Janna Levin on Extra Dimensions, Time Travel, and How to Overcome Boots in the Face (#445)

“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.”  — Janna Levin

Janna Levin (@jannalevin) is the Tow Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. She has contributed to an understanding of black holes, the cosmology of extra dimensions, and gravitational waves in the shape of spacetime. Janna is also director of sciences at Pioneer Works, a cultural center dedicated to experimentation, education, and production across disciplines, as well as Pioneer Works’ virtual home, The Broadcast.

Janna’s books include How the Universe Got Its Spots and the novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, which won the PEN/Bingham Prize. In 2012, she was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, 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 spacetime ringing from the collision of two black holes over a billion years ago. Her new book, Black Hole Survival Guide, is scheduled for publication near the end of 2020.

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Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform. 

Brought to you by Allform and LinkedIn Jobs. More on both below. 

The transcript of this episode can be found here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

#445: Janna Levin on Extra Dimensions, Time Travel, and How to Overcome Boots in the Face

This episode is brought to you by Allform! If you’ve been listening to the podcast for a while, you’ve probably heard me talk about Helix Sleep mattresses, which I’ve been using since 2017. They just launched a new company called Allform, and they’re making premium, customizable sofas and chairs shipped right to your door—at a fraction of the cost of traditional stores. You can pick your fabric (and they’re all spill, stain, and scratch resistant), the sofa color, the color of the legs, and the sofa size and shape to make sure it’s perfect for you and your home.

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


Want to hear an episode with Universe in Verse’s co-conspirator? Listen to my conversation with Maria Popova in which we discuss how to live a meaningful life, how to write for an audience of one,  Maria’s note-taking system, and much, much more.

#39: Maria Popova on Writing, Work Arounds, and Building BrainPickings.org


  • Connect with Janna Levin:

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram


  • As a self-confessed reckless kid, does Janna recall any notable instances of getting in trouble in her youth? [05:23]
  • The car accident that, for the sake of Janna’s parents’ sanity, led her to college. [07:23]
  • What did Janna think she wanted to be when she graduated from college, and what seemed to point in this direction rather than where she wound up? How did she become an omnivorous reader? [11:40]
  • What are the differences between the answers that Janna got in pursuit of philosophy and the answers that she later sought from science — and what made her switch tracks? [15:27]
  • What did Janna’s college chemistry and math teachers see in her that led them to suggest physics as a potential focus? What might have indicated an inclination toward science from an even earlier age? [23:10]
  • Favorite philosophers Janna might recommend to a philosophy newcomer. [25:34]
  • As the classic trolley problem has moved from undergrad philosophy thought experiment to real-world application in the development of autonomous driving, what quantifiable answers can we start to expect from the field of theoretical physics? [28:10]
  • In order to understand how it’s possible that the universe might be finite, one only needs to ask: how is it possible that Pac-Man is a donut that doesn’t live in a higher-dimensional space? [31:47]
  • The power of math to extend beyond the limits of human perception. [43:02]
  • Janna talks about Life on a Möbius Strip, called “the greatest Moth story ever told” by mutual friend Maria Popova. [48:57]
  • Why did Janna initially keep this story a secret — even from her closest friends? [53:03]
  • How did Janna feel during and after giving the talk? Has she taken other types of internal pressure, angst, or emotion and turned them into art? [55:34]
  • How Janna thinks of writing as sculpture, and who stands out for her (and me) as truly masterful “sculptors.” [59:46]
  • Janna shares her physicist’s-eye-view of time and what the math tells us about how interstellar travel would work. [1:14:39]
  • Janna speaks to the tension between the vast, macro-longitudinal picture of the universe we’re stretching to reach and the comparatively minuscule day-to-day political and biological realities we’re currently enduring here on Earth. [1:24:54]
  • What new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved Janna’s life, and what led to this realization? [1:31:30]
  • Why privilege can be more of a disadvantage than a boon when adversity eventually comes knocking. [1:36:17]
  • As a girl of words who became a woman of numbers, Janna has been taking part in poetry readings lately. What’s the story behind the poem she chose to read at the 2018 Universe In Verse? [1:38:36]
  • Wine, UFOs, and other parting thoughts. [1:44:24]


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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25 Replies to “Janna Levin on Extra Dimensions, Time Travel, and How to Overcome Boots in the Face (#445)”

  1. Mind blowing! The discussion of the second, third and fourth dimension reminded me of flatland from Edwin Abbott.

    1. Loved that. Actually found out avout it when getting a book inspired by Fltaland from my local library when I was 13 or 14 called The Planiverse.

