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How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  1,086 ratings  ·  121 reviews
Is the universe infinite or just really big? With this question, the gifted young cosmologist Janna Levin not only announces the central theme of her intriguing and controversial new book but establishes herself as one of the most direct and unorthodox voices in contemporary science. For even as she sets out to determine how big “really big” may be, Levin gives us an intim ...more
Paperback, 240 pages
Published August 12th 2003 by Anchor (first published 2002)
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Jim Fonseca
Feb 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, science
This book is pretty easy to read. There is some geometry but almost no formulas; the reading level is like Scientific American. The author is a master of making a complex subject easy to understand with analogies and simple diagrams.

The book is structured as a series of letters to the author’s mother and the author intersperses personal details of her friends and love life. She is constantly shifting residences as she migrates between cities in California and England. (She's at Columbia now.) H
Mar 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I thought this little primer on physics was perfectly delightful. I've never seen anyone explain physics in quite this way before, but it was absolutely charming. The biggest points (for me) were on the topology of the universe. Geometry trumps General Relativity. For, as we know, neither General Relativity or Quantum Physics can describe the actual shape of the universe. No predictive power at all.

But then, even Einstein said there would have to be yet another comprehensive paradigm shift.

I pe
Jul 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: pop-science
In short: Janna Levin explains scientific theory so well that she may have just changed my freakin life.

I'm kidding. Kind of. But we'll get there.

First Dimension: this is an exceptionally lucid piece of writing.
Levin, a cosmologist who here argues for a finite universe, traces the lineage of her theory with remarkable logic & clarity -- remarkable, because for the first time, I sort of understand general relativity. No really guys; this is big. I love reading pop-science, but there are moments
My family has a joke that there are three kinds of math: Math, hard math and math that will make you cry. I for one crashed and burned spectacularly on the easy end of hard math. But this doesn’t mean that I don’t want to know about math that will make you cry. Janna Levin is great at taking complex/mind bending mathematics and explain the theory and idea behind it without actually using math. She explains it with passion and intelligence and acknowledgement of her own limitations and the limita ...more
Apr 30, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Rob by: io9
You might have come across Janna Levin's How the Universe Got Its Spots the same way that I did—by seeing it show up in io9's "20 Science Books Every Scifi Fan (and Writer) Should Read", or some such similar list of "must read" science books. Of Levin's book, io9's Annalee Newitz writes:

Levin is a physicist who studies the origins of the universe, and is also a writer whose language is both clear and poetic. Something about cosmology invites poetic meditations, and Levin manages to combine somew
May 20, 2013 rated it really liked it

If the title sounds clever and you're not sure why, it's a play on Rudyard Kipling's tale of "How the Leopard Got Its Spots." The answer to that question is mentioned in passing in this book: there is differentiation in the concentration of chemicals bathing the leopard's skin in utero. The universe also has spots, which is to say that there is some lumpiness (although not nearly so much as you would think from your day-to-day experience) in the cosmic stuff still spewing "away" (kind of) from t
Isabelle Leo
This was great! Specialized but illuminating, she explains just what she needs to in order to make her specialty clear. The personal&professional details give an interesting and heartfelt picture of an academic life.
Ian Scuffling
This is probably one of the most unique pop-sci books I've ever read—Janna Levin, a cosmologist who theorizes on the topology and geometry of the universe, and who advances the idea that the universe is finite, writes of the science behind relativity (general and special), black holes, string theory, and much more in the format of letters to her mother. The content of these letters vacillate seamlessly between ruminations on her personal life and the histories and backbones of cosmological scien ...more
Simon Mcleish
Originally published on my blog here in October 2002.

