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Vol. LXII, No. 12
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
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Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton

COSMIC CREATION: “I learned about myself by writing these books. I found that I enjoyed studying at my own pace, and that it’s really all about the joy of delving into an idea.” Jennifer Morgan, author of a trilogy of children’s books on the beginning of the universe and development of life, looks forward to more children — and adults — discovering the wonders of science.

Princeton Resident, Storyteller and Author Jennifer Morgan Explores the Universe

Jennifer Morgan is a storyteller, and indeed, she has tackled the biggest story of all: the beginning of the universe and subsequent development of life on earth.

Her award-winning trilogy of books for children, Born With a Bang, From Lava to Life, and Mammals Who Morph, received high praise from scientists and the public, and stimulated the innate curiosity of children to find out more.

Ms. Morgan is an explorer of ideas: seeking, discovering, analyzing and evaluating; wondering why and how, who and what; looking for explanations.

“I love to delve into ideas, trying to find answers, and then applying them to today’s world,” she explains. “It’s really about the joy of delving into an idea.”

That she would focus on the life of the mind is not surprising. Ms. Morgan’s family — parents and grandparents — was involved in a variety of endeavors, from photography and publishing to music. “My family were innovators. They questioned and encouraged us to ask questions,” says Ms. Morgan.

The oldest of the six children of Douglas and Maureen Morgan, Jennifer was born in Pittsburgh, and moved to Ardsley, N.Y. when she was five.

Time Together

A close family, the Morgans spent a lot of time together. “We took vacations to Nova Scotia and Maine where we climbed Mount Katahdin, and my mom always had us working,” remembers Ms. Morgan. “She believed in work. We laid construction, climbed up on beams, fixed the roof. We all had chores and responsibilities. All of this taught us resourcefulness and gave us confidence.”

Jennifer loved sports, especially basketball and volleyball, and also enjoyed playing outside with the neighborhood children. “We played outside all the time. We also had a big woods near our house, and I spent a lot of time in the woods with our dogs.”

In the summer, she went to Camp Treetops in Lake Placid, N.Y. where she loved swimming, canoeing, and mountain climbing, and she also had an after-school and weekend job helping out in the family publishing and printing company, Morgan & Morgan, Inc., in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

“My mom took me to New York City to the Planetarium, museums, and music concerts,” recalls Ms. Morgan. “My mother played the organ, and she was music director of St. Malachy’s Church in Manhattan, where, among other things, she put on a Duke Ellington mass.”

Jennifer liked school, particularly enjoying science, among other subjects, and even as a young girl, she admired people who made a difference in the world. “I looked up to people like Gandhi and the photographer Margaret Bourke White, and I very much admired my grandmother.

“My paternal grandmother, Barbara Morgan, was a photographer and a pioneering artist. She and my grandfather were right on the cutting edge of bringing photography into an art form. She also painted, and she did a book of photos on the dancer Martha Graham. I spent a lot of time with her, and this was very formational for me.

Story of Origins

“Also,” continues Ms. Morgan, “I was always especially interested in the story of origins. My grandmother was not really a church-goer, but she had studied indigenous people and their way of relating to nature. Listening to her stories was important to me. Especially those relating to the indigenous understanding of the natural world as a spiritual reality and a dimension of creativity. The natural world is very creative.”

After graduating from Ardsley High School in 1973, Jennifer felt ready for a new adventure and new location. “I wanted to see a different part of the country, and went to Colorado College in Colorado Springs.”

After two years, she transferred to the University of San Francisco, where she majored in theology.

“I wanted to know about the origin of the universe, where we came from. What is the biggest context in which everything exists and how did it come into being? Theology is where people are thinking about this.”

Jennifer also continued her interest in science at college, including taking a course in physics. “It was in college that I really started to value science,” she explains. “I loved it, but I wasn’t a science geek. I had to get it in the context of stories.”

In college, Jennifer was strongly influenced by a community of nuns, and also by Professor James Mackey. “A former priest, he taught theology, with an emphasis on social justice. He was always questioning. I always related to the professors who were questioning, the ones who wanted you to go deeper.

“My life has had different phases,” she adds. “While I was in college, I lived with two nuns and was seriously considering becoming a nun. That life gives you a community to be part of in which you can inquire deeply.

Advocacy Work

“These nuns were at the forefront of advocacy work, and were trying to bring about more democratic governments in the third world, particularly Latin America and the Philippines. I was very active in this. I met lots and lots of people, and traveled to the Philippines during the time of the People Power Revolution that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos. We had also worked to raise awareness in the Bay Area about the Marcos dictatorship, and the church had educational programs. These nuns were very good friends to me, and I am still in touch with them.”

Jennifer’s community activism, traveling, and work as a substitute teacher did not interfere with her studies, however, and she graduated cum laude in 1979.

