Jennifer Wiseman is an astronomer who studies star forming regions of our galaxy using optical, radio, and infrared telescopes. Her career has involved oversight of national astronomical facilities as well as public science policy and discourse. In 1987 she co-discovered the periodic comet 114P/Wiseman-Skiff as an undergraduate researcher at MIT. She has a bachelor’s degree in physics from MIT, and a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University. In Part 1 of her interview with ESN, she shared some of the latest astronomical findings. In Part 2 she shares how science shapes her personal life of faith.
ESN: Are there areas of your research that move you to worship?
JW: I am fascinated by galaxies. The Hubble space telescope produced a marvelous image called the ultra deep field, which is the result of staring out into space for several days and collecting light so that it could image the faintest objects, thereby seeing a whole collection of galaxies. When you look at this image and you realize it’s only a tiny fraction of one area of the sky, and then extrapolate in your mind around the whole sky, you get a visceral sense of how enormous the universe is. And when you imagine that each galaxy, each speck of light contains potentially hundreds of billions of stars, and there are potentially planetary systems around most of those stars, it is awesome to contemplate. I find both the magnitude of the universe I sense by looking at images of these galaxies, and also the beauty of these galaxies, to be one of the most spirit-gripping parts of astronomy that I’ve ever seen.
So then for me, if I think about these things through the lens of faith, because I am someone who believes God is responsible for the universe and the natural processes we study in science, I have to realize God has been upholding and watching over and supporting an evolving universe over billions of years, long before life and human life existed on this planet. What does that mean? One way people react to this is by feeling a great sense of insignificance, since we occupy such a small fraction of time and space. My reaction is not that, but a sense of almost fearful gratefulness that this whole universe has been allowed to mature over eons of time to the point where planets, at least one, can support abundant life, and that I get to be a part of that for just a little while. So I’m grateful. And it also makes me a little fearful: am I using my time well?
I’m also aware through this lens of faith that God is concerned with a much larger universe than just our planet, even though I believe God is no less concerned with our planet. That’s the mystery of the word infinite. The God who’s revealed in Scripture is concerned both with unfathomable worlds throughout the universe, whether or not they contain life, and is also concerned with the one lost sheep here on this planet, and understands the number of hairs on our head, and is concerned when the sparrow falls. So these are thoughts that expand our appreciation of God even though it’s harder for us to comprehend in some ways.
ESN: What spiritual practices do you rely on to remember God’s presence in the midst of your work?
JW: I find it’s easy to get consumed with the stresses of the moment—the urgent deadlines, the seemingly infinite number of emails and meetings. They’re all necessary parts of professional life, but they can detract one’s attention from what’s important to what seems urgent. I find two things to be important. One is to occasionally talk to people outside my field about what we’re doing in astronomy, because that reminds me of the importance of what we’re doing and how exciting it is. I get the privilege of describing it to others.
Then I find spiritually it’s important to take a few moments of the day in prayer where I’m not asking for anything, I’m just being quiet before the Lord and acknowledging praise to God the creator, praise to Jesus Christ my savior, and praise to the Holy Spirit who guides and counsels. If I acknowledge this presence of God quietly even for a moment each day, it re-centers me in what’s important. And I also pray about urgent issues I’m concerned about. But first I need that moment of quiet centering.
ESN: When you were a Ph.D. student, what did you find helpful in getting through your program, both mentally and spiritually?
JW: I found graduate school to be a strange mix of the most interesting life imaginable, and the most pressured life imaginable. At times the interesting aspects of graduate study had the most dominant influence on my sense of well-being. At times the sense of pressure and even discouragement could have the most profound influence. I found having camaraderie with fellow students in the department to be really important. That helped me feel a sense of belonging whether the research was going well or not at that moment.
Then, for me, a real highlight and life-saver for my years in graduate school was the discovery of the InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship group on campus. It was there I experienced long term friendships that continue even now, years later. And I was also encouraged for the first time to think about my academic vocation as being very much a Christian calling, and to understand that God was glorified by scientific study just as much as through traditional forms of worship and public service. So I felt I could seek God’s help even through the challenges of a technical career just as much as I could for other aspects of life.
Another aspect of the Graduate Christian Fellowship that is invaluable is that it can reflect what I think a university ought to reflect, which is the bringing together of people from many different disciplines to discuss how they intersect with one another, and to learn from one another. So in that fellowship I experienced something I didn’t have in my department, which was exposure to other fields and disciplines. There were students in the fellowship from literature, other sciences, music, government, and other areas of expertise. Through our interactions and conversations I got to learn a whole lot about other fields of study, and we could talk together about how each field could better inform the other and enrich society as a whole. So the Graduate Fellowship provided a platform, a little module of perhaps what the whole university ought to look like in terms of having a unified forum where different disciplines can enrich one another.
About the author:
Mark is on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Manhattan, Kansas, where he ministers to Faculty at Kansas State University and surrounding campuses. He has been in campus ministry 25 years, 14 of those years in faculty ministry. He has a Master's degree in philosophy and theology from Talbot School of Theology, La Mirada, CA, and is passionate about Jesus Christ and the life of the mind. Mark, his wife and three daughters make their home in Manhattan.