Mere Christians

Dr. Jennifer Wiseman (Astrophysicist)

Episode Summary

Space travel in the New Heavens and New Earth?

Episode Notes

Jordan Raynor sits down with Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, Astrophysicist, to talk about the remarkable story of discovering a comet when she was a senior in college, how studying the stars can lead us to worship, and a fun conversation about whether or not we’ll be able to travel through the New Heavens from the New Earth.

Links Mentioned:

Episode Transcription

[00:00:05] JR: Hey, everybody. Welcome to the Call to Mastery. I’m Jordan Raynor. This is a podcast for Christians who want to do their most exceptional work for the glory of God and the good of others. Every week, I host a conversation with a Christian who is pursuing world-class mastery of their vocation. We talk about their path to mastery, their daily habits, and how the Gospel of Jesus Christ influences their work.


Today's guest is a legend. Her name is Dr. Jennifer Wiseman. She's a brilliant astrophysicist and the senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope at NASA. That's a hefty title. Now to be clear, she's not here today officially on behalf of NASA, but she’s speaking for herself personally. Dr. Wiseman's also a graduate of MIT and of Harvard. We talked about a lot of different things on this episode.


First, we talked about the unbelievable story of Dr. Wiseman discovering a comet when she was a senior in college, undergrad. This is crazy. She must have been 21 at the time, she discovered a comet that happens just so you know, about a dozen times a year around the globe. We talked about how studying the stars can lead us to worship. And then we had a terrifically fun conversation about whether or not we might be able to travel through space through the new heavens, from our existence on the New Earth. I think you're going to love this mind-bending conversation with Dr. Jennifer Wiseman




[00:01:51] JR: Dr. Wiseman, welcome to the show.


[00:01:53] JW: Thank you.


[00:01:54] JR: Hey, so let's start here, for those who don't know, what does an astrophysicist even do, Dr. Wiseman?


[00:02:03] JW: Well, traditionally, there's a field called astronomy, which is observing the heavens. And in fact, my PhD is technically in astronomy. And then physics is the field of science, studying how the forces of nature work, gravity, how radiation works, things like that. Astrophysics is the combination of these things, looking at the heavens, and then trying to understand what we're seeing through the lens of physics trying to understand how orbits work how radiation is giving us information from distant planets, stars, galaxies, how the physics of magnetism, magnetic fields, things like that are at play.


So, astrophysics is the wonderful combination of observing and interpreting. And nowadays, professional astronomers really are almost all technically astrophysicists not just observing, but trying to interpret what we see.


[00:03:04] JR: I was reading your bio, that you discovered or co-discovered this comment back in 1987. Was this while you were at school at MIT?


[00:03:15] JW: Yes, I was an undergraduate student. It was in the middle of my senior year. The school that I attended, had some wonderful opportunities for undergraduate students to get some experience with research in science. And I took advantage of one of those programs, which was a two-week field trip, they called it a field camp to Lowell Observatory in Arizona. That, by the way, is the place where Pluto was discovered. The whole point was just to see what astronomers actually do. And so, I was able to go on this field trip, and my first day there, I was paired with an astronomer there, Dr. Edward Boll, who was helping me understand how to study photographs of the sky that had been taken with telescopes there and analyze them. I was supposed to be finding asteroids.


But instead, as I was starting to scan one of these, what we then called photographic plates. Looking for things that moved between exposures of the telescope, I found something that seemed to streak across the sky between these subsequent images of the same position in the sky. The stars don't move and in a few hours’ time, but something closer to us like a comet or an asteroid, will seem to jump from position to position in a shorter amount of time. And what I saw, I didn't look like what an asteroid was supposed to look like, according to my mentor, and so he looked at the image that I called attention to and then we went back and measured carefully where this object was in the sky and where it might be now. It had been a few days since that picture was taken.


We went back to the telescope and the person actually at the telescope, taking the pictures is astronomer named Brian Skiff, and we found it again. So, then we reported this unexpected object to the, what was called a Minor Planet Center. But you didn't know there was one, in Massachusetts, and they keep track of all these things in our solar system, asteroids, comets, and so forth, and there was no known object that should have been in that position at that time. They sent out a telegram worldwide, more astronomers in Japan saw it again and reported it. So, it became confirmed as a newly discovered comet. I didn't have anything to do with naming it. But this Minor Planet Center named it as they do after the people they deem responsible for discovering the object. So, they named it comet Wiseman-Skiff, after myself and astronomer Brian Skiff, who actually took the pictures on which I found the comet.


