Voyagers

Growing up in a community of Jewish astronomers and scientists in Pasadena, Calif., meant searching for God while exploring the heavens

By Miriam Coleman|February 24, 2011 7:00 AM


In January 1931, Albert Einstein spent a night at a mountaintop observatory 5,700 feet above Pasadena, Calif., the city where I grew up. He was on Mount Wilson to see for himself the evidence, first presented by the astronomer Edwin Hubble, that the universe was expanding. The visit was captured on film by a young Frank Capra. During the afternoon, Einstein had ridden to the top of a 150-foot-high solar telescope and examined the framework of the 100-inch reflector telescope. In the evening, he spent hours looking through the 100-inch, peering at Jupiter and Mars and observing spiral nebulae. A few days later, Einstein met with a group of scientists at the observatory’s headquarters and announced that the conception he had always accepted of a static and immutable universe was incorrect. Hubble’s evidence, he said, “has smashed my old construction like a hammer.”

At the time Einstein made his ascent to Mount Wilson, Pasadena was not yet 60 years old, but it was already rising to scientific prominence. From the discoveries at Mount Wilson to the experiments taking place down at the California Institute of Technology to the later development of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which specializes in unmanned space missions, Pasadena would become a crucial hub for astronomy and astrophysics in the 20th century.

Shortly before embarking on his California adventure, Einstein had published an article [1] in the New York Times Magazine titled “Religion and Science.” In it, he explained what he called a “cosmic religious feeling,” based on a sense of sublime order in both nature and in the realm of the mind.

“I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research,” he wrote. He then described the incredible devotion and solitary labor that it takes to see a work of scientific research through to its truthful end and concluded: “A contemporary has said, not unjustly, that in this materialistic age of ours the serious scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people.”

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Growing up in Pasadena and attending a synagogue where so many congregants were employed by Caltech or JPL, I found the amiable collision of science and religion that Einstein conveys perfectly ordinary. It occurred to me only recently that Pasadena’s Jewish community derived a distinctive texture from the fact that a significant segment of it was involved in some kind of mind-blowing cosmic research. Friends’ dads, moms’ friends, next-door neighbors, weird disheveled congregants at the synagogue, and shoppers at the supermarket—everyone seemed connected somehow to outer space and the origins of the universe. The cultural references and talismans of science were woven into our experience of being Jewish.

My friend Elana once went to a Passover Seder at the home of one of her dad’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory colleagues. When it came time to serve the soup, the host lamented that the matzo balls were as hard and dense as a neutron star. “Oh no,” her guests assured her. “The matzo balls are wonderful, just as light and fluffy as planetary nebulae.”

But is there something Jewish about astronomy? It’s hard not to draw connections between a vocation that probes the heavens for clues to our origins and a tradition that so fervently demands a quest for knowledge. Jews have been claiming science in general as a characteristically Jewish discipline at least as far back as the 12th-century biblical commentary of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra. Astronomy, in particular, was a fundamental skill for early Jews setting up calendars and knowing which holidays should come when. The Jewish imagination of a universe with a point of origin and an end helped to structure the modern Western idea of linear time.

“It certainly is a Jewish thing to argue with God,” says Larry Scherr, Elana’s dad. Until last year, he was an optical engineer at JPL, where he helped make the lenses for the Mars Rovers. “Are we arguing with God when we’re trying to understand how the universe works? I don’t know.”

My own family has been largely unburdened by any scientific ability or inclination, but my parents’ jobs were intertwined with the science community, and their affiliated institutions formed the major landmarks of my childhood. My dad is on the faculty at Caltech, teaching music and conducting the joint Occidental-Caltech orchestra. My brother and I spent summers splashing in the Caltech pool and spring evenings roaming the path that winds its way through the school. During the intermissions from my dad’s concerts at Ramo Auditorium, we looked for frogs among the lily-pads in the concrete-enclosed ponds that dot the campus. My first real job was at the Athenaeum, Caltech’s fancy faculty club, where I waitressed for a few weeks before being erased from the roster after dropping trays of champagne glasses at two weddings in a row.

My mom worked for many years as the assistant to the director of the Carnegie Institution, which founded the Mount Wilson Observatories in the San Gabriel Mountains. One day she brought home a chunk of glass that was leftover from a lens cut for Carnegie’s new giant telescope in Chile. Believing this irregular, yellowing block blessed me with special astronomical capabilities, I took two semesters of astronomy in college. I barely passed both times.

