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Featuring guest Jennifer Wiseman

Jennifer Wiseman | Light in Space

As she recounts her life in science, astronomer Jennifer Wiseman discusses faith in her work, human significance in a vast universe, and the mysterious awe inspired by investigating the cosmos.


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As she recounts her life in science, astronomer Jennifer Wiseman discusses faith in her work, human significance in a vast universe, and the mysterious awe inspired by investigating the cosmos.

Description

A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.

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As she recounts her life in science, astronomer Jennifer Wiseman discusses faith in her work, human significance in a vast universe, and the mysterious awe inspired by investigating the cosmos. Spanning her life from gazing at the night sky as a child in the Ozark mountains to searching for life outside our galaxy as an astronomer, Wiseman’s passionate work in science and Christian faith have been the warp and woof of her life story.

This episode was hosted by Biologos friend Rebecca McLaughlin and produced by Colin Hoogerwerf.


Transcript

Wiseman: 

I view the fact that we can look at the stars, look at the heavens, and even have scientific understanding of them as a gift from God and a sign that we have significance in that way. That we can recognize our connection to the universe, understand some of its meaning. And I would view science as a part of that dominion, that gift that we’ve been given, um, that gives us significance. For Christians, our significance is a gift of God and that he’s shown us that he loves us and wants us to have a personal relationship with God so we can see significance in different ways. 

Stump: 

That’s astronomer Jennifer Wiseman. We hear from her in this episode talking about her scientific work and her Christian faith

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump and I’m back with Rebecca McLaughlin today, except this time Rebecca you’re flying solo for the interview.

McLaughlin: 

That’s right. It was great to sit down with Jennifer. 

Stump: 

We heard a little bit about you, Rebecca, in the introduction to the previous episode, but tell some more about your work. You have a new book coming out.

McLaughlin:

I do. It’s called Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion

Stump:

What’s that about? It sounds like you are being critical of Christianity?

McLaughlin:

So what I’m trying to do is to stand in the shoes of my non-Christian friends who have a pretty long list of reasons why they wouldn’t even consider Christianity. Questions like: doesn’t religion cause violence? Doesn’t the Bible denigrate women? Hasn’t science disproved Christianity? Or how could you take the Bible literally? And what I’m suggesting in the book is that if you look at any of these questions more closely they stop being roadblocks to faith and start being signposts to Jesus. 

Stump:

Interesting. So, it sounds like this book is the fruit of years of experience you have had interacting with non-Christians about these kinds of questions? 

McLaughin:

That is certainly the case. It has also been a real privilege for me to spend about 10 years with some of the Christians who got us placed at the top of the academy in various fields.  When I was working at the Veritas Forum I got to work pretty closely with a number of those folks and to see how they were thinking about these questions. In that process it revealed to me that there is a huge information gap between the best Christian scholarship and what the average person on the street thinks about Christianity, whether they’re a Christian or not actually. And many of the things that we think of as defeater beliefs of Christianity, and science is a great example, turn out if you look more closely to be real pointers to Jesus. So science, as you know Jim, was literally invented by Christians, the scientific method. And yet today we think of it as a reason to not consider Christianity. So, the book looks closely at a number of those sort of pressure points.

Stump:

Very good. We’re anxious to see how the book is received and hope to interact with it further through the BioLogos platform. Let’s turn, though, now to this podcast episode and our guest again is Jennifer Wiseman an astronomer who’s at the top of her field. I just listened to the interview you did with her and found it fascinating. Jennifer has such a command of the latest findings in astronomy and cosmology like you’d expect someone in her position to have. I think I was even more impressed with her intellectual humility that came through. Can you reflect on that a little bit too?

McLaughlin:

What I love about Jennifer is she is fundamentally a lover of Christ and a lover of science. So, people sometimes imagine that understanding more of science makes God seem smaller, but Jennifer is clear that her understanding of science has given her more insight into how incredibly, unimaginably, indescribably great God truly is. 

Stump:

Well, let’s get to your conversation.

Interview Part One:

McLaughlin:

Wonderful. So I’m here with Jennifer Wiseman. Jennifer, thank you for agreeing to have this conversation with us. 

Wiseman:

My pleasure. 

McLaughlin: 

So I have an eight year old and a six year old, two little girls and they’ve just bought their first telescope. When did you first get interested in telescopes and stargazing and how come you maintain that interest to a more advanced period of your life? 

