Janna Levin on Extra Dimensions and How to Overcome Boots in the Face | The Tim Ferriss Show | Transcription

Transcription for the video titled "Janna Levin on Extra Dimensions and How to Overcome Boots in the Face | The Tim Ferriss Show".


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Intro (00:00)

At this altitude I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. Can I ask you a personal question? No, what is the end of my perfect time? What if I did the opposite? I'm a cybernetic organism, living tissue over a metal endoskeleton. Lead to Paris show. This episode is brought to you by All Form. If you've been listening to this podcast for a while, you've probably heard me talk about Helix Sleep and their mattresses, which I've been using since 2017. I have two of them upstairs from where I'm sitting at this moment. And now Helix has gone beyond the bedroom and started making sofas. They just launched a new company called All Form. A-L-L-F-O-R-M. And they're making premium, customizable sofas and chairs shipped right to your door at a fraction of the cost of traditional stores. So I'm sitting in my living room right now and it's entirely All Form furniture. I've got two chairs, I've got an ottoman, and I have an L-sectional couch. And I'll come back to that. You can pick your fabric. They're all spill stain and scratch resistant. The sofa color, the color of the legs, the sofa size, the shape to make sure it's perfect for you and your home. Also, All Form arrives in just 3-7 days and you can assemble it all yourself in a few minutes. No tools needed. I was quite astonished by how modular and easy these things fit together. Kind of like Lego pieces. They've got armchairs, loveseats, all the way up to an 8-seat sectional. So there's something for everyone. You can also start small and kind of build on top of it if you wanted to get a smaller couch and then build out on it. Which is actually in a way what I did because I can turn my L-sectional couch into a normal straight couch and then with a separate ottoman in a matter of about 60 seconds. It's pretty rad. So I mentioned I have all these different things in this room. I used the natural leg finish which is their lightest color. And I dig it. I mean I've been using these things hours and hours and hours every single day. So I am using what I am sharing with you guys. And if getting a sofa without trying it in-store sounds risky, you don't need to worry. All Form sofas are delivered directly to your home with fast free shipping and you get 100 days to decide if you want to keep it. That's more than 3 months and if you don't love it, they'll pick it up for free and give you a full refund. Your sofa frame also has a forever warranty. That's literally forever. So check it out. Take a look. They've got all sorts of cool stuff to choose from. I was skeptical and it actually worked. It worked much better than I could have imagined. And I'm very very happy. So to find your perfect sofa, check out allform.com/tim. That's A-L-L-F-O-R-M dot com slash tim. All Form is offering 20% off all orders to you, my dear listeners, at allform.com/tim. Make sure to use the code TIM at checkout. That's allform.com/tim and use code TIM at checkout. This episode is brought to you by LinkedIn Jobs. Small businesses have unique needs. A lot of you know this. I know this. And even with the uncertainty these days, one thing stands unchanged. And that is the importance of having the right people on your team. But hiring can be hard. It can be really expensive if you make mistakes. Very painful if you get it wrong. I've certainly had that experience and I'm not eager to repeat it. So I try to do as much upfront screening as possible. When your business is ready to make the next hire, LinkedIn Jobs can help you screen candidates with the hard and soft skills that you're looking for. They'll match your position with qualified members so that you can find the right person quickly. Using LinkedIn's active community of more than 690 million professionals worldwide, LinkedIn Jobs can help you find and hire the right person faster. So when your business is ready to make that next hire, find the right person with LinkedIn Jobs. You can pay what you want and get the first $50 off. Just visit LinkedIn.com/Tim. Again, that's LinkedIn.com/Tim to get $50 off your first job post. Terms and conditions apply. Hello boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show.

Early Life, Education, And Career Transition

Recalled pivotal moments involving an appetite for risk. (03:59)

I'm thrilled to have today's guest joining us. Jana Levin on Twitter and Instagram @janaeleven is the Tau Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. And has contributed to an understanding of black holes, the cosmology of extra dimensions, the gravitational waves in the shape of space-time. There's an end in there. And gravitational waves in the space. Oh, and the space of shape-time. You know, third time's the charm. And gravitational waves in the shape of space-time. You know, that's not a sentence I say very often. She is also Director of Sciences at PioneerWorks, a cultural center dedicated to experimentation, education, and production across disciplines. And PioneerWorks' virtual home, The Broadcast. Obviously, I'll link to all of this in the show notes. Her books include How the Universe Got Its Spots, and a novel, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, which won the Pen Bingham Prize. She was recently named a Guggenheim Fellow, a grant awarded to those "who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship." Her last book, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, is the inside story on the discovery of the century. The sound of space-time ringing from the collision of two black holes over a billion years ago. And your timing of publication was just incredible. We might touch on that. Her newest book, Black Hole Survival Guide, is scheduled for publication at the end of 2020. Jenna, thank you so much for making time to be on the show today. Thanks so much for having me. And I have to say, hearing that bio makes it sound like it was smooth sailing. Which is what we do when we edit our bios. I would love to have a bio that included all our failures. Well, the good news is that with a long-form podcast, we can fill in some of the gaps and talk about those. And I thought we would start way back in time, if we step into the time machine.

Crisscrossing the fabrics of the multiverse. (05:55)

And not necessarily with failures, but I was doing all sorts of homework for this. And I particularly enjoy doing homework for interviews when they involve my friends, because I find all sorts of things that I didn't know. Would you say that you were reckless as a kid? And do you remember any particular notable instances of getting in trouble? Oh my God, hilarious. I was so reckless. I was so reckless. My parents used to say, "Stop diving off the high board without checking if there's water in the pool." And yeah, I had no health problems as a child, but yet I was in the hospital, I can't even mention how many times, from completely insane reckless accidents. Breaking my nose, dislocating my finger, doing something crazy. The worst was skateboarding at around, I guess, 11 and hanging on to the back of a passing car and hitting a break on the road and landing on my head. And experiencing amnesia, which is a pretty peculiar experience, and going into a coma. So that was a big one, but it wasn't the first or the last. I remember my father being, he was so devastated and just, "Can you please stop?" Like, "You can't do this to us."

Self-inflicted wounds, rebuilding trust through collage. (07:23)

And you've had some self-inflicted wounds, and then you've had others that you could certainly share more details about, but... Like a car accident? Like the car accident. Could you describe this car accident, which I also didn't know about? Yeah, so I really am not known for being risk-averse, and so I guess it was my, I was 16 to my 17th birthday night, and I didn't have a driver's license, but a friend driving a car. And we were really reckless, and it was a storm, and we wiped out in the water, the puddles, hit some grass, ended up hitting kind of a footbridge, but flipping and landing upside down in basically a canal and underwater. And, you know, we all made it out alive, which is pretty amazing. Scarred up, you know, I have a scar on my face, I have a scar on my hand. It's not necessarily that noticeable, but it's definitely a mark. And after that, my parents said, "You need to go to college." I was a junior in high school, and they said, "We can't take it anymore. We just, we can't take it anymore. You need to go to college." And it was a smart sort of instinct on their part that I should do something more constructive, and I'll be less wild. And I have old sisters older than me who they've been through it before, and they were like, "We're not doing this again." And so it was by the summer of that year when I was, I didn't finish my junior year because of the accident, and by the summer of that year I was applying, pleading with two colleges to let me in, and one of them had just accepted women for, in their curriculum, it was an all-male school, Columbia. And its sister school, Barnard, accepted me. And so two months later, a little banged up, I started college. It ended up saving my life, I'm sure of it.

How did college save your life? (09:31)

Now, did it save your life? It probably saved your parents' sanity by getting out of the house. Yeah, right. It saved our relationship. How did it save you in the sense that for many kids who go away to college, that is when they become reckless? Right. Was it offering a larger challenge? Was it offering the type of coursework that you were interested in? It was all of it. I was still very interested in New York life, and New York was real rough around the edges, and it was exciting, and things I had never seen before, and subversive things, and all of that fascinated me. But yeah, the actual scholarship was incredible, and it wasn't a two-switch situation. I was either a maniac or I was a scholar. Like, here, at this particular place, I could be a little bit of both, in a better balance. And the scholarship here was absolutely one of the most, I mean, for sure, this incredible experience. Also, being that age, your mind is voracious and undisciplined, but spongy, and I loved the intense intellectualism of this place. And paired with an absence of a requirement to conform, which is a New York City thing, or a feminist college thing, or a Columbia University thing. And that combination, I was extremely grateful. Also, I think because, unlike maybe other students who had gone through college and the SATs, and written all of their essays, and had the horrible experience of being rejected and accepted, like, I didn't have that. I didn't have that experience. I was just pure gratitude that they took me in. Two months after my accident, I was in college. And I really carried that feeling with me for the years, that just, "Thank God, thank God, it could have gone so bad."