It is not, generally speaking, usual for modern science books to be concerned with the private lives of their authors, even though it is inevitable that the scientific work that they have done will have been influenced by this. This is a result of the idea that scientific ideas should be valid without any cultural context, but the anecdotes which litter popular science books demonstrate how important some subjectivity is for interesting the re
Mar 07, 2011 rated it it was ok
This book is in the form of a series of unsent letters by the author to her mother about the shape of the universe. I don’t know why Levin thought this would be a good format for a pop-science book. Every chapter starts with a paragraph or two about her personal life, and then she abruptly goes back to relativity and quantum and topology. It’s all confusing. She shares details about her life that make you think: why are you telling us this stuff in this book? Like: she mentions in passing that s ...more
Apr 16, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2011-reads
(Review from 2011) I have missed reading cosmology! Levin does the obligatory catching-the-reader-up-to-speed that every book on theoretical physics must dutifully accomplish, but she doesn't approach her review in the usual linear way, which was refreshing. So much information here, both history of science and new-ish as of 2000-2002 (dark matter or dark energy not discussed). Maybe Levin is not the most elegant writer of science for non-scientists, but she's not bad, and what she reveals about ...more
Feb 26, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: physics
When I started this book, I really loved how it was a mashup of the author's personal life and the science she was studying. After a while, I felt almost carsick. Strange reaction, I know. I don't know how else to describe it. I wanted to learn about the science, so badly, and I also wanted to know about her personal life. Somehow, I kept getting a headache when the two were meshed. I am not sure why this happened. After all, I have loved biographies of various scientists-- e.g. Curie, Einstein, ...more
Dec 23, 2010 rated it it was ok
This is a very strange book!
It's like someone cut pages from a physics text on topology, and glued them into a 13 year old girl's diary.
The stuff about topology is interesting, if a bit speculative.
Still, the one obvious issue the author avoids is that space is very clearly observed to be negatively curved.
It's fun and games to imagine a flat spacetime, but such a thing doesn't exist. Evidence refutes it.
This is really an endeavor in mathematical curiosity, not physics.
The author seems obsessed
Dec 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
Levin writes with a certain wistful style of science writing, just as Leonard Susskind occassionally writes with something like anger. Still, she gets her share of the science expounded clearly and orignially. She gives us a brief overview of current and past cosmolody as just about every popular science writer does, and then she gets into her realm - topology. It was news to me, but I enjoyed it. If you belong to Audible, you can download this one free.
Apr 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Extremely readable, surprisingly personal popular physics book, with insight into both theoretical physics and the life of a physicist. Definitely recommend.
Jan 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A bit over my head at times, but generally an accessible and absorbing approach to cosmology. The threads about insanity and the personal experience of astrophysics border on profound.
Apr 23, 2011 rated it really liked it
How the Universe Got Its Spots is either the most unusual science book I've ever read, or the most science-oriented memoir. I found both aspects delightful. Levin, a no-nonsense, for-real, theoretical cosmologist grapples with, among other things, the shape of the universe, her acknowledgedly irrational preference for it to be finite, and a relationship with a bluegrass musician and instrument maker. There's some remarkably lucid writing about some seriously head-scratching topics like joining t ...more
Dec 05, 2009 rated it really liked it
A nicely put diary of two universe's; Levin's & the cosmic one.
Suggested for readers of all levels. It serves as a great introductory text that provides a summary of the work of the universe, those who study [ like physicists and cosmologists :] and time.
Being in the form of a diary it was a great first-time experience, specially as a science-based text.
Moreover it provides an idea of how a physicist or cosmologist is just another person living a normal [ rarely beyond normal :] & problematic li
Aug 22, 2008 rated it it was amazing
If you hate science, can't wrap your head around quantum physics, and don't care about the size of the universe, this book will change your opinions (or lack thereof) on all of these subjects and subsequently, the way you look at your world. Interspersed with poetic personal narrative and insights into the lives of the world's most amazing scientific minds, the book poses the theory that the universe is actually a finite space. It took me ten minutes to read and re-read and digest each page, and ...more
McGrouchpants. McGrouchpants!
Great book. Unsent letters to her mom that's an explanation of her field and the costs of depression/gloominess from staring into the abyss, and getting it right.

Very entertaining and lively. Worth the price of having to keep up!

You won't get lost in wonky details; not like science people who lose track of layperson life.