Wiseman: 

I think my interest in space started when I was a child growing up out on a farm in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas and it was surrounded by nature. I mean nature infused everything that I did everyday, whether I thought about it or not, and I was exposed to animals, wildlife, livestock, pets, trees, forests, streams, lakes, ponds, and I just grew up wandering around nature and loving it. And that included the night sky. We had a dark sky, which is getting rarer to find these days, but we could see lots of stars. My parents and I would take our dogs on a walk every evening and I would just look up and try to imagine what it might be like to be able to go to one of those other star systems. 

And see what it was like, and around that time when I was growing up, there was a very interesting program on our public television called Cosmos. And in this program we were introduced to the first images that we’d ever seen of moons around other planets in our solar system. These were from the voyager probes. And I thought these moons were fascinating. I still do some of these moons of Jupiter and Saturn or ice covered some are, have volcanoes. They’re interesting places and I wondered what it would be like to go there. 

So I thought, you know, I’d like to be involved in the space exploration enterprise somehow. I don’t know whether that would be trying to be an astronaut or trying to be an astronomer or a scientist or an engineer building some of these probes. I just knew I kind of wanted to be involved. I wasn’t sure how. And I was also a fan of the Star Wars movies that were coming out around that time and that, so we were all thinking about space and various ways. And I think that’s how my early interest got started. I didn’t really have a telescope until I was an adult, so my star gazing was with my eyes and I enjoyed it. 

McLaughlin:

So there’s a throwaway line in the book of Genesis where it’s talk about God creating the world and it says he also made the stars. When did you start to think about the relationship between your stargazing and how you’d think about the questions of life? Did you have faith from an early age or was that something that came later? Tell us a little bit about your journey there. 

Wiseman:

I was raised in a Christian family. We were part of a church, a loving church in the rural town where I grew up and we had an understanding that all of nature, all of creation is authored by God and is a blessing from God. And so I think that that was kind of the foundation to make me just appreciate that anything in nature is part of God’s good creation and that’s a good foundation for becoming a scientist as well as to believe that everything in nature is good and interesting and worthwhile for study. I don’t really remember wrestling as a child with how literally to take the opening verses of Genesis. I think we kind of by default took them as a literal description of how God created the universe. But we also had a sense of humility. I think our pastors and leaders advised us to remember that God probably didn’t tell us all the details about his working in the natural world in scripture. And that kind of left the door open for further study with science. 

I really never had a sense of a conflict between faith and science. It all seemed to be part of having the same curious nature I had, which was to investigate truths and to see how creation operates. And I think it was well into my university years that I began to learn more and more about the magnificent age and size of the universe and its content, and to think more about how that might relate to a serious undertaking of scripture, understanding that the original audiences of scripture might not have been capable of understanding the full breadth and depth of the universe and understanding that a serious view of scripture means understanding the original intent and the and the message that we’re to get from it. So I think those types of thought processes took place in my life more in my collegiate years than in my earlier years.

McLaughlin:

So some people would say that as we understand more about how vast the universe is and how tiny our solar system is within it, how itsy-bitsy our planet is within that solar system even, that the biblical perspective which gives humanity a massive role in the cosmos broadly conceived just can’t really make sense because we’re just this tiny little speck of dust in this massive configuration of things. How would you reflect on that from a Christian perspective? 

Wiseman:

Well, that is of course the perspective that I think all of us have when we realize or have even a glimpse of the enormous nature of the universe. One of my favorite images from modern telescopes is something called the Deep Field or the Ultra Deep Field. This is an image taken of the universe looking out in a direction where there really aren’t any nearby stars to drown out the image and by just collecting light for days and days. The resulting image shows you the faintest things in the distant sky and what you see in this tiny little swath of sky about the size of looking through a soda straw kind of thing is thousands of galaxies. These smudges of light and each of these little smudges of light is actually a gravitationally bound collection of billions of stars, our own Milky Way galaxy in which our sun resides would look like one of those if you were at one of the other galaxies looking back. And then you imagine this extrapolated over the whole sky. There are in fact hundreds of billions of galaxies in our observable universe. And in each one of them billions upon billions of stars. 