The prominence of science in our community somehow led, in my education, to a looser, more open sort of theology, since nobody would bother trying to square the Bible with the natural world. I remember being told very little as a small child about how to think about God, except that he was everywhere. At around the same age, I was told that the universe was infinite, a similarly baffling and seemingly mystical notion. The two ideas bound themselves together in my mind, and the phrase “ruler of the universe” that appeared in our Shabbat prayers, conjured up for me imagery of clockwork and constellations glowing bright in an endless field of black.

It only occurred to me when I was a teenager to ask my dad why he believed in God. It was the miracle of music, he said, of Mozart and Mahler, which he felt no arrangement of neurons could explain. (This actually fit very well with the one anthropomorphic image of God I had formed as a child: It was Eugene Ormandy, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, as rendered on the psychedelic back-cover of a record of Peter and the Wolf narrated by David Bowie.)

Pasadena might not seem at first glance like a hospitable place for a Jewish community. Founded by a cadre of Indiana Presbyterians seeking sunshine cures for their ailments, the city once used restrictive covenants to keep Jews from buying houses in its better neighborhoods. Although Pasadena is now about as diverse as the rest of Los Angeles, it has retained a popular reputation as a WASP-y, old-money enclave through generations of Rose Queens and Junior League dances. Robert Millikan, the visionary founding president of Caltech, once boasted that the region surrounding his school was the “westernmost outpost of Nordic civilization.” Yet Millikan packed his faculty with top-shelf Jews, drawing in such Semitic talent as Theodore von Karman, Paul Epstein, and Einstein.

The intellectuals Caltech drew from across the country and across the globe helped make the city a far more cosmopolitan place. “I think Pasadena would be an insufferable little town without Caltech and JPL,” says Judy Goodstein, who ran the Caltech archives from 1968 until 2009. “It would be parochial, insular, a couple of country clubs, and nothing much to write home about.”

By the 1920s, Pasadena had become known as “the western clearing house for eastern genius.” This migration pattern continued into my childhood, as all the scientists I knew, indeed nearly all the local Jews of my parents’ generation, came to California from the east. Their paths took them through Cornell, MIT, and sometimes Los Alamos before depositing them at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. For dads like my dad, which is to say, bearded, Jewish dads, those mountains seem to have inspired an irresistible compulsion to slap sandals over their socks and set out along dusty sage- and pine-scented trails.

“That ridge of mountains up there has a big effect,” says Marshall Cohen, a retired Caltech radio astronomer. “It’s a sense of the west—an openness.”

Cohen lives around the corner from my parents. He grew up in New Jersey and Baltimore and started doing radio astronomy at Cornell in the 1950s. He joined Caltech’s faculty in 1968 and spent most of his career studying the radio waves of galaxies and galactic nucleii in deep space. He’s a member of my parents’ synagogue who describes his ties to Judaism as entirely cultural. He finds religious faith irrelevant and perplexing when scientific fact is in itself so marvelous.

“Intellectually, there’s an easy way to look at the universe, which is using methods of science, and you get this grand, astounding picture,” he says. “But if you look at it through religion, you get a very narrow, pinched view, which doesn’t make any sense.

“One of the most interesting things is that there’s this fabulous universe, which is so enormously big and so complex, but people can understand it. We’re part of the universe, but we are able to contemplate and grasp the size of the universe, the essence, the scale, the workings, the laws. And I don’t think that religion has much to do with that.”

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The history of scientific discovery in Pasadena is intimately bound to its topography. Along the Western edge of the city runs the Arroyo Seco, a dry riverbed valley that stretches from downtown Los Angeles up into the San Gabriel Mountains. The most prominent structure in the Arroyo, the reason most people have heard of Pasadena at all, is the Rose Bowl. But two miles north along the Arroyo, the kingdom of the jocks gives way to a palace of science, Jet Propulsion Laboratory [2]. Now a branch of NASA managed by Caltech, JPL got its start when a few Caltech grad students and affiliated amateurs, including black-magic occultist Jack Parsons [3], began blowing up rockets at Devil’s Gate in the north end of the canyon under the guidance of aeronautics professor Theodore Von Karman, a Hungarian who came to Pasadena in the 1920s to find opportunities that had been closed to Jews at the University of Aachen in Germany.

Continue reading [4]: ‘neutronium balls’ and the Hubble Constant. Or view as a single page [5].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 [6] 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 [7] 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.”

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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 [8] 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 [9] 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 [10] 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.”

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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.

Find this story online: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/59751/voyagers