fashioned." The narrator, he added, uses "poetically heightened language, which coats events in a varnish of subjectivity." He called some descriptions "richly atmospheric" and concluded that overall he was "seduced" by the book. Cone predicted that others would find it seductive as well, saying it will "richly reward" readers "who enjoy a novel of ideas."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

American Scientist, September-October, 2002, Alejandra Gongui, "The Shape of the Cosmos," pp. 475-476.

Astronomy, July, 2002, Ken Grimes and Allison Boyle, review of How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space, p. 92.

Discover, May, 2002, Corey S. Powell, "The Cosmologist and the Coffee Cup," review of How the Universe Got Its Spots, p. 78.

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2006, review of A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, p. 487.

Library Journal, May 15, 2006, Edward Cone, review of A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, p. 89.

M2 Best Books, October 4, 2002, Ann Sundquist, review of How the Universe Got Its Spots.

New Scientist, April 6, 2002, Stephen Battersby, interview with Janna Levin, p. 40.

Newsweek, September 25, 2006, Janna Levin, "This Topic Annoys Me," interview with author, p. 72.

New Yorker, May 6, 2002, Lauren Picaro, "Book Currents; Across the Universe," review of How the Universe Got Its Spots, p. 24.

New York Times Book Review, September 3, 2006, Jim Holt, "Obsessive-Genius Disorder," review of A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly, May 8, 2006, review of A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, p. 45.

Science News, April 27, 2002, review of How the Universe Got Its Spots, p. 271; August 26, 2006, review of A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, p. 143.

ONLINE

Janna Levin Home Page,http://www.jannalevin.com (March 8, 2006)

Physics Web,http://physicsweb.org/ (March 8, 2006), Ed Copeland, "Love on the Edge of the Universe," review of How the Universe Got Its Spots.