So these numbers are just hard for us to comprehend. And when we think about, as you say, our seeming insignificance as being residents of a planet orbiting one little star in the outskirts of one of these galaxies, it just seems like we really don’t have significance. And in a sense that’s true, right? If our significance is based on being central, then we learned quite a long time ago that we’re not the center of anything. We’re not the center of the solar system. Our earth is not. The solar system is not in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. And our galaxy is not in the center of the universe. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a center of the universe at all. So does that mean we are insignificant? 

Our lifespans also relative to the age of the cosmos are insignificant. So in terms of life span, but I think significance can come from different ways of looking at things. That’s a philosophical question, not a science question. Even the Psalmist in the Bible who wrote Psalm 8 was talking about how when he looked at the heavens and into the Psalmist that meant the moon and the stars, he said, you know, what are we, what does mankind, what are humans that you are mindful of us are or mortals that you, oh Lord would care about us, had that same sense of insignificance. But then the Psalmist went on and said, and yet, you know, you’ve given us dominion, you’ve placed us just a little lower than angels. In other words, God has given us significance. And, the Psalmist knew that that dominion did not mean that he could go to the stars and the moon and, and do stuff, you know, do something to them, but rather it was contemplation and understanding. 

And so I view the fact that we can look at the stars, look at the heavens, and even have scientific understanding of them as a gift from God and a sign that we have significance in that way. That we can recognize our connection to the universe. Understand some of its meaning. And I would view science as a part of that dominion, that gift that we’ve been given, that gives us significance. For Christians, our significance is a gift of God and that he’s shown us that he loves us and wants us to have a personal relationship with God so we can see significance in different ways. 

McLaughlin:

So taking that, maybe just one step further, even, what do you think of the current models and theories around a multiverse theory and the idea that perhaps we’re not even the only universe in the world, let alone the center of the universe that we can see. How do you, what do you think about that from a scientific perspective? And how do you reflect on that as a Christian? 

Wiseman:

Sure. So this is the idea that our whole universe that we see and experience all the galaxies full of stars and now we think maybe full of planets to, and all the physical forces that kind of govern the way the universe works in terms of physical nature, that this is just one collection of energy and matter and forces that there might be many others. Other universes that had their own beginnings and have their own history and, and importantly their own perhaps different types of physical forces that might have made them turn out very different than our own. And so the idea is that there might be many, many other universes, in fact, maybe in some constructs the ideas or might be an infinite number of other universes. 

So we call this the multiverse. Now, this is an interesting theory. It’s based on some mathematical models and some theories we refer to under the umbrella of string theory and other types of offshoots of physics and mathematics. But these other universes are not observable. So that’s kind of why this whole realm of discussion typically stays within the realm of theory and hypothesis because there’s no way I can point a telescope and see if there’s another universe outside our own. Just kind of by definition we can’t. There are some ideas that maybe if these universes interact in some interesting ways that you might be able to see some evidence of that in fundamental particles in our own physical universe. So far that hasn’t been seen. So it’s more of a theoretical idea, but what it does is opens the possibility that maybe the fact that our universe seems kind of perfectly situated for complex life. 

The physical forces that govern our universe seem to be, in some people’s words, they would say finely tuned for atoms and molecules to develop, gravity is not too strong or too weak so that in just the right amount of time we could have stars coalescing out of the initial atoms that formed in the universe, that those stars could then produce heavier elements that enabled subsequent generations of stars to have solid planets and even the building blocks of life. And so that we could have complex carbon molecules that enable us to have complex living creatures such as, such as you and myself. This would be very different in a different universe with different forces. Maybe none of those things would be in play and you couldn’t have complex life. So maybe the life in our own universe is basically an accident of statistics, you know. 

Well, that gets us back into the philosophical question of, you know, does it mean that we are insignificant even if there are a whole bunch of other universes that don’t have life and we’re just the lucky one that does, you still have to ask the philosophical question of, well, why is, are there the fundamental set-ups that will allow these universes to form in the first place, some kind of quantum fields that allow universes to burst off here and there. That would be, in my view, very cool. And so you still have to ask the philosophical question of, you know, why is there something and not nothing? Why is there a multiverse that enables life on at least one universe to form and to reflect upon? And that will never be answered by science. So, I think it’s an intriguing question, but it’s just hard to answer scientifically whether there’s a multiverse with the observational tools we have now. 

