Growing up in a community of Jewish astronomers and scientists in Pasadena, Calif., meant searching for God while exploring the heavens
Shortly after Thanksgiving, on a crystalline November morning, I drove up the 210 freeway and into the wild valley of the Arroyo, past La Cañada High School, and onto the heavily guarded JPL campus. Cradled by the mountains, dotted with pine trees and paved courtyards amid its cluster of beige multi-storied buildings, JPL bears a misleading resemblance to a lower-end state university. I had come to JPL to meet with Bonnie Buratti, senior research scientist on the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn. She was also the host of that Seder my friend Elana had recounted for me.
“Quite often, a matzo ball or two ends up very dense,” Buratti had explained to me. “I refer to these duds as ‘neutronium balls,’ after neutron stars. These are very dense stars, at the end stage of stellar evolution, made up almost entirely of neutrons, rather than hydrogen and helium atoms.”
We met in the visitor’s center, where a small gift shop hawked astronaut ice cream alongside JPL-branded lip balm. Before taking me to her office for a chat, Buratti led me to a sort of operating theater, where we looked down on workers covered in baggy white jumpsuits building a peculiar six-wheeled buggy. “That’s the Mars science lab,” Buratti said. “It’s going to go to the surface of Mars and look for evidence of life and the water cycle.”
Buratti grew up in Bethlehem, Pa. Her father worked for Bethlehem Steel, and she was fascinated as a girl by machinery large and small, the oilier and dirtier the better. “I’ve always been a tinkerer, interested in math and science and how things work,” she told me. She studied at MIT as an undergraduate and got her doctorate at Cornell. She was drawn to astronomy by the sheer wonder of it and the beauty of math, and she came to JPL in 1983 as a post-doctoral fellow to work on data from the Voyager mission. She has found astronomy to be a comfortable fit with Judaism and likens the scientific process to the Talmud, each with their evolving models of interpreting data, drawing on and correcting the work of previous generations. On the day we met, she was wearing a small silver pin from the local synagogue’s Torah fund.
Buratti’s work taps into mysteries hidden in the farthest reaches of the solar system, yet she does not believe that astronomy can ever fill in the complete picture. “Science is a process where you keep asking, and you keep expanding,” she says. “But I definitely think there’s something beyond what science can answer. It’s never going to answer the why—why are we here?”
She sees a spiritual connection between her life as a scientist and her life as a Jew. “You could get kind of corny and say that the feeling of scientific discovery is the same awe that you experience from religious awe,” she says. “I think there is some truth to that. It’s this ineffable sense of modesty that we have, that we are just one little part of creation, and just to be in awe at our part.”
She notes, however, that the more militaristic culture of JPL is often a harder place for Jews than academia. “It’s mission-oriented, so you have to get these things done. That isn’t as conducive to Jewish culture and the Jewish style of questioning and having many ways of looking at things.”
From my parents’ front yard, on a clear day, you can see the white towers of the Mount Wilson observatory rising up amid the pines and chaparral of the San Gabriel Mountains.
The Carnegie telescopes, brought up the mountain roads by mules nearly a century ago, delivered the evidence for two of 20th-century cosmology’s most startling revelations. In 1924, Edwin Hubble discovered through the 100-inch Hooker telescope that there were other galaxies in the universe beyond the Milky Way. A few years later, Hubble presented that evidence showing that the other galaxies were rushing away from us, meaning that the universe was expanding. These discoveries profoundly affected our understanding of the cosmos, calling into question the static model of the universe endorsed by Newton, and clearing the path that led to the idea of the Big Bang.
Wendy Freedman’s work at the Carnegie Observatories draws on Edwin Hubble’s discoveries to probe some of the grandest mysteries of the universe. She came to Pasadena from Toronto in 1984 as a Carnegie post-doc studying the formation of stars in nearby galaxies. “If you wanted to do optical astronomy, then the place where essentially all of the history of astronomy in the 20th century had taken place was the place to come,” Freedman tells me. “This was just the center of that universe.” She was the first woman to join the observatories’ permanent staff, a position she held when my mom was there. In 2003, she became the director of Carnegie.
Freedman grew up in what she calls a “culturally Jewish” family in Toronto, and she deeply values the traditions that bind her to her parents and grandparents. “I think the reverence for learning is very conducive to a scientific process and career,” she says, noting that she has a lot of Jewish colleagues. “It’s an openness and curiosity, a desire to study and to question.”
Much of her career has been spent pursuing a totemic number called the Hubble Constant, which describes the expansion rate of the universe. This figure holds implications for the age of the universe, its origins, and perhaps its future.
In 1990, NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Rising high above the distortions of the earth’s atmosphere, Hubble sent back dazzling spacescapes that looked like watercolor paintings from a fevered Jules Verne devotee. It also sent back clear data from stars that were once unthinkably remote. As one of the three principal investigators on the Hubble Space Telescope Key Project, Freedman used the telescope’s findings to calculate the Hubble Constant to a greater degree of accuracy than had ever been possible before. In 2001, Freedman and her group announced the project’s final measurement of the Hubble Constant as 72 kilometers per second per megaparsec, suggesting that the universe is 13.7 billion years old.
“The fact that you can test a theory and that you can make measurements with a telescope that actually allow you to gain greater insight into the nature of the universe that we live in, it’s something for me that that has made this a very rewarding career,” Freedman says. She is continuing to work refining the certainty of the Hubble constant, as well as examining the mysterious repulsive force called dark energy, which is pulling the universe apart and causing its expansion to accelerate.
Like Marshall Cohen, Freedman marvels at the notion that human beings can perceive and understand something on so vast a scale. “People will sometimes say oh, well, we’re so insignificant compared to this vast universe,” she says. “And I think it’s actually more miraculous that here we are on this planet earth and we’ve evolved as a species to a level of consciousness where we can ask questions about the universe and make measurements.
“I put science in the same category as music and art: uniquely human endeavors. And there’s something about us as a species—we’re curious and we’re moved by beauty. And I think science is something that often seems remote to people but it is as beautiful as any of the other activities that we do. You don’t have to understand mathematics to understand the overall story—and it’s a fascinating one.”
My family used to go on camping trips every year just before Thanksgiving with a group of other Jewish families from our neighborhood. The group always included at least one JPL scientist, often more.
A tradition developed over time of taking a constellation walk at night. We’d set out on an easy, level hike, turn off our flashlights, and look up at the stars, shining more clearly in the dark of the desert or the mountains than they ever did at home. It was always a little scary at first, being out there in the wilderness with nothing but those tiny lights flickering at us from billions of light years away. But then someone would point out the constellations, and you’d start to see the structures of galaxies coming together in a haze. The longer you looked, the more stars you would see and the brighter they seemed to burn.
Miriam Coleman, the author of dozens of nonfiction books for young readers, is a writer whose work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, VMan, and GQ. She lives in Brooklyn.
In 2004, Natalie Portman—likely to win a Best Actress Oscar for Black Swan this weekend—spent a year at Hebrew University. So did I, and it’s her fault I started smoking.