Conversation and Cosmology with Internationally Recognized Physicist Reina Reyes
A few weeks ago, I had pizza in Berkeley with Johannes Kepler’s descendant. She didn’t seem to have changed at all since I last saw her, when she was in college, over a decade ago—she still looked like a high school kid. Still petite, in denims, hair tied back in a ponytail, no make-up, and she had on a white coat which, when she unbuttoned it, revealed that she was wearing a Manny Pacquiao shirt.
She smiled and laughed with gusto, as did I; to others, we must have looked like we were having an everyday enjoyable conversation. But she paid sharp attention to my questions. After all, she has a legacy to live up to. Over four hundred years after Kepler, she is following the lineage of passion involved in looking up at the heavens and discovering what laws govern nature out there.
Reinabelle Reyes is an astrophysicist at the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics in the University of Chicago. She peers not only at visible light but all kinds of other “light” that help her detect patterns and processes in places in the universe, far beyond our own solar system. She had just finished her Ph.D. in Princeton University about a month before we met in California. She and her team got everyone’s attention when, in early 2010, the journal Nature published their “thumbs up” to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.
The study, which she led, saw Einstein’s idea confirmed on cosmic distances, using 70,000 galaxies. At those distances, you could detect them with visible light and with other waves in the electromagnetic spectrum. The instruments available to Reinabelle and her peers in astrophysics are not as quaint as the lenses that Kepler designed in his day; Kepler was among the first to extend the human eye, an act that resonates through the history of science, and human curiosity in general, by seeking beyond what is immediately visible. Reina and her peers used data from the 2.5-meter Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope in New Mexico, USA, which observed half the sky and recorded images and spectra of nearly a million galaxies, too far and faint to be seen by the naked eye or Kepler’s lenses. Their work reached a high point when they saw that Einstein’s curved space-time, which was a shift from Newton’s mechanical model of the universe, applied to 70,000 galaxies other than our own.
Reina and her team used a measure that considered gravitational lensing, galaxy clustering, and structural growth rate. Gravitational lensing is a way of looking at how light is bent around massive objects such as stars and galaxies. With this, they were able to measure very small distortions in the shape of the galaxies, from which they inferred the amount of dark matter surrounding the galaxies. In other words, they used the visible to measure the invisible. Dark matter (scientists call it “dark” because no one knows anything about it except that it is there and the universe would not be what it is now if it were not there) makes up around 25 percent of the universe. Galaxy clustering refers to how groups of galaxies form because of gravitational attraction. Structural growth rate refers to how these galaxies grow over time. With all the data they collected and studied, they were able to show that Einstein’s idea of curved spacetime holds, even 3.5 billion light years away.
Reina Reyes thinks that what she is doing is a luxury—which if you hold to its strict definition would mean that she is basking in “unnecessary things.” Of course, no one wakes up in the morning unable to make a cup of coffee unless she knows that Einstein’s General Relativity holds across 3.5 billion light years. But if that were the only definition we had of “necessity,” and if humanity only thrived on such “necessity,” we would all still be active members of the Flat Earth Society.
“Unlike in English class where if your teacher did not like your piece, she would just fail you, in Math, there was an objective answer and you could show it!”
Reina claims she chose to pursue the sciences because being a Chinese-Filipina growing up in the Philippines, where chaos ruled supreme over every nook and cranny, every layer of life, she was so comforted by the ordered principles that science offered. She has always been good in math and she liked math because “Unlike in English class where if your teacher did not like your piece, she would just fail you, in Math, there was an objective answer and you could show it!”
When she was in fourth grade, she talked to her mother and told her that she wanted to go to Philippine Science High School. A majority of Chinese-Filipinos go to identifiably Chinese schools in the Philippines, and PSHS was not one of them. Her mother supported her daughter’s choice and Reina graduated at the top of her class in 2001. She took Physics in Ateneo de Manila University because “rigorous physics was alluring” and like many whose minds have been seduced by science at an early age, she believed that “If you want to understand the world, physics was it.”
Before she joined Princeton, she went for a year to the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoreti-cal Physics in Trieste, Italy. This was the institution founded in 1964 by Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam, a Pakistani physicist. It provides scientists from developing countries with continuing education in the various areas of theoretical physics which are most likely not being supported in their home countries. She was with a cohort of scientists that included representatives from Vietnam, Indonesia, Cuba, and Brazil. She basked in what she earlier called the "luxury of mind" in ICTP, the very place that Salam vigorously defended against critics in the UN circles who opposed it by saying that "Theoretical physics is the Rolls-Royce of sciences—the developing countries need only bullock carts." Salam triumphed by, among other defenses, expressing being disconcerted as to why a scientist from a developing country cannot enjoy the same stimulating intellectual environment as someone from a developed country, if she deserves it.