Interview Part Two

McLaughlin:

So just building that slightly as you posed the question, why is there something rather than nothing, it seems that you look to your Christian faith for answers to that question and I’m curious and there be many in the sciences who talk about a sense of awe and wonder when they look at the universe and even might talk about that in spiritual terms, but Christianity seems to be offering something much more red blooded in some ways. Of a very specific story that we’re telling about the universe, about our place in it and about our future, through, you know, for a specific person at a specific time. Why is it that you find that story more compelling than a spiritual but not religious view of the universe where somebody might feel awe and wonder and a questioning of if there’s something more versus the historic Christian faith in all its glory? 

Wiseman:

That’s a good question. I think all of us kind of have, I hope, a sense of awe and wonder when we look at, at the universe I certainly still have it even after working in this field for decades, that there’s, there’s never a time when an image of a galaxy or a beautiful nebula that’s being lit up by newly formed stars just doesn’t thrill me and give me a sense of amazement. 

More specifically, how do we look at what we now understand as the history of the universe, I think pretty much the consensus scientific view that I share from looking at the data we have from different kinds of telescopes is that our universe has not always been the same. 

That this universe we’re in at least had a burst of energy about 13.8 billion years ago. And into this inflating vastly expanding space of this energy was filled that space. And as the universe cooled, as it rapidly expanded the energy was able to convert into the early, what we would call matter atoms and subatomic particles were able to form. And then over time, eventually the radiation, the early universe was able to travel freely. And we can even see this background radiation. Now, every direction we look, we see what we call the cosmic microwave background radiation. And that’s basically for scientists a proof, if you will, or very strong evidence that our universe had an energetic beginning. It’s not been in steady state, it’s not just kind of been ambling along in the same way for all time, all eternity. 

And then we can actually see with our telescopes looking toward the first, you know, we can see within the first 10 percent of the history of the universe now. We can see early galaxies that were beginning to form as the universe cooled, as matter was formed into atoms. Atoms could coalesce and be held together by gravity, forming stars. Stars themselves are little factories that create heavier elements beyond the original hydrogen and helium in the universe. And now we can look with our telescopes as a time machine and kind of see, look at distant galaxies. It’s taken time for the light to get to us so we can actually see what galaxies looked like in the distant past as well as in the more nearby past and see that the universe has changed over time. For me, this is very intriguing because it shows that the universe has become more hospitable to life over billions of years of time. 

It’s directional in that sense. We started with primitive materials and energy over time. The physical forces of the universe have enabled stars to form and then planets to form at least one planet that has a life that is taking advantage of these atoms and molecules that were produced in stars and the life that fills the earth now is robust, it’s adaptive to environmental changes. It’s grown more complex over time, over the history of life on earth, and now we have life like ourselves that can have a conversation about meaning and purpose and can look back over our own history of the universe and reflect on it. Now, to me now, I’m going to switch from a scientific conversation because we just, what I just described you as a picture that I think most scientists would agree that we’re seeing the development of the universe over time. 

But does that show purpose, you know, does that show a kind of a more philosophical or even spiritual sense of purpose? Well, that’s not a science question and scientists would have different opinions on this, but in my view, this progressive picture that we see scientifically is more consistent for me with a view that of purpose in the universe. And I believe it’s quite consistent with a, for me with my, a Christian perspective of a God, of purpose, a god of power or a god of beauty that has purpose for a universe and for life that can actually have relationships not only with each other but with God. 

So there’s a consistency there. I wouldn’t say that looking at the universe scientifically would give one a proof of this kind of God one or the lack thereof. But I would also just say that for me it’s more consistent than just saying that the universe is purposeless and accidental. 

McLaughlin:

So I think one of the concerns that people have around the theory of evolution is that it seems to paint a picture in which human beings have come about in a very messy, violent, a path filled with suffering and unpleasantness to put it mildly, competition. And sometimes people struggle to reconcile that scientific picture with a theological picture of a few human beings are in the world and our relationship with God and with each other. How do you personally put those two pieces together? 

Wiseman:

That’s a good question. So as an astronomer, I tend to reach back a little farther than life on earth. And what we’re finding in astronomy is that those stars that we think of are so far away and so distant, they are actually very relevant to our lives that stars are little factories. They’re producing heavier elements that go into subsequent generations of stars and planets. So our earth has heavier elements like carbon and iron and nitrogen that were produced in prior generations of stars and that we need for life. And so that our bodies, the actual elements, the actual cells in our bodies have elements that were forged in stars. And I say all this just to say first and foremost, scientifically, we actually believe quite magnificently that the universe is connected, that life on earth is not just disconnected from the rest of the universe. 

