how i get it done

How Cosmologist Janna Levin Makes Space for Big Ideas

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Janna Levin is a cosmologist, a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia, director of the Science Studios at the artist-run cultural center Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, and a writer. Most recently, along with a small team of co-creators, Levin launched a new multidisciplinary digital magazine, The Broadcast, of which she is editor-in-chief. In her words: “It’s a home to interdisciplinary discourse in science, music, technology, and the arts. We have scientists speaking on string theory, digital artists tripping out over audio revelations on the dissolution of free will.” On top of all that, Levin also recently finished a scientific paper on how black holes mine energy from their environment. She lives in Manhattan, and has two teenagers. Here’s how she gets it done.

On her morning “routine”:
I’m odd in my work hours. I will sometimes wake up at three in the morning and start working and then go back to bed. Every day is a new day. I like to work from home in the mornings and not be in the office early. It takes me a while before I can connect with other humans. I drink gallons of strong British tea to get going. In the morning, I go between news outlets and watching late-night comedians on YouTube. Stephen Colbert or Trevor Noah. I don’t watch the chit-chat, actually. It drives me bananas. But I love the monologues.

On prioritizing:
I’m very project-focused and I like to kind of work in binges. Ideally, there’s one main project that’s all-encompassing. If I’m writing, that’s the only thing I’m doing that day, even if I don’t start writing until the evening. I have to be marinating in it. There’s a real complaint in my family that people will talk to me and I’ll kind of go “Uh-huh, uh-huh …” I’m totally tuned out and then ten minutes later I make them repeat it.

We started The Broadcast, and for a long time it was just me and [managing editor] Michael [Jones], thinking about it. Then COVID hit. We dropped everything and were like, “Everything’s going into The Broadcast, and ended up producing it nine months earlier than we intended. We did something that we wanted, that we believed in. I’m a firm believer in, “you don’t try to think, Who’s my audience? and manipulate your material for some audience you think you have. I have thrown away many things because they didn’t work, and I think that’s part of being a creator too.

On pivoting from philosophy to science:
I was in college and had no physics or particularly strong math background. I started wanting to study philosophy. I did science classes because they were part of the requirement. I thought physicists memorized equations and just recited facts. I had no idea what it was at all. The word sounded bad. And then in one of my classes, this guy came in to give a job talk. He had a Ph.D. in physics and was talking about the philosophy of physics. I was extremely moved, and this is something that still moves me: [Science] simply is true for all of us. It doesn’t matter if you are European or if you’re from Bangladesh. My collaborations go on with people around the world. My student from Hong Kong doesn’t have a different relativity than me. It’s just real. It’s thrilling. I think that’s also why I love talking about science as part of culture. While everyone is hitting cultural problems on the nose, what is undervalued is how transcendent and healing and connecting science can be just because of that.

On wearing many hats:
It’s very complicated. I’m a full-time professor so in the summer that means a lot of research. At Pioneer Works we’re starting to get back into the world with live-programming. And in the interim, I’m editor-in-chief of The Broadcast. I have a li’l team of editors who are always trying to commission cool people — we’re still figuring out as a group what we run, what we don’t run, why we think something works, why it didn’t work — so really, crafting the identity of The Broadcast.

On science as a part of culture:
For me, silos between disciplines have always been weird. All children draw. All children experiment with the earth and measure things and figure out how water pours. They’re experimental. The divisions that come later are the artifice. Not that we’re all naturally scientists and artists, and I don’t confuse those two. We’re not born into these bizarre molds from which we can’t lift our eyes. That’s just nonsense, and very harmful, creatively. For example, I’m visually inclined. A lot of the math I like is very visual, and even though it’s calculations on paper, there’s a big visual geometric element. A lot of drawings and thinking about space and orientation.

On making time for big ideas: 
During lockdown, it was meetings all day long, every day, and it was draining and unproductive. I’d exit the eight-hour workday and [then] have to get started on real stuff. That was actually quite devastating, and I think bad for the mind. A lot of what I do, I’m doing for my own sake ’cause I love it. I genuinely am doing it to keep myself from losing my own mind. That’s probably the hardest part, balancing what needs to be done and how you set aside time to do something really grand.

On motherhood:
What happens with kids — and nobody told me this — is they consume you when they’re very young, and then they go through a phase where it’s best for both of you to have a little space. You’re still there for them but you don’t want to be hovering. And then they come back again as teenagers where suddenly it’s like, Oh my God, they need you again. What everyone says is true: You don’t figure it out until you’ve made all your mistakes. A very dear friend said to me, “You’re gonna fuck up.” And I was like, “Whatt? Nuh-uh, I’m gonna do this right!” And ugh, every time I [mess up] I think about him. It’s very intense. You have to kind of tear yourself down in the process. You have to destroy a lot of your own ego in the process, to make room for theirs to grow.

On confidence:
I have many, many times suffered from terrible, crippling self-doubt. The worst thing is to seek approval from other people when you’re in that frame of mind, and it’s the first thing most people do. First, get a solid foundation in the thing that then defines you. From there, you can write a book, write a novel, experiment with film. I do have confidence in my own judgement. I rely on my own harsh criticism of my work. I think that’s held me in good stead. You hear Zadie Smith talk about this. Sometimes she sits down to write and someone really good shows up, and sometimes not, and you have to be able to know the difference. It’s crucial. I’m pretty quick to admit to mistakes, and I think that also helps. You have to be willing to point to it and say, That wasn’t good judgement.

How Cosmologist Janna Levin Makes Space for Big Ideas