Turning To Space While Processing Grief
When astronomers Michelle Thaller and Andrew Booth met, it was love at first sight. The couple married in 1994, becoming a power couple in the world of space and physics research. In 2019, the couple received shocking news: Booth was diagnosed with cancer in the brain. He passed away within a year of his diagnosis.
The death of a partner is one of the most devastating things a person can go through. Thaller felt unmoored, and like Earth was not her planet anymore. To help her move forward, Thaller turned to the universe for solace.
Thaller speaks with guest host Flora Lichtman about how the mysteries of the universe have made processing grief a little easier, and taking space and time with a grain of salt.
Dr. Michelle Thaller is an astronomer at NASA based in Greenbelt, Maryland.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: This is Science Friday. I’m Charles Bergquist.
FLORA LICHTMAN: And I’m Flora Lichtman. How do you cope with the grief of losing a partner? Astronomer Michele Fowler faced this much earlier than she hoped. Her husband, astronomer Andrew Booth, died from cancer at the age of 64 in 2020.
I know Michele pretty well. She’s a friend of mine. I met her almost 10 years ago for a story I was reporting. She told me her husband Andrew knew me from my work on Science Friday. He was a big fan of the show. I got to know Andrew, too. He was unusually wonderful, just like Michele, and when he was diagnosed, it was a shock.
I saw Michele look for solace in the universe. That’s what we’re talking about today. Michele joins me to talk about astrophysics and grief and why we should take space and time with a grain of salt. Dr. Michele Fowler is an astronomer at NASA based in Greenbelt, Maryland. Welcome back to Science Friday, Michele.
MICHELE FOWLER: Oh, it’s great to be here Flora. I absolutely love that intro, too. Wonderful.
FLORA LICHTMAN: I’m so glad. I think we should start with Andrew. Tell us about Andrew. When did you meet, and give us a sense of him.
MICHELE FOWLER: Yeah. I had the privilege of being married to an absolutely astounding person. Andrew Booth was an astrophysicist. He was from England. And when I was doing my doctoral research, I was having to observe objects in the southern sky. There are some stars that are much easier to see when you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, some actually can’t see from the north.
And so I was spending a lot of time, wherever I could get telescope time as a graduate student, in the Southern Hemisphere. And the Australian telescopes had some good opportunities. And so I had applied for time on telescopes in Australia and gotten it. And Andrew was a professor at the University of Sydney.
And we had a common friend– I didn’t know Andrew, but I had a friend who was an astronomer from Australia who used to be one of Andrew’s students, one of his graduate students.
And so this person basically called Andrew and said, hey, I’m sending down now one of my graduate student friends, and would you be able to meet them at the airport, get them settled in Sydney before they move into the interior to go to the telescopes? Andrew said, absolutely not. You guys are always calling on me to do this because I live near the airport, and I’m sick of picking up graduate students at the airport.
But my friend said, come on, kind of twisted his arm, and I think you’ll enjoy meeting this person. I had just been on my first transpacific flight. I’m kind of holding my eyes open, I was very groggy. And I still remember this beautiful man walking around the airport. It was love at first sight for both of us.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Really?
MICHELE FOWLER: Yes. It does happen. And we were together for 25 years.
FLORA LICHTMAN: When was Andrew diagnosed with cancer?
MICHELE FOWLER: Andrew was diagnosed with cancer, it was November 11. It’s amazing how that date just stays in my head. November 11, 2019. We were just starting to wonder if there was going to be some kind of health emergency, and at the time, we didn’t realize at all with the scale of COVID would be.
It unfortunately was what everybody fears. And he was watching a football game and he said, I just feel a little tingly in my head. One side of my face just feels kind of numb. And he said, I think it’s nothing. I don’t think this is anything that I need to worry about. And I just said, let’s just go to make sure. Let me just drive you to the emergency room, let’s just see.
And it was on the weekend, it was during the day. And I dropped him off and then I said, oh, I’m going to go pick up some groceries for us later and I actually went to the grocery store. And then when I came back and I finally picked up Andrew, he’s coming out with a strange look on his face, of course, and said, well, so they did an MRI to make sure that it wasn’t a stroke happening.
