science | December 04, 2012

Science Speaker Janna Levin at The Moth: Is The Universe Infinite?

"Albert Einstein famously said, only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity," cosmologist, author, and science speaker Janna Levin says in a new talk on The Moth, "and then he added: and I'm not so sure about the universe." As one of her biggest inspirations, Levin agrees with Einstein's theory. Well, in terms of the possibility that the universe may indeed not be as infinite as once believed, anyway. "I was fixated on the implications that you could leave the Earth, and travel in a straight line to a distant galaxy at the edge of the observable universe and realize it was the Milky Way you had left behind you, and the planet you landed on was the Earth," the Guggenheim fellow says. The universe, she explains, might exist as a type of Mobius Strip where you can travel from one end to the other, and then back again in a loop. Further, if you start off your travels wearing a left-handed glove, it will eventually end up on the right when you return to your start point.

She expands on this concept in the wildly funny and mind-bending talk, where she draws intriguing parallels between her work in astrophysics and the events in her personal life. She explains how she met a man named Warren, and after dating for a brief time, the two sold all of their belongings and moved from San Francisco to London. After their breakup, Levin wrote and published a book (How the Universe Got Its Spots) about what can be learned about the size of the universe from the remnants of the big bang—juxtaposed with her and Warren's love story. After the book launched, she returned to the spot of their initial meeting, where the two rekindled their romance and ended up marrying and having a son. When their son was born, he had a condition known as Dextrocardia—where the organs in the body are developed on the right side of the body rather than on the left.

"It's as though Warren and I took our left-handed code on a Mobius Strip around the universe and brought back this right-handed boy,” Levin says in the talk. While it may not be absolute proof that the universe is finite, her story does indeed propose an insinuation that perhaps, we all do end up where we started. In the talk, as well as in her book, Levin has an aptitude for making complex scientific theory both assessable and enjoyable. She weaves stories of human nature between explanations of the cosmos to show us that we are all a part of this world, and sweeping questions about life and the universe directly affect us all whether we are conscious of it or not.

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