Introducing the Templeton Ideas Podcast. A show about the most awe-inspiring ideas in our world and the people who investigate them.
This week, Dr. Jennifer Wiseman joined us on the Templeton Ideas podcast. Dr. Wiseman is an astrophysicist and Director Emeritus of the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program. Among her many scientific accomplishments, Dr. Wiseman discovered the Wiseman-Skiff comet. She joins the Templeton Ideas podcast to discuss her journey from the Ozarks to the edges of the universe, and the pure delight of space exploration.
Transcripts of our episodes are made available as soon as possible. They are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.
THOMAS BURNETT: Well, Jennifer, welcome to the Templeton ideas podcast. You and I met over a decade ago, but I’ve never asked you about your life story. Where did it all begin?
JENNIFER WISEMAN: Hi Tom. Thanks. Yes. I grew up in an area of the US that is just immersed in natural beauty. So I grew up in the Ozark mountains. They’re really hills in Northern Arkansas and all around me were these forested hills and lakes and rivers and valleys.
And I also grew up on a family farm there. So I had the luxury of wandering around at will, amongst, not only livestock, but wildlife and, through meadows and forests, and I also loved looking at the night sky. We lived in a place where at that time the sky was dark and you could see lots of stars at night, which is a luxury that many people don’t have today in our light polluted world. So I was able to just notice and be curious about the natural world. As I was growing up in my teenage years, some of these movies were coming out like Star Wars and, you know, things like that, that made every young person imagine what it would be like to be going out into space. So that made me curious as well.
And then thirdly, I was fascinated by the first images being broadcast from the Voyager spacecraft, which were these probes that NASA had sent out into the outer solar system. They were sending back the first close up images of some of these outer planets and their moons, some with ice, some with volcanoes. And I thought that was the greatest thing that humans had ever done was to send a probe that could really be our eyes in these exotic places and help us explore. And I still do
THOMAS BURNETT: I am curious, you’ve got this love of nature, a curiosity that inspires you to learn. Was there a specific point that you remember where you told yourself I want to be a scientist? I wanna do this as a career and do it as a life passion.
JENNIFER WISEMAN: That’s a great question because I didn’t know any scientists growing up. We were hours away from any university at the time. My parents did not have the chance to go to college themselves. And so the world of professional science was really very distant. I wanted somehow to be involved in the enterprise of space exploration. I didn’t know whether that would mean becoming a scientist or trying to be an astronaut or trying to be an engineer that helps build these probes or, or what, but fortunately I had different aspects of encouragement coming my way. My public school in rural Arkansas was very good and the teachers were very dedicated and they encouraged us to reach high and my family, in spite of the fact that my parents couldn’t go to college themselves from their background, but they really wanted to make sure their children had that chance.
And so all four of us siblings were put through college and my oldest brother really, was the pioneer. He went on not only to the university first, but he also went on into graduate school. And in fact, my brother introduced the idea of applying not only to local colleges, but to more distant ones, like MIT, where I eventually ended up going. So I appreciated that kind of encouragement. And then my church, growing up again, we didn’t have any professional scientists in our congregation, but we always learned that the natural world was something that God is responsible for, and seeing nature tells us something about God’s generosity.
So science fit into that positive view of the natural world that I grew up with. So all these different facets of encouragement, I think opened doors for me that otherwise, I probably would not have explored.
THOMAS BURNETT: Jennifer, I wanna pivot to that big hop you made from Arkansas to MIT. Was that a shock to your system?
JENNIFER WISEMAN: Well, I, first of all, was kind of over prepared in a sense mentally for this, perhaps big cultural jump from rural Arkansas to MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, because everyone was telling me that it would be so different there that I would feel so much like an alien that I was really prepared for, like it would be going to Mars or something.
And so when I actually showed up on campus there, I realized, hey, these people are pretty much like me. We come from different places, but we’re not all that different from each other. So, I really enjoy the excitement of going to an active campus in an urban area. It was a fun, new experience for me. As for space work. I didn’t know when I first went there, whether I wanted to go into astronomy, I just knew I was interested in space. Fortunately, that university was very encouraging for undergraduates to get involved in real research right away.