  2. You cool. I just want to head to the desert. Your funniest line….antigravity shorts, lol.
    Post Tim Ferriss 6-8 years in the passing, a library worker as a tech. resource specialist before and after( started a kidprenuer library program 3 years ago and logic games program prior for kids to pull themselves together as young as possible ). And Ideas galore. Going to purge right now as cool as possible. Pls bare with me. A female, year born 1971, mental status overwhelm easily. (started multiple IG accounts, 2 websites, signed up to a FB ad online business help. One answer found becomes 40 more questions. Brooklyn, NY today I received my first Hijama treatment and I’m expecting miracles. Like making it to all my dream locations 3 as of today mountains in Japan, UAE and Hawaii to study varies topics a few, wont mention here. I used to be pretty cool, I lost my cool. I wasn’t a studious student, and know I am starving for an amazing life of study. and overwhelm just hits, i cant seem to handle the most amazing ideas. Your podcasts were comforting at some point and had to stop taking in information to take action. I want to start all sorts of businesses to help people to get back to what it is they are truly meant to do (example; a retreat center designed for the individual a tiny white wash cabin with color accents to the individuals support process aiding the persons healing very basic but small fine points. A Christian co-worker of mine had shared a bible teaching with me about a time will come where there will be so much money to be had but no food to buy. Could be so OR what Jesus (peace and blessing be upon him and his mother) said along the lines of ….on earth as it is in heaven….I want to study and share the healings, if possible ins-Allah.
    what do you think, can you help a almost 50 yr young lady do her thing….?
    Either way I’m thankful you didn’t shoot yourself that day and that you never will.

  3. Tim–your 5BF today reminded me of this Learned Hand quote from the McCarthyism era:

    “That community is already in the process of dissolution where each man begins to eye his neighbor as a possible enemy, where nonconformity with the accepted creed, political as well as religious, is a mark of disaffection; where denunciation, without specification or backing, takes the place of evidence; where orthodoxy chokes freedom of dissent; where faith in the eventual supremacy of reason has become so timid that we dare not enter our convictions in the open lists, to win or lose.”

  4. I just got the 5 Bullet newsletter and I don’t see anything on the blog about the Harper’s letter. So I am leaving this here. I at least want to thank you for your courage and ask you to consider getting together a letter of some sort that people like me can sign.

    I don’t do social media—and, given the current climate, I’m not about to start. But I do want to point out one thing: because there are still people (like me) whom remember McCarthyism, and because it happened here, that’s an obvious reference. But, from a political perspective, it is actually very strange: it bears all the markers of left sectarianism, but has somehow managed to terrorize the establishment into firing people.

    Stalinism scares the piss out of me. A Google search came up with an article about some of these activists claiming that Stalin’s re-education camps were a good thing. This is the impulse I see behind the attacks on Rowling.

  5. Hello. My name is Jackie. I work for New York Times best-selling author and speaker Pat Lencioni. Pat is the most trusted source for leadership, teamwork, and organizational health consulting in the market. In less than one year, Pat’s podcast has over 1 million downloads. Anyway, we were talking in our office and thought Tim and Pat run in the same circles. That said, we think Pat would be a great guest on Tim’s podcast as they would have a great conversation. Please let me know if you’re interested. My email is Jackie@tablegroup.com. Thanks! Jackie

  6. I am Richard Johnson. I work at a non profit in Las Vegas which seek to empower underprivileged students whose average age is 16-18. I have purchased your “4 hour work week” audio book and would love to share it with a limited number of students. I can only image the impact your book might have, changing their mindset at their age and ultimately the associated lives for generations to come. As with all non-profits $$ is not plentiful and am seeking permission to share your book with our scholars. Is my request possible? Thank you for considering my request …. Richard M. Johnson

  7. Been listening for a number of years, but this is the first episode where I feel like I have a shed-load of homework to do just from the variety of literature, concepts and people mentioned. And throwaway comments about how some modern day philosophers are now more actively working on the hard stuff that many hard-core scientists would rather not look at just makes me realized I have some catching up to do. So, on one hand, sigh. On the other hand, thanks for the springboard. Now time to copy / past shownotes into Evernote, and create a checklist of stuff to keep me busy for the next three years. Can you hold off on the next episode, please? I have a little catching up to do.

  8. Great episode. I could tell Janna really loves the subject matter. The link to the Paris Review interview with John McPhee, shows only a small amount before the paywall. Is there any way to buy the interviews and not the whole subscription? Be

  9. Great episode! Re the UFO sightings, Mick West gives potential explanations for the UFO sightings that don’t involve extraterrestrials: [Moderator: link removed.]

    Preview: artifacts of gimbal-mounted camera systems, image sharpening, high relative speeds/parallax.

  10. Perhaps Janna Levin can take comfort with her suspicion of the cult of personality in the words of philosopher J Jaye Gold in his book “Justin Time.” Even Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Galileo were confronted in presenting their successive theories to the church by asking for a reexamination. Whether it is in the macrocosm of astronomy or in the microcosm of human behavior – Reexamination is always a challenge and will always be met with resistance.

    1. I never thought of the Catholic church in terms of the cult of personality. Makes sense when you think about.

  11. In addition to all the mind melting stuff about different dimensions and time travel, the podcast also emphasized on the process and structure of writing and Tim implored the idea of sweating it out with a course in “Writing”. So, for naive common people who may not access John Mcphee @ Princeton, can you suggest a good online course to unlearn and learn “Writing” as you define and discuss it with Janna? Looking forward to some insightful books/videos/courses for the same.