As a Christian, I believe this is a beautiful and amazing picture that God, who has created stars through the physical processes that we understand, is using those to forge elements that are needed for life. So, we’re kind of connected in that way and I don’t see a big disconnect between the development of the universe, we might call it evolution. For scientists all evolution means is just change over time and that the universe has changed over time to enable planets and life to form. Now, what about the human nature of this advanced life that we experience and other animal life too that seems to involve, as you say, negativity, violence, suffering. That’s both a scientific question and a theological question. In some sense we’re grateful that God has enabled life to be adaptable so that when environments change and so forth, life can not only remain but flourish. That’s one of the pluses of evolution that I would say gets neglected in our conversation sometimes. 

The actual evil and violence I think is described in some ways in scripture as part of a world that is our present reality but not an eternal reality. I don’t believe that death is a good thing. I think it actually does cause grief and suffering even in the animal world and certainly for humans. And yet we can see that it’s been a part of our heritage for as long as life has been on planet earth, there’s been death and dying. So how does that fit in? That’s really more of a theological question. I’m not a theologian, but what I see is that it is part of the natural order of things for now. I believe that the kind of death that’s described in scripture also, and perhaps more importantly, describes our death of a relationship with God when we turn away from God. 

That’s kind of a spiritual issue, not a science issue. And yet each one of us seems to show this tendency. I know I do too. To be kind of rebellious against God and a sense of rebellious against what we know is right and needing that relationship with God restored. And so I think that that is what the good news of the Gospel is, that God can restore that relationship that, that we need with, with the God responsible for the universe and for our lives, and that eventually, what we see around us and within us in terms of the death and suffering will not be part of this future eternal order that God has promised in the future. But that’s a spiritual promise we have. Not something that I can see with a microscope or a telescope. 

[musical interlude]

Interview Part Three:

McLaughlin:

So going back to those microscopes and telescopes, what are you most fascinated by and excited by in science today of the last couple of years, let’s say? 

Wiseman:

There is an amazing amount of new discovery going on in astronomy. So it is exciting to be an astronomer, but even if you’re not an astronomer, I think you can learn all about these things if you pay attention to the news. One is this whole field of exoplanets. So we are now realizing that our sun is not the only star with planets, that other stars have their own planetary systems. We call those exoplanets because they’re outside of our solar system. Now, when I was in graduate school, we didn’t know of any planets outside of our solar system. We thought there might be, but we just didn’t have the telescopes of the quality we needed. Now we know of thousands of these systems that we’ve detected and we can do statistics now on what kinds of stars seem to have planets and what sizes those planets are. 

So we now realize that probably most stars in our galaxy have at least one planet. Now, when you think about the fact that there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, that means hundreds of billions of planets. This is really exciting. So now we’re scrambling as astronomers to try to build better telescopes that can tell us more about these planets. They’re very hard to see. They’re small, they’re dim, they’re far away, but we’re learning a few crude things about their atmosphere. Some of them have water vapor in the atmosphere. We’re designing future telescopes that will be able to actually tell us whether they have continents and oceans and things like that. And we’re looking and will be looking in the atmospheres for signs of biological activity. I mean, wouldn’t it be exciting if we found out that there was at least simple life on some planet beyond earth? So that’s an exciting realm of astronomy. 

And then kind of on the much more distant end of the spectrum, we are using our telescopes to look far and deep into the universe, to other galaxies that are very far away. It’s taken light from those galaxies, a long time to get to us. So we are able to kind of see what the universe was like in the distant past by looking at these galaxies as they were when the light began its journey to us. In some cases, this is millions of light years away. A light year is a unit of distance, is the distance that light travels in a year and light travels fast, but not infinitely fast. So even when we look at our most nearby big spiral galaxy to our own Milky Way, the Andromeda galaxy, that’s 2 million light years away and now with our telescopes we’re seeing galaxies that are billions of light years away. 

They’re much simpler than our own Milky Way. They haven’t had time for generations of stars to come and go their chemistry is much simpler than our own. We’re basically seeing the universe when it was in it’s kind of childhood now. And I think that’s very, very exciting. As we put together this picture of how the universe began with energy and has transformed over billions of years into a place that’s full of stars and planets and perhaps life everywhere. We’re not quite sure yet whether there’s life beyond earth, but it’s an exciting time. 