And so I actually started doing one of those research programs early on in a lab that had really nothing to do with astronomy, but it was space related and I thought this was just fabulous. Suddenly I was sitting there in front of a computer, doing something very basic at first, like data entry, but it was data taken from real astronauts during, and, before and after space flight. And so, suddenly I found myself involved in actual scientific research and I found that to be so stimulating so I think that’s, that’s a wonderful thing.
THOMAS BURNETT: Jennifer, it sounds like it was a fabulous undergraduate experience for you. You really got to explore a wide range of interests, some happenstance, some intentional. But when applying to graduate school, you have to pick a specific program and within that program a specific topic, a specific area. How did you narrow down your interests and really dig into something that would work for a specific research program?
JENNIFER WISEMAN: Yes. So I had a little bit of experience with astronomy as an undergraduate, just a couple of classes and a momentous field trip for students that I participated in out to Lowell observatory in Arizona, but then getting into graduate school, I began to work with a professor there who was doing the one field of research that I was sure I did not want to be involved with.
I had taken an undergraduate course in astronomy, and we learned about different kinds of telescopes and one of those was radio telescopes. And at least in that class radio telescopes were really presented as basically glorified antennas and I really wanted more to work with the classical kind of pretty pictures of astronomy. And so I decided that that was the one kind of astronomy I wasn’t interested in, but I would dabble in anything else.
Well, of course I ended up after my first year in graduate school doing a short term project with a radio astronomer. And I immediately got accepted into the larger research group with graduate students and postdocs and learned how they were using radio telescopes in very exciting ways to peer deep into these interstellar clouds, where stars are actually born. And I learned how to use interferometry, which is using several radio telescopes together and it changed my mind about what I thought I did and didn’t want to do in astronomy.
And I also learned something that I’d like to convey to other people considering a science career. One of the things that frightened me perhaps as a high school student and even in, early college about going into science was that I, didn’t understand how you could just think up a new scientific project and do it not knowing whether someone had done this kind of science before I was thinking of it as something you had to do all by yourself.
What I learned and, I wish people had told me earlier is that if you’re going into science and you find yourself in college and graduate school, you hook up with a mentor professor who has a group of students and they will help you find a research project area that’s really interesting and that’s important research that needs to be done that builds on other research that you can draw from. And you learn the techniques of how it’s done, how to do the data collection, how to analyze it and how to write it up into scientific papers.
So I wish I'd known that science is not a lone ranger enterprise that it's successfully done when you join a group and they help you find a productive path of one's particular participation.
THOMAS BURNETT: Jennifer, was there ever a point in your academic career where you said, this is TOO MUCH? The research, publication cycle is squelching my joy and THIS is not NOT what I signed up for?
JENNIFER WISEMAN: Well, first of all, by the time I finished my second three year postdoctoral position, I was both grateful for all this research opportunity that I’d had, but I was also getting a little bit, disillusioned personally, in a sense, I, wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend the rest of my career, just focusing in on, very detailed questions about interstellar clouds and the gas and dust within them. Or whether there’s something I could do that embraced the bigger picture of why we’re doing science in the first place and how it’s done. And I was kind of distressed because I didn’t know if there was any way to do that.
So I went through perhaps a, dark, soul searching period during the latter part of my second post-doctoral position, wondering what to do and, applying for different kinds of positions, including the, faculty positions and astronomy departments that most astronomers seek and what happened is that I ended up applying for something called a congressional science fellowship, which is a, a different kind of position where one can be a scientist, but work with Congress in all issues that somehow relate to science. So that was my third and, and rather unconventional post-doctoral role, which then led me to being able to work in a federal agency with science oversight.
THOMAS BURNETT: Did you feel like that and moving over to science policy and that role, did that kind of satisfy your need to work on the big picture?
JENNIFER WISEMAN: I think getting into the science policy area really did satisfy my growing interest in the bigger picture. Of course I haven’t been able to as much in the subsequent years to go out and do my own observations and my own data analysis.
