science | May 12, 2013

Constrained Creativity: Janna Levin On Experimenting In The Sciences

Not only is science speaker Janna Levin a well-known theoretical astrophysicist who studies the intricacies of black holes and the big bang, she is also a PEN Award-winning author. Her books—How The Universe Got Its Spots and A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines—bridge fiction and non-fiction, science and literature, and provide a complex but digestible account of some of the most fascinating theories about the universe. Her career path has been somewhat unconventional, to say the least. As Levin explains in an new interview hosted by Scientific American's Jennifer Ouellette on Blog Talk Radio, she grew up as an "arty kid." She loved books, reading, and all kinds of art—though a strong scientific inquiry existed within her. She just hadn't realized it yet. Up until college, Levin recalls thinking that "physicists built bombs and memorized equations and were uncreative, soulless people." However, one day she says she "sort of just got it." It was then that she decided to dig deeper into math and physics and pursue a career in the sciences.

What drew her to these disciplines was the universality of them. No matter where you were from or what your belief system was, 1+1 equals 2 for everyone, everywhere. The language of math and science was the same for everyone who studied it and it provided a way to understand the world. While she admits to being somewhat "math-phobic" for a long time, she eventually came to realize that mathematicians and scientists were just as creative as artists—only in a different way. They exercise what Levin calls "creative constraint." They operate within a set of rules and experiment within those constraints. The same is true for fiction, she explains. If you create a story wherein anything can happen, then no one cares about the story anymore.

However, Levin is quick to point out that having constraints does not mean that you are rigidly confined to a set of parameters all of the time. Once you develop a set of rules that you abide by on the whole, "you can break those rules—but you break them intelligently," she says. Once she understood this, she says she stopped thinking of scientists and mathematicians as rigid, non-creative people. And, as she explains in this interview and in her mind-bending talks, she has begun to exercise constrained creativity herself in exploring the universe. "In short, what's exciting to me," Levin says of the future of her research, "is that there are mysteries that we don't know the answer to—and they're big ones."

Up Next

social change | May 09, 2013