What did you think you wanted to do when you grew up? (11:40)

What did you think at that point, when you're walking into this incredible academic institution, off you go to college, in your mind, what did you think you might be when you grew up, so to speak? Oh, so it never crossed my mind, science, being a scientist, never crossed my mind when I started here. I was really interested in philosophy, and I think, in retrospect, what I was actually interested was the big questions. Not the stylistic study of philosophy, but the questions. But I didn't know that at the time. And loved literature. I often say my mother taught me to read, and I don't mean sounding out phonetics as a child. I mean, when I was 14, 15, which is the first time I actually started reading. Really? I mean, I read for school, but my mom kind of taught me how to read a book. And a very strong memory, Toni Morrison's Beloved was the first one, where she prepared me to slow down, and not to show off as a reader, but to be a receiver of this, and to slow down, and to appreciate the depth of the language. And absolutely, my mother taught me that, and I remember that so strongly discovering literature. What did the teaching look like? Was it suggesting books to read and then discussing it with her? It didn't feel like teaching at all. It felt like sharing something precious to her. So, my mother's a voracious reader. I remember when I realized we would have bookshelves, and I would pull the first book back and realize they went three deep. And just an absolutely voracious reader, and an excellent reader. Like, an intimate, deep perception of layers of stuff that... And what I learned also about that was that you can write a book that not everyone has to read at every level, and it can be wonderful. That's so true. Yeah, and maybe not everybody wants it at that level, or they want others at that level and not this one. All that's fine. You have to reach many levels to have a truly great sculptural construct. And that's what she showed me. And it wasn't at all like, "Sit you down, I'm schooling you," at all. It was very much just sharing. Like, "I just read 'Beloved.' You have got to read this. You will not believe what Toni Morrison does in this book." And it was lots of things. And a big range. It was Philip Roth. It was Hemingway. It was whatever. And when I finally became a voracious reader, I had no quality control. I just loved books. I would read crappy things. I would read wonderfully. I would read classics. There was no snobbery in it. It was like, "Oh, this one's just fun." You were an omnivore. Yeah, I became an omnivore. And so I carried that with me, and I never thought... I was very intimidated by everything. I was very, very intimidated by all of it. I didn't think I would have what it takes to bring to be the creative original in any of those subjects. I came in to be a student. Very much so.

What did you learn studying philosophy that changed your outlook? (15:12)

And philosophy, within that discipline, if we want to call it discipline... And it's got a real structure and a system and rules, for sure. And you're asking big questions. What are the differences between the answers that you get in philosophy and the answers that you later sought to get or studied historically in science? And then we'll certainly... I want to hear how on earth science came on your radar. I mean, that is spot on the question. Spot on the question. Because I enjoyed studying philosophy, but I was really frustrated with the fact that... And this is the example I often use because it was really a specific example in my experience. What Kant meant when he said, "It drove me bananas." He was so, at the end of it, infuriated. I was like, "If Kant, who barely left his home village, sealed in his mind the secrets of life, I don't buy that narrative. That's not possible. It must not have been universally true, or he chose the wrong methodology for conveying it." And when... Which we'll get to, I think, in this conversation. When Einstein exposed special relativity, what he discovered, nobody, I swear to you, nobody who studies it is going back and saying, "What did Einstein mean?" And that's an enormous difference. We don't become obsessed with the cult of personality with... We are obsessed with the cult of personality with Einstein, but not to extract the meaning of what he said. I can have erased from my mind that Einstein existed as long as nobody erases special relativity from my mind, and I can share it with anybody in the universe. That's a whole other level of discovery and transcendence. And I don't like things whose truths are rooted in a single man's mind or a single cultural meme. I want it to be true in Bangladesh. I want it to be true for me in New York. I want it to be true in another galaxy. And that was the shift for me, is when I realized that. I love that we're spending some time on this because I studied some philosophy as an undergrad, had to, and enjoyed it because it's full of brain teasers and the trolley problem and all sorts of things that are exciting and interesting and difficult to explore. And you have this subjectivity of interpretation that is really problematic. And you mentioned transcendent, right? And for something to transcend geographical boundaries in a way, it can't be bound to a translation of a word from German to English, let's just say.

How did Michio Kaku suggest your best match in physics? (18:34)

Because you're arguing over what Kant meant, but you're reading it in English, which is already an abstraction from what we would have read, say, whether that's true with a lot of philosophers. So how does science enter the picture? So, I mean, personally, you mean for me, like how did it happen? It was through philosophy. So what happened, and just to prep this, we had very rigorous science requirements, which I decided to get over with because I didn't think I had any interest in science. And so my first year in college, I went through chemistry and organic chemistry and I did all those super hardcore subjects. And I remember my chemistry professor pulling me aside and was like, "Have you ever considered physics?" And I was like, also because I didn't finish high school, I had never had physics or calculus. I wasn't that kid who had AP physics and calculus. I didn't finish high school. And so I was offended. I was literally recoiled. And I was like, physicists memorize equations and they build bombs and there's no creativity. And I was absolutely insulted. And I also had to do calculus as my math requirement. And there was a similar, they were like, "Hey, have you ever considered doing some math?" And I was like, "Oh, gasp!" And then it was really, really funny that that's not how it came because what happened is in a philosophy class where we were arguing about Heidegger, who is a philosopher who's very contentious, but who I really enjoyed. Really enjoyed Heidegger, but more as a word played poetry, you know, mind teaser than like admiration for the individual, which there's a lot of that in philosophy, you know, the hero worship. So anyways, I'm in this class and this young guy comes in to do his job interview to become a professor at Columbia. And he has a PhD in physics. His name is David Albert. He's now a very famous philosopher of science.

The turning point and switch to course work in physics. (20:50)

And he comes in and he's not in my mind, he's doing philosophy at a totally different way and style. And he starts talking about Einstein and free will and quantum mechanics and determinism and everyone, even the most obnoxious show-offs in those classes. And I'm sure you know what I mean. Oh, I do. And everyone got quiet. And I thought, "Wow, I'm not hearing all the bluster I usually hear in this room." And I just was mesmerized. And David Albert's now a friend of mine and a colleague. He got the job and is a Columbia professor. How do you spell his last name? A-L-B-E-R-T, like the first name. Okay. Albert. Got it. Albert. And he had no idea I was sitting in the back of the room all those years ago. And I swear to you, it's what made me have that switch of, "I don't want to talk about what Kant meant. Nobody's talking about what Einstein meant. We simply have to carry it on. From where he gave us the baton, we have to keep moving. That's the job. The job isn't to obsess about his personal life and his personal psychology and the phrasing of every word, because math is universal. And I had this chilling experience that I cannot even describe. And after that, I basically switched. I was probably a sophomore going into my junior year. And so by a junior in college, I switched my major to astronomy and physics, and I took math going crazy, which I always liked math. I always liked math. I just didn't know I had any purpose for it. And so I scrambled. I really scrambled to try to catch up to my peers who were those kids who had the chemistry set in their basement and always knew and knew things I didn't know and had intuitions I didn't have. And so I really scrambled. And I think one of the reasons why I became pretty mathematically leaning was as a compensation for not feeling like I had the intuition. That makes perfect sense. What did the chemistry and math teachers see in you that led them to suggest physics? What did they intuit or sense or see or hear? Well, I think the math classes were very anonymous. They were big classes with calculus. It was very anonymous. I just did really well in calculus. I really did. I liked math. I was good at it. I didn't think twice about it. It's like being good at jump rope. I really didn't think twice about it. Yeah, I could crush the calculus. And I don't know why. I didn't really have any background. It's not like something that necessarily runs in my family. But I enjoy it, actually. And I would find weird solutions. Like, they would throw one problem on a calculus test that they hadn't taught you how to solve. And I would like that problem. And I would spend my time on that problem. And I would fix it. And I'm not saying I didn't do badly sometimes. So calculus was just sort of a skill thing. It was really like jumping rope. And then with chemistry, I always loved naturalism. Always. And I just didn't see it. We talked differently about it when I was a kid. Nobody was like, "Oh my God."

Naturalism and love for science. (24:27)

What do you mean by naturalism? Nobody was like, "Oh, you're a scientist." I loved books about evolution. And I loved Carl Sagan. And I loved lying on the beach with my dad on a dark island in South Carolina where there were no street lights. Like, I'm a city kid. I'd never seen the sky. And marveling over the view of the Milky Way. I just didn't see it as science. I saw it as an experientially wonderful thing. And I loved... My dad's a MD. So when my mom taught me how to read, my dad taught me how to ask questions. My dad's just a super curious guy. He would always talk about, "Why is it like this? And why is it like that?" And just in a different 10 years later, people would have said, "Your daughter's a scientist." But at that time, nobody said that. Never crossed anyone's mind. And in retrospect, I always had that leaning. I just felt it in a more kind of organic, poetic appreciation kind of a way.

