Janna Levin is a theoretical cosmologist with a unique perspective on the universe. She recalls a vernacular that harbours astrophysical realism and super massive black holes. Her brand of science concerns itself not with the improbability of an intelligent species lost in space but with how it might find itself: way out on the limb of a branching multiverse. Previously, her work has sought to prove the existence of a finite universe, but what does she have to say about the sound behind the big bang? Can we believe that black holes bang on space-time like mallets on a drum?
Levins ideas about the universe rest upon an elegant manoeuvre of science that makes for interesting listening. Her idea is a simple one: “Everything that we know about the universe so far has come from the study of light, but what can we learn from listening to the sound that the universe makes?” Such insight is underpinned by a brilliance that makes our current conception appear ignorant and single-minded. Our universe is filled with a continuum of light traversing space-time. What we see of it from our habitable island of stable matter shapes our perception of the fluctuating ruffles of fabric that compose space. Imagine that up until now we have been watching television with the sound turned off. Does it provoke curiosity about what we might hear with the sound turned on?
According to Levin, at present we have used the advancing technological power of telescopes to compile a silent movie of the story of the beginning of time. But when we’re dealing with astrophysical objects that are capable of bending space itself, might the study of light alone fall short of providing an honest account of our universe’s tail? What Levin is referring to is the phenomenon of dying stars, whose gargantuan presence (three times that of our sun) collapse in entirety into a space as little as 60km across. The result is a black hole; a phenomena capable of diluting time and bending the conception of reality as we know it. In a talk given at a conference in 2011 Levin gave an account of how it would feel inside the vortex of a black hole: “…even though the black hole is dark from the outside, it’s not dark on the inside; because all of the light in the galaxy can fall in behind us. Even though, due to a relativistic effect known as time dilation, our clocks would seem to slow down relative to galactic time, it would look as though the evolution of the galaxy had been sped up and shot before us.”
The perspective of a theoretical cosmologist comes as a breath of fresh air to the layman who might concern themselves with worldly troubles. At present, Levin’s day to day is spent listening to the tune of the universe in an attempt to track down objects that might elude our temperament of merely investigating with our eyes. She claims to have predicted the sound of twin blackholes; whose existence cannot continue in the presence of the other: “…they not only curve space but they leave behind a ringing of space; an actual wave on space time. Space squeezes and stretches as it emanates out of these blackholes, banging on the universe, travelling out into the cosmos at the speed of light.”
There are a number of experiments currently being constructed to investigate the theories behind Levin’s ideas. One, Ligo (The Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) in Washington, Louisiana is a group effort by scientists at MIT and other institutions with a contributing workforce of over 800 scientists. It aims to directly observe gravitational waves of cosmic origin as predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 1916.