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?