And I do miss that at times, but I also really appreciate being exposed to other kinds of science and how it’s managed. So I then worked at NASA headquarters for several years, learning how someone who is a scientist can work in a beneficial way in oversight of major scientific missions and how they are run, how they’re supported, how they operate in terms of, drawing in scientists and producing results that are of benefit to the nation. So I really felt that it did scratch that itch for me going in the policy direction. I’ve never regretted that decision and I’m still working in oversight, scientific roles today.
THOMAS BURNETT: We’re going to take a short break, and when we come back, I am going to ask Jennifer about the limits of science, the rationality of faith, and how science has changed her as a person.
THOMAS BURNETT: Welcome back.
Now that we’ve learned about the arc of Jennifer’s life from the Ozarks to the edges of the universe, science has clearly taken her a long way. What I’d like to explore next are not only the boundaries of science, but what lies beyond it.
Jennifer, what is it about astronomy that fills you with delight?
JENNIFER WISEMAN: Well, certainly in astronomy and, the bigger term of cosmology, which is really trying to comprehend the universe as a whole, and its formation and its development. There are many, many unanswered questions and that’s really the delight of it.
I think people, whether they are professional astronomers or not, all have questions about the universe and where we've come from and how we fit into this bigger picture.
And one of the delightful problems of astronomy is that the better our technology gets, the more we are discovering and detecting and the more we’re understanding, the more questions we have. So the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know, and the more you wanna investigate.
THOMAS BURNETT: Tell me about a specific discovery that you find utterly fascinating.
JENNIFER WISEMAN: Personally, the questions that I am most fascinated by are our questions of how galaxies have come to be over time. We know they haven’t always been the same because we can look with our telescopes now into deep space. The ones that are farther away are teaching us what galaxies were like farther back in time, because it’s taken more time for the light to get to us, and we can see that the composition within these galaxies have changed. They’ve had generations of stars come and go. And when the biggest stars run out of fuel, they explode and disperse that material and interstellar space and it becomes part of the composition of subsequent generations of stars like our sun. Our sun, we now know, is not a first generation star. It relied on previous generations of stars to produce the material that’s both within our sun, but enabled planets, like our own earth to form and to have complex material like carbon and oxygen and iron and nitrogen and things that we need for solids and for life we’ve needed the previous history of the universe to get where we are today and to have life. And I find that really the most fascinating part of the universe to think about.
THOMAS BURNETT: What was the cutting edge of astronomy when you started, and how has that changed during your career?
JENNIFER WISEMAN: When I first entered the field of astronomy, there were basic questions of how stars shine and how they’re born and how they die, those questions are still there.
Stellar astrophysics is still important. What’s changed in recent years is the emphasis because as our technology has improved, the observations are starting to reveal things that we really weren’t able to detect before. So now we realize, for example, that planets exist not only orbiting our own sun, but orbiting other planets as well. We’ve detected thousands of exo-planetary systems, and we’re at the next stage now trying to understand the nature of those exoplanets. And we are developing and imagining newer telescopes in the future that we’ll be able to do what we’d really like, is to take a lot of close up pictures, well, not close up, but I should say zoomed in pictures of these exo-plans to see if any of them have detectable oceans and continents. And of course we wanna know if any of them are habitable. So that’s the exciting path of that field.
And then at the other kind of scale of distance is that the whole field of cosmology has changed with detections that our universe over time, is not only expanding, but that expansion rate is now accelerating. We didn’t expect that when I was in graduate school, the thought was that the universe expansion rate must be slowing down, the expansion of the universe, or maybe even strong enough to reverse it back into a big crunch. Those were really the only options and we were trying to figure out which of those would be the ultimate fate of the universe. And we got the sense that indeed in the early few billion years of the universe, the universe expansion was slowing down. But then there was kind of a reversal and over the past few billion years, that expansion rate I should say is now accelerating and, and we don’t know what would be pushing the universe apart. So we call that dark energy right now, and that’s a very, very hot topic.
