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How the Universe Got Its Spots by Janna Levin

For someone who was never any good at science or math growing up, I'm increasingly interested in and excited about it now, even though my retention level of the particulars of the subjects is pretty much the same. Still, for years I've been gorging myself on popular science books, trying to wrap my messy, disordered brain around their logical, rational ideas and coming painfully short on many an occasion. I abandoned Brian Green's The Fabric of the Cosmos about 200 pages in--not because it was boring, because I put it down one day and the next day I picked it up and any information I had learned in those 200 pages had dislodged from my brain, which happens all the time with me: all I have to do is shampoo my hair too vigorously in the morning and all sorts of information goes swirling down the bathtub drain.

I abandoned How the Universe Got Its Spots, too, over a year ago. I'd picked it up hoping for a slightly more condensed version of the Greene book, and once again I got lost when string theory came up. I am fundamentally incapable of understanding or engaging with the idea of string theory, I just am.

But, due to all the research I'm doing for my own book, I picked How the Universe Got Its Spots up again a week or so ago (I'm still not ready to give the Green another go just yet) and, of course, found that I was going to have to completely reread it. Thankfully, How the Universe Got Its Spots is much more than a popular science book--it's something of an engaging memoir as well, which makes it more compulsively readable than Green's admittedly great book.

Janna Levin is a cosmologist, an astrophysicist, a mathematician. Her primary area of research, at least during the writing of Spots (which admittedly was several years ago), was the shape of the finite universe. What's that you say? The finite universe? Well, to be brief, because I'm not sure how many physicists are in the audience, it was once believed that the universe is infinite, and indeed there are still scientists who believe that. Einstein believed it. He believed in a completely infinite and static universe, even though some of his own brilliant theories seem to contradict such a reality. But the Big Bang kind of threw everyone for a loop, because Edwin Hubble used his giant telescope to figure out that the galaxies he was observing are moving away from us--and the logical following conclusion to that revelation is that the universe is expanding. If the universe is expanding, it must once have been smaller, and if it was smaller once, then it isn't infinite. In fact, the universe has an edge.

Levin, and other scientists like her, believe that if the universe is finite, then it has a shape. And that's where Levin's research comes in--she's trying to figure out the shape of the universe, using infinitesimal fluctuations in the temperature of the cosmic background radiation that fills our universe (the echo of the Big Bang) to determine just what sort of shape that might be.

I like the science element of Levin's book, but I like her more personal ruminations better. After all, the book was initially written first as a series of letters to her mother, then as a diary (also "to" her mother, although she may not have read it until the book was published) about her life as a topologist, in which she works through classic Newtonian physics through to Einstein and beyond in order to build up to the explanation of what she actually does for a living.

Sometimes, the correspondence begins with or veers off into personal asides. It chronicles the decline of her relationship with her boyfriend, an unstable musician who becomes incapable of dealing with the density of Levin's profession. She talks a lot in the beginning of the book about brilliant mathematicians who have ended their lives with suicide, or in some cases just extreme mental illness and eventual deterioration of the mind. She's sort of morbidly obsessed with it. I most identified with her general consideration of what creativity does to the mind, especially rejected or unsuccessful creative attempts, how people can be driven mad by their own ideas, or their communities' non-acceptance of their ideas, which is of particular interest to people in all artistic pursuits, especially, I would say, writers. It's interesting, because I never thought of science and math as creative pursuits before, but Levin makes you understand how they are. As Scarlett Thomas writes in her novel, The End of Mr. Y, which I'm rereading now, "I got a bit excited about how much poetry there was in theoretical physics."

I'm not looking at physics for poetry. I'm looking at it for spirituality. Levin would caution against that--does, in her book, at times--but I seek to understand the universe scientifically in order to figure out what might be possible in the realm of the supernatural (and by "supernatural" I don't mean, you know, ghosts and astral projection or sparkly vampires, although I guess someone must). The more science I read, the more I start to believe that there's something out there much bigger than us--much bigger, even, than an expanding universe. Because if it's finite, what comes after the horizon?

The fact that nobody yet knows, or will ever know, is what makes this stuff so damn irresistible.

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  1. Blogger Papa Thor | 11:49 AM |  

    Props to Physics!
    When I first learned about quantum mechanics it blew my mind, I thought "How come this isn't on the news, our lives will be completely different from now on!"
    Oh well,
    but physics is poetry and philosophy and spirituality, and it irritates some people when you tell them that because they look down on such things, but truth is one, with many expressions.
    Also, instead of supernatural I use the word metaphysical because, you know, just cuz.
    Papa Thor: BS Physics, UCLA, 1980

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