Life & Faith

An Astronomer’s Guide to the Galaxy

June 14, 2018

Astrophysicist Jennifer Wiseman on star-gazing, human significance, and the prospect of extra-terrestrial life.

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"If you fund some level of basic science, it lifts the human spirit, it tends to give people motivation to do other kinds of science as well, it feeds a lot of other worthwhile human enterprises."

Jennifer Wiseman grew up in rural Arkansas, an experience which gave her an abiding love of nature – and introduced her to the wonders of the night sky.

"In the case of astronomy I think it feeds into art and music and philosophy and theology and all kinds of things," Wiseman continues. "So I would say that, as human beings, we need some investment in these 'spirit-lifting' activities - and certainly exploring our universe is a very basic human curiosity that I think lifts the human spirit."

It wasn’t until years later that she realised she could turn her interest in space into a full-time job. These days, she’s an astrophysicist … one who has a comet named after her.

"Science is a wonderful gift and tool to address certain types of questions. How does gravity work? How do stars form? What’s the evolutionary history of the universe? … But science is not really good at answering certain other types of questions, like why are we here, or how should I live, or can I have a relationship with God? These kinds of things I can’t measure with my microscope or my telescope."

When you get to have a conversation with someone like Jennifer Wiseman, you want to ask all the questions. How far can we see? Why is the universe beautiful? How can humans be significant, given the vastness of space? How do you get a comet named after you? And, of course: what about life beyond Earth?

"I wouldn’t be surprised if we found, maybe years in the future, that there are certainly habitable planets, and maybe biological activity on other planets. It would make a lot of sense to me."

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