November 2, 2006
Secrets of cosmos draw eyes heavenward
The Ultra Deep Field Image from the Hubble Space Telescope is rapturous.|
Over the course of four months in late 2003 and early 2004, the orbiting observatory trained its eye hundreds of times on a speck of the heavens just south of the constellation Orion.
Why this minuscule spot? With relatively few stars intervening between Hubble and the edge of the Milky Way, it gave the telescope an almost completely unobstructed view of infinity.
"Like many of the images we get from Hubble, this one inspires awe," said Mario Livio, a senior astrophysicist at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland. "In this tiny patch of sky, we can see over 10,000 galaxies. Some of the light reaching us is 13 billion years old. That's basically a snapshot of the beginning of time." Born in Romania, Livio moved to Israel with his grandparents in 1950. As a graduate student in the 1970s, he began to work in particle physics -- the study of the structure and behavior of matter on infinitesimally small scales.
Then the launch NASA's first high-energy astronomy satellite in 1977 drew Livio's attention heavenward. Above the shield of the Earth's atmosphere, the satellite was able to detect powerful sources of radiation -- neutron stars and black holes, for example -- that promised to reveal the deepest secrets of the universe.
"It was obvious cosmology was going to occupy a central place in the future of physics," Livio said. "That's where I perceived the cutting-edge research was going to happen, so that's where I started to work."
From 1981 to 1991, Livio taught astrophysics at Technion--Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Then, a year after the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, he was offered a job at the Hubble Institute.
Since his move to the United States, Livio has chased the experience of awe like a hound on the scent of a fox. His books, "The Accelerating Universe," "The Golden Ratio" and "The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved," probe the profound aesthetic connections among math, art and nature -- particularly in the way symmetry figures into our response to beauty.
Livio's story is not unique. The inclination toward an introspective examination of wonder is a common feature in the lives of many people who are drawn to study the cosmos. For some cosmologists and space scientists, the thread of this curiosity stretches back through time to one of the oldest questions of all.
"It's connected to God," said Michael Hecht. "How can you study science and not have a spiritual or religious response to what you discover?" Hecht studied theoretical physics as an undergraduate at Princeton and as a master's degree candidate at MIT. Like Livio, the revelations of the first generation of X-ray satellites inspired him to pursue a career in space science.
"But it wasn't until my teenage son got interested in astronomy that I actually looked at the stars through a telescope," Hecht said.
Soon after he finished his doctorate at Stanford, Hecht became a member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He's currently managing a team of scientists and engineers that will send a suite of instruments to Mars to assess the potential hazards Martian dust and soil might pose to human explorers.
With a universe of possibilities, what attracted him to the Red Planet?
"Even through a fairly small telescope," Hecht said, "Mars looks tantalizingly close. And it's similar enough to earth so that the physical processes are familiar but not quite the same. An apple wouldn't fall from a tree in quite the same way."
Hecht's next Mars project, which will be launched in 2011, will land near the planet's north pole and deploy a hot-nose drill to extract samples of the Martian ice cap. With any luck, these samples will turn out to be frozen time capsules that reveal the history of climate change on Mars and help us understand changes in the climate on Earth.
This imperative to make a connection between his work on a distant planet and everyday human experience isn't a sideshow for Hecht; in fact, it's the main event.
"Scientists are storytellers," he said. "But often their storytelling lacks imagination. If we can't get people excited about what we're learning, what's the point?"
As the science editor for Parade magazine and the author of over a dozen books on popular astronomy, David Levy is doing his best to make space science exciting for those without advanced degrees in theoretical physics. Levy's love affair with space began when he was at summer camp in 1956. On the night of July 4, the homesick 8-year-old was dazzled when he saw a meteor streak across the sky. The sighting was auspicious: Meteor storms occur when Earth passes through the trail of debris left by passing comets, and Levy has made name for himself as a master comet hunter.
"This past Kol Nidre, I discovered my 22nd comet," he said. "There it was, near Saturn in the early morning sky."
His most famous discovery was comet Shoemaker-Levy, which spectacularly crashed into Jupiter in July 1994.
Like Hecht, Levy sees an intimate connection between his passion for astronomy and his religious experience. "When I was 11, I was walking home from synagogue on Yom Kippur and noticed the gibbous moon," he said. "I realized people have been looking up at the same 10-day-old moon on Yom Kippur for thousands of years."
Levy pointed out that the relationship between Judaism and sky-watching is as old as recorded human history. In a tradition that has been lost in our era of light-polluted skies, a man used to stand outside each synagogue to wait for the darkness at day's end to reveal three stars -- the sign that marked the end of the Sabbath. And the rhythms of the Jewish year take their cue from the moon as it arcs in its orbit around Earth. Thus the lives of ancient Jews were intimately connected to the night sky in ways that are difficult for us perpetually distracted moderns to imagine.
Whether they're secular or religious, Jewish astronomers are part of a venerable tradition of inquiry and teaching. And the light transmitted by this tradition shines just as brightly in the upcoming generation of space scientists. "According to the Talmud," said Mike Cohen, 24, a graduate student in theoretical physics at Caltech, "there are several things that are a mitzvah to study, because studying these things leads to an understanding of creation. Math, astronomy and physics are foremost among them." Cohen recounts how when he was growing up, he and his yeshiva-educated father would engage in lively debates about the world around them. The relationship between theology and the physical universe frequently figured into their conversations.
"My father was mad keen on physics," said Cohen, whose family moved from Israel to New Zealand just before he started elementary school.
Considering the rich philosophical and scientific matrix in which Cohen's intellectual life took root, it's no surprise that his academic interests have led him to study phenomena at the frontier between philosophy and science.
"I've always been interested in black holes," he said. "I'm just really intrigued by the idea of a boundary between one universe and another universe. It's where physics intersects the world of ideas. In black holes, matter exists yet it doesn't exist. All the matter is gone, but a black hole behaves as if all the matter were still there."
Another young space scientist is heeding a call to make the inescapable but obscure drama of the cosmos more accessible to lay people. When visitors to the Griffith Observatory check out "Centered in the Universe," the opening show at the observatory's revamped planetarium, they'll likely get to sample some of Jeremy Wertheimer's handiwork.
Wertheimer, 25, is a graduate student in astronomy at UC Santa Cruz. The summer after his graduation from Pomona College, he helped to develop a computer model that guides the planetarium's "camera" on a tour of the Local Group -- the posse of over 30 galaxies that includes the Milky Way.
His work at Griffith Observatory cinched Wertheimer's decision to become the director of a planetarium some day. "It's no good for me just to understand these things for myself," he said. "I need to help other people understand them, too."