Deborah Haarsma, PhD, Astronomer
- 1991 Bachelor of Science in physics and Bachelor of Music in piano performance from Bethel University in St. Paul, MN
- 1997 PhD in physics with thesis in astrophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA
- 14 years on the faculty of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MA
- Author of several research papers in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology
- Co-author with Loren Haarsma of Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (2011, Faith Alive Christian Resources)
- President of BioLogos since 2013
Name: Deborah Haarsma
Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan
Career title: Astronomer
Involvement in church: Member of Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI. I have served as pianist, Deacon, member of the Mission Committee, member of the Worship Committee, and small group leader.
Hobbies: classical music, science fiction, gardening
Your role models: Francis Collins, the Christian biologist who led the Human Genome Project. He is a brilliant scientist and a humble, authentic Christian.
How did you discover your calling to be a scientist?
I grew up loving piano and classical music as well as science and math, and I still play piano to this day. In college, I fell in love with physics. I know physics isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it. I still remember freshmen physics lab, where a group of us were trying to put an experiment together and figure out what to measure in this messy real world. Then we did the mathematical calculations following the textbook. We compared the math to the real world data and … it matched!
For the first time, I experienced the way that reason and logic of mathematics actually describes the real world. Physicist Eugene Wigner, a Nobel prize winner, called this the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.” And in that moment, I could see God. God crafted a universe of such order and regularity that we can describe it with logic and mathematics! And God created us in his image, with the ability to understand something of how he governs the world—“thinking God’s thoughts after him,” as Kepler described it. I am still amazed every time I see physical theories, developed by human reasoning, accurately describing the real world that God created. I realized that the science that I loved could be a Christian calling.
Graduate school was where I fell in love with astronomy. I remember the astronomy lecture when I first learned about neutron stars for the first time. That night I went home to my apartment, for Bible study with my roommates, and told them all about it. “Can you believe it? These neutron stars have more mass than the sun, all packed into a sphere only about 10 miles across. It’s packed so dense that a teaspoon of this stuff would have the mass of a mountain! The gravitational field on the surface would squash us flat!” (Fortunately my roommates were scientists, so they didn’t laugh at my geeky enthusiasm.) I was fascinated by the extreme physics out there in the universe that we can’t replicate on earth. I ended up doing research on very large galaxies (at the centers of galaxy clusters), very young galaxies (undergoing rapid star formation in the early universe), gravitational lenses (where spacetime is curved by a massive object), and the expansion of the universe.
Who encouraged you most in your career?
My parents were a huge encouragement. My dad played math games with us as kids and my mother often talked about what careers I might pursue as an adult. Although they weren’t scientists and had no experience with graduate school, they encouraged and supported me every step of the way. The second encouragement, of course, is my husband. We met as grad students, and in our wedding vows we pledged to encourage each other to develop the gifts God has given us. Loren has always supported me and we’ve even had the pleasure of writing a book together. Third would be the Christian scholars who came before me – people like Galileo and Kepler—and Christians in science today like Francis Collins, the Christian biologist who led the human genome project. These are role models for me of how to live out my faith as a scientist.
How does your faith energize and inform your career?
My faith is foundational for everything I do as a scientist. I believe that the laws of physics work consistently across the universe and over billions of years because of God’s faithful governance. Without God’s sustaining power, we could not do science. I’m motivated to study the natural world because it is the very handiwork of God.
How does your career in science motivate your faith?
As I learned more about the universe, I was stunned by its immensity. Our galaxy contains billions upon billions of stars, and it is just one of billions of galaxies in the universe. That can make us feel very small. Astronomer Carl Sagan gave an atheistic perspective on this, writing “We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of the universe.” (Carl Sagan, Cosmos. New York: Random House. 1980. p.193) Insignificant? Forgotten?? The Bible looks at the same universe and tells a very different story. Psalm 103 ponders the vastness of the creation with phrases like “as high as the heavens are above the earth.” But the Psalm doesn’t go on to say “you are so small before God.” Rather it says: “For as high as the heavens are above the earth so great is God’s love for those who fear him, and as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:11-12). When we look at the vastness of the universe, God doesn’t mean for us to feel insignificant, but to see the vastness of his love and forgiveness. In the New Testament we learn of Christ as the creator of the cosmos. John writes “In the beginning was the Word” and “through the Word all things were made” (John 1:1-3). Every inch of this vast universe belongs to you, O Christ. (Colossians 1:15-20, lyric by Matthew Westerholm “The First Place”)
What advice do you wish you had received as a student or earlier in your career, or would you like to offer others?
Career choices can be challenging and anxious - choosing a major, a job, or choosing not to pursue something. In such times, it helped me to remember that God’s primary calling for all of us is the first and second commandments: to love God and to love your neighbor. Whatever job you end up in, you can love God with heart and soul and mind and strength. In every line of work, you can love your neighbor as yourself, sharing the gospel with those who haven’t heard and placing a priority on people rather than busy-ness. Focusing on following those commands helped to reduce my worries about the future and keep things in perspective.
Second, everyone has times when they question their own abilities – am I good enough to do this?? It helped me in those moments to pray to God to give me a true view of my skills, an accurate understanding of my strengths and weaknesses. I prayed that God would keep me from both pride and from poor self-esteem as I considered what challenges I should pursue. That perspective helped me make wise choices.
What telescopes have you used in your career as an astrophysicist?
I did much of my research at the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in New Mexico. I also used data from the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, the Southern Astrophysical Research telescope in Cerro Pachon, Chile, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory in orbit around the earth, among others. Modern telescopes are so sophisticated that astronomers like me do not operate them directly; I often used telescopes remotely (which of course is a necessity for telescopes in orbit!). But I did travel many times to the VLA (it is worth a visit if you are traveling through the southwest) to consult with the operators as they made the observations for my project.