The Cosmic Spark
(Page 2 of 2)
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.