One evening during a recent visit to Santiago, Chile, I went to dinner with two colleagues. Afterward, as I descended the stairs of the Metro to cross Providencia Avenue, I saw a young girl, no more than five years old, wrapped in a dirty blanket, sitting on the ground. She was holding out a shoe for a few monedas. It was dirty pink, a once beautiful Disney Cinderella slipper studded with sparkles and flashing lights. Just ten minutes earlier I had been talking with my friends about a discovery we had made, one that had been recognized with the Nobel Prize in Physics last year. Now looking back at me was a little girl who had been crushed by poverty.
I had traveled to Santiago from my home in Texas for a weeklong celebration of Chilean astronomy’s essential role in the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe. My dinner companions that evening were Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt, with whom I had founded one of the teams that, in 1998, discovered the 75 percent of the universe that we now call dark energy, and Chris Smith, a key collaborator on the project. Over the course of the week Brian would give eleven talks outlining the central and pioneering role of three Chilean astronomers—José Maza, Mario Hamuy, and Alejandro Clocchiatti. I was giving a couple of talks myself. The mood over dinner was celebratory as to what we’d accomplished and earnest about the work that still needed to be done.
And then the little girl brought me back to Earth—and to a question that has plagued me my whole professional life: Of what use is astronomy when there is so much suffering in the world? Why spend one centavo on cosmology when little girls are crouching in subway stairwells, begging?
Personal encounters with human misery are not new to me. A couple of years ago I served as a Humanitarian Officer at the U.S. Department of State, a scientist embedded in the Office of Human Rights, and I saw poverty everywhere I traveled—the United States, Russia, Nepal, Mexico, India. I received daily reports of tragedy, of unbelievable suffering, of floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts, diseases, trafficking of women and girls, human mutilations, genocide.
I have been lucky. I was born of Russian Social Democrats who fled the 1917 Revolution. They valued education and culture, and they found a land where they could use their talents and hard work to better their lives and the lives of others. Both my parents were social workers who specialized in severely troubled children—important and noble work.
And I do cosmology.
We don’t share much across all cultures, but one thing we do share is a longing for the understanding of our existence. Open the Bible and the chapters of Genesis and Exodus tell the story of Biblical Creation. Ancient natives of Northern Chile drew lines in the desert to show respect to the stars. As scientists, we will tell you, as Brian and I did in our talks during Nobel week in Santiago, our own story of the Creation of the Universe—one that others can study and verify, or study and show to be wrong. We now look onto the sky and see a net of galaxies across the Universe, and as if by magic, this web looks just like the energy ripples inside a subatomic particle. Does this similarity reveal a connection between the smallest and the largest? Between a girl and a galaxy? Is my work at least somewhat important and noble, like my parents’? I don’t know, but I’d like to think so.
Across the Earth, right now, millions of people are looking up into the night sky. No one owns the stars or the planets or the Milky Way. No one owns the Moon. We all see the same sky, and the sky belongs to all mankind; it is our inheritance from the Creation of the Universe. The sky cannot provide succor. It cannot provide an answer as to why I was born with luck while that dirty, sad, scared little girl was not. But it can raise us above our misery and mistakes, and encourage us to ask why we are here.
I believe this is a part of basic human rights—the right to wonder. It is also the most revolutionary of human rights, because it is the right to question and discover. It is the right to lift our souls and hopes into the sky, and to receive in return a sense of connection among human beings that transcends all boundaries and that, one day, may bring us peace.
Our discoveries in cosmology will not help the plight of a poor girl in Santiago, but they do provide a compelling explanation of the Universe. Yet there are many other ways of looking up into the sky that give meaning to our human experience. Here’s one of my favorites. It was written by the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, the recipient of the 1945 Nobel Prize in Literature. (Translation below.)
CARRO DEL CIELO
A CART INTO THE SKY
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Nicholas Suntzeff is a professor of observational astronomy and a member of the Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M University, where he heads the Astronomy Group inside the Department of Physics and Astronomy. He specializes in cosmology, supernova studies, and astronomical instrumentation. In fifth grade he received an Honorable Mention for turning his science project in on time. His previous guest post for LWON was on (not) faster-than-light neutrinos.
Credits: M83, Fred Calvert, Cold Spring Observatory; cosmic web, Millennium Simulation Project.