(Although, endearingly, the name Jean-Luc "Goddard" is misspelled, as it slipped by the copy-editor; worlds apart! Tycho Brahe's name is spelled right, of course, ha-ha.)
Dec 09, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Started as a series of letters to her mom, How the Universe Got Its Spots turned into Janna Levin's diary of her life as a scientist out to determine the size of the cosmos. Levin poetically mixes fascinating scientific details with personal anecdotes. A charming and highly readable account of modern-day physics. Ann,
Matt Heavner
Jun 19, 2011 rated it really liked it
Good meditation on topology, cosmology, infinty, and a life in science. I liked the strange loop. I don't know if there were answers in here. There were a few fantastic quotes/lines, and it was a worthwhile read. ...more
May 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A gifted young cosmologist and contemporary scientist writes an intimate look at the universe in a personal and poetic way! "We are the product of this universe and I think it can be argued that the entire cosmic code is imprinted in us. Just as our genes carry the memory of our biological ancestors, our logic carries our cosmological ancestry. We are not just imposing anthropocentric notions on a cosmos independent of us. We are progeny of their ability to understand it is an inheritance.” Not ...more
May 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
The book titled How The Universe Got Its Spots is about a cosmologist named Janna Levin. She is trying the question is the universe infinite or is it just really big? She discusses topics that will help her solve the question and she discusses her own life is changing because of her job and the places that she has moved to. Some topics she talks about are Special Relativity, General Relativity, Topology, Quantum Chance, Quantum Choice, Flatlands and Hyperspace. Each concept is discussed in diffe ...more
Chad Miculek
May 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
I should mention that I listened to the audio book version of this with Christine Williams reading. This was the first time I had tried a pop-science book on audio, and was worried it would suffer without diagrams. However, the author is very good at explaining some fairly complicated things with words alone. I had the benefit of having recently been through some of the same material in Lawrence Krauss and Kip Thorn books, and that may have helped me follow along. But, this book does go into som ...more
Sep 30, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I think I heard Janna Levin speak on The Moth or another radio show, and bought her book on a whim, this was at least seven years ago so I don’t really remember. Still, this title, How the Universe Got Its Spots, and the premise (a physicist explaining her musings on the nature of the Universe and discussing her own life in letters to her mother) has had me excited to dive in constantly since then. Unfortunately, after finally prioritizing it this book was overall quite a miss for me. I thought ...more
Ew Lake
Dec 03, 2019 rated it liked it
For the lay person, yes, but still so far above my grasp. Did gain small glimpses into Ethan's world. And bits like these registered:
"Our more abstract pursuits are seen as too fugitive to be satisfying. Understandably, many prefer the satisfaction of the concrete to the potential emptiness of chasing apparitions. I find the abstract more than satisfying. It makes my knees weak, as though I've been privy to a few of nature's secret messages."
"Mathematicians are like linguists and physicists are
James O'Connor
May 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Thoroughly enjoyed over a period of nearly 16 months! Thankfully, time is relative in Janna Levin's remarkable world of astro physics and quantum theory.

My biggest takeaway is the realm and capacity of the human brain -- nearly limitless -- as evidenced by Dr Levin and her cohorts in the "crimes" of deep thought, theorization and mathematical measurements to learn/discover where we all come from and how, when, where it all began.
"Think and ye shall come."

Combined with, "oh right, she's human too
Feb 09, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Levin covers some fascinating material as she delves into the nature of the universe. I particularly enjoyed the structure of the book, which is told through a chronological series of entries over the course of a couple of years. Levin is a talented writer, and I enjoyed the personal side of her diary as much as the scientific side. The observations about her friends, relationships, and living circumstances in the Bay Area and England helped lighten the reading, and served almost as a refresher ...more
May 20, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sean Carrol recently gave this book as a recommendation in an interview on the Ezra Klein podcast as a tip for good books on physics. Though not overly technical, this seemed more of a physics book for physicists rather than one completely enjoyable for the layperson unfamiliar at all with the topics of geometric space time. The various descriptions of shapes and how those describe the fabric of the universe was a bit arcane, and then on top the style was very jagged going from one topic to anot ...more
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Janna Levin, a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University, holds a BA in Physics and Astronomy with a concentration in Philosophy from Barnard College of Columbia University, and a PhD in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her scientific research mainly centers around the Early Universe, Chaos, and Black Holes.

Dr. Levin's first book, "Ho

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“I don't believe that math and nature respond to democracy. Just because very clever people have rejected the role of the infinite, their collective opinions, however weighty, won't persuade mother nature to alter her ways. Nature is never wrong.” 22 likes
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