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Design: Eureka Moment

The Cosmic Spark

by Ann Birnbaum Barnet ’51

A rain of subatomic particles made by atom-smashing explosions in stars constantly streams through space from the far reaches of the universe. A few of these cosmic sparks strike through the earth’s atmosphere. During my years at Sarah Lawrence, astrophysicists had learned how to capture and study their traces. My college don and physics professor, Charlotte Houtermans, got me a job counting tracks of cosmic radiation on ordinary glass slides that I looked at with my microscope.

Dr. Houtermans was associated with the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island while she was on the faculty at Sarah Lawrence. She was a German exile; in the 1930s she and her husband, Fritz, had been part of the exuberant blooming of theoretical physics research centered at the university in Gottingen. Their circle included Niels Bohr, Hans Bethe, George Gamov, Robert Oppenheimer, and even, on occasion, Einstein. They lived in their laboratories, nourished by late nights, intense talk, laughter, and dense swirls of cigarette smoke. Refugee scientists who escaped to England or the United States played decisive roles in the com-petition with the Germans to be first to make the atomic bomb. Their brilliant work likely helped end the war, but at the cost of destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki.It was a horrible and unintended consequence of the pure science that their group had undertaken, according to Charlotte Houtermans, in a spirit of play.

Brookhaven Laboratory was established with US government funds at the end of World War II out of the press of conscience to find peaceful uses for atomic energy. Its mandate was to carry forward basic research in atomic physics. Atom-smashing, as in the bomb, was one way, a very dangerous way, to release the particles out of which atoms are made. Capturing atomic particles from cosmic rain was another way to study the composition of the matter from which the universe is made.

For me, cosmic rays were a mind-bending change from baby-sitting and the college switchboard. The unbounded vastness of the universe dazzled my imagination. But I was troubled, too. Was the world’s builder and maker the God of my childhood? My parents were fundamentalist Christians, missionaries who believed that the Bible was the literal and inerrant word of God. I was beginning to struggle with the claims of science. The atmosphere at Sarah Lawrence breathed adulation for the truths of the material world that were teased out by the scientific method. Was there still room in the universe for God?

Every week a Brookhaven scientist mailed us a dozen glass slides which were packaged in a lead box. The slides had been covered with a special photographic emulsion and then placed for a while on a high mountain in Chile. Charged particles speeding in from outer space streaked the emulsion on the slides as they flew by. This was a breathtaking revelation to me, although my contribution to solving their mystery was mundane. Using the microscope I set up in Dr. Houtermans’s tiny laboratory, I examined the glass slides and checked off on my data entry forms what I saw: thick lines, thin lines, lines slashing and slanting from all angles. My understanding of what I was seeing was very limited, but the counts of graduate assistants and students like me contributed to two Nobel Prizes. The 1950 Physics Prize went to the scientist who developed the technique of using photoemulsion plates to detect cosmic particles. The second Nobel was for the discovery of a new particle, the pion or pi-meson. Pions made a beautiful double track that I had noted on my slides.

While I counted traces of matter that had made a journey of unfathomable distance across the galaxies, the words of one of the psalms that was embedded in my memory whirled unbidden through my mind: “The heavens declare the glory of God. The firmament proclaims God’s handiwork … their voices are heard … to the end of the world.”

I never told anyone of my involuntary musings since I was trying to be as secular and sophisticated as was, I assumed, everyone else at Sarah Lawrence College. Atomic-particle counting did serve to ground me as a scientist—the following year I would head to medical school and a career in medical research. But ultimately the cosmic traces on my slides were important to me as little encounters with the infinite. They contributed to my confidence that the universe was too beautiful to be meaningless. The meaning was what I called God.

Illustration of person looking at subatomic particles

Illustration by Otto Steininger

Sarah Lawrence welcomes submissions for Eureka Moment. Send your story of discovery in everyday life, no more than 800 words, to publications@sarahlawrence.edu.