And at this point, I forget the exact words, but the phrase I remember is, tumors too numerous to count In his brain. And he never felt better from that moment, he never recovered. And despite two rounds of chemo and two experimental treatments at the National Institutes of Health, immunotherapy, all of that, he was gone in nine months from that time.
FLORA LICHTMAN: In that period, do you feel like your relationship with the universe was tested? I mean, I know this is a cliche, but did you find yourself sort of turning to the universe and asking why?
MICHELE FOWLER: It’s funny. We never really asked the question why because as two scientists that were not religious people, we were well-aware and even, in some ways, deeply accepting of the idea that these things just happen.
I mean, cancer is just a bit of your own DNA that goes haywire. I mean, sometimes because a chemical is in your body that causes mutations, like if you smoke, or– I mean, you could just be hit by a cosmic ray. I mean, quite literally, there are high-energy particles from space that hit our DNA and can cause it to reproduce wrong.
And it wasn’t so much a question of why, but he had a type of cancer that just really isn’t treatable. He had small cell carcinoma for those of you that are cancer fans. So there really wasn’t anything we could do except try to slow it and it just didn’t slow.
And so there were two things that happened. One was, I felt this isolation from the world. I mean, the phrase was in my head, that this didn’t feel like my planet anymore. Everything felt removed. I felt like a ghost in the planet. I just wasn’t connecting to anything. It was a very, very– I never felt anything like that.
And the other one was this realization that the time we had left, no matter how unpleasant and painful it might be, this was the time where we would never get back. This was time together that we still had. And we approached every part of the cancer treatment and the consequences of the cancer treatment as a team, and with as much humor and love as we could.
So there wasn’t a lot of fighting for us in terms of why is this happening to us? This is so unfair, because, I mean, this is something that is a natural part of the universe. I mean, we’re such complicated beings, our bodies, and we just hold together barely chemically. It’s amazing we live as long as we do because all these molecules can reproduce in the wrong way or some little chemical can go wrong, and that’s what we’re up against.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Did you turn to your knowledge of astrophysics as a source of solace?
MICHELE FOWLER: Yes. And this was something that we absolutely shared. And so that was one of the things that made the partnership so good, is being professional astrophysicists, we were both astounded by the beauty of the universe. We felt awe. We felt so privileged and so lucky to spend our lives immersed in that idea.
I mean, being an astronomer working at NASA, I mean, 80% of it is the same as most other jobs. So you’ve got a lot of meetings and budgets and paperwork, and that’s what we spend most of our time on. But then there is 20% just absolute fantastic joy, the joy of discovery. Or Andrew could make instruments work that really shouldn’t have been able to work. I mean, he was just a wizard when it came to working with light and the quantum mechanical properties of light.
He did stuff that basically proved– I mean, I’ll use that word, that space and time are certainly not as simple as we perceive. I mean, it’s always a hard thing to think about because it’s not that our perception of space and time is an illusion, but it’s not complete.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Mmm.
MICHELE FOWLER: And Andrew’s instruments, these were optical interferometers. They really only worked if space and time don’t really match our perception. He was one of the world’s leaders in teasing particles of light to appear in many different places at the same time.
And then in that technique that we call interferometry, you can then trick many different telescopes all around the world to think that they’re one big telescope. They all have to catch the same particle of light at the same time. Literally the same particle.
FLORA LICHTMAN: This is where my brain is just like droop.
MICHELE FOWLER: I know! So this is the thing. So the crazy thing is it works. It’s an experimental result. And Andrew’s telescopes would actually pick the same particle– and I mean that. I mean– just think about a star that’s, say, thousands of light years away.
That light has been traveling for thousands of years, it hits Andrew’s telescopes– plural– and he set them so accurately, to more accurate than a billionth of a meter. And he’s able to tease the light out into appearing in different positions and space and time all at once, that same particle. That’s really what’s happening.
And until you catch the same particle– like, if you catch the particle that was emitted by the star a millionth of a second later, the instrument doesn’t work. But if you catch the same particle in all those telescopes, bang, it works, and you can actually get incredibly high-resolution measurements of the sky.