[00:06:04] JR: Okay, this is unbelievable. I know some college seniors who have done some extraordinary things. I don't know any who discovered a comet. What did this do to your perspective on your career? Was this just an unbelievable high and you're like, “Oh, my gosh, this is definitely the thing I'm going to do for the rest of my life.”


[00:06:21] JW: I didn't have any idea as to how important this kind of discovery was. I didn't know whether comments were discovered every day or once in a century. I didn't quite fully understand it. So, I quickly learned that about a dozen comets are discovered every year. Many of them are just single pass objects coming through the newer part of our solar system, and then returning way back out and never returning again, they're on that kind of a hyperbolic type of orbit. But some comets have a more elliptical orbit, which means they come back regularly.


And this comet, fortunately, is on one of those orbits. In fact, it's on what's called a short period orbit. So, it comes back every six and a half years. Anyway, I was very excited when I learned more that this was a fairly significant discovery, not earth shattering, but then again, kind of cool as well. And it opened doors for me. So, I was able to continue studying that comet for the rest of my senior year and writing my senior thesis on it. I call it my answer-to-prayer comet, because I had been concerned, it was the midway through my senior year, I didn't even have a topic for my required senior thesis to get my degree in physics. I had been praying for that. And then this happened. And I was able to study this comet doing further observations on it with our college observatory, and writing my senior research thesis about it.


So, it answered my prayer in a spectacular way. Now, God doesn't always answer my prayers, and it's kind of still profession. But it also, I think, open doors for me to get admitted to graduate school in astronomy and astrophysics. And so, I'm grateful for that. I remember, for the rest of my life now, people ask me about this comet, and while I've done a lot of research, real hard work research in the years subsequent to that, people always asked me about the comet, which is something that was really more like a gift. I have to be in the right place at the right time.


[00:08:43] JR: The gift of grace.


[00:08:46] JW: So, it just reminds me of God's graciousness in his handiwork, as well as how he provides what we need at the time that we need it.


[00:08:55] JR: Oh, my gosh, it's such a beautiful testimony. I've heard you say before that science and theology, are both really concerned with the search for truth. And thus, they're not antithetical to one another, as we sometimes believe, but they're complementary, right? Can you go a level deeper and share your perspective on this?


[00:09:17] JW: Well, if you think about it, it's crazy to think that somehow science, the study of the natural world, should somehow be in conflict with our study in our relationship with the Creator of the natural world. And this is really a more recent occurrence in Western thought, and particularly in the US, starting about a century ago, a little more that somehow science should not only replace theology or religion, but that somehow, they are enemies of each other.


[00:09:58] JR: Yeah, this is a new thing because throughout history, some of the greatest scientists have been faithful believers, have been very religious. Why do you think this has happened in the last century? What's the source of this?


[00:10:11] JW: Well, you have to look back. There's a whole interesting history of the science and religion interface, especially over the last 100, 150 years, especially in the US. There are some famous names, Draper and White, that had a real discussion of a conflict theory. And of course, as usual, there some other things going along. There are ploys for power, who has the most clout in a university, let's say, should it be the theological leaders, or should it be the academic leaders and sort of vying for power using these portals of argument as stepping stones for one's political ploy. There are a lot of interesting underlying conversations going on.


But I think how that plays out, unfortunately, in the public sphere is this sense, or that people glean that somehow you either look to science for your truth, and kind of base your life on science, or you look to religion and to God to base your truth and your faith upon. And somehow, these are different faiths. I reject that. It makes no sense from a biblical point of view, either. Because if we are truly convinced or truly believe that God is responsible for all of creation, and declared it good, then the study of that creation, which is what science is, can be, and should be seen as something that honors God that opens our eyes to God's creation, in the very large and the very small, and that hopefully, we use that knowledge to honor God, to serve others, and to really deepen our appreciation for the handiwork of God.


So, I think, we can think of science as a gift from God to enable us to understand the details of creation that otherwise we wouldn't know. This is a blessing. Whether it's something very esoteric, like studying distant black holes in the universe, or whether it's something that seems more practical, like medical science, but all of it is studying something that God has declared good and that we can use to uplift life around the globe.


[00:12:41] JR: Amen. Well said. I think part of this, I've been thinking a lot about this over the last few years, in just my work and studying what scripture has to say about our work. I think part of the root of this science-faith “war” is a forgetfulness of what God's been telling us since Genesis one and two, that God has always chosen to do his work in this world, in partnership with faithful human beings, right? Including scientists to discover truth about God's creation, to heal the world, et cetera, et cetera, right? God could have miraculously saved his people from a famine, but he put Joseph in a palace, in a government position to do that work. God could have finished the garden in Genesis one and two, but instead, he planted the garden and called Adam and Eve to cultivate it, right? I think he's doing the same thing in science.