Philosophers that Michio recommends. (25:34)

So we're going to go deep. We're going to go into all sorts of science. Before we do, I want to ask you, for those who have not delved into philosophy but are interested in perhaps dipping their toe in, are there any particular favorite philosophers you have for someone who doesn't want to get stuck in the quicksand of some of the philosophers I shan't name? But just the sort of semantic juggling that gets so tiresome. Do you have any favorite philosophers to read that you would recommend to folks? It's tough. I think that somebody like Bertrand Russell, who's also a mathematician... Bertrand Russell's amazing. I know this is unpopular, but I really enjoyed Heidegger. There was something to his madness. Wittgenstein, for sure, but you're never going to figure him out. The story of Wittgenstein's entire family is fascinating. Fascinating. And I have very off opinions about Wittgenstein, but that I still believe. I think he was a scientist, a mathematician, a mystic. I think he was a poet. So, I mean, those for me are the biggest standouts. I love the rationalists. If you wanted to study Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Descartes, all that's great. But if you ask at a pleasure center level, I would kind of stick to Bertrand Russell, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. And not to miss the modern philosophers who are basically very close to the boundary of science and philosophy. Who are pushing forward interpretations of quantum mechanics, understandings of the nature of time, and there's little communities, there's little centers like at Oxford, at Columbia, at Rutgers. I think there's one at UCSC, if I'm not mistaken, where they're really pushing physicists to not be plumbers and to not be like, "I got a wrench. I know how to use it." To be like, "But you don't understand that wrench. Let's talk about it." Those people are really, really important and provocative. And nothing against plumbers. Lenny Susskind, who is one of the most brilliant physicists I've ever known, was a plumber and grew up in the Bronx, a plumber's son. And Lenny is an absolute creative genius in theoretical physics.

Philosophy and the directions of physics. (28:09)

Amazing. And you mentioned the modern philosophers. I don't know many modern philosophers, but is it the case that with advancing technology and discovery, there is this reconnection or convergence of philosophy and science in very practical respects? And one example that comes to mind, we don't have to explore the specific example, but I'm wondering within physics and philosophy or in the combination, if this is true, you take something like the trolley problem. So you're on a trolley. It's headed towards five workmen, just hypothetically, and you can switch the track and kill one person. So you're choosing between one and five, but then there are all these other considerations. And with autonomous driving, you effectively have to code in those types of decisions. So this thought experiment in Philosophy 101 undergrad is all of a sudden very relevant. Is that the case in physics as well? I would say that the philosophers are doing, the ones from my perspective, are doing the really provocative, important work, are demanding that physicists acknowledge that they don't understand their most widely accurately tested paradigm in the history of science, namely quantum mechanics. And so it's pretty wild that we build these machines like the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and that we discover the Higgs particle, the goddamn particle, which was appropriated as the guard particle, but the original title was the goddamn particle. And it's incredibly stunningly accurate. You can build stuff. For me, that's the base level proof that something's true and that we actually do not understand it. And I think that they're right to press us, that it's not good enough just to build stuff, that if you technically, philosophically, intellectually do not understand something, use it as a guide to tell you what's beyond, what more we could know. And I really think that the philosophers on the interpretation of quantum mechanics, the measurement problem, which is to say in quantum mechanics, things don't always assume a concrete state, yet when we measure them, we find them only in a concrete state. Like this kind of what is reality stuff? What is the role of complex systems? I think they're right to press us on this and I think that they're making way more progress than the physicists are. And you've spoken to Sean Carroll and Sean in no small part has made me look at that. And as a friend and as a colleague and as a scientist, he has made me look at that and I think he's right about that. And Sean and I actually have a long running joke because he was in graduate school at Harvard when I was at MIT. We were very good friends. And I became more and more, just calculate man, it's objective reality, just do it, let's discover stuff. And he went more and more into philosophy and we totally tease each other about it all the time. I'd love to hear that, like two glasses of wine each and that would be a good dinner. And people know to do that too.

Minimum Viable Quantum Mechanics (31:37)

Pass the salad, how many milligrams or grams would you like, Jana? Let's dig into this, maybe not directly, the what is reality, that's a big one to bite off. That's a big one and also not my favorite in a sense. I do like the basic pleasure of experience of something that we've discovered, of something that we found on paper and math and then it's out there. I love that connect. So I think we can take that and use it to stretch people who are listening a little bit and that includes me. So I'm going to ask you a question that you've no doubt been asked many, many times and I apologize, I want to ask it anyway. How is it possible that the universe could be finite? It is the universe after all, right? So it's hard to just visualize how that could make sense. You should not apologize for that question because it's ongoing for me too. So Einstein had this funny quote, which I've said many times, which is, "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity." And then he says, "And I'm not so sure about the universe." And as soon as Einstein started talking about space-time and geometry, so basically seeing the universe as a curved geometry, his theory cannot specify the global connectedness. It's not necessarily a shortcoming of Einstein's theory of general relativity, it's just that we suspect that the quantum theory of gravity beyond Einstein will tell us something about the global structure. So for example, if I'm looking right now, I have a teacup and I'm looking at it super, super closely, I see the curves on it, that's what Einstein taught us about. But if I put it further away, I see a handle and a connectedness of the handle. And we call that topology, the fact that there's a hole and that even if this was made of clay, there's nothing I could do to my teacup to get rid of that hole unless I broke it or did something like that. So we call that topology, it has a feature, it has a feature called a hole. It's not equivalent to just a solid object. And that aspect of geometry, once Einstein said space-time is curved and it's geometry, people started to ask, "Well, what about topology, the connectedness?" So for instance, let's look at the Earth. You and I are in different parts of the Earth. Maybe you're near a hill and you're noticing the curves on the surface of the Earth. You go up the hill, you go down the hill. I live on Morningside Heights by Columbia, I go down a hill to Harlem, I go up a hill to Columbia. And that's local. But if I pan way, way far back, I see that the Earth is actually a sphere. And I don't see that up close. And that is something, ridiculously enough, we still have flat-earthers. But that is something that the Greeks and ancient astronomers discovered. It was not a known thing. And so that aspect of space-time, that compactness, the fact that the Earth isn't infinite, the Earth isn't an infinite plane. It actually curves around, wraps back on itself, and is a compact, finite surface. That was a discovery recently, in some sense. Spanish explorers were afraid that Columbus was going to sail off the edge of the Earth, that it was not compact. And so this kind of thinking should be, we should be asking that about the universe. Is it possible? So if I leave New York City and I travel in a straight line as best I can, I might need to paddle, I might need to walk, I might need to do whatever. I will come back to New York City. That was not known until fairly recently. And it might be like that with the universe, that if I left the solar system in a spacecraft and I left the galaxy and I traveled in a straight line, after a while, I would very surprisingly find myself coming back to the Milky Way galaxy and the solar system.

Unconventional Thought Experiments And Sponsor Mentions

What Would You Write in a Santa Card to a Newborn? (36:19)

And does that infer, this is going to be a third grade question, I guess they probably wouldn't use infer, but in my mind, I'm imagining the universe as this bubble that is spherical or oblong or something like that, if the universe is expanding or contracting. Yeah, it can be an expanding, finite surface. And then the sort of like, wait a second, teacher question that I want to ask is, and you see this coming, right, but if it is finite, what's on the outside of it? If that's even visually, like sort of visual-spatially the right way to think about it. I am not going to deny that this is hard for everybody, even very accredited, you know, experienced mathematicians. This is not an easy concept, but I will tell you there is no requirement for anything on the outside. There's this sort of pat answer that people give, which is there's nothing north of the North Pole, go more north of the North Pole and you go south. I don't love that answer because I understand that intuitively people are saying, yeah, but I could go up. And so it's not satisfying, but here's what's really hard to conceive of, but I believe I could convince you that it's possible, is that I do not need to embed the three-dimensional universe, if it's finite, into a higher dimensional space. So let's talk about the Earth. The Earth as a surface, forget about the inside, forget about it that it's a solid object. Let's just look at the surface of the Earth. That is two-dimensional. All I need to know on the surface of the Earth is east, west, north, south, 2D. That's it. It lives in 3D though, which is how as three-dimensional beings we're able to visualize it. So we're like, yeah, the Earth is finite and it's 2D, but there's all this three-dimensional stuff that it lives in. And we want to do the same thing with the universe. I want to tell you there's a three-dimensional equivalent to the Earth that is a sphere. It's a three-dimensional sphere. You cannot visualize it, and it need not be nested in a higher dimension. And that's where you start to go like, okay. And the kind of impact of that is that anything that's space-time is part of the universe. So if I said, yeah, we live in a higher dimensional version of the Earth, a three-dimensional sphere, nested in a higher dimension, then any relativist, anybody who uses Einstein's theory as a guide would say, "Yeah, but that's space-time and therefore that's part of the universe." So there's no such thing as space or time locations or events that aren't part of the universe. All that would mean was that we unnecessarily lived in four dimensions. So here's another example that I think is going to make this a little bit more manageable. If you look at – let's look at a video game.

Pac Man's N-dimensional world. (39:48)

Let's look at Pac-Man, which just turned 40 or something. Now we're speaking my language. All right, here we go. Pac-Man just showed up on my video feed. You know how Pac-Man goes off the right side of the frame and comes in the left side of the frame? Yes. And you know how you can go out the top of the frame and come in the bottom of the frame? Yes. Pac-Man lives on a two-dimensional doughnut that is not embedded in a higher dimensional space. That's it. There is no higher dimensional space. He lives in a flat two-dimensional world. It is independent. Is that what you mean? I mean, there's no requirement. In the video game rules, he exits the right side, he enters the left side. He goes out the top, he enters the bottom. I don't actually know if he can go out the top or on the left and right side, but we'll extrapolate. That means that what topologists would call that is a doughnut, that it has the shape of a doughnut. He's continuously going around in one direction, and he can continuously go around in the other direction. But that doughnut does not live in a higher dimensional space. It lives happily in 2D. On your 2D flat screen, that's the whole story mathematically. He goes out one side, he comes in the other. He goes out the top, he comes in the bottom. And if you see that, you start to think, "Okay, wow, that's a weird computer rule." But computer rules are only reflecting mathematical rules, and the universe could obey the same rules. I go out to the right side of the universe, I come in the left side. I go out the top of the universe, I come in the bottom. There is no need for that to live in another space. That's it. I could do that in three dimensions, I could go forward and come in the back, and that's it. It's a three-dimensional space, it does not live in a higher dimension. It is just connected in a mathematical way that looks like a crazy doughnut if you embedded it in a higher dimensional space, but it does not need to live in the higher dimensional space. Any more than your game Pac-Man looks like a doughnut to you. We could have a moment of silence if you want.

