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Stars in Her Eyes

Interview by Hannah Notess ( | Illustration by Yuta Onoda

There's nothing too special about Jennifer Wiseman's favorite galaxy.

About 100 million light years away from Earth, NGC–1309 displays a symmetrical pinwheel shape. Its brightest moment may have been in 2002, when light from a supernova (a powerful star explosion) inside it reached earth. In the background of the Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC–1309, many more distant galaxies linger.

So why does Wiseman, senior project scientist for NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, like this particular galaxy?

It's become my favorite galaxy, not because it's special, but because it's kind of average," she says. "By seeing the beauty of this one galaxy, and the abundance of other galaxies in that same image, I get a sense of the enormous beauty and magnitude of our universe."

Wiseman's fascination with galaxies and stars began early. As a kid growing up on an Arkansas farm, she took walks with her family to look at the night sky. Later, as a senior at MIT, she discovered the comet that now bears her name, 114P/Wiseman-Skiff. She continued her studies at Harvard, earning a doctorate in astronomy in 1995.

Jennifer WisemanIn her presentation at SPU’s Day of Common Learning, Wiseman showed a video of a space shuttle mission launch to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

In her current research, Wiseman studies the formation of stars. She also directs the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and she has served as an adult Sunday school teacher and lay speaker at her church.

Wiseman visited Seattle Pacific University's campus on October 19, 2011, to speak to students, faculty, staff, and the public at the 10th Annual Day of Common Learning. In her lecture, "Stars, Galaxies, Planets, and Life: An Amazing Universe to Behold," she explored "how science can inspire worship, study, and service."

She also spoke with Response about astronomy's latest discoveries, the future of NASA, and why it's important for Christians to become scientifically educated. Especially on the latter, and on questions of faith and science, we asked her to share her own personal reflections. Her views do not represent NASA.

What is it like being a NASA scientist?

There is no typical day for me as an oversight scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope project.

I have a variety of duties that include being a spokesperson for the scientific discoveries we're making with the telescope. I also make sure that we have an adequate budget to keep doing the best science, and overseeing how the science instruments on the observatory are used, to make sure that we're getting the best scientific return out of the observatory.

How do you describe the value of NASA's work?

Some people wonder why we should be spending money as a nation on astronomy and telescopes when there are other, more down-to-earth problems that we need to address. I clarify that the fraction of the federal budget spent on NASA, and particularly on space science, is extremely small, and yet the return is enormous in terms of inspiring our young people and lifting the spirits of citizens of our country and people around the world, as we discover our place in a magnificent universe.

I think that, as a nation, we need to channel our resources both into solving problems and into advancing good, positive, constructive pursuits.

At times in our history, NASA has been a huge cultural icon, such as the moon landing and during the space shuttle program. Now that the space shuttle program has ended, what direction do you see NASA going in the future?

NASA has some exciting plans. Though we've retired the space shuttles, the space station is still very much in operation. While NASA plans and develops its follow-up vehicles for the shuttle, we will be hitching a ride on Russian spacecraft for a few years to get back and forth from the space station. But before long we plan to have vehicles that could take us not only to the low-Earth-orbit area where the space station is, but also beyond, perhaps to the moon, perhaps eventually to Mars.

We are also in the middle of developing a very large space telescope that will follow Hubble. It's called the James Webb Space Telescope, and it will see farther back in time and space than we've been able to see with Hubble.

HubbleImages from the Hubble Space Telescope allow us to look back in time by showing distant objects. The distance to these objects is measured in light-years, a measurement that tells us how long it takes for that light to reach earth. For instance, when we look at the Carina Nebula, 7,500 light-years away, we are seeing how that nebula looked 7,500 years ago.

One of the hottest topics in astronomy right now is the detection of hundreds of planets outside of our own solar system: exoplanets. When I was growing up, it was only science fiction to imagine whether or not stars other than our sun had planets orbiting them. But in the last 20 years, we have detected hundreds of planets around other stars.

There are well over 1,000 candidates that are potential planets orbiting other stars. This is a huge change. It also means that before too long, we'll be able to do more detailed analysis of some of these planets to try to understand whether they are like Earth, whether they have atmospheres that are compatible with sustaining life.

In fact, if we can build the right telescopes and instruments, we might be able — at some point in the not-too-distant future — to detect signatures of biological activity on some of these planets, if it's there. This is a very exciting, evolving field.

If we were to discover life on other planets, what do you think it would look like?

Everyone immediately remembers their favorite science-fiction movies and starts imagining what alien civilizations might look like. But for scientists, actually the most exciting discovery that we could anticipate is if we could find any evidence of simple life, like bacteria, on another planet. Of course, we would be detecting it indirectly. Instead of actually seeing the life forms, we would be analyzing the atmosphere and seeing if it gives evidence of there being biological processes on the planet.

For example, if we were to leave Earth and look back with certain instruments, we could do a spectral analysis of Earth's atmosphere and see water vapor. That would tell us that Earth could sustain life, because we have water.

We would also see things like oxygen, and that would be a clue that we have plant life here, because the photosynthesis processes in plants produce oxygen. So these things we call "biomarkers" are clues that there might be life on the planet, and that's the kind of thing we'd be looking for on these other planets.

If we were to find life outside our solar system, what would the theological and ethical implications of those discoveries be?