  12. One of my favourite interviews ever! I love Janna and her books.
    I was in a dreamy state when you were talking about the 4 dimentional space, fascinated by how beautiful the language of mathematics is and then suddenly “Linkedin Jobs”. Honestly, it made me hate linkedin jobs…
    Ads in the middle of conversations is the worst evel in the whole podcast world… Kind of sad that you started doing it…

  13. I second Janna’s suggestion to have Kip Thorne on your podcast. He spoke at a National Engineers Week banquet at Sweet Briar College last year about his work on LIGO. He explained the principles behind the research extremely well, and since the audience was largely engineers, he tailored the presentation so that it was about the engineering that went into the project. As Janna said, he’s working on new projects, what he calls “the intersection between science and art”. Dr. Thorne gladly stayed available after his speech to meet with members of the audience, many of them young ladies of high school and college age with interests in sciences and engineering. He is undoubtedly one of the great scientific minds of our time and I think that he would make a terrific guest for your podcast.

  14. Hi Tim!

    Been listening to your podcasts for a while now and just wanted to say that although I absolutely love all your episodes this one was just the most natural you have sounded. It was very authentic, smooth, relaxed, and over all very happy energy. Not sure what was different this time but just wanted to point that out 🙂

  15. Days after listening to this episode, this still has my mind spinning trying to figure out how to take apart those rings in the fourth dimension. What a fascinating conversation! Janna rocks.

  16. I found this interview with Janna Levin, PhD. fascinating. I have always been interested in theoretical physics, but don’t have the mathematical chops for really understanding it all. There were a couple of points in the interview that I wanted to highlight as particularly gripping to me.

    One was when Dr. Levin was describing how our three dimensional universe (or four dimensional with time) doesn’t require that in order to be finite, it has to be contained in yet an even higher dimensional universe. That since space time is sort of the consistent tapestry in which all dimensions could live, then our universe can be finite, and yet, not have to be “within” something else, if I understood her correctly. I’m literally Scotch-taping little bits of things that I understand together, so forgive me. In Brian Greene’s book, “The Hidden Reality,” (or it might have been, “Until The End Of Time”) he describes how one of the theoretical models begins with combinations of dimensions in a universe being formed from the initial states that energy settles into. And that how these energy states settle could create different combinations of large and small dimensions (out of the eleven that we might speculate on), as well as the balance of electrons’ weight and charges.

    Every universe could differ greatly in it’s varying styles of dimensions and particle make up combos. So one question I would have would be, if space/time is considered a dimension (and not something broader…maybe it is), the couldn’t the space/time that we know be the one result of the initial resting energy state that we happened to be given, and so, ours could be one of many possible flavors of space/time? And if there are possibly other universes out there (again, out where exactly?) whose only trace we sense is their gravitation bleeding through to partially explain our dark matter gravity, then couldn’t those other universes have a different space/time type or flavor? Maybe their direction of flow is not in one direction, and therefore is a complete mess of futures and memories. And a space/time of this type wouldn’t allow creatures like us to live in it because of the lack of consistent direction.

    The other part of the discussion I wanted to point out was something I myself realized after so many years of trying to think about it. Again, I have no mathematical ability, so it just sort of came to me one day. When Dr. Levin and Tim were talking about time dilation, with Dr. Levin zipping over to the Andromea Galaxy at nearly the speed of light, then zipping back to earth to find Tim Ferriss at age 250,000,000 years, but alive and kicking, I used to wonder why it was that he aged and she didn’t. I mean, whose to say it’s her that’s moving at nearly the speed of light away from earth, and not the earth moving at nearly the speed of light away from Dr. Levin and her George Jetson scooter? It’s all relative, right? But it finally dawned on me that Dr. Levin IS INDEED doing something that Tim isn’t. She’s undergoing incredible acceleration.

    She’s starting from Earth’s zero speed, getting towards the speed of light, slowing down at the Andromeda Galaxy to turn around, then speeding up again towards earth at nearly the speed of light again, then slowing down to land on earth. And, by the way, slowing down is also acceleration because it is a change in resting speed. Speeding and slowing don’t cancel each other out; they add up in this case. It’s the acceleration that is causing the time dilation for her and not for Tim. And even though two rocket ships moving past each other at nearly the speed of light have their own really quirky general relativity things that happen to them, the time dilation is precisely due to the acceleration that Dr. Levin has undergone. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but it’s the only way that I could explain to myself why Dr. Levin didn’t age but for three months, and Tim aged 250,000,000 years.
    I loved this interview, and as Dr. Levin alluded to at some point during her visit, please also bring Brian Greene onto your podcast sometime.

    This stuff is so incredibly fascinating. I wish that I had paid more attention in math class. I only completed Trigonometry and Algebra II, and then I gave up! Damn!

  17. One of the reasons I love this show so much is because it introduces me to people I probably wouldn’t have come across otherwise.

    After listening to this episode, I started reading (well, also listening) to How the Universe Got Its Spots and it has been a magical experience. I barely understand anything, but I understand more than I thought I would (thanks to Janna’s clear explanation and metaphors 🙂 Also, Janna narrates her own books which makes it extra special.