A language to see what the eye cannot. (42:11)

Yeah, no, I'm letting my neurons recover for a second. But I think you could sell – this is where my head goes, just to show you how – just so you can lose any shred of respect you might have for me. I was thinking you could sell a lot of t-shirts that would say, "That doughnut does not exist in a higher dimensional space." Pac-Man is a doughnut that doesn't live in a higher dimensional space. I mean, we are limited by our experience. We're three-dimensional beings. We understand that the Earth is a compact two-dimensional surface that lives in a higher three-dimensional space. What we have trouble with is the idea that there could be a compact two-dimensional surface that does not live in a higher dimensional space. The way that I've probably very stupidly thought about this – this is speaking as a non-scientist, non-physicist. I never did take calculus because I was actually pretty good at math, and I had a very abusive math teacher in sophomore year of high school. I just said, "Fuck it, I'm out." It's so crazy how impactful that is. Yeah, my brother had a great teacher, and now he has a PhD in statistics. He's just going to show you. You clearly have a very logical mind. That's a lot of what you access. When I'm not upset, yeah. When I'm not upset, my logic falls to pieces when I'm upset. But I try. I listen to, just by way of analogy, maybe incorrectly, I was listening to an episode of Radiolab recently talking about colors and the perception of colors and what a rainbow would look like to a dog, say. Wow, yeah. What a rainbow would look like to a human, what it would look like to a butterfly, which has more, I want to say – Wild range of colors. It's either rods or cones. I always mix the two up. Yeah, me too. But for color perception, and then you have something like a mantis shrimp, which has 19 times the number of these receptors compared to a human. You can try to describe what it might look like to see a rainbow with ultraviolet added, but it's a real stretch of the imagination to do so as a human who has limited perceptual abilities. So it seems like, to me, physics is sort of showing the underlying code of the universe/simulation that we live in, and it's allowing you to see the shape and form, perhaps, of things that you cannot perceive as a human. I don't know if that's accurate, but that's – It's totally accurate. I would say that I discover stuff through math that is so counterintuitive that I really wrestle with it, which is why I love math, because it's telling me stuff that I can't see. So even these things that I'm blathering at, I struggled with them. I struggled with these ideas, because we're really reliant on intuition that we can see and perceive, a curved surface in a higher dimensional space, or we always have to go down in dimension. The math I follow and trust, but believe me, I cannot visualize a three-dimensional sphere nested in a higher dimension. It's not available to my mind or anybody else's. And we can't do it, and we don't have an intuition for it. And so that's where the math is this insane guide that we inherited that. My friend Brian Greene, who I don't know if you've interviewed, says things to me like, "Yeah, maybe one day we won't do math, but right now it's all we got." And that's what it feels like. The math shows you something, and you're like, "Whoa!" So here's an example of what math showed me that I can't visualize. Suppose you had two interconnected rings in three dimensions. There's nothing you could do to separate them. Two steel-welded, interconnected rings, loosely connected. There's nothing you can do to break them apart unless you cut the steel, right? If you lived in four dimensions spatially, you could actually lift them apart no problem. Can I say that one more time? If you lived in four dimensions, you could take these steel-welded rings that are totally locked and interconnected that could not be separated without a chainsaw. In four dimensions, you can separate them without breaking them. And here's the analogy that helps with it, but you'll never be able to see it. I can't see it. No mathematician can see it either. But in two dimensions, we can see it. Suppose I had a big steel ring surrounding a small steel ring in two dimensions, and they could never come off the plane. They could never come off the table. There is nothing I could do to get the small one outside of the big one but cut the big one. Yep. Yep. You agree with that? I do. That's a simple picture. But if I live in three dimensions, I can simply lift the inner ring out. Mm-hmm. And that's what four dimensions allow you to do with the interconnected links. And it's really hard to see. That's wild. It's wild. It's a formal mathematical proof.

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What is the Mobius strip? (48:51)

Now I want to continue on this journey down the rabbit hole. You gave a great talk via the moth called "Life on a Mobius Strip." Why did you use the phrase "mobius strip"? So that talk, it describes a journey through life, but one in which you come back different. So really technically mathematically different. So if I take a left-handed glove, or let's start with a right-handed glove because most of us are right-handed, and I go around, I travel around a strip, just literally imagine a cylinder. It comes back right-handed. If you take that same glove on a trip around a mobius strip, which has a twist in it, your right-handed glove comes back left-handed. And it is fundamentally different. Yeah, it's so weird. And there's something in the story that is related to that right-handedness, which is very predominant in nature, and left-handedness, which is also very predominant in different ways. And the idea that we take these things so for granted we don't even question them anymore. Why is your heart on the left side of your body? Why is mine on the left side of my body? What is the asymmetry that is for almost every single person on the planet? There's an asymmetry that we all have. And it was kind of this story of a strange journey between me and my at-the-time boyfriend, now husband, coming back with a flipped chirality. So left-handedness and right-handedness is known as chirality. Going on a very peculiar journey and coming back with a different chirality, like fundamentally different. And I don't know if you want me to do the spoiler of the end of the story. You know, I think I really want you to. I suggest people listen to the talk and we'll link to it in the show notes. But I feel like you've got to do it. It is extreme. So my son, his heart is on the right side of his body. And all of his organs are mirror reversed. And the fact that it happened to me of all people was pretty strange. And just so people aren't alarmed, the placement of his organs are totally healthy. There's nothing wrong with having, he's literally a mirror image. Of most of us. And there's nothing unhealthy about the organ placement. It's just extravagantly rare. And it was sort of, I felt like it was this, it's also an incredibly rare genetic condition. You know, my husband is an Anglo-Irish musician from an incredibly tough, brutal part of working class Manchester. And you know, I'm a sort of kid from Chicago who had everything. And it was like the odds of us both having the resonance of that, it's extremely rare genetic condition. And going on this very peculiar journey together. And creating this exceptional child who is a mirror image. As though he was taken on a trip around a mobius strip. And so that was the moss story. And we'll link to that, everybody. Tim.blog/podcast and you'll be able to find Jana obviously and see all the links. But this is what we started with, that was something I was going to tell nobody or everybody. And I told nobody. I mean I had some of my dearest lifelong friends, I didn't say a word about it. And I think the anxiety was that people would find it so peculiar that they would treat him as sickly and his organ placement as healthy. It's just exceptionally strange. And so we hid it for years. And I think when I told that moss story, 2011, 2012 maybe, he was 11. And by then we felt so confident in his health. And that he would not perceive himself as sickly and that other people wouldn't project on him. Like if you tell that about a baby. People become overly precious and it's something I really don't like. I really don't like when kids are treated like glass. And so it was this kind of dark secret that Warren and I went to great lengths to keep him healthy, to see doctors, to go to zillions of experts, to travel across the country, to have him participate in studies, but told none of our friends. And that was the tell nobody or everybody, when the moth asked me to do it, I felt ready at about that point in time to make it a work, like a piece. And work on constructing it and work on the levels of it as I would a book. And even though it was only a 50 minute story. And my son only heard it a couple of years ago. Oh, no kidding. Yeah. Wild. And... Wild is the... That's my exclamation of the conversation it seems. Yeah.

Art And Writing Perspectives

Silence versus art (54:58)

And we... Because we didn't want him to be overwrought about... We didn't want him to feel sickly because we believed he wouldn't be. But it's such a rare condition and not everyone does well without condition. It's so rare. We got off really lucky, but it was really important to us that he feel strong and healthy and not have a consciousness of a sick kid. This is tell no one or everybody. And you followed that when we were talking before recording. And I'm paraphrasing here, but it's either silence or art, right? Something along those lines. Oh, yeah. Exactly. And two questions. How did you feel after giving the talk? And then number two, have you taken other types of internal pressure or angst or emotion and turned that into art as a way of release or for other reasons? I mean, those are both, I think, really valuable questions. I do a lot of public speaking about science and I have a pretty personal tone. My first book is pretty autobiographical and personal and intimate, so it's not like I'm afraid of that. But I was terrified of giving the moth talk. It's so funny. I'm on stage all the time. I don't get nervous. Like, you could wake me up in the middle of the night and I'd be like, "Yeah, black holes!" But for this, part of it was that I was telling this story for the first time that I had kept to myself for over a decade. And part of it was that I was an exceptional company. It was the World Science Festival and Eric Lander spoke about the Human Genome Project and using DNA evidence to release prisoners who were wrongly incarcerated. Huge. Eric Lander is huge. A guy who was doing hand transplant surgeries for Marines and people in Iraq. And it culminated with a Nobel Prize-winning Holocaust-surviving chemist. No pressure. And me. And they were like, "Jana, talk about your boyfriend." So it was really not an easy assignment. Yeah, definitely going off-piste there. And I was absolutely like, "Oh my God, a Holocaust-surviving Nobel Prize-winning chemist. And I'm going to talk about my boyfriend." So I really worked on that piece. I only had a couple of weeks to do it. But it's one of the only times I can remember having to walk around the city block a couple of times to cool off. I begged them to let me go first because my anxiety level was so high. But once I got on stage, I was like, "I'm in it. I got this." Yeah, you were cool as a cucumber. I was cool as a cucumber. You looked very relaxed.