If we find life somewhere other than Earth — especially if it were life in a different star system — that form of life could not have originated from Earth. We would call that a second biogenesis, meaning that life, however life got started on Earth, was able also to get started other places. That takes a little bit of theological contemplation.

However, most people of religious faith after a while seem to conclude that however God created life on this planet, he could have done the same thing elsewhere if he so desired, because God loves life and life is abundant here. The Bible doesn't speak specifically to whether or not there's life elsewhere. Most Christians with whom I've spoken seem to feel that they could broaden their view to accept that life elsewhere is glorifying to God.

Has being an astronomer and seeing what you've seen in space made you look any differently at human beings?

Yes. Being faced every day with the enormous size and unfathomable age of the universe, and the precious nature of our planet Earth, makes me realize how precious life is. Our lives are very short.

So many people around the globe live their lives in poverty and oppression, and they don't get to use the gifts they've been given to the utmost because of their circumstances. We should do everything we can to help people around the world to have freedom to use their lives to the very best of their ability. It also teaches me that those of us in affluent and free countries should not waste time with silly pursuits that use up parts of our preciously short lives. It's a privilege to be on this particular planet, on this particular outpost in our galaxy.

It reminds me to take time to look around and enjoy the magnificent creation that we're a part of and make sure that we don't get so busy and distracted by the problems of daily life that we forget to take time to be quiet, to look around at the forest, the mountains, the oceans, and, yes, up into the sky and recognize what an awesome creation we live in and what a privilege it is to enjoy life.

And there's one more thing. It reminds me also that we're not the only creatures on this planet, and I think one of our highest responsibilities as humans is to use our dominance, if you will, to improve the lives and not oppress the lives of the other creatures on this planet, be they animals in rain forests or animals in our farms and laboratories. We need to treat them with dignity and responsible stewardship.

You've said elsewhere that you think it's important for Christians to become scientifically educated. Why do you think that's important?

I believe science is an exciting and a godly endeavor, and that we should encourage the scientific exploration and understanding of the natural world. As a Christian, I believe that it pleases God and glorifies God when we care enough to study the details of his handiwork.

Also we should remember that the scientific enterprise, as described more formally, is only a few centuries old, and many of the early scientists were people motivated by their faith in God to investigate the details of God's handiwork. This enterprise has a profoundly theological root in terms of serving God and honoring the Lord. I believe there's certainly a foundation for encouraging Christians to go into science.

Science nowadays is a component of almost everything that we as a society do. So science and technology are part of our agriculture, our national defense, our entertainment, our education, our transportation, our media, our little gadgets, and certainly our medicine.

We would be foolish to take a backseat in understanding science and technology or to understanding the ethical concerns that come along with our advancements.

I think Christians should be diligent at all kinds of endeavors, including science and technology, as a means of service. In these fields, we need not only people with bright technical minds, but also people who are thinking deeply about the purpose of scientific exploration and technological development and the bigger picture — the values and priorities of our society.

Has your own scientific education shaped your faith in any way?

I think my scientific education has matured my faith in some ways by helping me see that God sometimes works through processes that take patience beyond what the human mind can imagine. In other words, while God can perform instant miracles, his traditional mode of operation has been to set up natural law and processes through which the universe is unfolding. That's beautiful. That shows us a God of patience and a God of faithfulness that's beyond our ability, with our short life spans and our fast-food mentality, to contemplate.

When I look at things like the geologic time span for mountains and canyons to form across the globe, for continents to move, even for planets and new stars to form, I see the kind of drama that's taking place under the natural laws that God has ordained. That speaks to a God of grandeur and patience and unfathomable time and space, a God who is more powerful than the kind of quickfix God that we're often tempted to imagine.

JupiterIn this Hubble Space Telescope image from 2007, Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede (right), is visible, along with Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a storm the size of two Earths that has been raging for more than 300 years.

What astronomical discovery do you most hope will happen in your lifetime?

In my lifetime I'm hoping that we can do two things in particular. I'm hoping we can explore the moons of Jupiter and Saturn more thoroughly to find out if there are any life forms on these moons, in particular, for example, in the oceans under the ice of Europa.

I'm also hoping that we will at least find out if there are other Earth-like planets around other stars that have oceans and continents, and maybe if we can even detect the signature of biological activity from things like plants. That, to me, would be tremendously exciting.

How would you describe looking at the stars through instruments such as the Hubble Space Telescope compared to looking with your eyes, or through a handheld telescope?

When you look at objects with professional telescopes, you really get amazing details. We can see with spatial precision that would be otherwise unobtainable. And we can also see in wavelengths of light that our eyes can't otherwise see, infrared light and ultraviolet light. There's certainly the scientific advantage of looking at objects with professional telescopes because our eyes see only a tiny fraction of the color range by which things in space emit their light.

On the other hand, I would say that my favorite kind of astronomy is going out to a dark place with just my eyes and maybe a pair of binoculars. By seeing the larger-scale grandeur of the sky, I think you get a much better personal sense of the magnitude of the universe that we live in, and the sense of collective beauty of all these stars and planets being apparent at once. I hope that people will take the time to find a dark place on a dark night and look up for a while, because it's an experience like no other.

Online extra: Read about Jennifer Wiseman's own research and highlights of other discoveries.