Dr Jennifer Wiseman, Astronomer, Interview by Nigel Bovey

Dr Jennifer Wiseman

As a child, Jennifer Wiseman gazed in awe at the star-filled night sky. She has come a long way since then. In 1987, she discovered a periodic comet, now named 114P/Wiseman-Skiff, while working as an undergraduate research assistant. She has also worked with the Hubble Space Telescope. Today she is Chief of the Laboratory for Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics at Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center.

In this interview, Jennifer Wiseman was speaking in a personal capacity and not as a representative of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Jennifer, why did you become a scientist?

I like science because I like nature. I grew up on a farm in the country, surrounded by animals. Science is simply a way of studying the natural world and learning how it works. As a child I’d look up into the black night sky, see countless stars and imagine what it would be like to travel to some of those stars. As I got older and learnt about other planets in our solar system, I became completely fascinated with space exploration.

How did your childhood fascination develop?

After I finished high school my teacher encouraged me to go to university to study maths and science. I got a place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I studied physics, and then went to Harvard to study astronomy. I’ve worked in research and also in the field of science policymaking with the federal government.

I’ve been with Nasa for the past five years. I worked firstly as the programme scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope at Nasa headquarters in Washington DC. That was an exciting time. As well as working with the telescope, which was sending us wonderful observations and discoveries, we were also preparing for a potential astronaut mission to refurbish the telescope.

I am now chief of the Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics Laboratory at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where, among other things, we are thinking about space telescopes to succeed Hubble.
When did you discover the comet that now bears your name?

I discovered it along with Brian Skiff in 1987. It comes back every six and a half years. But it’s mainly comet experts who go looking for it. A couple of years ago some pictures came back from the Mars rovers. They showed a meteorite in the Martian sky. Some French scientists calculated that it had probably come from debris from the tail of the Wiseman-Skiff comet. I was very excited about that.

How is your science going to change the world?

Our science is one of exploration and discovery in astronomy. We change the world by enlarging humankind’s view of the universe and our place in it. We’re helping people to realise how magnificent the universe is and understand some of its history.

Astronomy is an amazing time machine. It is the only way we have to travel back in time. When we look at a heavenly body, we are seeing what happened in the past. For instance, when we look at the sun, we are seeing it as it was eight minutes ago, because it takes light from the sun eight minutes to reach us. The nearest star is four light years away. It has taken four years for us to receive that light, so we are seeing that nearest star not as it is now but as it was four years ago.

Through seeing other galaxies with their stars, gases and dust systems, we are seeing events that happened millions or even billions of light years ago – back towards the beginning of time. We see how the universe has been very dynamic. We can compare what things were like near the beginning of time with the way things are in our own galaxy now.

Many people look at a twinkling night sky and, awestruck by its grandeur and scale, question their own place in the scheme of things. Is that a common reaction?

Our personal place in the time and space of human history is an important question, and because it is a philosophical question we must move from science for the answer. Science can tell us how many galaxies there are and how many stars in each galaxy. Science can tell us the physical history of the universe. But science cannot say whether that means humans are significant or insignificant.

We could look at the scale of the universe and consider that we live on a planet orbiting an average star in an ordinary place in one of 100 million galaxies. We could conclude that we are not significant and that, in relation to the age of the universe, the human lifespan is insignificant.

On the other hand, Earth is populated by a people who need just the right balance of chemical elements in order to survive. They are beings who not only have intelligence but who also can have conversations about significance and meaning and who can study and explore the universe of which they are a part. So we could conclude that humankind is very cosmically significant.

As a Christian, I conclude that humankind is significant, not only because of the sustainability of life on Earth, but also because, through Jesus Christ, God has revealed his willingness to have a relationship with us.
How did you become a Christian?

I was raised in a Christian family. My parents lived out their faith with love. When I was a teenager I was confronted with the decision of whether or not to accept that faith for myself. Would I follow Jesus in whatever I did? I knew there was a difference between having a life that was centred on me and being someone who trusted Jesus. I made a sincere decision to follow Jesus. Since then there have been many occasions when I’ve had to put that faith into practice, to seek God for help and guidance.

I am continuing to grow in my understanding of the implications of being a Christian. One area in particular is that of self-will. There have been moments when I’ve had to make major decisions and have asked myself on what basis I should do so: Should I do what makes me feel good? Should I do what everybody else is doing or should I turn to God in prayer and ask for his insight? How can I best use my life for what God would consider meaningful service?

You constantly seek to expand the final frontier of space. Are the biggest challenges to your faith from within science?

No, I am troubled when I see the innocent suffer, whether that’s innocent children in a war zone or innocent animals being abused. I often join the chorus in crying out: ‘God, why are you allowing this? Why don’t you intervene?’