Janets feelings after telling the story (58:10)

So funny. It was like a switch was thrown and I was like, "I'm in this." Back in the game. And to your second question. Oh, wait. Well, before we get to my second question, afterwards, so you finally shared this secret with the entire whole of men and womankind. How did you feel? Were you just blank? Were you elated? Were you relieved? What were you feeling in the hours post? I think I was elated because it didn't come out as, "Oh, I'm revealing the pain in my heart." It came out to me, and I don't know if anyone else felt this way, but it came out to me as a sculpture that I worked on and I felt really good about. And that I controlled my nerves and I got on stage. When I get on stage and it's good, I feel like it's because of this love vibe from the audience. And The Moth is such a wonderful venue. They're so fantastic. And their audience just is on your side. And I so felt that both from Catherine Burns, the director who helped me frame the story and the audience, that that's why I locked into this really other zone of feeling like I am telling a personal story to people I care about, even though I'm also telling it to everybody. And it just, afterwards, I was elated. Yeah. And you used the word sculpture, being proud of the sculpture you'd made. I mean, you architected it. You had the book ending of the chirality. It's well done. I mean, you put a lot of time into it and effort. It's very clear. I appreciate that. And I do that in writing. Like, for me, writing is sculpture. I have this weird relationship with writing that it's sculpture. I'm not really sure how to explain it, but it's structural. Tell me more. Let's try it out.

Janet describes writing (01:00:09)

Well, I feel like there were generations of writers who really appreciated structure. And there are fads in writing. Then it becomes there's a lot of self-analysis, which is not structural, and there's a lot of different styles of writing. And I always really resonated with things that had layers. And I work really hard on structure. I lay out drawings on a board. And I think really hard about modules and elements. And I hope it doesn't show. I don't want you to read it that way, but I want it to be there. And one of the conversations I had with a friend recently was, he's like, "Janet, nobody's going to notice that one of our writers had a grammatical error." And I was like, "But they will. They might not quote the rule that he misused the subjective tense, but they'll feel it. They'll notice it in a really subtle way." And that's why great writers are respected by tons of people who are not great writers. Like, I respect writers who far exceed my abilities because I recognize something that they're doing, not intellectually, but emotionally. It's a felt sense. It's a felt sense. And so I feel that about structure. If you really, really work on structure, you challenge yourself. You break some bad habits. You don't allow yourself to be self-indulgent. And so, yeah, I really do think of them, like, architecturally.

Discover Kadzu Ishiguro: A Nobel Prize-winning virtuoso. (01:01:47)

Do you have any particular writers who stand out to you for structure? Oh, man. I'm such a fiction fan. I mean, there's this book. I teach a class at the college where I haven't taught in a while, which is called Science and Literature. And it is basically a collection of books that have all just seared me. One of them, for instance, is Katsu Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. And he won the Nobel Prize a few years ago, and that is one of his least popular books, and it's spectacular. It's about cloning. And it's a very personal, intimate book. He took this utterly abstract concept and made it completely small and intimate. And it's stunning. It's an incredible book. And he writes it in a female first person flawlessly. It's partly just a display of unbelievable talent, but it's just an incredible book. Yeah, virtuosity. Virtuosity, thank you. Thank you. But there's a lot of books like that that I really love. There's a book that's been around for quite a long time, Don DeLillo's White Noise, which is also not one of his most famous books, and is hilarious and brilliant and incredible. And it's kind of about this small college town professor and maybe a chemical spill, and you're not quite sure what it is. And it is absolutely hilarious and incredibly clever. I have so many of these, I'm not going to go through all of them, but I'm going to list one more, which is Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which I don't think anybody would look at as a science book. It's a totally apocalyptic book, and I think people would just see it as an apocalyptic dystopia. But to me it's a science conceptual book. It has that core, and it's unlike any book he's ever written in a lot of ways, because he can be a very kind of Faulknerian florid writer, and this is lean as hell. Brutal. And there's no where, what, who, when, or how. No character has a name. You don't know where they are. Whatever the apocalyptic event is, it's not named. I mean, it's just unbelievable. I read that book literally in cabs by streetlight. I read it in less than 24 hours. I was possessed by it. And my own book, The Turing Machine's book, was in press at the same time that I was reading that book. It was at the press. And we have the same editor from Knopf, Dan Frank, who's just an extraordinary editor. And I called Dan, and he literally had to talk me off like the windowsill. You were just like, "Stop the presses! Stop the presses!" I was like, "Pulp it! Pulp it!" And Dan was so great. He literally talked me in from the windowsill. Oh, wow. Yeah, I know that feeling. So... And he didn't bullshit me. He didn't be like, "Your book says 'Gordas McCarthy.'" He was like, "Look at him. He's 77. Look at what he went through." He really gave me respect to not treat me like a child. And that's the only reason why I came in, back into the living room. Yeah, you knew you weren't being pandered to. I was not being manhandled or kidhandled or whatever the expression is. Okay. Have you read any of Ted Chiang's short stories? C-H-I-A-N-G. I do know Ted Chiang's short stories. I believe--and maybe I should be embarrassed to admit this-- I believe I have a collection of short stories in my audio book that I haven't gotten to. I highly recommend, for people listening, if you want, I think really structurally interesting and also scientifically mind-bending short stories. Ted Chiang, C-H-I-N-G. His most recent collection is Exhalation, which I thought could not possibly equal his previous collection, and it maybe surpassed it. They're just so incredible.

Explore the foundations of Arrival. (01:06:25)

For those people who saw Arrival, which is, I think, an incredibly good movie, exploring the impact of language and orthography, meaning writing systems, on thought and how you perceive reality in the context of alien contact, right? Extraterrestrial contact. That was based on one of his short stories, and he's really got an incredible range. It kind of has a Borgesian-like vision.

Two science writers on unassailable lists for thoughtful reading. (01:06:57)

Oh, totally. Absolutely. But I think what you're pointing to--so a lot of people ask me about sci-fi, and I'm not a rabid sci-fi fan. I enjoy it, but that's not--I think the reason why I select the authors I select is because they don't usually write about science, and when they turn to it, they turn to it with the care, like Chang, the care and emotion and intimacy that they would to absolutely any other subject. Totally agree. I have to ask if you have read any of--well, I'll just say that I recommend to people listening, if they're interested in this type of nerdy writing structure exploration, which I think is, more broadly speaking, an exploration of thought and structured thought, that Draft Number 4 by John McPhee is definitely worth taking a look at. Oh, wow. I've not read it. It's worth the read. It's very nerdy. It's based on a seminar that I don't believe he teaches anymore at Princeton called The Literature of Fact. I'm a little obsessed with John McPhee. Yeah, me too.

Varied Literary Interests And Concept Of Time

John McPhee. (01:08:19)

I've always had this terrifying fantasy/nightmare that he would-- Oh, this is about to get good. He would read one of my pieces and critique it. Yeah, yeah. He's one of those writers where you're like, "I just don't--I can't do this." His skill, his technical finesse and prowess and skill is something that I really do admire. It's what we were talking about. You don't have to have that skill to recognize the skill and to experience the pleasure of the gift of somebody giving that to you. He's known as a terror when he edits people. I do have just an anecdote related to editing. I took his seminar when I was an undergrad. You did at Princeton? I did, yeah. That is what I wish had happened to me back then. I didn't have to go through such a grueling process of unlearning bad writing. Well, I mean, look, I'm no McPhee, but I remember the first assignments we were handed back with feedback. In effect, he said, "Before I hand this out, I want you all to realize that you're good writers." I'm paraphrasing, of course. "You were able to get into this seminar, and we'll discuss everything in your one-on-one." So we had one group class, I think it was 12 students per week, and then one-on-one time with him. He's an incredibly good teacher. The pieces were generally of short length. Let's just say the assignments were three pages. I'm just going to make that up. Three pages long. I still have my three-ring binder with all my notes from that class. I hope so. That was a long time ago, 20-plus years ago. There was more red ink on my essay than black ink, meaning I typed out three pages and double-spaced, and his comments seemed to be more than my cumulative ink on the page. I was just like, "Holy shit, I'm in trouble." But what a gift. What a gift. What a gift. One thing that – this will really underscore the reason I recommend people read good books and even consider studying writing is that you get better at thinking. So he pulled out so much fat and just useless drivel and redundancy from my writing that my grades in all of my other classes had a sharp uptick. Wow. And his class took up a lot of energy, so it wasn't that I had extra slack in the system. I think it was because my thinking became tighter. And for people who really want a wonderful book to read that is pretty short – I don't know how long it is. Maybe it's 200 pages. John McPhee wrote a book called Levels of the Game, and if you want an idea of how structure – what it means to structure a book in a really elegant, interesting way, this is a book that is structured around his description of the semifinal match at the 1968 U.S. Open Championship. Oh my God. It's between Clark Grabner, I think it is, and Arthur Ashe. So this is an entire book based on, ostensibly, one tennis match. But that's the framework. And then the way that he then manipulates that and architects it is just incredible. I'm not a tennis player. So it tells you a lot that I was just gripped. So this is one of those books, like you and The Road, that I just carried around with me, and I read it every open moment to finish. That's a recommendation for fixing.