McLaughlin:

I think for most of us, when we think about life on other planets, we have a sci-fi view of things. So we expect creatures who are essentially human and that they can communicate and relate in the ways that we do, probably hostile and you know, maybe green with little antennae. From a scientific perspective today, what, how would you speculate about life on other planets? What do you think is actually most likely out there, if there is life out there?

Wiseman:

Well we don’t know, but what we’re doing scientifically is looking to see what kinds of these planets, these exoplanets might be habitable for life as we know it, so that would mean they would need to be not too close to their parent star so that they would be so hot that any water would just boil away and not so far away that any water would freeze, but it could have liquid water. Why do we care about liquid water? Because all life on our planet has to have some relationship to liquid water as we understand it right now. 

Now of course you can say, well, what about if there’s some weird life somewhere else that doesn’t require liquid water? Well, that’s true, but we wouldn’t really know how to identify it. You see, the problem is we can’t actually travel to these other planets outside our solar system. We’re all have kind of been spoiled by the science fiction that we know and love that makes it seem so easy to travel to other star systems, but we don’t have the capability to do that right now. So we have to rely on what we can see remotely by looking at the atmospheres of these planets and seeing if we see signs and the composition of the atmosphere of even simple biological activity. You know, if we looked back at planet earth from far away and analyzed our atmosphere, we would see things like oxygen. Well, oxygen has to be continually replenished or else it reacts with other elements and goes away. 

So the fact that we have a lot of free oxygen in our atmosphere is a sign that we have photosynthesis going on on our planet. That means there could be that there is, there is at least plant life going on here. And we would know that by looking at it remotely. So we’d be looking for things like that on other planets. And that’s the scientific approach. 

There’s also a private organization called SETI, which is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and they’re actually listening for intentional signals from intelligent civilizations. That’s kind of the other approach from the other end of the search for life beyond earth. But most scientists are looking for habitable environments for simple life, even algae or bacteria that would make scientists very excited if we found even simple life. 

And it does, I think, for Christians, give us this question of, you know, how will we respond if we actually find that there’s strong evidence for even simple life beyond earth? And that’s a good question to contemplate. 

McLaughlin:

What would be our answer to that question? 

Wiseman:

You know there have been quite a few studies of that. Everybody seems to think that when we discover life beyond earth, if we do, that it will create a huge change in the way we see ourselves as humans. You know, it turns out people have been thinking about this for centuries, I didn’t know that until I started looking into this. And there doesn’t seem to be any challenge with there being life beyond earth. In fact, they expected it because if God is so generous to create life on this earth, couldn’t God have created life in whatever way we believe life came about on other planets.

And even C.S. Lewis, the more recent Christian apologist wrote about his ideas of the kind of spiritual needs of life beyond earth and some of his science fiction writings. So I don’t have an answer to this. I just know that one thing is for sure, scripture doesn’t tell us anything, up or down about whether there’s life beyond earth. It does say that God is the author of all creation, so nothing’s going to surprise God, but we may be very surprised with what we do or don’t find as we look beyond earth in our universe. 

McLaughlin:

So you’ve referenced Christians reflecting on some of these contemporary questions even hundreds of years ago. I think today many people have the perception that Christianity and science are pulling in opposite directions, that there is some kind of necessary conflict between Christianity and scientific endeavor. As you sort of think back, even historically, do you feel like that’s always been the case as you understand history? Do you think that’s a more recent phenomenon? Do you think it’s a mix? How do you think about these things? 

Wiseman:

The first scientists in our kind of modern scientific era within the last couple of centuries, many of them were driven by their deep religious convictions to do their science. They didn’t see a separation. They, in fact, saw a motivation from their faith to investigate the natural world. 

It was seen as a way of investigating God’s handiwork and giving glory to God. I think of Johannes Kepler, who’s somebody we astronomers and physicists really admire for the Keplerian laws that help us understand orbits of bodies in space and so forth. Kepler’s scientific notebooks were filled with his thoughts of praise and reverence to God. He was basically motivated by his faith to do his science. And that’s been true for many scientists. I think of Blaise Pascal and Michael Faraday and others throughout history. Today, scientists that I interact with have the same huge breadth of views and beliefs as in some sense as people in other fields. So I work side by side with scientists that I respect from many faith perspectives. Some of them do not believe in God. Some of them are faithful to traditional religious faith, some I would consider themselves, as you say, spiritual but not religious. 

