Visualizing Women in Science, Mathematics and Engineering
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  • Neta Bahcall

    Professor of Astrophysics at Princeton University, Neta Bahcall says the most exciting aspect of her field is getting to ask and try to answer interesting questions about the origin and fate of the universe: "The ability to figure out how much mass is in the universe, how the universe started and how it will end is just awesome." Her work focuses on determining the large scale structure of our universe, posing such questions as "how are galaxies and other systems distributed in space? What are the largest structures that exist in the universe? How did these and other structures form in the early universe after the initial big bang?" And "how much does the universe weigh?" Bahcall and her colleagues have consistently found that "we live in an `underweight universe'" -without the mass-density needed to halt the current expansion of the universe- and thus that the universe will continue to expand forever.

    Bahcall was first inspired to study physics and math by the wonderful teachers that she had in high school: "I very much enjoyed solving problems and trying to understand the world around us." Her upbringing also contributed to her scientific mindset. With a lawyer for a father and a nurse for a mother, Bahcall explains, "I got a `logical' thinking approach at home, and good and exciting training in science at school. Physics was a booming topic in these years." Bahcall was especially intrigued by new findings in nuclear and particle physics, and new discoveries in astronomy. She earned her bachelor's degree in Physics and Math in 1963 at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, and her master's in Nuclear Physics in 1966 from the Weizmann Institute of Science, also in Israel. That year while visiting Caltech and talking with astronomers and astrophysicists she got very excited about the field of astrophysics -the exploration of the universe- and has been working in this field ever since. One of Bahcall's challenges has been learning to balance family and career, though in Bahcall's case these are not entirely distinct spheres, since her husband John Bahcall is a professor of the natural sciences, who has published widely in astronomy and astrophysics, and her three children are also interested in science. Besides family and work, Neta Bahcall enjoys friends, travel, reading, art, music, and spending time in her home-country, Israel.