David Foster Wallace. (01:12:22)

And so the other person who broke my heart when he died was David Foster Wallace, who can write about things I have exactly zero interest in and grip me. The Illinois State Fair, Consider the Lobster. Consider the Lobster. Everyone should read that. Like, what do I care about lobsters in Maine and not my world? The Oxford English Dictionary. And every one of those essays is loaded with unbelievable insights. And I don't know if he ever studied with John McPhee. I don't think he did. But I sort of think of him as sort of the wild maverick version of John McPhee. Oh, definitely the wilder and more maverick version. Total maverick, egotistical, like completely different person. But my other story about John McPhee is I did a talk at Princeton a couple years ago, like a panel talk about writing with some colleagues, and I'm not going to name the person who said this to me, but he's a very accomplished writer, and he studied with John McPhee, as you did, and he said that as a grown man, accomplished writer everywhere, major, made his career, went back to John, shared one of his pieces with him, and John edited it, and he said he was in tears. In tears. It was covered with red. And yet everything was on the nose. Yeah, and you're like, "Nailed it." Nailed it. If people don't want to read an entire book like draft number four about writing, there is a series of interviews that John McPhee, for those people wondering how it's spelled, M-C-P-H-E-E, did with the Paris Review in a series they do called The Art of Nonfiction. So if you search The Art of Nonfiction, John McPhee, I may have actually put it on my blog. I think I got permission to republish it because it was so good. So people can look for that on the top log.

Fiction vs. nonfiction. (01:14:34)

But I think you're right. He's the virtuoso of nonfiction. Yeah, really remarkable. This is going to be a total left turn, but I'm going to go left. Yeah. I'm going to go back to thoughts of chirality. This isn't directly related to chirality necessarily, but I texted you not too long ago, and I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't actually made much headway because I became an enamored of a separate novel called Little Big that we can talk about another time. I could talk for hours about it. But I texted you about Carlo Rovelli. Oh, yeah. And specifically because I was looking at a book he wrote about time and our misconceptions of time. You were looking at Seven Brief Lessons. It was a different one. It was a different one. Yeah, Seven Brief Lessons. There's another, I think it's called The Order of Time, something like that. Yeah. And I have it. I'm planning on reading it. So this isn't a question about Carlo specifically. Yeah. It's about time, and I'm wondering if there are any -- because humans experience time as this linear progression, right? Or sands falling to the bottom of the hourglass in this finite life that we have. But how do you think about time, or what are certain realizations or conclusions about time that might seem very strange or counterintuitive? Yeah. So let's start in the concrete, the things that we know are true. There are forms of time travel that we absolutely know are possible. I can travel to the forward of your time. I can't travel to the forward of mine, but I can travel to the forward of yours. So for instance, if I decide to travel near the speed of light to go to Andromeda, a nearby galaxy, and come back traveling very near the speed of light, I might have experienced -- as close as I get to the speed of light, I will experience as little passage of time as imaginable. But let's just say it's a few months for me. For you, gosh, Andromeda is 2.5 million light years away, 2.5 million years would have passed. That's a long time. So, shame to say, despite all of your fantastic protein powders, I would be pretty confident that I would come back to the grief of not finding you here. Very likely. And not America, and maybe not any human beings, maybe human beings would be extinct. And so I can travel to the forward of your time, but I haven't yet figured out how to travel to the forward of mine. To me, I would have had a few months.

Understanding time for dummies. (01:17:21)

My clock would have ticked slowly, my milk would have lasted as long as I expected, my thoughts would process on the time scale I'm comfortable with. I would not notice anything but ordinary time. And that's a fact that that is true. We experimentally measure that. We experimentally detect that. We know that that's a fact. After that fact, which is pretty big to take on its own if you want to, like for instance, we could travel 26,000 light years to the black hole at the center of our galaxy. As long as we went very, very close to the speed of light, we would survive the trip, but 26,000 years would have passed on Earth. And so what's so great about that? Yeah, this is the interstellar dilemma. It's the interstellar dilemma. Interstellar actually got that really right, and I actually want to mention interstellar because Kip Thorne, I have a lot of connections with this, because Kip Thorne, who is one of the most creative physicists I've ever known, wrote the treatment for interstellar. It was his idea to write that. It was his treatment. He also won the Nobel Prize for the LIGO experiment, which detected the collision of black holes, and he was also one of the two main characters in the book that I wrote about the discovery. So Kip and I have tons of connections, and also I consider him a wonderful friend, and he was one of the only people when I was completely unknown and kind of waffling and nobody liked my work. I was working on stuff that nobody respected or thought was good. He was the only person who pulled me into his office and said, "I'm really curious about what you're doing. This is odd and interesting." And I was a nobody, and so Kip looms large in my life in a lot of ways, and therefore interstellar. Also, the moth story that we talked about, I sold the film rights to that with Linda Opest and Nick Wexler attached, who are the—Linda is the same person who produced, who helped Kip make Interstellar. So we're all in a big suit. We're all in a big suit. From Nobel Prizes and black holes to Hollywood. Amazing. Yeah. I mean, Kip said to me at 80, he said, "You know, I'm going to start this new career at making movies." And he's the coolest, coolest, most wonderful guy. I mean, I cannot sing Kip's praises enough. Might have to get Kip on the podcast someday. Oh, you must. And he's so clever and kind and thoughtful. I mean, he's really an exceptional—one of those walks the earth every 50 years, maybe. Well, I'm sold. Yeah. And I don't want to take us off—you said fact number one. That's big enough to sort of wrap your head around. Yeah. We're talking about time. Yeah. Okay. What else do we— So the tough stuff, the stuff that we don't know as fact, that we're grappling with, that we don't have the full picture over is what is time? Why does it insist on having a different role than space? I mean, Einstein taught us that there's space-time. And I'm adamant not to put a hyphen in that. It's space-time. It's one phenomenon. We live in four dimensions. To talk to you, Tim, I have to specify three in person, three spatial coordinates. Where we are, north, south, east, west, what floor we're on, up and down, and what time we're at. And it is absolutely clear that space and time are kind of this unified thing, yet time is viciously different. It refuses to conform. I can turn left and right, but I can't turn forward and backward in time. Why not? And the laws of physics, even more so, are completely invariant under the direction of time. Meaning, if I showed you a movie of a billiard balls knocking, the reverse movie would make equal sense. But if I go up complexity levels and I show you a flower blooming or a flower rotting, you immediately know which one's forward and backward. But the laws of physics don't have that in them. Why is that? So, we really, if I showed you a movie forward and backward that was complex enough, you could tell the difference. But if it was basic enough, you couldn't. And there's something about the laws of physics that they're basically totally reversible. You shouldn't be able to tell the difference between forward and backward. And yet, relentlessly, we go forward. And so this is the crux of some deep mystery that we haven't solved.

Maria Popova's question. (01:22:31)

And there are very smart ideas about, and we can get partway in the conversation about entropy and all that crap. But something about time is resistant to interpretation and understanding. I'm on it. Consider me on the job. And also, our friend Sean Carroll has written a wonderful book called From Eternity to Here, which lays these issues out. And I think it's a really nice read. Check it out. I'll link to that as well. It makes me think of what a friend of mine said to me at one point during COVID when there was still, I mean, there was so much uncertainty. But at the time, it was all uncertainty. And he said, "I think it's time to take some peyote and talk to the pangolin." Maybe there's something to be said for discerning the subtleties of time. It's not that different from like Roger Penrose. Sir Roger Penrose, who's an absolute, I don't know, national treasure for England, he describes that moment of having a realization on one side of a street that he's crossing, forgetting it while he's going through the complex process of not getting hit by a car, and getting to the other side of the street and feeling elated, but not remembering the thought. And how long it took him to recover the thought. And I think that that's something, in a sense, that we're skirting around when we're talking about film and storytelling and the structure of books and art, is that sometimes we need those other fertile grounds, even if it confuses us for a second, even if we remember the direct A to B logic of the thought, that becomes a kind of a fertile ground for when we recover that thought, for it to actually be able to implant in a bigger way or something. I don't want to over-push metaphors, but I do think that's a sense. Oh, you're in good company for that. Yeah, I do think there's a sense that sometimes when you lose your train of thought, when you come back to it, you've found a better way. To boost it and expand. I have a question for you that I don't think she would mind, which was solicited from, by yours truly, our mutual friend, Maria Popova of PoreenPickings.org. Everyone should check that out if you don't know what I'm talking about. One of the most prolific thinkers and writers and consumers of information. You want to talk about wanting to hang up your spurs? Yeah. English is not even her native language. I mean, come on. She's Bulgarian. It's just, I don't get it. I mean, oh my God. It's really like sometimes I'm just like, okay. But she's phenomenal. I give up. Yeah, I give up. Amazing, amazing one. Well, she's phenomenal. And she's part of what, I mean, it's true. She's Bulgarian. English is not her first language. She has the lightest, lightest accent, but her command of English is beyond basically anyone else's.