THOMAS BURNETT: Have you, in your career, bumped up into the limits of science in terms of what kinds of questions, you’re able to ask where you think, you know what the methodology here, the technology we have, the techniques we have, there’s a chasm I can’t get across. Have you bumped into those edges of science before?
JENNIFER WISEMAN: Well, certainly these questions of the universe and our place in it bump up against these bigger questions of who are we as human beings. And, and why are we here? Those kinds of, deeper questions I think, everybody has to some extent, and I think that’s why people are so fascinated by studies of space because it begs those deeper questions of, where we’ve come from and, those questions can be answered in different ways. So if we ask the question, why are we here? There’s a scientific way of addressing that question, which is, use the tools of astronomy and physics to delve into the history of the universe, to try to understand how the universe, from a, burst of inflation and energy transformed into a universe that can, contain mass and matter as well as energy and can, support life at least on one planet.
So, those are scientific questions. They’re delicious questions. They are questions that I’m heavily involved with, but the other question of why are we here involves what I’d call the ‘capital W’ why, which is, okay, we might be able to understand every step of the physics along the way. We might even be able to understand someday, which we don’t fully understand right now, but what caused what we call the big bang and what even happened before the big bang, if that makes any sense. If you talk about before, what happened, what happened when space time itself began. Is there a multiverse? I mean, these are kinds of questions that we hope to address through science and observational science, but they don’t address the ‘capital w’ why which is, the kind of classical question. Why is there something and not nothing, why is there a universe, including life that can reflect upon itself?
I mean, we can study the physical steps along the way, and we can postulate that maybe there’s a whole collection of universes of which we just happen to be in the one that evolved toward life. But that doesn’t answer through scientific means the ‘capital w’ why. Why is there this reality at all? And that’s why we need these human endeavors that are beyond science, science, I love I’m a scientist. Science is a wonderful tool for investigating the natural world in a systematic way. But we also realize that science does not answer everything about everything science should not be seen as a kind of religion where we look to science to give us ultimate purpose and meaning and science itself doesn’t actually give us the values that we need as we’re figuring out what kinds of science to do and how to do it, and what’s right and wrong, and what’s good and bad. Those kinds of things are beyond the realm of what science really is best at and what science is designed for.
THOMAS BURNETT: You’ve said that your faith is important to you, from your earliest age up to now. And I’m curious, given your career as an astronomer, as someone who’s devoted their life to seeing the universe all the way up to its most extreme limits, is it rational? Is it reasonable to believe in things that you can’t see?
JENNIFER WISEMAN: Well, well, we do all the time, right? We all put our bets on that. Every time you drive over a bridge, you are trusting that someone with good knowhow has built that bridge well, and that someone else has been doing oversight and inspections to make sure that that bridge is sturdy. So we’re all doing that in a very practical way. When you get into these bigger questions, I have found that there are deeper truths that ring true through my own personal observation and experience. One of those is that there is a capacity for love, for genuine caring, one for another.
I’ve experienced it and I have seen it and we can go through the science of, the brain and, group survival mechanisms and so forth, which may play a role in how humans interact with each other for the betterment of the whole group. I think that’s an important component. But some of it is beyond science, some of the, the love.
And I would also say the recognition of true evil. Evil is a concept that you can’t quite measure with microscopes and telescopes, but it is something that we hopefully recognize, these are things that have experienced throughout my life, which confirmed to me that there are realities beyond the kinds of things that science as a tool is best designed to investigate. And then in a more, personal sense, I, grew up in a Christian family where we learned of a, God, who’s not only responsible for the forces of nature that we investigate with science, but is also concerned with us and our character and our lives so much so that the God responsible for this universe has also been revealed to us in a human being, you know, made of human flesh with, with cells that were, composed of atoms that were created in stars, just like the rest of our bodies were. So this amazing, revelation of a person behind the universe that’s beyond the tools of science, but certainly something, that is, I believe of ultimate importance for humanity and certainly for my life that one can have a personal relationship with God.
One can pray and communicate with the God of the universe who is concerned with us and concerned for our joys, our sufferings, and wants to help us to have a relationship of flourishing and even eternity with God. So these are the kinds of things that are really the crux of life, of flourishing life. In my view, and my experience, that really makes for meaning in our short lives, in the midst of an enormous universe, and gives us purpose and hope.
