The women with life-long love affairs with space

We should be thankful we live in an age that appreciates the wisdom of interconnected; the kind of thinking that appreciates the largeness of life and the interconnectedness of things. After this holistic wisdom was deemed irrelevant and then forgotten by the mechanical and efficiency-focused industrial and post-industrial age, we finally arrive at this stage where the thirst to rediscover and reconnect forgotten meanings is obvious and blossoming.

Astronomers write poems, musicians are inspired by maths, artists reinterpret physics. The sciences and the arts are merging into one, returning to its essence; nature that is hoped to be studied and experienced.

Below are three ladies of space we are currently sharing the world with who courageously put science as seen through the lens of compassion, not as a tool for relentless ambitions.

JANNA LEVIN

Janna is a novelist and an astrophysicist who studies black holes. Coming from a study of philosophy as an undergraduate student, Janna immerses herself among questions of whether the universe is finite and infinite, and this, like gravity, becomes the centrifugal force that pulls and holds her musings altogether, from the scientific to her love life.

In 2011, she performed her real-life story of how she met her unlikely husband, Warren Malone, (she is a mathematician, he is a musician. She is getting her Ph.D., he is not formally educated. She was invited to formal dinners, he was working as a dishwasher next door), and wrapped it with scientific anecdotes that uncovered the resemblance between rare chances in nature and falling in love. Around the same year, Janna spoke at TED, sharing her research on the drumming sounds that black holes make, just a few years (in 2017 to be exact) before the blip of gravitational waves discovered by LIGO forever change how we do astronomy and marked the beginning of a new sonic exploration era. Even more astonishing, her latest book, Black Hole Blues (2016) extrapolated on her own sonic exploration as a gravitational scientist before LIGO made its landmark discovery.

Currently a professor of physics and astronomy at Columbia University and curator of a studio space called Pioneer Works where she works together with artists and musicians in New York, Janna continues to push the boundaries between arts and sciences.

NATALIE BATALHA

Natalie helped discover the first rocky planet outside our solar system shortly after the Kepler Telescope, the recording device specialized for searching exoplanets, was set up. It was a monumental discovery; to be able to see so distinctly the movement of these earth-sized exoplanets orbiting their stars by the slight diminution changes in light, which gave her, and ultimately us, a great hope that we will discover more earth-sized planets that might harbor life.

Before the 1950s, pre-Kuiper’s extraordinary claim that there are worlds bound to every single star, most scientists believed that exoplanets are exceedingly rare. But it wasn’t until Kepler mission was launched in 2009 that Natalie and her team began measuring lights and hunting earth-sized planets.

Graduating as a student in business and lamenting the mental works of mathematics on her early days, Natalie and her team look deep into a slice of the sky, perhaps the size of your palm hand, and record changes in lights of 150,000 stars every 30 minutes. When a planet passes between the Kepler telescope and the star (called transit), Kepler telescope will perceive a dimming in light which indicates an earth-sized planet that exists in the Goldilocks zone (not too cold, not too hot). Living to unravel the universe, exhibiting what Johannes Kepler said that “the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment”, Natalie reminded us that we are the universe becoming aware. Natalie also writes poignant reflections about her observations and her works on Facebook. Take a look.

ANNIE DRUYAN

Annie Druyan is, first, a storyteller. Together with Carl Sagan, her husband-’till-death-do-them-part, she curated the content for The Golden Record, a stellar time capsule that is now still sailing to the open-ended sea of the universe. Annie later wrote the original TV Series Cosmos with Carl Sagan and Steven Soter and the film Contact, about a young woman who was looking for her father. And for all that, she is not primarily a scientist.

Like Natalie, she grew up lamenting the sciences, only seeing roadblocks that subjugate the mesmerizing nature of math and the sciences. Feeling uninspired, she left to study arts and music. But it was this combinatory creativity that gives whatever science concepts she touches, an elusive character that captivates audience’s hearts. Hence, Annie was appointed as the Creative Director for The Golden Record. And hence, Carl fell quite madly in love with her.

Annie’s brainwaves, filled with love-hormones oxytocins, were recorded and included in The Golden Record, and it is now sailing in the interstellar sea. With the kind of compassionate naiveté towards the world and the sciences, together with Carl, she transformed scientific language into a poetic prose all of us can understand, breaking the barriers of formal disciplines. Ultimately, The Golden Record wasn’t just a love letter to the alien, it is essentially a gift for the humanity.


P.S. I write children’s story for adults about the moon. See it here. Or email me to purchase.

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Janna Levin. Photo by Beatrice de Gea for Quanta Magazine. As seen on Wired
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