Astronomer Jennifer Wiseman on the universe, faith and science

Hubble photo of spiral galaxy NGC 4414
The spiral galaxy NGC 4414 as photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA/Getty Images

As the senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope, Jennifer Wiseman is on the forefront of planetary discovery and astronomical findings.

In her personal life, Wiseman — a Christian — discusses how she views the intersection of science, faith and life. In an email to MPR News, she notes discoveries of new planets can "enrich the way those who already do believe can understand the Creation and the Creator."

Wiseman was in the Twin Cities Friday to speak to the MacLaurin Institute on the abounding discoveries of planets outside our solar system, and what these discoveries, and the possible future discoveries of life elsewhere, will mean for us as we look through lenses of science, culture, faith and our understanding of the significance of human life. Wiseman joined The Daily Circuit Friday.


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Scientists estimate the universe is 13.7 billion years old.

We are finding planets at a rapidly accelerating pace. "About 20 years or so ago, the idea of having planets around other stars was really only science fiction," Wiseman said. "Starting in the early 90s, astronomers developed some techniques of detecting planets around stars. It's very tricky because planets are small, they don't shine their own visible light, they get lost in the glare of starlight, so you have to use tricky techniques to find them."

Watch for the wobble To find new planets, scientists watch for stars that wobble because they are being tugged on by the gravitational pull of orbiting planets, she said. They are also looking for transits, where a planet crosses over a star and blocks out the light. "We now know of hundreds of stellar systems outside our own with planets confirmed and thousands of candidate systems," Wiseman said.

This week, a newly discovered exoplanet was announced. This is a planet in our galaxy, but outside our solar system. The planet is orbiting Alpha Centauri B. "Now keep in mind that the Alpha Centauri star system is the closest one to our own sun and solar system," Wiseman said. "So we've now discovered a planet orbiting one of the Alpha Centauri stars. That's only 4.4 light years away, so that is just in our backyard. This is very exciting. And not only that, but this planet is about the same size as Earth, so that's exciting too ... This planet cannot support life because it's orbiting too close to the star; it's very hot. But it does tell us that again planets seem to be rather common and not only that but Earth-size planets are out there around other stars."

In her personal life, Wiseman works on improving dialogue between scientists and the religious communities. "When I talk about astronomy to anyone ... it quickly expands to a conversation of meaning," she said. "Where do we fit into this amazing universe? We're discovering all these incredible things about the beginning on the universe, the expanding history of the universe, the presence of planets around other stars. OK, so then where do we fit in? And that's where these bigger questions of purpose and value and so forth come into people's minds. Are we just random accidents of nature and is that all we are or is there something more to it? And these are questions that science can't really address directly."

Do you think that there is a way to reconcile religious belief and scientific fact? Is it important for religious leaders to incorporate science into their sermons? Comment on the blog.

Madelyn Mahon contributed to this report.