The tension between vast and remote scales and time. (01:25:46)

Yeah, it's outrageous. It's really. It's really something else. So this was, I was texting with her asking about any topics or questions that she thought could be fertile to explore. And this is one of the things that she sent me. You might want to ask her about the tension. I think mostly a creative tension, but sometimes a troubling human tension between living with a mind that deals with such vast and remote skills with space and time. She jokes that she isn't interested in anything that took place less than 500 billion years ago. That's true. With so much abstract mathematics, which is what theoretical physics is, yet living in a body more to the here and now, to the human political and biological realities that we're living with. Number one, I just want to point out, this is a casual text. That's Maria. Oh my God. Oh my God. For fuck's sake. I mean, I just want to give up, retire. But this is a question I'd love to explore because one of the things that you alluded to in your Moth Talk was that thinking of these vast scales and periods of time in some way make your day to day grievances and problems seem very trivial. Right. Or put them in perspective. So could you speak to that, to the tension between this vast macro longitudinal picture and then the day to day? Yeah, I can. But it's not such an easy package. I mean, I am absolutely as vulnerable to anybody else, to the stress of quarantine, not grooming oneself. My hair is wild. Not socializing and missing your friend. It's not a panacea. It doesn't make me not miss those things or not struggle with those things. But in the bigger scale, I think feeling a freedom from the requirement to conform and some of the pressures of social media, it has helped me in those ways. There's no question that having more universal perspective, putting those things into their tiny packages where they belong has been easier for me. And Maria is absolutely right. I used to call it local politics. Anything that happened more recently than about a million years ago is local politics. And I take very little interest in it. I don't get worked up about stuff that's happening on the earth. But then again, I do. I got totally swept up in the recent events. And rightfully it because I think if you have even a modest platform, you have to speak out. Like these aren't things I want to do. I have no interest in politics. I have no interest in identity. I don't see having more melanin or having this genitalia or having this psychology. Like it's zero interest to me, frankly.

Anecdotes, Personal Poetic Journey, And Parting Thoughts

Dr. Wang's accounting mindset nature observed. (01:29:15)

But I see it as hurting people close to me. And so I'll speak out and do those things. But yeah, I find solace in a very far horizon view. Understanding, even though I'm kind of a brutal atheist, understanding, having a sense of meaning and connectedness to the universe. Because I realize we are a progeny of this universe. We are direct descendants of the Big Bang. We are direct descendants of the generation of stars that made carbon and oxygen. We are direct descendants of neutron stars colliding and providing us with gold. Which is actually this insane monetary thing that we exchange with no understanding that the absolute only place that came from was the collision of two dead stars somewhere else in the universe that threw it our way. That gives me such a good, warm, fuzzy sense of meaning that I don't need to turn to fairies and fantasies. You can leave that to me. I'll take that part. But that's why I love it. That's why I love it. There used to be this, and I think it's fading, but this kind of 1950s attitude, murdering to dissect. I mean, most scientists are looking for meaning. And Brian Greene's recent book is all about search for meaning. And he's a brutal naturalist, as I am, and it's about meaning. And so I think that that shift is starting to happen in the cultural consciousness that scientists aren't about destroying emotion. They're about finding a different way of feeling connected to the world. I like that. That rings true to me.

The boulders we nail into the wall. (01:31:28)

And let's use this as a segue to an answer that you provided very graciously in my last book, Tribe of Mentors. I asked a question in the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life? So I'm just going to read this, and then we'll dive into it. So these are your words. I used to resent obstacles along the path, thinking if only that hadn't happened, life would be so good. Then I suddenly realized life is the obstacles. There is no underlying path. Our role here is to get better at navigating those obstacles. I strive to find calm, measured responses, to see hindrances as a chance to problem solve. Often I fall back into old frustrations, but if I remind myself this is a chance to step up, I can reframe conflicts as a chance to experiment with solutions. What led to this realization? Oh, man, it is one of my best, you know how we might all have these certain boulders we nail into the wall to cling to? This is one of them for me very much so. I think we struggle with the idea of who's privileged and who's not privileged. What opportunities have you been given? What have you earned? And we all have a different balance of that. I definitely had feminist parents, you know, I had intellectual parents. I had a lot of ups and advantages. And when I came to blocks in the road, I really didn't like that I had people to stand up on me and demand, "What do you have to say about being a woman in science?" It really bugged me and I thought, "But you're not talking about all these leg ups I had from all these other people and how I look around and I don't see a lot of diversity. Why should I only talk about the hardship in my road?" It bugged me instinctively and I think that what I realized was I had been sold because of my kind of comfy childhood an idea that life is great and just don't screw it up. And that's false. Life is not great for most people and they have to do a hell of a lot more than not screw it up. They have to build bridges and pave ways and do things no one's ever thought of and fight poverty and find solutions. And I just thought the people that have taught me the most have done those things and that we have to stop fantasizing that we're – my dad always said, my dad was from a tougher upbringing and he always said, "Life isn't fair." He told me that all the time. Oh my God, it's so hilarious. I can totally hear him saying it. Life's not fair. It's not about fairness. Nobody told you you were owed fairness. No such thing. And it really taught me to think that, oh, life is a series of obstacles. It's not a paved path. And the obstacles are what make you. And when I've really screwed up with something like that, I felt really deep shame. Nobody had to tell me to be ashamed. I felt really deep shame. And when I've succeeded in that, I felt really good and nobody needed to tell me I should feel good about it. It's just obvious. And so I started to see life as a series of obstacles that were tests, trials, teaching modules of how to be a better person and to pave the way behind you, not in front of you. And it's really been a pretty important principle for me, I guess, that when I see something happen, I don't think, "This is so unfair. Why are they doing this to me?" That I think instead, "Okay, am I able to rise to figure out a solution to this?" And I'm not always able to do that, you know? But when I do, I feel like it's genuine progress. Well, it's an enabling lens of agency, right? Yeah. We talked about it a little bit before recording, but I mean, there's certainly you are, whoever you are, and some people certainly much more than others, you're going to run into boots in the face. Boots in the face, yeah. And then the question is, "What do you do when you run into a boot in the face?" Yeah, so I think it's very interesting that certain people with privilege are enraged by a boot in their face because they were told that they had the road paved ahead of them. And it's an advantage to not think that. So then when the boot is in your face, your immediate reaction isn't like, "How dare you! I deserve this! I'm owed this opportunity!" That your reaction is instead, "Oh, that's who you are. You're the guy with the boot, and what can I do to go around you? What can I do to go over your head?" And to be okay with that. I think a lot of us cling to the degrees and the accolades, and trust me, it's helped me in my life to have those things, so I'm not dismissing them, and I'm really grateful for them. But if you're not going to get that accolade, big deal. Learn how to pivot, move away from the boot. The boot actually has no power unless you insist on continually pushing against it. Unless you consider it your only avenue for it. And you're just going to keep pushing until the boot, and convince the boot, and forget it. Move to the left, and figure out something else, and go over their heads. And that's really, really liberating. That took me much longer to realize, and it's super liberating. Suddenly, they've got no power over you if you're not interested in the avenue that they offer. I loved your answer in the book, and I love your explanation. Life is the obstacles. There is no underlying path. It's actually very relieving. It is. And it makes you less resentful. Like, "Why did this happen to me? And this is so unfair." No, it's not. It's an opportunity to develop yourself. It's exciting. And your recklessness of your back in your childhood, I think, has remained with you in not being, at least as far as I can tell, terribly risk-averse.

Why Krista started doing poetry readings later in life. (01:38:48)

You try a lot of new things. You seem to have started, in a sense, your mother teaching you how to deeply absorb and read books. To look at the lines, but look between the lines, and really pay attention. So you were a woman of words, or a girl of words. Then you became a woman of numbers. And some years ago, you started doing poetry readings. And some of them have been incredibly popular. So you found your way back to words. Not that you ever completely left. Obviously, you've done a lot of writing. And I'd love to just explore this through the example of one. And that is A Brave and Startling Truth. This is from the 2018 Universe Inverse. This is a poetry reading that has gone effectively viral. As far as such things go viral. Why poetry reading, and why this particular poem? Well, I want to be totally clear about this. I am a prose writer. I have zero foray into poetry. I like poetic prose, but I like prose. It was absolutely my friendship with Maria. And Maria and I both were kids who said things like, "I don't like poetry," or "I'm not interested in poetry." And Maria has a love story. Maria said that? Holy moly. And she has this wonderful story that she tells about her friend, Emily Levine, who's a petite older woman who slapped her hands on the coffee table in the coffee shop they were in, stood herself up and began reciting poetry. It's an act of outrage that Maria said she wasn't interested in poetry. I feel like that's the right approach with Maria. That sounds like a good tactic. And obviously now, Maria is the ambassador. She runs the single most popular poetry series in the country, The World, really. And it came out of our collaboration. It's about the universe, but it's absolutely 100% Maria. And so she similarly forced me in a less public way than Emily Levine did to her, but forced me to start to look deeper into poetry. And so as a brilliant curator, which is really what Maria is, she's a brilliant essayist and curator, and she's a brilliant reader, she found poems for me and curated them for me. And A Brave and Startling Truth was like, the thing about that one was like, I kept crying every time I read it at home. And I was like, I will not go up on stage and cry during this poem. I'm not going to do it. And there are opera singers who describe these with certain arias that they can't do them because they break down sobbing. So I had to practice it enough that I could control my impulse to break out into tears. It is such a stunning piece of work. It's not only Maya Angelou at her best, but she had this fantasy about thinking about space, and the poem actually flew to space. It went onto one of the NASA missions and went to space. And it's like what we're talking about structurally in all these levels, it has all these levels. The relationship with Maria, the friendship with Emily Levine, the like Maya Angelou that flew to space on NASA. And I finally rehearsed it so that I only choked up a little bit.

