Janna Levin and a matter of some gravity – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Janna Levin
Janna Levin, (Image supplied)

I am concerned, as I enter the main auditorium at the Aotea Centre, on the last day of the Auckland Writers Festival, that I may not have the brain power left to fully appreciate a session on Gravitational Waves. It’s been a long festival and I think I may have already overstuffed my brain with Big Ideas and Deep Thoughts.

As a yawn escapes, I’m expecting the worst.

Fortunately Janna Levin is a brilliant and engaging communicator. I needn’t have worried. I’m able to follow the concept of waves in gravity, caused by the distant collision of black holes… quite well, actually. She throws a couple of oranges around, as a way of demonstrating how gravity curves spacetime (without gravity, the trajectory of a thrown orange would be a straight line), and this unexpected kineticism helps cement the idea.

Basically she’s explaining the science and significance of the big scientific announcement we all remember from February of this year but which most of us are a bit unclear about, in terms of what it all means. Thanks to Professor Levin, I understand a lot more about this.

The actual working behind all these ideas requires the kind of maths that most of us find bewildering – fortunately we have people like Janna Levin to do all that complicated numbers stuff and happily almost none of that makes it into her presentation. Instead she peppers her talk with a range of pop culture references (Third Rock from the Sun, Alien, Doctor Who).

In particular, This OK GO music video, filmed in a single take on a gravity defying “vomit comet” as she calls it, shows us what gravity actually is – namely falling. Falling towards a mass, in our case, the Earth (which is itself falling through space in an orbit around the sun). Most of us think about gravity in the wrong way, as the landing.

Though the music video above could make you believe otherwise, gravity is actually quite a weak phenomenon (compared to light, for instance) and therefore difficult to detect. We feel its effects here on Earth, of course, but if a gravitational wave originating in a far off galaxy were to pass through you now, would you even notice?

The answer is it has and you didn’t. But luckily scientists have been trying to record such an event for a while now and on September 14, 2015 at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (09:51 UTC) two installations called Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatories (LIGO), one in Louisiana, the other in Washington State, recorded gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes that happened 1.3 billion years ago.

How? Well, they do it with mirrors…and a laser inside a 4km long concrete vacuum.

Imagine two ships bobbing on a calm ocean with a taut rope between them. Should a wave come along you’d be able to detect a change in the relative positions of the boats because of the movement of the rope. In this case, the boats are mirrors and the rope is a laser, and there’s two of these pairs stationed 3000km apart in America. And I’m sure it’s a lot more technical than that (and involves a lot of maths) but that’s the basic idea of how you detect gravitational waves. The sound of these gravitational waves is within an audible range. If they weren’t so very weak and quiet, you’d be able to hear them.

After months of checking and re-checking the maths, they made their announcement on what they’d found earlier this year.

Janna Levin explains gravitational waves
Janna Levin explains gravitational waves, Auckland Writers Festival, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-15-IMG_1940

Questions at the end of the session wondered about the possibility of multiple universes – most scientists working in this area seem to think this is likely – and one older gentleman went well out of scientific realms and into spurious sociology remarking that Levin was “a very attractive woman” and was therefore surprised that she’d be interested in science and maths since, in his opinion, those two things didn’t go together very often.

At this point you could actually feel the rest of the audience cringing and trying to collapse in on itself, like so many black holes.

Fortunately Levin had a fantastic answer for this which she communicated in a straightforward manner – if society tells women that their purpose is to be attractive, and you’ve already achieved that then why would you do anything else? But that’s not what it was like at her house.

A complex idea, communicated simply. Just like the rest of her lecture.

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The State of America – Janna Levin, Gloria Steinem, and Thomas Mallon at the Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Janna Levin, Thomas Mallon and Gloria Steinem
Janna Levin, Gloria Steinem and Thomas Mallon. Image supplied

Before the Auckland Writers Festival began, possibly even before I finished reading the programme, I’d picked yesterday’s The State of America session as a must-see.

I’m happy to say that my intuitions were bang on. It was a cracker of a panel, with smart people saying a succession of smart (and sometimes profane) things. Put it this way – if you think Donald Trump’s an idiot and enjoy listening to smart people elaborate on just how true that is then you probably would have enjoyed this hour of the festival as much as I did.

Guyon Espiner, (who drolly summed up his career as writing for newspapers “when they were still a thing” followed by television journalism, which was also alluded to as a thing that had gone the way of the dinosaurs – this got a laugh) was in the enviable position of not really having to do much beyond throw out the occasional question, such was the calibre of the panelists and the flow of the conversation.

And what panelists. Janna Levin is an astrophysicist with a PhD from MIT in Physics. Espiner rattled off a list of her achievements (including an award winning novel) that seemed longer than the queue to get into the auditorium and then followed up with “…but can she explain Donald Trump’s popularity”. To which her response, with reference to her astrophysics background was, “I’m not interested in anything that happened more recently than 500 million years ago”.

Thomas Mallon, who I have to admit, I’m not that familiar with was more conservative in his politics (he didn’t vote for Obama but still wept when he won because of what an amazing thing for America that was), but he was certainly just as scathing of Trump as anyone and possibly more critical of the Republican party and the predicament it finds itself in because of his history of leaning that way politically.

And of course, Gloria Steinem, who if you were looking for a polar opposite of Donald Trump, would make an exceedingly good candidate. When she walked out on stage she was greeted as a rock star, and in her leather jacket, Steven Tyler-esque scarf and silver belt, she did very much look the part.

One thing that Gloria Steinem talked about was the insidious and pervasive influence that whole industries have on the US political process. She puts the lack of a functional public healthcare down to the insurance industry, and says that members of the legislature are often Insurance Agents by trade. When something seems nonsensical or against what most people want, if you follow the money it leads you to the source of the issue (like the NRA’s power to halt gun control laws). This somewhat mirrored Susie Orbach’s comments from yesterday in which she pointed out the various industries that make money from creating and exploiting feelings of inadequacy about our bodies.

Even so, Steinem still claims to be a “hopeaholic”, and thinks that things will change.

Possibly wanting to give the American panellists a break from the negativity, Espiner asked each what was cool about the US. This lead to discussions of the strength of diversity. The belief in innnovation, and an openness that Levin claimed shows on American faces.

There were many laugh out loud moments during the hour and some marvellous quotes, like the following.

I had the kind of happy childhood that is so damaging to a writer.

Thomas Mallon on the disability afforded him by a stable upbringing.

On Donald Trump

It’s a death knell for critical thinking.

Janna Levin

The only ideology he has is himself.

Thomas Mallon also described him as “grotesque and dangerous”.

We didn’t take it seriously soon enough. And by “we” I mean “sane people”.

Janna Levin

He’s a kind of proxy insulter.

Gloria Steinem

We survived Benedict Arnold. We survived Lee Harvey Oswald… We will survive this preposterous son of a b****.”

Thomas Mallon not mincing his words.

On Social Media

It’s a terrible way to discuss ideas.

Thomas Mallon on the limitations of Twitter.

I’ve been maligned a lot but not with such brevity.

Gloria Steinem on being misquoted and copping flak about it on Twitter.

On who could be the president

I want the girl to win.

Levin’s 9 year old daughter is Team Clinton.

Oh, I live for the day. A single, gay, Atheist. The only thing better than an Atheist would be a Pagan.

Gloria Steinem when asked whether an Atheist could ever be president.

It’s going to be hard to top this session for smart, wry, commentary. I think it may well be my favourite session of the festival.

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