I believe in miracles. I believe God answers prayer. So when tragedy strikes I struggle with this question of why. But I also know that God is always present in troublesome situations and he can change people’s hearts and minds in amazing ways. I have witnessed enough of God’s faithfulness and presence and responses to cries for help to be convinced that God is real and that the gospel is true.

On the subject of prayer, how can God, who created the universe to run according to laws and patterns, seemingly break those laws and intervene in human time and space to answer prayer?

I don’t know the full answer, but I am very comfortable with the idea that God has set up an intelligible, faithful universe that, in general, operates by stable processes that don’t arbitrarily change.

For example, time always moves forwards. This provides us with a sense of stability. Because time moves forwards we’ve learnt that actions have consequences. But I also believe that time is under God’s domain and that there are rare occasions when the unusual – miraculous, even – happens. Although these events are not within the normal mode of operation, I believe it is within God’s prerogative to bring them about.

There are different kinds of miracles. Some miracles, such as Jesus walking on the water, are where the normal laws of physics appear to be suspended. There are also miracles of timing, when a normal physical process occurs at an unusual or critical time, such as when Jesus calmed the storm on Lake Galilee. Today many people can recount experiences when something has happened at a very unusual time in response to their prayers. There are also miracles of personal transformation, when God changes people emotionally or spiritually.

However, God has not promised to suspend his laws of nature every time we need help. Most times the normal laws apply; the difference is that when we ask him, God will be with us to help us.

Your mention of actions and consequences is reminiscent of Isaac Newton’s laws on motion, particularly the concept of cause and effect. Physicists now regard the universe as running on freer, less mechanistic principles. Does modern science add to our understanding of God?

It can. Scientists understand that there are more complex processes going on in the universe than simple cause and effect. By saying that we can’t always accurately predict future outcomes, quantum mechanics and chaos theory allow nature a lot more freedom.

This is a beautiful parallel with the spiritual realm. While God has set up faithful physical, moral and spiritual laws for the universe, he has endowed the universe with all kinds of freedom, one of which is that each of us is free to choose or reject him. God is not a puppeteer. We are free to make our choices. We also have to live with the consequences of those choices. But God provides grace, forgiveness and new beginnings.

God is not an absent parent or a kindly grandparent who watches on from a distance. The Bible tells us that God is present. He participates with us in our lives. The coming of Jesus Christ into human time and space tells us that God is involved in this beautiful but suffering world.

The Bible says that the universe points to the glory of God. The exploration of the universe continually tells us about the majestic nature of God. That’s why science is a godly activity.

What kind of work do you do at Nasa?

I head a team that is studying stars and looking for planets around other stars. Scientists have been wondering about the existence of other solar systems for years, and within the past 15 years we have detected that they do exist. We call these planets exoplanets. The ‘exo’ means ‘outside’ our solar system.

A solar system is one star – in our case, the sun – with planets that orbit that star. We are looking for relatively nearby stars within our own galaxy to see if they have planets of their own. A galaxy is a collection of billions of stars and the gas that exists between the stars. The Milky Way, for example, contains in the region of 200 billion stars. We know there are hundreds of billions of galaxies outside the Milky Way. We can’t see the individual stellar systems in these other galaxies, but in our own galaxy we are looking at our nearest neighbouring stars to see if they have planets.

What does your work as a space explorer teach you about God?

I don’t believe studying the heavens scientifically will prove the existence of God. Science is not a tool for proving or disproving God. In fact, when there are things that we don’t understand in nature it is very dangerous to say that this is evidence of God. This is the ‘God-of-the-gaps’ argument, and it falls apart when we later learn that there is a scientific explanation for those processes which we didn’t understand at first. I think it is much more glorifying to God for us to discover the way natural processes work because doing so shows that God has set up a universe that works and is productive for life.

Since astronomy and science do not prove God ‘by experiment’, I don’t think one can learn details about faith this way. However, if one does have eyes of faith – and I believe there are good reasons for people to believe in God – one can look at some of the things we see in the universe and infer some characteristics of God. Such characteristics could include God’s apparent love of beauty, colour, faithfulness, unfathomable magnitude and even life itself.

These are not scientific principles, they are faith perspectives. We see unbelievable beauty in the universe – spiral galaxies that are awesome in their symmetry and brilliance. We see thousands of galaxies both near and far in space and time in single images from the Hubble Space Telescope. When you try to imagine this extrapolated across the whole sky it is mindblowing. The distances in terms of space and time are beyond our capability to understand.

It is spellbinding to realise there are so many stars. To me, that says something about God’s generosity and the magnitude of his creativity. When I look at the physical laws – the progression of time, cause and effect, the stability of gravity and so on – I see something of God’s faithfulness. In chaos theory and quantum mechanics as they affect subatomic particles, I am reminded of God’s gift of free will within a structured framework. God does not treat us like puppets.

