Margaret Geller is an astrophysicist who is a pioneer when it comes to mapping the nearby universe. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Physics at the University of California, Margaret Geller went on to earn a Ph.D in Physics from Princeton. Her incredible work has provided a new view of the enormous patterns in the distribution of galaxies like the Milky Way. Margaret Geller is working on her goal of trying to discover what the universe looks like, and to understand how it came to have the rich patterns we observe today. Margaret’s main research interests are: mapping the distribution of dark matter in the universe; investigating the implications of the discovery of hypervelocity stars (stars ejected from the Galactic centre); mapping the middle-aged universe; and measuring and interpreting the signatures of star formation. Margaret Geller is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as a Fellow of the American Physical Society. She was also elected to the Physics section of the US National Academy of Sciences. From 2000 to 2003, Margaret Geller served on the Council of the National Academy of Sciences. To have the opportunity to talk books with such a well respected astrophysicist is a real honour. Please enjoy my interview with Margaret Geller…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I am an astrophysicist. I map the way galaxies like our own Milky Way are distributed in the universe. Galaxies trace enormous patterns that develop as the universe evolves. These patterns that extend for hundreds of millions of light years are the largest patterns we know in nature.
I am reading The Fix by Jonathan Tepperman. Tepperman describes remarkable creative solutions to serious national problems. These solutions that work depend on inspired leadership. These selected successes contain lessons for our tumultuous, frustrating time and they offer some hope.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte inspires vivid memories. I remember being captivated by the coming of age of a person in such a foreign time and place. The characters and their tortured lives were startlingly real and were in marked contrast to my gentle childhood. Recently an exhibit about the Bronte family at the Morgan Library reminded me of the intensity of my reaction to the book.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be an actress. My parents did not really encourage this interest, but, at my insistence, they did send me to an acting school. There I learned how to speak. Through high school I played major roles in school plays. Those experiences and lessons about communication have served me well in speaking about science publicly and professionally.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
I think I would like me and that I would not be at all surprised at the outcome. After all, my father, who was a scientist, encouraged me very strongly to become a scientist.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
I would wrap up a fancy bound edition of The Complete Works by William Shakespeare. It is amazing that someone writing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could still be so timely. There are so many attractions of Shakespeare; the language, the commentary on the human condition, and the shear dramatic tension are just the surface.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
I have no routine. I read whenever the mood strikes me. There are times when I read voraciously and times when I am preoccupied with other things.
Which book has had the biggest impact on your career so far? How did it impact it?
The Mapmakers by John Noble Wilford had a big impact. Before reading it I had thought about my work as a search for patterns in nature that we can understand by applying the laws of physics. Wilford’s book added another dimension. The maps we make of the universe are a step in the definition of our grandest environment, the universe. One can view the history of mapmaking as progress toward definition of the more and more extensive environment around us. It is interesting that when the first results of our project to map the universe appeared on the front page of the New York Times, John Noble Wilford wrote the story.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
I associate everything I read with my mother. She loved the English language and shared that fascination with me. When I was a child she took me to the beautiful Morristown Library and guided my choice of books. I could not have had a better guide.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
I love to walk and have recommended Walkable City by Jeff Speck to many friends. I wish that American cities could become more walkable in the way that many European cities are. Speck’s book provides some road maps to that goal.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
When I was younger I preferred serious fiction, plays, and poetry. Now I prefer non-fiction along with fluff fiction like cozy mysteries.
Do you think reading is important?
Reading is critical for imagining a world larger that your own environment. The act of reading is an important discipline. You sit in a quiet place and focus your mind in an often foreign environment. Reading encourages deeper and more critical thinking. While I read I always try to weave what I read into the tapestry of my life experience.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
The Launching of Modern American Science by Robert V. Bruce is a Pulitzer Prize winning book which is sadly out of print. The book describes the nascent years of the American scientific establishment. This development coincided with the American Civil War. The book is alive with the personalities and issues of the time. The imprint of those times on modern American science is substantial. For example, MIT was founded in that era and the modern institution certainly fills the role imagined by its founder. Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, was also an important figure who fought very hard to make the scientific functions of the Smithsonian preeminent over the museums.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
I prefer real books. I like the feel of the pages and I particularly like holding a hard-back book.
My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor, her autobiography is as inspiring as it is well-written and profound. Sotomayor does not hesitate to share her sensitive, moving memories of her life. She demonstrated the profound importance of constitutional law and by example, she shows what it means to live it with grace and dignity.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
I don’t really rank the books I read. They all contribute to the way I see the world and the way I choose to live my life.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
What Money Can’t Buy By Michael Sandel is really a book or our time. It demonstrates the fallacy of the focus on money with clear examples and logic. His book Justice is also a searingly clear, profound look at the meaning and importance of law in society.
Another lighter book, but one that also raises deep questions is Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? by Guy Consolomagno and Paul Mueller, is a set of conversations about the nature of science and related aspects of religion. Their answer to the title question, `Only if she asks’, gives the flavor of the book. Consolmagno and Mueller address a variety of philosophical questions in an engaging, thought-provoking way.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I never plan what I read. I choose spontaneously from reviews or from browsing in a bookstore.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
I might call it A Journey Through the Universe.