So Andrew and I knew– I loved how you put it in the introduction. You take space and time with a grain of salt. Space and time has a reality that we don’t experience. When you look at death as a scientist and you look at human brains, it’s pretty obvious what happens. I mean, this is all around us every day. Biologically active beings, they decay. Our neurons stop carrying electrical current, our memories have no way to be stored. That’s it for us, I think.
But the question is, how much do we really understand space and time? And a lot of scientists wonder– and this goes back to Einstein. This is nothing new, that the universe may be some kind of a whole thing, space and time and perhaps different versions of space and time all existing at once.
And we don’t know that. But what we do know is it’s not as simple as we perceive. If anybody knew that, it was Andrew. His instruments didn’t work if space and time were as simple as that.
So what we would say to each other is that I’m still with Andrew, but in the part of the universe I call the past. And there may even be different versions of the universe, I don’t know that. But if the universe could possibly be some kind of whole thing, then we kept saying to each other over and over, when the universe began, I was right here holding your hand, and when the universe ends, whatever that means, I’m still right here holding your hand.
And incredibly, that could be literally true. It could be that all points in space and time exist as much as any other point. I’m already dead– I’ve been dead for billions of years. The sun hasn’t formed yet. Andrew and I are still enjoying our wedding in the castle. All of that happens in some kind of a big now that our brains filter, our brains just can’t perceive.
And that’s an interesting idea. I don’t know if that’s literally true, but that’s how we decided to try to understand life and death.
FLORA LICHTMAN: I’m Flora Lichtman and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. There are still so many unsolved mysteries of the universe. Does that give you peace or does that stressful for you?
MICHELE FOWLER: Oh, it’s funny. I love it. There’s so many things that we do know, I think people forget about that. The idea, for example, that our atoms come from the stars, that the universe– or at the very least, you can say the universe used to be a lot hotter and denser than it is now. That that much is established observational fact, we can take pictures of that. That’s not anything that– the universe has changed.
Do we do we know exactly how the Big Bang worked yet? No, I doubt it. I mean. But the evidence that the universe was once very different, the very, very strong evidence that space and time are not just the way we perceive them, this both thrills me and makes me feel peaceful. So it’s a neat feeling. We should think of a word for that one. It’s both peaceful and thrilling. It’s a vulnerable feeling.
I mean, I don’t think the universe, in a sense, cares for us individually or has any sense of human morality or fairness, but it’s a beautiful system. Incredible, complex. The scale of the galaxy we belong to, the cycles of creating elements, the trajectory of the universe from some sort of hot state to maybe a very cold state in the end.
But then also, the grain of salt that you talked about. I mean, not just the grain of salt that space and time are more than we perceive, but also the grain of salt that may be anything that we know will someday be called into question or looked at from a different perspective.
When you think about how the universe seems to have this change from a Big Bang to perhaps a very large, cold thing, you know I’m always reminded of– when I was taking physics, one of my professors said, it’s possible it’s– again, it’s all just one big thing that we’re looking at from different perspectives, and that’s what we call time or what we call space.
The example was, if you watched an elephant walk by and you’re looking out a tiny little slat of a window where you can only see a little strip of the elephant at once, you’ve got– the first thing you see is the trunk coming by, and then that gets bigger and bigger. And, oh, there’s its ear and its leg, and now there’s this big body, and then it just walks by, you’re down to this little tiny tail again.
And you can come up with a system of physics where the trunk causes the tail.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Right, right.
MICHELE FOWLER: But it doesn’t It’s not. It’s all one whole thing. And the implication, he was saying, is that that may be what the universe is, a whole thing. One event even doesn’t cause another. We perceive little slices at a time and think of it as causality, space and time. And it may be much deeper than that and much larger than that.
And even wonderful and horrible events in life are just a shape of something that we’re almost seeing the shadow of. We don’t see the whole thing.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Michele, I feel so privileged to know you and to have gotten the opportunity to talk to you today. Thank you.
MICHELE FOWLER: It’s wonderful. And thank you for asking the question, Flora.
FLORA LICHTMAN: Dr. Michelle Fowler is an astronomer at NASA based in Greenbelt, Maryland.