The "mission" versus the reality -- the path not taken. (01:42:47)

What was it that choked you up? And I mean, it's a beautiful poem. I encourage everybody to listen to it or read it, certainly. And I'll link to everything. But what was it? Was there one thing about it or any particular aspect? No, exactly. Good question. Because it's not one thing. It's the build up. It's the build up. It's the layers. We are not devils or divines. It's not maudlin or saccharin. She describes our ugliness as human beings. And then says, I mean basically the essence of the concept of the brave and startling truth is that we realize that it's us. And she doesn't do it in a saccharin or sentimental way. She describes us as devils. And the ugliness of the human spirit to build up to that kind of epiphany that when we go out into space, it's like Earthrise. You know, the picture of the Earth rising above the lunar surface taken by one of the Apollo missions. We are out there in space and then we turn around and we look at ourselves. And it's just Angela's salt of the Earth, despite all odds, belief in the human spirit. Yeah. It's a wonderful piece. It really is extraordinary. It's a wonderful piece. And you are so fun to talk to. Oh man, Tim. And we also have fun in person, which not everybody knows. That's true. We overlap here and there, sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident. But it's always such a pleasure. Yeah. I'm so thrilled that you were able to make the time to have a chat. It gave me an excuse to grill a friend and do all this homework, which I really, really enjoy. It provides so many extra layers, as we've been saying about many things. And is there anything else you'd like to share or mention that I haven't brought up? Well, Justin, I've been trying to get you--you've been out to Pioneer Works, but I would love to have you out on our stage. And whenever the modern plague allows, we really want to have you come join our community of oddballs and artists and musicians and be on the broadcast. So I'll be pursuing you, man. I'd love to do it. I'm in. I would love to do it. Pandemic allowing. Pandemic willing. Exactly. I mean, we were so technical to do something with you in June, tentatively. We were. And I think we'll make it happen. And then the Book of Revelations started. Yeah. I'm pretty sure locusts are next. They're happening in Africa, literally. There's a locust plague. It's bananas. Maybe we'll have, as my friend says, the alien invasion or hurricane. I have to bring this up because you mentioned aliens. Are you aware that the government during the pandemic effectively said, "Yep, there are aliens or there are UFOs, and here's a bunch of footage from the military." And it went effectively without any commentary. It's like, "Oh, yeah. No, we've known about UFOs. They're a real thing. Here's some footage." And it just went by like nothing happened. Hilarious. I am aware, but I admit I haven't done the study to suss out the legitimacy. Yeah. I haven't done any forensic analysis. No forensic analysis. But people can do their own searching. If you search military footage, UFOs, and that does not mean aliens, right? So I mis-spooked. But unidentified flying objects, maybe we're in a video game. That's all I'm saying. We'll have this conversation later because I'm a big believer that life in the universe is impossible, that we're the only ones. But I have very cynical ideas that they have the same technology, that they live right now, that we've been around for a bleep. They're not here at the same time, like right next door. I have a lot of cynicism about that kind of stuff, but I'm very, very open to the idea that there's life in the universe. Well, I think that deserves a bottle or two of wine. Yeah, man. Can't wait to speak it. Once again, pandemic allowing. Yeah.

Parting thoughts. (01:47:34)

And Jena, you're so much fun. People should definitely check you out wherever they can @jan11 on Twitter and Instagram, jan11.com. Your books are incredible. You're an excellent writer. And you have a new book coming out in the not too distant future, Black Hole Survival Guide, scheduled for publication at the end of 2020. We shall see. So TBD. It's going to be a tiny little thing, like a thing you should put in your back pocket. It's going to be like an object more than like a thick book. I like that idea. And it's Leah Halloran, the artist Leah Halloran did these like gorgeous paintings for it. So it's going to be really like an object. Can't wait to see it. I can't wait. And we are recording this on a Friday. And I want to let you get to your weekend. Mentioning wine has got me thinking about some wine. I know. I'm about to go get some wine. And once again, thanks for making the time. This has been so much fun. Thanks, Tim. Such a pleasure. Miss you. I miss you too. And to everybody listening, thank you for tuning in. And we will link to everything. All of the things that we brought up, we'll have links to them in the show notes. As usual, just go to Tim.blog/podcast or you can just go to Tim.blog really and search Jana J and N A and it all pop right up. And until next time. Thanks for tuning in.

5-Bullet Friday (01:49:02)

Hey, guys, this is Tim again. Just a few more things before you take off. Number one, this is five bullet Friday. Do you want to get a short email from me? Would you enjoy getting a short email from me every Friday that provides a little more soul of fun before the weekend? And five bullet Friday is a very short email where I share the coolest things I've found or that I've been pondering over the week. That could include favorite new albums that I've discovered. It could include gizmos and gadgets and all sorts of weird shit that I've somehow dug up in the world of the esoteric as I do. It could include favorite articles that I have read and that I've shared with my close friends, for instance. And it's very short. It's just a little tiny bite of goodness before you head off for the weekend. So if you want to receive that, check it out. Just go to four hour workweek dot com. That's four hour workweek dot com all spelled out and just drop in your email and you will get the very next one. And if you sign up, I hope you enjoy it.

LinkedIn Jobs (01:50:04)

This episode is brought to you by LinkedIn Jobs. Small businesses have unique needs. A lot of you know this. I know this. And even with the uncertainty these days, one thing stands unchanged. And that is the importance of having the right people on your team. But hiring can be hard. It can be really expensive if you make mistakes. Very painful to get it wrong. I've certainly had that experience and I'm not eager to repeat it. So I try to do as much upfront screening as possible. When your business is ready to make the next hire, LinkedIn Jobs can help you screen candidates with the hard and soft skills that you're looking for. They'll match your position with qualified members so that you can find the right person quickly. Using LinkedIn's active community of more than six hundred and ninety million professionals worldwide, LinkedIn Jobs can help you find and hire the right person faster. So when your business is ready to make that next hire, find the right person with LinkedIn Jobs. You can pay what you want and get the first fifty dollars off. Just visit LinkedIn dot com slash Tim. Again, that's LinkedIn dot com slash Tim to get fifty dollars off your first job post. Terms and conditions apply.

Allform (01:51:04)

This episode is brought to you by Allform. If you've been listening to this podcast for a while, you've probably heard me talk about Helix Sleep and their mattresses, which I've been using since 2017. I have two of them upstairs from where I'm sitting at this moment. And now Helix has gone beyond the bedroom and started making sofas. They just launched a new company called Allform, A-L-L-F-O-R-M, and they're making premium, customizable sofas and chairs shipped right to your door at a fraction of the cost of traditional stores. So I'm sitting in my living room right now and it's entirely Allform furniture. I've got two chairs, I've got an ottoman, and I have an L-sectional couch. And I'll come back to that. You can pick your fabric. They're all spill stain and scratch resistant. The sofa color, the color of the legs, the sofa size, the shape to make sure it's perfect for you and your home. Also, Allform arrives in just three to seven days and you can assemble it all yourself in a few minutes. No tools needed. I was quite astonished by how modular and easy these things fit together, kind of like Lego pieces. They've got armchairs, loveseats, all the way up to an eight seat sectional, so there's something for everyone. You can also start small and kind of build on top of it if you wanted to get a smaller couch and then build out on it, which is actually in a way what I did. Because I can turn my L-sectional couch into a normal straight couch and then with a separate ottoman in a matter of about 60 seconds. It's pretty rad. So I mentioned I have all these different things in this room. I used the natural leg finish, which is their lightest color, and I dig it. I've been using these things hours and hours and hours every single day. So I am using what I am sharing with you guys. And if getting a sofa without trying it in store sounds risky, you don't need to worry. Allform sofas are delivered directly to your home with fast free shipping and you get 100 days to decide if you want to keep it. That's more than three months and if you don't love it, they'll pick it up for free and give you a full refund. Your sofa frame also has a forever warranty that's literally forever. So check it out. Take a look. They've got all sorts of cool stuff to choose from. I was skeptical and it actually worked. It worked much better than I could have imagined and I'm very, very happy. So to find your perfect sofa, check out allform.com/tim. That's A-L-L-F-O-R-M dot com slash tim. Allform is offering 20% off all orders to you, my dear listeners, at allform.com/tim. Make sure to use the code "tim" at checkout. That's allform.com/tim and use code "tim" at checkout.

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