So, I read this other blog post of yours the other day, which I love. I don't know how old it is, maybe you don't even remember it. It was basically an analysis of the hymn, How Great Thou Art, and you basically use it to explain how the study of God's creation can lead us to worship. Would you mind sharing a little bit of that perspective with our listeners?


[00:13:56] JW: Yes. First of all, that is a beautiful hymn because it first extols the wonders of God's handiwork. Thunder and rolls, some of the translations of this hymn talk about the created worlds. Now, we think of potentially many planets, with possibly life, beyond our own solar system. The writer explains after contemplating the universe, basically, “God, how great you are, how great Thou art.” And then goes right into contemplating how God did not spare His own Son but sent him to die for our sins. It's all together there in a sense of worship.


What I was trying to get at in that particular essay, which I think you can find on the BioLogos website, if I recall.


[00:14:51] JR: You can, yeah.


[00:14:52] JW: Science as a means of worship or a tool for – I can’t remember what I titled that. But it is the idea that instead of when we talk about science, thinking of it as some separate subject that's really in its own little compartment, as a topic to be discussed or even debated if it's brought up in church, this kind of thing. That instead the first reaction we should have when we hear something that's been discovered in science or thinking about ways of using knowledge from science to help people, that should be a portal for us first to give thanks to God, that churches and church groups should in fact, be embracing scientific discovery as a means to enrich our faith in God, our understanding of the breadth of God's purview, and to call us to worship, to praise God, to thank God, to worship this God, before we delve into some of the thorny questions that might be raised by some of the scientific issues.


So, I really think that we have a lot to be in awe of now. If we would just allow ourselves to be aware of whether or not you are a scientist, in fact, especially if you're not a scientist, paying attention to things, watching science channels on television, reading scientific articles, becoming aware of what we're learning, both on the microscopic scale and the macroscopic scale. And using that as a vehicle to deepen our appreciation of God and in the church setting, maybe even bringing it in explicitly into liturgies of praise and hymns in Sunday school classes, and even celebrating scientific discovery and Vacation Bible schools and things like that. So that there is a seamless sense of praise to God, worship for God's handiwork and appreciation for the scientific study that's telling us more details, whether it's about what our DNA is like and what it does. Whether it's about particle physics, and what's going on at a very small scale within the atoms that hold our world together, or whether it's going on, in a very large scale. What we're studying right now in astronomy, from the distant regions of the universe.


All of this should be informing us. And we should be informed believers that can use that as a first response to worship God and to be thankful and intrigued. And then to move on, to think about how we might employ this knowledge in ways that are fruitful and constructive in our lives and our ministries.


[00:17:49] JR: Amen. Really well said. So, we talked about the beginning, the near beginnings of your career, looking up the heavens, discovering this comet, what are you in awe of today? Maybe not just you, but the broader scientific community, the broader community of astronomers and astrophysicists. What are you seeing in the heavens that's just leading you to awe or what you might call worship, or are just leading to big questions and possibilities?


[00:18:16] JW: Oh, that's a wonderful question and I'm going to get to it. But let me answer a different one first, before we get to that one, which is to mention the kind of early moments of my career, but that was really my senior year. And I want to mention a couple of things about even earlier in my life, because it might be of interest to readers here, listeners here, which is that I actually grew up not surrounded by science and scientists, but I grew up on a farm in rural Arkansas, I was surrounded by cows, we didn't know any scientists. We weren't near a university. My parents didn't have the opportunity to go to college.


But I was instilled with a sense of appreciation for nature. And I think that's something everyone can have and can instill in their children is a great appreciation for the natural world. I grew up wandering around meadows and forests and really just listening for the sounds of nature looking for wildlife. I appreciated being your streams and lakes and rivers. And at the night sky was dark. A lot of people today don't have the opportunity to be in a place where the night sky is really dark. We've polluted our skies with city lights, but I was able to kind of just look up at the sky at night and feel a sense of curiosity and wonder and about that time there were some movies and things coming out about even science fiction, about space exploration and things when I was growing up and it just made me curious.


