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Faces of Science: Neta Bahcall

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Mariana Cook’s book , “Faces of Science,” portrays 77 scientists who have made many of the most important discoveries of our time. Each photograph is accompanied by a personal essay written by the scientists. The portraits in this online series are accompanied by excerpts from those essays. For more information, please visit Mariana Cook’s website: .

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Faces of Science: Neta Bahcall-neta
Neta Bahcall - Photos and Text ©Mariana Cook “Faces of Science”

Growing up in Israel, I fell in love with math and science in high school. I was inspired by my outstanding science teachers. They were fun and they were exciting. I loved the precise logic and the amazing ability of math and science to calculate, quantify, and predict most of the events occurring in nature: What are the atoms made of? What are we made of? What causes day and night, summer, and winter? Are there other planets in the universe? How do we find a cure for cancer? I was excited by the questions, and I loved the logic. Once you understand the fundamental equations of nature, you feel you can solve almost any physical puzzle. I graduated in physics and math from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. At that time, in the early 1960s, there was no astronomy in Israel.

There were no scientists in my family. My father was a lawyer. He wanted me to become a lawyer but I was much more attracted to science. My mother was a registered nurse. I thought of becoming a medical doctor. On my frequent visits to my mother’s workplace in the hospital, I felt the importance and the satisfaction of helping sick people. I always felt that being a doctor is a noble profession.

I entered the field of astrophysics after I met my husband, John. We met at the Weizmann Institute, where he was visiting and I was studying for my graduate degree in physics. After we married and moved to Caltech, where John was on the physics faculty and I worked on my Ph.D. program, I opened up to the exciting field of astronomy. Caltech is one of the top places in the world for astronomical research. I met and talked with legendary astrophysicists – William Fowler, Maarten Schmidt, Fritz Zwicky, Geoff and Margaret Burbidge. This was love at first sight for me. I loved being part of an effort to answer big questions: What is the universe made of? How did it form? How big is the universe? What are the most distant objects? I still find it mind-boggling that we can ask and now answer such fundamental questions on such majestic topics.

I am frequently asked, “Do these studies of the vast universe make you feel that we are all small and insignificant?” My answer is no, not at all; in fact I feel exactly the opposite. I feel that we human beings are incredibly smart to be able to sit on this small planet of ours and figure out such amazing things about the universe. I find it to be enormously empowering. I always share this feeling with my students and with the public. And our scientific insights teach us how beautiful and fragile and precious our planet Earth is, and how much we need to take care of it – all of us.

Original funding for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.