June 11, 2016 4:00 pm

"Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space" – A Q&A With Janna Levin

Screen capture of computer simulation image Image courtesy of Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) project, via LIGO .

Computer simulation image courtesy of Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) project, via LIGO

This guest blog post is by Alex Hanson, StarTalk’s STEAM intern. She is a rising junior at NYU and founder/editor of HERpothesis, which showcases work by creative young women inspired by STEAM.

The world shook with excitement this February when news broke that a gravitational wave resulting from a black hole collision over a billion years ago had been observed and recorded by LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) in September 2015. The people behind the discovery, however, had been searching for evidence of gravitational waves decades before last year’s observation. The journey leading up to this historic discovery was laden with big ideas, battles for resources, and clashing personalities, all in the name of confirming Einstein’s 1916 prediction of gravitational waves. Janna Levin tells the rich, layered story behind the LIGO discovery in her new book Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space. I sat down with the author, astrophysicist, and StarTalk All-Stars host to discuss her inspiration, her process, and ignoring false barriers between science and creativity.

When and how did you get the idea for Black Hole Blues?

I set out to write a completely different book. I thought, “This will be kind of easy: I work on black holes, I think about them all the time. It’ll be fun: I’ll knock out a book about black holes.” And then I got totally derailed. I ended up writing a completely different book, and I went through a lot of agony until I admitted to myself that that’s what I was doing. Then it flowed. I started writing a book that’s much more narrative and character driven. That’s the story I found. It happens in science too: you think you have a theory and you start to pursue it and then you realize you have to turn left.

I’m glad you did, too. What was the most exciting part of the whole process for you, whether it’s research, writing, or editing?

The best part of the process is editing for me. Writing is amazing and horrible. I think the important part about writing is to be really critical of your work so that you know the difference between when you’ve written well and when you haven’t.

Editing is good because that’s when you start to get clarity. I play a lot with structure, it’s very nonlinear—there are a lot of time skips in the book. It’s all very intentional. That phase is fun: when you see if you can keep building the parts that are working.

I imagine editing must have been very intensive.

Yeah, I had a book twice the size.

Oh my gosh, at the end you listed all the names that didn’t make it into the book! I was thinking, “This is insanity!”

Oh, I had hours and hours of tape with people. To cut the conversations with Rai [Weiss, co-founder of the LIGO project] down, for instance, to find the lines that read like dialogue in this sea of stuff, was really intensive. And it took me a very long time to transcribe and pare that down.

Yeah, but you did it! Your book came out just in time!

It was really great timing. But I kind of fell into lock-step with them. I knew the machine was locked and it was time to wrap up. That’s what I felt like: It’s getting quiet on the sites, there’s less activity, and I wasn’t going to be visiting when they’re doing science runs. They don’t really want you out there disturbing the instrument. So it wasn’t a total accident. They locked the machines, they started the science runs, and I finished the book.


Cover image of "Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space" by Janna Levin, courtesy of Amazon

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space cover courtesy of Amazon.

What are some of your favorite books about the world of STEM, and did any of them inspire you while you were writing Black Hole Blues?

I read much more fiction than non-fiction. I do think about fiction sometimes when I’m writing. I was thinking about The Human Stain by Philip Roth, which is completely unrelated but is about an academic. I thought, “If he can write about an English literature professor, maybe I can write about these guys with the same kind of narrative intensity—where it reads like a novel as much as possible.” Funny things like that will influence me. I like some really quirky books. I like a book called Primate’s Memoir. It’s not particularly recent, but it’s a great book about a guy who studies baboons. It’s just fantastic.

This book does a good job of taking subjects that might be intimidating to the average person on the street and makes them accessible in a kind of story format, so what is your approach to make this accessible to the general public?

I’ve thought about that a lot. Sometimes the first pass at presenting an idea, the target is still off and then you can kind of feel where it’s still incomprehensible or still too challenging. You go over it and over it, and present it to people and try it out. I give a lot of talks and that has really helped me hone in on what works and what doesn’t work in terms of reaching people. Feedback is very useful: they ask a question and you realize, “Oh no, that’s not what I meant,” but you see where the question comes from and it helps you clarify.

How do you see writing and science come together in your own life and why is it important to combine that in a way is presented to the public, such as your book?

I don’t think that, as individuals, we come with these divisors in our mind. They just don’t exist, so we’ve invented them. We’ve put buildings between different kinds of people and I just don’t really get that, the silo mentality.

I listen to music when I’m writing, and I think about science sometimes when I’m writing. Sometimes an idea will occur to me as something that’s worth pursuing or researching. They’re really not as disconnected as we pretend. I just happen to love to write and I happen to really like abstract ideas as the conceptual basis of books, so I find it very natural to combine them.

Is there anything else you’d like to elaborate on, or share something we didn’t get to talk about?

I will say that the characters in the book, Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne, Ron Drever, are sweeping up all the major prizes this year. They were awarded the Kavli Prize, the Breakthrough Prize, the Gruber Prize, and these are all the huge astronomy and astrophysics prizes. It’s really great to see that they’re having a moment.

I think the other thing that was really charming was that, for a minute, it was like the whole world stopped and literally listened. Literally listened to this sound that came from 1.3 billion years ago when two black holes collided, when multi-celled organisms were fossilizing on the Earth. I think there was something beautiful for humanity about that—even though it felt like 24 hours later people were like “I don’t get it…what?” I was on Al Jazeera the day of the announcement to do an interview about it, and it kept getting interrupted by the war in Syria. That’s exactly it: for a minute everyone was kind of wide-eyed, quiet, and receptive, and then it was “I’m sorry we have to end this interview for developments in Afghanistan!” The irony of it was very interesting.


Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space is available on Amazon and in bookstores. You can learn more about it, and about Janna Levin, on her website.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

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