Jennifer Wiseman, astrophysicist, NASA

Science impacts nearly every aspect of modern life, from agriculture, environment, and medicine to communications, exploration and, hopefully, a sense of responsibility, wonder and awe ...

Not many people in the world can say that they discovered an asteroid. Even fewer can say that they work closely on the Hubble Space Telescope project. Jennifer Wiseman can comfortably say that she’s accomplished both. Jennifer is a senior astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre and was also previously the head of Goddard’s Laboratory for Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics. This means that Jennifer is an expert in concepts and areas that are far beyond our mental grasp – the star-forming regions of our galaxy, interstellar gas clouds, astronomical bodies and – potentially – extra-terrestrial life. Jennifer will be in town later this month to take part in the World Science Festival, so we jumped at the chance to pick her brain about her cool job, what scientific advances we can expect in the near future and if aliens exist.

Can you tell us where your love for the night sky and the stars first originated?
I grew up on a family farm in the rural Ozark hills of Arkansas, in the central part of the U.S. I was surrounded by nature: meadows, hills, animals, streams, ponds, lakes, and a dark night sky. I was fond of exploring the natural world around me, and that included loving our nightly family strolls down the country lane where we could see the stars filling the sky. This, combined with the new fantastic images of exotic moons of Jupiter and Saturn being released at the time from the Voyager probe mission, made me very curious about the universe, and made me want to explore it.

What encouraged you to take your interest in physics and turn it into a career?
I enjoyed all kinds of subjects in school, including various sciences, mathematics, music, and literature. But physics was particularly fascinating to me, because one could use simple mathematics and force relations to explain just about anything in nature! Then in university astronomy courses, I found I could combine my love of space with my fascination with physics, in the field of astrophysics.

It’s fitting that you’ll be a participant in the ‘Cool Jobs’ panel at the World Science Festival – being a astrophysicist for NASA is unbelievably cool. What are your responsibilities as senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope?
Cool it is! My job is to ensure that the Hubble Space Telescope mission is as scientifically productive as possible. This means working with hundreds of others within the mission to keep the observatory at peak performance, with good strategies for using the science instruments onboard, for selecting proposals for astronomical targets to observe, and for sharing Hubble’s discoveries in journals and media throughout the world.

What is one of the most rewarding aspects of your job?
My favourite part of the job is reviewing the amazing science results and discoveries that scientists around the world are achieving with Hubble. I help with the preparation and review of Hubble press releases covering discoveries ranging from water in exoplanet atmospheres to finding galaxies over 12 billion light-years away in space and time. As a bonus, I give many presentations to scientists and to the public about Hubble science, hopefully inspiring more science programs, science enthusiasts, and future scientists.

You’ll also be discussing the practical and legal minefields of extra-terrestrial exploration at the ‘Space Invaders: To Infinity and Beyond’ talk. What sort of exploration will you be discussing in particular?
Space Exploration can take many forms. While humans can physically explore nearby destinations such as the Moon, asteroids, and Mars, it takes robots and telescopes to explore farther out. I’ll be discussing the incredible growing suite of telescopes that can explore everything from the moons of Jupiter to the distant sources of gravitational waves, and how multiple nations, astronauts, and robots will be interacting with these probes and space telescopes in the near future.

Budding astronomers dream of being the first to discover a new astral object and having it named after them. Can you describe the feeling you experienced when you discovered the comet 114P/Wiseman-Skiff?
The comet discovery was completely unexpected, and I owe huge credit to Lowell Observatory astronomers Edward Bowell and Brian Skiff, who were mentors to me when I went there on a student a student astronomy field camp during my university years. I was just learning how to analyze telescopic photos of the sky, when I spotted this object that turned out to be a previously undiscovered comet. I didn’t know if this kind of discovery was common or rare, but in any case it was an amazing surprise and I felt (and feel) incredibly grateful.

We’re curious about your work in the realm of science policy and public science outreach. What is the significance of this aspect in regards to how it can add to and further the progress of the work you, your colleagues and contemporaries undertake?
Science is not just the work of scientists – it is an enterprise that addresses the hopes, needs, and curiosity of people around the world, who themselves support the scientific enterprise. I like to make sure the broader public shares in the benefits and excitement of the scientific discoveries being made. Likewise, the progress and aspirations of science benefit by informed input from those who think about the broader implications of science: ethicists, religious communities, policy makers, educators, and those in the arts, to name a few.

What sorts of scientific studies (in or outside of your realm of expertise) are being undertaken now that you think will yield some amazing discoveries in the near future?
There are so many realms of discovery opening up, it’s hard to know where to start! In astrophysics, I’d say the knowledge we have about exoplanets – planets outside our own solar system – is about to explode. We’re also about to have the capability to identify many more sources of gravitational waves, a long-sought and now newly detected phenomenon. And there is a vexing astrophysical puzzle as to why the universe seems to be expanding faster now than what one would predict by looking at conditions in the early universe. So, lots of excitement ahead!

Do you have any general predictions for the scientific advances we might see over the next decade?
I predict that within the next decade, thanks to new astronomical facilities like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), we will have a much better grasp of how common Earth-like planets are in our own galactic neighborhood. This will set the stage for a new generation of telescopes that will be able to analyze these planets for atmospheric evidence of the presence of simple life. The sources of gravitational waves – traveling distortions of space-time due to massive events in the universe like merging neutron stars – will be more commonly identified. And closer to home, probes (with human assistance of some sort) will be investigating up close the water-ice on the Moon and Mars, and the water vapor plumes erupting from the icy surfaces of moons like Europa.

How important is it to have events like the World Science Festival to help build interest in science amongst younger generations?
The World Science Festival is a wonderful way to celebrate the many ways science and technology can enrich life around the globe. Science impacts nearly every aspect of modern life, from agriculture, environment, and medicine to communications, exploration and, hopefully, a sense of responsibility, wonder and awe. How better to involve a younger generation than to showcase science through many channels: film, talks, music, discussions, and celebration?

And finally, give it to us straight – do you think aliens exist? Blink twice if NASA is preventing you from answering this truthfully.
Sure, why not? We haven’t detected life beyond Earth yet, but it’s worth looking. I think since life exists in every exotic environment on planet Earth, we could expect that perhaps at least simple life could be thriving throughout an abundantly fruitful universe. And I’m not blinking!

You can catch Jennifer Wiseman at her three World Science Festival appearances. The first is at the ‘Cool Jobs‘ panel, taking place at QPAC’s Concert Hall on Thursday March 22. Second, Jennifer will participate in the ‘Space Invaders: To Infinity and Beyond‘ at the Queensland Conservatorium on Saturday March 24. Finally, Jennifer with chat everything extraterrestrial at ‘Alien Contact: What Happens Next?’ at the Queensland Conservatorium on Sunday March 25.


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