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A Truly Human Endeavor: Cosmologist Janna Levin on the Transcendence of Science, the Climb Toward Truth, and Why Scientists Do What They Do

“The climb is personal, a truly human endeavor, and the real expedition pixelates into individuals, not Platonic forms.”

A Truly Human Endeavor: Cosmologist Janna Levin on the Transcendence of Science, the Climb Toward Truth, and Why Scientists Do What They Do

“Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity,” wrote pioneering physicist Lise Meitner, “[and] it teaches people to accept reality, with wonder and admiration, not to mention the deep joy and awe that the natural order of things brings to the true scientist.” Meitner herself was a true scientist who embodied this selfless, joyful reach for truth — she discovered nuclear fission and was denied the Nobel for the discovery, but went on to pave the way for women in science anyway and lived a long life invigorated by the pleasurable pursuit of knowledge. But how do great scientists — like great artists, who share a similar fate in this regard — manage to transcend rejection, failure, and personal disappointment, and remain unflinchingly committed to enlarging our shared store of truth?

But what sounds like a superhuman feat springs, in fact, from the deepest trenches of scientists’ humanity. That’s what cosmologist and novelist Janna Levin illustrates with uncommon grace in Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (public library) — one of the most fascinating and beautifully written books I’ve ever read, which gave us the story of the tragic hero who followed Einstein’s vision and how astronomer Jocelyn Bell discovered pulsars but was excluded from the Nobel Prize.

Levin, herself a scientist who studies black holes, tells the story of the century-long vision and half-century experimental quest to hear the sound of spacetime by capturing a gravitational wave. With a novelist’s flair for unraveling the universal through the specific, she chronicles this particular scientific triumph in order to tell a larger story of the human spirit, its tenacious ingenuity in the face of myriad obstacles, and the somewhat mysterious, somewhat irrational animating force that compels scientists to devote their entire lives to exploits bedeviled by uncertainty, frequent failure, and meager public appreciation.

Janna Levin (Photography by Béatrice de Géa for the Quanta Magazine profile "Janna Levin’s Theory of Doing Everything" by Natalie Wolchover.)
Janna Levin (Photography by Béatrice de Géa for “Janna Levin’s Theory of Doing Everything” by Natalie Wolchover, Quanta Magazine.)

Interpolating elegantly between her parallel roles as scientist, storyteller, and interviewer throughout the book, Levin finds one answer in her conversation with the iconic physicist Kip Thorne — one of the three architects of LIGO, the colossal instrument that ultimately detected a gravitational wave for the first time exactly a century after Einstein envisioned the possibility, thus accomplishing one of the greatest feats of modern science. Looking back from the fortunate platform of a long and lauded career as a scientist, eighty-something Thorne offers:

The pursuit of science is more than the pursuit of understanding. It is driven by the creative urge, the urge to construct a vision, a map, a picture of the world that gives the world a little more beauty and coherence than it had before.

But as much as that creative urge may reach for something transcendent and larger than oneself, it can only begin in the deepest pit of personhood — something Levin captures in a beautiful analogy for that climb toward truth and transcendence:

Scientists are like those levers or knobs or those boulders helpfully screwed into a climbing wall. Like the wall is some cemented material made by mixing knowledge, which is a purely human construct, with reality, which we can only access through the filter of our minds. There’s an important pursuit of objectivity in science and nature and mathematics, but still the only way up the wall is through the individual people, and they come in specifics — the French guy, the German guy, the American girl. So the climb is personal, a truly human endeavor, and the real expedition pixelates into individuals, not Platonic forms. In the end it’s personal, as much as we want to believe it’s objective.

Complement this fragment of the wholly enthralling Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, which Ben Folds set to music, with Levin on genius and madness and her immeasurably moving Moth story about the unlikely paths that lead us back to ourselves, then revisit Schopenhauer on the essential difference between how art and science illuminate the world.

Published November 29, 2016




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