I'm greatly appreciative of my parents and teachers at school and even people encourage me at church to go ahead and pursue the things that I was curious about, even though it might not seem practical or nobody in the town was doing that kind of work, I was encouraged to go ahead, if I was interested in science to go ahead and pursue that. The doors were open for me. So, I think that I'd say that the trying support of having, first of all, exposure to nature and an appreciation for the natural world encouraged in my life. Secondly, having a family and a church family that was supportive of young people going and trying different things, even if they were untraditional, and particularly encouraging me to go on into science. And then thirdly, having that curiosity about the natural world and space in particular, enabled me to go on and do something kind of nontraditional for my particular cultural background, which was to go on to a major university and study science, physics in particular, and then eventually astronomy.


[00:21:07] JR: It reminds me of the story of Teddy Roosevelt, he had a habit when he was out with his companions, the Rough Riders. They would go outside at night, look up at the stars spend a few minutes talking about him. And then Teddy would say, “Now, I think we're small enough. Let's go to bed.” Real briefly, I'm curious for you personally. What is the promise of a New Earth and new heavens mean to you?


[00:21:34] JW: That's a great question and I don't have a crisp answer to that. I think there are different Christian interpretations of what that means based on looking at different ways that it's described in Scripture. In some ways of envisioning this, basically God gives us a brand-new universe, and brand-new heavens and earth. And in other scriptures and ways of looking at this, it's that God actually renews the earth.


[00:22:06] JR: Which is my interpretation. It’s a refinement, it's a renewal. But I think what's certain, and I shouldn't say certain, nobody knows. But my guess is, Dr. Jennifer Wiseman is going to be studying the stars forever, on a newly redeemed Earth, I don't know.


[00:22:19] JW: I’ll tell you what I'm hoping for is that in this newly redeemed Earth, and presumably, the universe around it, that we have capabilities of more easily visiting some of these other places. Right now, it really is impossible for us as humans to visit other star systems. That's why astronomy is such a wonderful gift because it allows the star systems to come to us in the sense that by receiving the light and the radiation and the information, even some things that are not radiation called gravitational waves, we're starting to detect from the distant universe. But we don't really have the capability to physically go to other star systems, Star Trek aside, alas, and to visit them. And of course, other galaxies are really kind of out of the question with the kinds of time constraints and technology constraints we have.


But I'm hoping that just as Jesus seemed to be able, in His resurrected body to just kind of appear in different places that we will be able, in the the New Heavens and the New Earth to more easily visit and be full of wonder and awe at the farthest reaches of the universe. And all of that, of course, would inspire us to a deeper sense of not only curiosity, but praise and awe for our creative Creator who's enabled all of this.


[00:23:51] JR: That's exactly right, and it's why Randy Alcorn, and his terrific book on Heaven argues that, of course, scripture doesn't tell us whether or not we're going to be able to travel through space, but he makes a pretty compelling case for it, right? If there's New Heavens and a New Earth, why wouldn't we be able to study the heavens at a more deeper level in order to strike wonder and praise at our Savior? So, that's what I'm hoping forward too. Hey, Dr. Wiseman, so we're talking about returning, we're talking about the New Heavens and the New Earth. I wholeheartedly believe that part of our response to this belief that our work matters for eternity is just getting really good at whatever it is. God's called us to do. So, for you, as an astrophysicist, I'm curious, what have you found to be the keys of mastering your vocation?


[00:24:39] JW: I think in the early years of study, I had to learn right away that asking questions and asking for help is key. No more of this pride that I can figure out everything I need to know on my own and that it's somehow shameful to ask for help and guidance. No, I had to learn early on in my college years that it's prudent to go and ask questions, ask questions of peers and of mentors who really understand things better than I do.


[00:25:10] JR: So, don't fake it until you make it.


[00:25:13] JW: Exactly. And then I think I've also learned that no discipline is simply a matter of focusing on the details of that discipline alone, it sits in a context of people and culture.


[00:25:29] JR: That's good. You talked about asking questions and having the humility to do that. A big part of science, I got to imagine is asking the right questions. And I think that's a skill that's valuable for any profession. What advice do you have for listeners when it comes to choosing the right questions to focus on in their work?


[00:25:47] JW: Well, I think if one is, again, thinking about a scientific career, you need to look around and see what are the big questions and challenges that humanity is looking at right now. And those can be practical questions like, how are we going to improve the environment around the world, given the environmental and climate challenges we're facing right now? What are the big challenges? And where are these challenges being addressed head on? What institutions are really doing something that matters in these areas where the biggest challenges of life are being faced and trying to position one's life and career to address those important challenges in an effective way and finding the people who are doing that to align yourself with – that’s important, I always say for students or for students trying to understand where maybe to go to college or parents trying to decide where to help their children, be and learn.


