As a scientist, I’m very interested in most things that are connected to spacetime.
I’ll work on black holes, or I’ll work on the Big Bang, or I’ll work on an idea that there might be extra-spatial dimensions in the universe. I might work on cosmological implications of something like string theory. These ideas seem like they’re all over the place. You could roughly put them under astrophysics or theoretical physics, but really, for whatever reason, I keep returning to the spacetime connection.
I teach at Columbia and Barnard, and I’m the Director of Sciences at Pioneer Works, an interdisciplinary cultural center in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Sometimes I feel like my work at Barnard is the most feminist thing I’ll ever do. I didn’t think about it when I started, but it’s weirdly subversive to teach young women hardcore, calculus-based, theoretical approaches to physics. Whereas a lot of times I complain about teaching, I have really appreciated it since the pandemic. I couldn’t wait to get back to the classroom.
It's weirdly subversive to teach young women hardcore, calculus-based, theoretical approaches to physics.
When they were in high school, my students memorized things and plugged numbers into the equations. They hated it. My job is to come in and be like, “This is the world.” My job is to open students to the idea that this isn’t just a class. It’s how you walk down the street, it’s the reason you can see things, it’s the reason you can hear things, it’s the reason there’s electrical impulses in your brain, it’s the reason you can think. It’s all electromagnetism now. And there’s something about that that I absolutely love. When I’m forced to translate the fundamental research, the real out-there stuff, I find myself understanding it at an even deeper level.
At Columbia, it is math from the time I set chalk to board, 6 to 10 chalkboards over the course of an hour and 25 minutes. But that’s not something I would ever do at Pioneer Works.
I came to Pioneer Works eight years ago, when my former workspace full of maker-y, spacey, science-y, artist-y sort of people was collapsing. Matthew Putman, a nanotechnologist who sits on the Pioneer Works board, introduced me to the space. It’s this old iron works factory, and I was blown away by the physicality of it. It’s hard not to fall in love with the building when you walk in.
I feel strongly about where I’m physically working. I am not a work-in-the-library kind of person. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always created a little nest inside artist spaces. When I was studying at Cambridge University in the department of applied math and theoretical physics—Stephen Hawking was in that department—I lived in London, in a warehouse full of artists. I would set up these funny little dens in the middle of an art space where somebody would be welding, or somebody would be painting, or somebody would be sewing, or hammering. The music’s blasting, and sparks are flying, and I just absolutely love it. So it’s both the physicality of the space and it’s the energy of the people in the space.
The third floor of Pioneer Works was unfinished when I arrived. It was a 3,000-square-foot space with no electricity, no heat, no air, no anything. There was just this brown leather couch that would float around, and that was my little studio. I finished my book Black Hole Blues there. I became a friend of the place. The founders, Dustin Yellin and Gabriel Florenz, and I kind of fell in love.
When two black holes collide, that is the most powerful system we can imagine, producing gravitational waves shy of maybe the Big Bang itself.
We just started doing stuff for fun. Matthew was like, "Why don’t you come and give a talk?" But I was so tired of hearing myself talk. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go and give another talk. Instead, I had this fully-formed idea of an event series called Scientific Controversies. For the first one, on the topic of “Many Worlds,” we invited Max Tegmark from MIT and Frank Bullock, who has a Nobel Prize, also from MIT. The day of the event, we were setting up 40 chairs and freaking out because we had no idea if anyone was going to come. And like 400 people showed up. We had no idea why. It just took off in this weird way. A couple years later, I became the Director of Sciences. And it all started because I was lying around on this couch writing my book.
Black Hole Blues was meant to read as much like a novel as I could maintain. I really cut out a lot of the heavy science-y stuff—which now appears in my newer book, Black Hole Survival Guide—in favor of this climbing-Mount-Everest story about the madness of the scientists who spent 50 years trying to detect gravitational waves.