In the emergence and presence of life on this planet, I see something of God’s love. God has enabled a universe that supports life on Earth, and life in its many forms is flourishing. Human life, with its ability to think about and commune with God, is evidence of a God of love who desires fellowship and relationship.

You mention God being used as an explanation for things as yet unexplained. Is the theory that the universe started with a big bang the scientific equivalent of a ‘God of the gaps’?

No, I think there is overwhelming evidence that the universe had a very energetic beginning, which is what the term Big Bang means. Very few scientists believe in the steady-state theory, which says that the universe has always been here and will always be here. From many lines of evidence we see that the universe had a spectacular beginning about 13.7 billion years ago. By using large telescopes we can look back in time (by looking at distant galaxies, whose light was emitted long ago) to see the different stages of development. Big Bang is what I call God’s ‘Let there be light’ event.

How does your scientific view relate to what you read in the Bible about creation?

As a Christian, I believe the Bible is inspired by God. I have a great respect for the Bible. Respecting the scriptures includes understanding the kind of literature that was being written and what is being read. We need to be humble and respectful in trying to understand what it is that God is teaching us through each book and each passage. Every book has a different type of literature, a different historical time frame and a different initial audience.

The opening words of Genesis are very powerful – ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ – because they set the stage for a theology which says that everything is created by one God.

If we read Genesis as a text of scientific detail, I think we misunderstand its purpose. God was not giving us the details of how he created things. If it was that kind of text it would have been a much longer book. I find it amazing that the stages of Creation in Genesis match fairly well with what scientists understand to be the way things have come into being.

The message of Genesis is spectacular: God was responsible for every part and phase of Creation and declared it to be good. Everything from the beginning of light to the development of continents and oceans, stars and moon, plants, animals and people, God declared good. This says we are creatures God cares about.

Science is a gift of God. We have God-given abilities to understand the details of how he created and what is going on now. Our universe is very dynamic. Stars and galaxies don’t just sit there. They are changing all the time. Stars die out, new stars are born. Galaxies merge together. Black holes spew out material that gets caught up in their magnetic fields. There are volcanoes on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons. I am enthralled by how active the universe is. If you were to take Genesis as a literal scientific text, you might miss out on the fact that the universe is dynamic and changing. Part of the wonder of creation is the using of science to understand the details of creation.

Scientists tell us that humans are made from stardust. How does that work?

This is a fantastic discovery of recent astrophysics. It works like this: Inside stars, which are like pressure cookers, hydrogen atoms fuse to form helium. Later, as the pressure increases even more, the helium atoms fuse to form lithium, and so on, producing heavier elements such as carbon and iron.
Because not every element fuses easily, old stars become unstable, and the more massive ones explode; these are known as supernovas. In this way they spew out the heavier elements – those that had formed via fusion inside the star or in the explosion itself – into the region between stars, known as the interstellar medium or the black bit between stars.

At this point dispersed heavier elements can get caught into the next generation of stars that form out of this gas. And so from this process we get heavier and heavier elements after generations of stars come and go. The original stars early after the big bang had only hydrogen and a little helium. Now stars such as our Sun, generations later, also have heavier elements, and in fact most stars now form with a ring of dusty debris, made from these heavier elements, surrounding them. It is out of this material that planets can form, and we have the dry land and the oceans and the atmosphere that God gave us on Earth. Even our bodies are made of the heavier elements of this ‘stardust’.

From a faith perspective, I find this is one of the most beautiful discoveries of science. The Bible tells us we are made of dust. Science tells us that the dust of Earth was made in the crucible of the stars. And stars are also the source of light; God seems to like light. Right at the beginning God said: ‘Let there be light.’ The Bible also says that God is light – that there is no darkness in him. Jesus described himself as ‘the light of the world’.

Stars are not only purveyors of light but they are also the cosmic factories where God created the dust out of which he allowed our bodies to be formed.

One of the arguments made against the idea that humankind occupies a special place in the universe is the idea of multiverse – that ours happens to have the right conditions for life because it is only one of many universes with marginally different conditions. Would a multiverse change your view of the significance of human life on Earth?

No, not at all. The multiverse theory is an interesting conversation. There was a time when scientists were wondering whether ours is the only solar system and whether there are other galaxies. The fact that there are other galaxies does not change the Christian view of the value of human life. By the same token, neither would the discovery of other universes. And pushing the idea to the extreme of an infinite number of universes with infinite realities hits a wall of non-logic.

But for now the multiverse will remain a theoretical discussion because scientists cannot observe these potential other universes. Even if we imagine that they might be there, that does not change anything. Christians believe that God is the author of everything. As explorers, the best we can do is discover what is out there. It is exciting but there is never anything that is outside the realm of God’s authorship.