Internships are something I highly encourage for students that have that opportunity, finding a way to get some experience, even if it's in the field, it's not something that that student intends to do for the rest of their life. But any kind of hands-on internship experience, a summer internship or a semester internship can provide wonderful perspective and can kind of help hone the student's understanding of what their particular skills and interests are and are not and how they might be practically positioned. I think finding out how one can mesh one's particular talents and interests with the needs of the world is very important. And it's important not to think that your life has to look exactly like somebody else's, even somebody that you respect.


So, in science, for example, I spent the early parts of my career doing research, learning as an intern, as an undergraduate student kind of sampling different kinds of research experiences that were opened up to me and then eventually in graduate school, settling on working in a field that I really didn't think I had interest in at first, but it ended up being crucial for my work.


[00:28:13] JR: That's good. All right, three super quick questions I ask every guest at the end of these conversations. Number one, which books do you find recommending or gifting most frequently to others?


[00:28:25] JW: Well, one of my favorites is called The Language of God by Francis Collins. He's not an astronomer. He's a geneticist, more of a biologist. But he wrote in that book about the human genome, the DNA and that wonderful scientific quest of mapping out the human genome. But he also wrote about how he, as a scientist, as an adult, came to faith in Christ, and how the science that he sees meshes so beautifully in harmony with his faith in God and his discipleship to Jesus Christ. So, I recommend The Language of God.


[00:29:05] JR: Yeah, it's a terrific book that I recommend all the time. I'm glad you brought that up.


[00:29:13] JW: Yeah, I should just also mention in general, I recommend that the writings of C.S. Lewis. I think he gives a theological permission to ask questions, which I like.


[00:29:24] JR: Hey, who would you most like to hear on this podcast talking about their faith in their work?


[00:29:28] JW: Wow. Oh, my goodness. There are so many, so many people, but I would recommend Dr. Deborah Haarsma, who is the president of the BioLogos organization. She's also an astronomer. And interestingly, she and I were in graduate school, studying radio astrophysics, radio astronomy at the same time, in the same city, Cambridge, Massachusetts. But I was at Harvard University for my graduate work and she was down the street and a little school, we call little trade school called MIT. But we were in both in the Christian Fellowship groups of our respective universities. A lot of people don't realize that these universities, especially those big scientific universities have thriving Christian Fellowship groups of scientists who are eager to think about what their scientific studies mean in light of their faith and their commitment to God. So, I'd recommend Deborah Haarsma. I'd recommend talking to Dr. Francis Collins, if you can ever get him, of course, he's very high demand.


[00:30:36] JR: Alright, last question, what's one thing from our conversation today, Dr. Wiseman, do you want to reiterate to our listeners before we sign off?


[00:30:45] JW: I think keep your eyes open to the beauty of creation. Don't become cynical, don't become discouraged. But take a new fresh eye of wonder, take time every week to go outside and just look at a flower, walk through the forest quietly. Look at the night sky. Bring your church congregation maybe for a night of stargazing or for a walk through the woods or something just to appreciate the natural world. Give praise to God. Let that be your first reaction. And then ask the Lord how we can help be better stewards of this creation.


If it's being a better caretaker of the environment, how can we do that practically speaking? If it's studying the distant universe like I do, where you can't actually touch it, but how can we share that knowledge in ways that helps people who maybe are downtrodden to lift their spirits of it, to realize that they're part of a beautiful universe that God loves of this creation that God cares about and the other creatures that God cares for too. So, those are some thoughts I would leave with you.


[00:31:58] JR: That's a beautiful note to end on. Dr. Wiseman, I just want to commend you for the exceptional, eternally significant work that you do. Thank you for reminding us of the fact that God works through all of us, through scientists, and faithful believers in many other fields. And thank you for reminding us of how our work can lead us to worship.


Guys, Dr. Wiseman's easy to find, just Google her and you could find her bio and information in a bunch of different places. Dr. Wiseman, thank you for joining us. And thank you guys, for tuning in.




[00:32:36] JR: I trust that you guys enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. Hey, if you're enjoying The Call to Mastery, be sure to check out my brand-new podcast, The Word Before Work. A weekly five-minute devotional podcast to help you respond to the biblical truth that your work matters for eternity. Just search for my name Jordan Raynor, or The Word Before Work, and your favorite podcast app. Guys, thank you so much for tuning in this week. I'll see you next time.