So I love science because it’s kind of a unifying enterprise where it brings together people that have different perhaps cultural or philosophical views on the natural world in terms of its philosophical or religious meaning, and yet we can look at the same body of scientific evidence and come to the same conclusions about the scientific types of questions that we ask. Like how old is that star and what’s going on in that galaxy? What’s been the history of the universe physically speaking? That is one of the reasons I really liked science and it is a unifying factor in that sense. 

McLaughlin:

I gave birth seven weeks ago to my third child. If you imagine when he is an adult, what do you think might be a surprising scientific discovery that’s happened between now and then? If you had to sort of speculate and place a bet on a genuinely surprising scientific discovery that would blow our minds now that you think maybe by the time my little guy is a grownup that he might be able to enjoy? 

Wiseman:

Well I would suspect that within the next few decades we will have a pretty, a much firmer idea as to whether life is probable or improbable on other planets and by life I’m thinking about simple life here, you know, maybe a bacterial life or single cellular life, but… 

McLaughlin:

Nothing in the Sci Fi novel yet?

Wiseman:

Well, I don’t know, I mean you never know about that realm, but in terms of looking around at planets and seeing if their atmospheres show signs of habitability or even biological activity, I would say that within the next few decades we’ll have a pretty good handle on whether life is common or rare. And I think that’s quite exciting. 

And then we will also be investigating the more distant universe even beyond what we’ve been able to see so far to see how the very first galaxies coagulated form, the first stars in the universe. I think that’s very exciting. 

Now I’m speaking astronomically. There’s a lot of other types of science that are growing, they’re outside my particular expertise, but I think we were going to. We’re going to understand a whole lot more about our human makeup, our genetic makeup, our brains, neuroscience. I also think we’re going to understand something about subatomic particles that is relevant to the universe. Actually, we’re going to understand better what is dark matter? Dark matter is something we know fills the universe, but we don’t know exactly what it is, but we see its gravitational effects and we’re studying that on the large scale and on a small scale, so we’re going to understand more, a lot more in the coming decades and I think these are things to look forward to. They’re exciting, 

So we’re going to be investigating a lot more things in the coming decades and understanding both, I think, our own history as planet earth and life on planet earth and also looking toward the kind of physical predictions of the future as well. And I think also harnessing some of this knowledge for doing good to one another here on earth. There are practical applications for some of this new scientific knowledge. And then some of it, like astronomy may not seem to have a lot of practical applications, but I think it does lift our spirits. 

It helps us to kind of see how we are unified as human beings on this planet and that we’re actually connected to the rest of the universe. And I think that’s very exciting as a scientist. I also think that’s very, very gratifying as a Christian to see the kind of continuity of God’s creation and the connectedness of it all and how God loves it all. God declared that every part of creation is good and we’re part of that. And I think that that is something we can celebrate. 

McLaughlin:

Wonderful. Yeah, as I’ve been listening to you, Jennifer, I’ve been reflecting on sure, how small we are in the universe, but in fact how incredibly, extraordinarily big as it were the God who made this universe must be so thank you for sharing that with us. 

Wiseman:

Yes, and I would say that one thing we’ve understood as Christians is that what God values more than the substance, the physical substance of creation is love and somehow love describes God and describes his relationship with creation and all of us and I think that is something to celebrate as well. 

McLaughlin:

Thank you so much, Jennifer. 

Wiseman:

My pleasure.


Featured guest

Jennifer Wiseman

Jennifer Wiseman

Jennifer J. Wiseman is an astrophysicist, author, and speaker. She studies the formation of stars and planets in our galaxy using radio, infrared, and optical telescopes. Dr. Wiseman studied physics for her bachelor’s degree at MIT, discovering comet Wiseman-Skiff in 1987. After earning her Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University in 1995, she continued her research as a Jansky Fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and as a Hubble Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Wiseman also has an interest in national science policy and has served as an American Physical Society Congressional Science Fellow on Capitol Hill. She is currently a senior astrophysicist with NASA, and she also directs the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Dr. Wiseman enjoys giving talks on the excitement of science and astronomy to schools, youth and church groups, and civic organizations. She is a former Councilor of the American Astronomical Society and a former President of the American Scientific Affiliation.

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