The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Cosmologist Janna Levin: Black Holes Determine Society's Fate


On Thursday, September 26, the Commonwealth Honors College welcomed renowned cosmologist Janna Levin to give this year’s Williamson Lecture on “Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space.” In her lecture, Levin described in detail scientists’ discovery of black holes, the significance of them, and what the existence of black holes means for humanity’s future.

Levin began her talk with a description of the Milky Way and how our sun impacts what we know about the observable universe.

“What we have to realize,” Levin said, “is that sitting on this beautiful rock, everything we know about the universe, very nearly everything we have seen, comes to us from light. And that is just an extraordinary gift that light offers us.”

Levin delved into the history behind black hole discovery, including how Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity set a standard for future astronomers and physicists to follow when describing black holes. She also cited Robert Oppenheimer, known for his role in the Manhattan Project, as an important figure in understanding how black holes crush matter.

According to Levin, black holes measure only six kilometers across, and emit and reflect no light. Stars burn thermonuclear fuel, much like a bomb, until they eventually run out of fuel and collapse in on themselves, forming a black hole.

“Think of space and time as a waterfall, falling into the black hole,” Levin said. “It’s falling so drastically that even the light cannot outpace the fall into the black hole. The black hole creates a shadow where even light cannot escape.”

Levin later described the role of gravitational waves when studying outer space. Since space-time is curved, according to Einstein, things falling freely will fall along a curved path in the absence of extraneous factors. Levin used an elevator as an example of gravity’s curve, stating that if we removed the cable and physical elevator, we would feel pure weightlessness.

“The astronauts in the International Space Station are falling,” Levin said. “They are not so far away from Earth that they do not feel gravity. All [astronauts] are doing is falling freely, and the reason they are floating in space isn’t because there’s no gravity—it’s because you’ve removed all the extraneous stuff.”

“Pure gravity is actually pure weightlessness,” she added. “It is not heaviness.”

Earth's surface

“It was very humbling to see how small we are...I read this book in physics a few years ago called The Jazz of Physics [about] how jazz musicians inadvertently mirror the phenomena of outer space. The connection between sound and space really piqued my interest.”  

Andrew Sood '23, finance

Throughout her presentation, Levin displayed a number of scientific models and images to help the audience understand the complexity of black holes. Among the most intriguing was an audio clip of two black holes orbiting one another, recorded by a four-kilometer-long Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) device created by American physicist Rainer Weiss. After spending one billion dollars and fifteen years with no luck at the observatory, years of research paid off when Weiss and his team recorded a one-fifth-of-a-second-long “woosh” noise generated by black holes.

“It was the most powerful event detected since the big bang itself,” Levin said of the sound. “More power in that little chirp than all the power of all the stars in the observable universe combined.”

Levin concluded her lecture by showing the first photograph of a black hole, taken on April 10, 2019. Coincidentally, one of the eight telescopes around the world that photographed the black hole includes the Large Millimeter Telescope, a cooperation jointly operated by the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica.

In her closing remarks, Levin touched on the fate of reality regarding black holes.

“We all live under that big black hole in the center of the galaxy,” Levin said. “We’re all ultimately fated to fall into that big black hole, it’s our future. It’s just a reminder from a cosmic perspective of what human beings can do when they share out of simple curiosity.”

The event attracted many students from all kinds of majors. Leah Demers, a freshman communications major, described the event as informative for students who are not studying astronomy.

“I thought it was really fascinating,” Demers said. “I’ve never taken a class that focuses on this kind of material, so it was interesting to learn a lot more about black holes than I would have in the past. I got a lot out of it.”

Andrew Sood, a freshman finance major, compared the event to literature he’s read in the past.

“It was very humbling to see how small we are,” Sood said. “I read this book in physics a few years ago called The Jazz of Physics [about] how jazz musicians inadvertently mirror the phenomena of outer space. The connection between sound and space really piqued my interest.”

Paul and Catherine Williamson, both alumni of the Commonwealth Honors College, have endowed the Williamson Lecture for the past nineteen years. Paul, a former physician, currently works as an entrepreneur in product development and life sciences, often meeting with biomedical engineers.

“We support the program to give UMass students exposure to speakers, ideas, and concepts that they may not be exposed to on the campus,” Mr. Williamson said. “We enjoy giving back to the university that changed our lives.”

Be on the lookout for the next Williamson Lecture and other intriguing Commonwealth Honors College events on our website. We look forward to seeing you there!