Being in ICTP was an awakening for her of not just science as her chosen passion, but what it meant to the world and how, by pursuing it, countries, particularly developing ones, are able to "grow up.
I sensed that this label of "luxury" Reina assigned to her field is more of a mark of humility rather than a value she had learned in ICTP. I got this impression because she said that being in ICTP was an awakening for her of not just science as her chosen passion, but what it meant to the world and how, by pursuing it, countries, particularly developing ones, are able to "grow up." A passion for understanding that enables growth, for a country, or individual, is beyond mere luxury. It is what "knowing" should lead to.
In Princeton, having to do focused research in order to publish, she extols the virtue of "intellectual honesty." She said that there were times where her computations were off by a mere 0.1 percent but she knew she had to fix the bug, not only because it would be published, but because she herself knew it was off. She said that was what a Ph.D. meant—that you consider intellectual honest as an inviolable virtue.
A Peculiar Nature With Extraordinary Nurture
Reina is a middle child. She has two other sisters. She grew up in what she calls a typical Chinese-Filipino family, who lived in a two-storey setup in San Juan where the ground floor was a store—in their case, a hardware store. Except that her father did not seem to have the well-documented traits of taipans-in-the-making. He had a sense of wealth that was not tied to their business ledger; it was a sense of abundance that only comes from valuing independent thought.
Reina speaks of her father as one who inspired her by being who he was, different from typical businessmen. He read things out of curiosity and a sense of satisfaction that can be had in questioning.
She has always excelled in school, but did not waste too much time and thought enjoying the recognition because to her, she was just being herself. She said her parents did not even push her or any of her siblings to excel. She said that she liked math even when her only experience with numbers as a child was being asked to help out in their store to give out change.
In PSHS, she also stood out and came out on top, but more of because this was her nature and passion than out of her efforts to outdo the rest of her batchmates. She later married her high school physics teacher, Gary Coronado. Gary seemed an intelligent, down-to-earth fellow who understands Reina more than anyone else and encourages her pursuit of the heavens.
Aside From Particles and Galaxies
Reina is currently exploring other ways of being in the world, apart from being an astrophysicist. In science, she recognizes that instrumentation has enabled astrophysics to get more data than ever before, but she also acknowledges that genetics and neurosciences are having their golden age. She is interested in more things now after getting her Ph.D. She mentioned being interested in developments in cognitive science, particularly how a scientific mind develops in a child.
Outside the sciences, she is on an exploration of the "brand of mind" of Filipinos, wherever they are in the world. She claims that before she went to the U.S. to study, her notion of the U.S. was the all-too-familiar type, born of Hollywood among other things. But having lived there for years now and living the life of the mind, one thing stood out—the secular nature of American society and how the Philippines, as a country, as its opposite. But is being so religious the only "brand of mind" we possess in the collective?
Reina pointed to "explanation" as a task that science has been able to reliably perform and shared with me her lack of understanding of the need for a god to explain things.
Reina is, as most scientists are, stripped of a need to believe. After all, science can now explain things and processes that people back in time claimed God was the only explanation for. Reina and I exchanged our reactions to materials we have both read on how matters of "philosophy" could now be settled by recent experiments on behavior that are coupled with brain scans. Reina pointed to "explanation" as a task that science has been able to reliably perform and shared with me her lack of understanding of the need for a god to explain things.
An explaining god I have never found in scriptures or anywhere else. Unsually a "he,"God usually shares the scene with some spectacular effects like fire and brimstone or some ultimatum. When science in its indomitable spirit to explain things and ask questions, and God with his cryptic one-liners and "no proof required" promises try to share the scene together, the whole scene falls apart.
A "broken" scene is an uncomfortable thing for someone whose craft rests on intellectual honesty. But Reina is trying to leave room that maybe some people just do not value consistency in thought. I can understand that for individuals and their own personal meaning but as a collective, when we draw up laws and policies. I think we should have a much lower tolerance for this kind of consistency.
"I started with high energy physics and I am now in cosmology. You need to understand the workings of the very small to explain the beginnings of the universe." That is what Reina does. She is being Kepler's daughter and keeping the intellectual vigil across the universe, armed with new light. May the new midwife of truths deliver new births and make them endure.
This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.