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Dr. Janna Levin Wows GA Girls– With Astrophysics!

Dr. Janna Levin Wows GA Girls-- With Astrophysics!

On Thursday March 6, Dr. Janna Levin, a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College, visited Greenwich Academy to share her knowledge of black holes with the Upper School student body. She surprised everyone with her humor and comprehensibility – even me.

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Dr. Levin graduated from Barnard with a BA in Physics and Astronomy and a concentration in Philosophy. She then received a PhD in Physics from MIT. As an Astrophysicist, Dr. Levin currently specializes in theoretical physics and the history of physics.

In addition to teaching, Levin also is a novelist. Her first book, How the Universe Got Its Spots, was published in 2002. Most recently, her novel, A Madman Dreams of Turning Machines, won the PEN/Bingham Prize.

Levin’s main strength as a presenter was her ability to explain the complicated theories behind how black holes function in language that even I – one of the least scientifically knowledgeable individuals – could understand. To enhance her presentation, Levin had prepared a PowerPoint filled with simulations of distant events in the universe such as galaxies colliding and black holes expanding.

Since much of her work is theoretical, the events depicted in the videos were models from sources like the American Museum of Natural History and the Hubble Space Telescope.

Dr. Levin noted, though, that the theoretical nature of her work leaves much room for creativity. She explained that once one accepts the absolute constraints in Physics, a world of possibility opens up. She also explained that all of her discoveries are made simply by doing math.

Personally, I found it interesting that physicists learn to think outside the box and use their imaginations by first accepting unwavering laws of the universe. In this way, she explained, physicists are not so different from artists.

At first, I was extremely frustrated when I learn that a Flex period I could have used to do homework or socialize with friends was going to be wasted listening to an astrophysicist. Science is not my forte – I did not understand Chemistry and the invisible theories so vital to Physics make no sense to me.

I consider myself to be a Humanities scholar, and therefore, I was confused why anyone would expect me to be interested in or even capable of understanding anything a physicist had to say.

But Dr. Levin proved me wrong. She inspired me as soon as she walked onto the stage – she was hysterically funny and personable and made “STEM” fields feel accessible and relevant.

I loved the fact she majored in Philosophy in college, because I did not even realize that there was a philosophical dimension to physics. Levin’s jokes about whether galaxies about which natural occurrence would kill us first – galaxies colliding, the sun exploding, or climate change – along with her psychedelic black hole models made for one of the most interesting assemblies I have attended in my four years at GA.

Her assembly not only changed the way I look at Physics, but it also widened my outlook on college majors. I no longer feel trapped by the humanities and excluded from STEM. Not only did Levin make Astrophysics inspiring and interesting to those of us who do not choose to take advanced Physics courses, but the section of her PowerPoint that introduced me to the beautiful, intelligent, and creative women she shares a lab with made STEM fields seem less daunting and more expansive than I had believed.

I have certainly learned my lesson – never assume that the speaker you do not think you can relate to is going to be boring!

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Dr. Janna Levin Wows GA Girls– With Astrophysics!