Science! Never did we think that statement alone would merit its own protest sign. In an age of confusion, Janna Levin, professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College, remains a bastion of truth, innovation, and levity (but sometimes black holes, and soon, black holes that light up). Her programming at Pioneer Works, where she’s Director of Science, usually involves two other scientists, unsolved mysteries, and throngs of people. “Science is part of culture,” she says. “And that’s my mission, to see science thrive as part of culture.” Levin just published Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, her second book. Oh! And she’s a Guggenheim Fellow. How could we forget?
What’s your curating process like at Pioneer Works?
The science events grew pretty organically. Pioneer Works invited me to give a lecture and I just didn’t feel like hearing myself talk so I suggested a sort of mini-series, Scientific Controversies.
The idea is simple but surprisingly effective. I invite two guest to join me on stage in an extemporaneous conversation on unsolved scientific quandaries. The first event was titled Many Worlds with Nobel-laureate Frank Wilczek and Max Tegmark from MIT. We didn’t know if anyone would attend. We were going to put out 40 chairs. We had 450 people show up and the audience was excited and energetic and ready for the tough stuff. So we kept going. We’ve done 9 so far and they’re a blast.
The events are a bit of a happening. We usually have DJ Black Helmut with rare grooves and vintage futuristic slides before and after. There are drinks and food trucks and when the weather is good, the garden is open. I love to bring in hands on pop-ups, like telescopes or microscopes. We once built a 1 meter working model of a 4 km long instrument called LIGO. We want people to come early and stay late.
How will your programming change this year, if at all?
The Scientific Controversies series continues with an event on Genetic Manipulation and another on Consciousness. A night on Artificial Super-Intelligence is also in the works.
One new feature I’m excited about: After the conversations, I always feel that people want to stay to discuss their ideas and questions. So this season we’re going to whisk away the chairs after the discussion and set up a little “science speakeasy” on the spot, which amounts to a bar and a few high-top tables. On hand will be a couple of experts in the topic of the night. They will be on the ground and available to answer questions and have face-to-face conversations with anyone who wants to air their thoughts.
We’re also renovating new science studios on the third floor and the space is looking pretty spectacular. We’ll be doing some smaller nights up there, book launches, and workshops during Second Sundays.
What aspect of your job do you find the most fulfilling? The most challenging?
Science is part of culture. And that’s my mission, to see science thrive as part of culture. I love being at Pioneer Works and mixing across boundaries. So it only makes sense that there are others in Brooklyn who will love the mix too. I keep telling Dustin Yellin and Gabriel Florenz, the co-founders, that we’re building the world we want to inhabit. I guess most fulfilling is inhabiting that world along with everyone else.
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In the future, what do you hope changes or improves (or continues!) in your field?
I came to Pioneer Works just as a friend, stayed on as a scientist in residence, and I’m now director of sciences.
I hope that soon the science studios will be so busy in the future and have so much momentum that I can just come in and cozy up on a couch to finish some calculation while surrounded by beautiful minds, as though I’m a resident again.
Are you working on a new book or a larger project you’d like to share?
I have this project underway on black holes that acquire charge to power an astronomical electronic circuit, thereby lighting up. Crazy stuff.
And there may or may not be a novel that I abandoned to finish my last book, Black Hole Blues

Learn more about this year’s 100 Influencers in Brooklyn Culture.

Photo by Maggie Shannon


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