THOMAS BURNETT: I’d love to know how your career as a scientist has changed you as a person, really reflecting on the life you’ve lived. You’ve led to the amazing things you’ve learned, looking at those Hubble images. How have you changed through those studies?
JENNIFER WISEMAN: I think I’ve just continued to grow in gratitude that I can be a part of this enterprise of space exploration, which is what I had dreamed of as a child.
But I've also learned that science, like any other thing, is only as healthy as the people within it.
How is the enterprise working? Science does not done in some sort of neutral vacuum, it’s done by human beings. And if it’s done in a way that’s ethical, if it’s done in a way that’s inclusive, if it’s done in a way that’s actually working toward goals, that are uplifting toward humanity and all creatures on this planet, then it’s a wonderful enterprise to be a part of. If it’s done for reasons that are selfish or causing risk and danger to others, or causing suffering to animals and other creatures, or not benefiting all people in all humanity, then we need to do some work. So what I think I’ve learned is that science is very much a human enterprise and it brings with it all the good and bad that humanity brings to it.
And I think our whole field of science right now is doing some introspection on how we do science and, who’s it benefiting and how can we improve the climate, the culture of science, and the, inclusiveness of, opening doors to, people coming into science who might not have seen a pathway in, in the past.
And how do we make sure that what we’re doing in science is truly beneficial to everyone. So this introspection is good. Science is a human enterprise, and I get my greatest joy when I’m talking about our discoveries with people who are not integral involved in science, but are part of our humanity who want to know where they fit to the larger universe, just as I do when I feel the greatest joy. And what I’ve learned is that science is best done when it’s a blessing to all.
THOMAS BURNETT: We have covered a lot of ground in this conversation. From peering into the night sky as a child, building a career in astronomy, then realizing that more to life than pure research. So to bring us back to where we started, how do you experience the night sky now, compared to when you were a kid?
JENNIFER WISEMAN: You know, I experience it almost the same. I love going to a dark place, which is getting harder and harder to find. And just looking up with my own eyes. I mean, how amazing to look, and realize that those stars are all different from each other and that many, probably most of them have planetary systems around them.
It is incredible. I love just naked eye astronomy and being in a place where maybe you’ll see some meteor streaking across the sky, meteorite falling through the atmosphere. Those are the kinds of things that I think reinvigorate my sense of wonder in awe. But we also have the tools of these professional telescopes now that people decades ago did not have we have access to the internet. Anybody now can take advantage of the imagery from professional telescopes on the ground and in space revealing a universe that’s beyond anybody’s imagination because no one with their naked eye can see the abundance of galaxies beyond our own Milky way. And looking at these images and being amazed at the vast universe that the tools of science are enabling us to see.
That always refreshes my sense of awe and wonder, and even a sense of humility and fear at the vastness of the universe and space and time, but also a sense of appreciation that we can be a part of this universe. Our bodies are made of stuff made in stars to quote Carl Sagan’s star stuff phrase. We are connected physically with the universe. And there’s nothing that takes me back to a sense of curiosity and wonder more than the Hubble deep field. I could look at that a thousand times and never get tired of seeing an array of galaxies, each one, little smudge of light, each one containing hundreds of billions of stars and maybe hundreds of billions of planets and wondering what it would be like if I could just blink my eyes and go to that galaxy or this galaxy or this other galaxy and look around.
I think it’s a tremendous privilege of humanity to be able to do this kind of basic exploration, and I hope we never as humans lose our curiosity for investigating the basics of the natural, amazing world around us.
ABBY PONTICELLO: Thanks for listening to Templeton Ideas! If you like what you’ve heard so far, follow us and leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts.
Our program was produced by Jakob Lewis, Rachel Aronoff, and Cariad Harmon
Our staff includes Tom Burnett, Abby Ponticello, Benjamin Carlson, David Nassar, Gerald Nelson, Alyssa Settefrati, and Juliette Plummer.
Music Help from Great Feeling Studios.