When two black holes collide, that is the most powerful system we can imagine, producing gravitational waves shy of maybe the Big Bang itself. It’s like a storm in the ocean. And those waves travel outward into the universe, and they get diluted as they go, just like a flashlight is fainter from far away than it is up close. By the time they get here, gravitational waves are really hard to detect. Presumably there are gravitational waves from all over the place passing through this room right now, but they’re just imperceptible. So they go right through the Earth and come out the other side.
When Einstein first started talking about this in 1916, he didn’t know if they were real. He argued with himself about it for decades. He would write entire papers saying gravitational waves were real, and then reverse himself. Back in the ’70s, Rainer Weiss and Kip Thorne started this crazy campaign to build this insane experiment that would—you can think of spacetime as a ringing drum—detect the shape of the ringing drum, and play it back to us. In 1984, they co-founded what would become the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) with the Scottish physicist Ronald Drever, who passed away in 2017, the year the LIGO team won the Nobel Prize.
Right before I came to Pioneer Works, I had been at Caltech for a sabbatical. My research was relevant for that, but my research is very math, pen and paper calculations. I’m not an experimentalist. Kip and Rai are real experimentalists. I was pretty embedded with them. I went out to the sites a few times. There’s one in Washington state and there’s one in Louisiana. There are these four-kilometer long arms, which are built in cement encasements that you can walk along. And then there are tubes inside the cement encasements, with lasers that are trying to measure distances. What the lasers are really doing is trying to detect that wobbling in the shape of space. I liken it to an electric guitar: When you pluck a string on an electric guitar and it’s not plugged into the amplifier, there’s a wave on the string, but you don’t hear it. You have to actually plug it into an amplifier to hear it. The whole of LIGO is like the body of the electric guitar with an amplifier on it.
What they recorded was two black holes colliding about 1.3 billion years ago ... Multicellular organisms were differentiating on the Earth when that happened.
So I tagged along, asking everyone tons of questions. The way Rai Weiss talks is just so charming and powerful. I was like, “I can’t do better than this.” I’m not a journalist, so recording him hadn’t crossed my mind. I was like, “Rai, what do you think if I start recording you?” And he was like, “Sure.” I went through hours of tape with Rai, and I started to pull out dialogue. And it was like, Rai’s telling the story now.
The structure of Black Hole Blues shifts. Rai tells a story, Kip tells a story, other people tell a story. A lot of it was about their anxiety over whether or not LIGO would ever succeed—if they would ever detect a gravitational wave—and this madness that had taken over their lives for 50 years, grown from three to a thousand people, and cost a billion dollars.
In the middle of one night, the team becomes so exhausted, they eventually decide to put their tools down and go home. Within an hour of them leaving the machine alone, this signal, the first ever detection, washes over the instrument in Louisiana. It then cruises across the continent at the speed of light, even though it’s not light, and rings the machine in Washington. These are literally the ripples in the shape of space. What they recorded was two black holes colliding about 1.3 billion years ago. 1.3 billion years ago. Multicellular organisms were differentiating on the Earth when that happened.
The collision caused this huge storm in spacetime. It was the most powerful event human beings have detected since the Big Bang itself. And none of it came out as light. It came out in complete darkness, just ringing the drum of spacetime.
That was the first thing LIGO detected. That’s why it was so hugely exciting. (LIGO eventually detected black holes.) Now, it’s not like they look at the data the next day and they’re thrilled. They have months and months of making sure, and studying. They didn’t even tell me for three or four months.
There are people who say these big experiments should get peace prizes, because they’re international projects that transcend religion, transcend race, transcend country, ideally. If they don’t, it’s not scientific. In the purest scientific spirit, all the data’s free and shared with everybody. Nobody makes money off of it, it’s not proprietary, and everybody in the world owns these discoveries.
I think that science has an incredible ability to give us glimpses of who we really are on this little bit of rock.
If I look at what Copernicus did, it completely changed the world. We no longer think we’re at the center of the solar system. We understand the sun is. We understand that there are more solar systems out there. We understand that there might be life out there. For a minute, you can see yourself on this small planet and think, “What are we warring over? What are we doing? We all have this in common.”
So I think that science has an incredible ability to give us glimpses of who we really are on this little bit of rock, and a moment to think about how absurd it is to be fighting across borders of two groups of people that share a common history, or at least share some commonality in their experience. Let alone people who are killing each other from around the world. It also reveals how precious life is and what’s important.
I did not always want to be a scientist. Even in college, I had very violent opinions about physics and what it was. I thought physicists memorized equations and built bombs, and that they were uncreative people, that it was not a creative field. It wasn’t until I was halfway through college that I discovered this subject that I knew nothing about. But once I got into physics, wow.
Before then, I had been a philosophy major. The idea that we would sit here and argue about “what Kant meant” drove me out of my mind. We were discussing Kant’s mother and his town and I thought, How could this be true if it has to do with his mother? It drove me bananas. There was something about the power of understanding that when Einstein taught us E=mc2, nobody’s going, “What was his relationship with his mother?” He taught it to us, and then it was ours. It belongs to absolutely anybody who wants to learn E=mc2. It is yours. It's transcendent, and presumably it’s true in another galaxy, for an alien life form. You don’t have to even know it was Einstein who said it. Something about that cut me to the quick.
I realized I really did enjoy the math. I was very behind, and I scrambled like hell to try to catch up. I probably overcompensated because I felt quite insecure compared to my peers; I didn’t finish high school because I was in a serious car accident my junior year. My friend was driving her Maserati too fast. It was my 17th birthday. We were a little wild, there was an older guy in the car. It was raining and she lost control of the car. She skidded on the grass and hit a pedestrian bridge with the back of the car. We flipped and landed in a canal, under the water. We all got out, but a little sliced up and bloody, swimming through broken glass in an upside-down car. My parents were like, “It’s time for you to go to college.” And I was so grateful, because if I went back to high school, I was probably going to get pretty wild.
I have a strange relationship with the stars. When I look up into the sky, I feel upside down.
I don’t never smoke weed. I will sometimes, but I’m not a big weed smoker because I fall asleep. It’s been a joke for years. Why am I taking pharmaceuticals when I can’t sleep? I would much prefer ingesting cannabis in some way. I actually can see why people find it fascinating for your own mind exploration. But the truth is, I’m rarely awake long enough to really enjoy it or record it. I did order a delivery of cannabis when I went to L.A. It was so hysterical. I loved the whole idea of it. Of course, it was still in L.A. when I came back to New York.
It’s chilling to think about the end of the universe, which will happen. There will be an end to the universe. One of my kids asked me, “Was there a time before trees?” Hell yeah. And there’ll be a time after trees. And that can be chilling to think about. But mostly, I feel a sense of meaning and connectedness that people turn to other things for. I feel enough of a sense of being progeny of the universe that I’m not seeking it in more magical forms. Like, “Well, our bits will be blown back into the universe, and that material will be swept up, and a new planet will form. But maybe some of our atoms will end up in a new life form, and maybe the whole universe will start again, and we’ll just be reprocessed into the whole ecosystem on a very cosmic scale.”
Being a Chicago kid, I remember very distinctly the first time I saw the sky without street lights. I was on an island off of South Carolina with my parents. My father and I were lying out under the skies, and there were no streetlights on the island. It was the first time I saw the Milky Way. I think I should have known then that I was a scientist.
I have a strange relationship with the stars. When I look up into the sky, I feel upside down. I have that sense that “that’s not up.” Like I’m falling into that midnight pool. I no longer think of the sky as up. I think of us as floating in space. We are in space.
I also think about the light touching my eye. That star could be seven light years away. It’s sending light to me. It could be a thousand light years away, but it’s sending me light. My eye got it, and absorbed it, and took it out of the world. But it touched my eye. So I have a visceral sense of being connected to that. As austere and unreciprocated my admiration is of the universe, I definitely feel that.