Returning to Ardsley, she worked in various positions in the family business, Morgan & Morgan, including management, editorial, production, financial, and sales, ultimately becoming executive vice president.

While at college, Jennifer had become personally involved with a man in the Philippines, who moved to the U.S. to escape prison in his own country, “He was a revolutionary,” she reports. “His wife had died, and he came to the U.S. with his daughter. Eventually we lived together in Ardsley.

“The U.S. later signed an extradition agreement with the Philippines, and our government would have sent him back. He was an incredible fox, though, and was never caught. I was subpoenaed to appear before a Grand Jury in San Francisco, but I didn’t want to betray him and others, and I took the Fifth Amendment. We were together 10 years.”

Her life took a new direction in 1985, when she met Princeton resident, attorney and soon-to-be Borough Councilman, Roger Martindell.

MBA from Rutgers

“It was at the house of a mutual friend in New York, and I was giving a presentation on agriculture in India, where I had recently traveled,” she recalls, adding, “After a one-year courtship, he imported me to Princeton. I liked Princeton right away. In fact, I love Princeton. I love being near the University. It’s like heaven. Just to be around these people.”

She and Mr. Martindell married in 1987, and she continued her interest and involvement in a series of projects and activities, including earning an MBA from Rutgers, and working with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ) as executive director.

“Agriculture was always an interest for me. When I was in the Philippines, I saw this thread — the devastating impact of chemicals on the environment, on the health of the farmers, including respiratory failure, skin diseases, etc. I learned how the economic impact could be devastating. I got the MBA because I wanted more financial experience. I learned so much. It was fantastic.”

As director of NOFA-NJ, Ms. Morgan was involved in a wide category of projects. Among them was developing and implementing a certification program for organic farmers in the New Jersey region; creating and operating the New Jersey Organic Country Fair which drew 7000 people annually; providing educational programs for growers; organizing a grower cooperative to sell Jersey fresh certified organic tomatoes; coordinating statewide organic produce market surveys and analysis; and developing a volunteer base of more than 300 persons.

“I’m very proud of that work,” notes Ms. Morgan. “Some of the programs I started are still ongoing.”

The Martindells’ son, Morgan Martindell, was born in 1990, and when he was nine months old, Ms. Morgan was named a Kellog Fellow, involving travel back and forth to Washington, D.C., where she was immersed in U.S. agricultural policy studies.

Another project close to her heart was Genesis Farm and Learning Center in Blairstown, N.J. “This is a non-profit organization and very large organic farm, operated by the Dominican nuns of West Caldwell,” explains Ms. Morgan.

Many Directions

“It was started by Sister Miriam MacGillis, and in addition to farming, it offers a series of educational programs that draws people from all over the world. I went there and took a course on the origin of the universe as a story. This influenced me, and I went back for a two-week program, a six-week program, and then a three-month program. I was deeply immersed in it. What was great was that it was drawing together all my interests from science to spirituality to agriculture. I began to think about doing a book about this.”

In some ways, surely, the many directions of Ms. Morgan’s life had led her to such a moment. On the other hand, chance, timing, and location also play a role. Being at the right place at the right time, with Princeton University handy, having a curious six-year-old son who loved to hear bedtime stories about the moon and the stars — these were all factors.

“At night, I’d teach my son about the universe. We’d light a candle, I’d tell him stories, and his eyes would open wide. He was fascinated.”

A subject so vast did not trouble Ms. Morgan, who recalled her mother’s advice years before: “Just because you don’t know how to do something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. You can figure it out.”

Inspired by the books of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, she started serious research in 1997, delving into more books, spending many hours at Princeton Public Library, consulting with scientists, and taking courses at Princeton University.

“I took five courses at the University, including cosmology and astronomy. That was just fantastic. I had classes with Gillian Knapp and James Gunn, professors of physics, with a focus on cosmology. After class, I’d ask questions, and the professors were so helpful to me. It was wonderful.”

Her approach to what she initially envisioned as one book was unique. “I wanted to write the book that would have been really helpful to me when I was a kid,” explains Ms. Morgan. “I wanted to tell it as a story, and I experimented with the voice — third person, first person. By 1998, I decided to tell it from the point of view of the universe.”

“Dear Earthling”

Indeed, the book takes on the form of a friendly letter, beginning, “Dear Earthling”, and covers the birth of the universe, from a tiny speck, to its ultimate transformation into a cosmos of billions and billions of galaxies. Throughout is the message that the universe is dynamic and creative, responding to a series of crises with ingenuity and resourcefulness.

“Originally, I thought I’d do one book, but I soon realized the topic was so big that I had to divide it into before life and the beginning of life,” explains Ms. Morgan.

Finding a publisher was a major challenge, but she was not deterred by 19 letters of rejection. She had confidence in her idea, and she remembered her mother’s earlier advice about not fearing new challenges. “I felt very confident. For one thing, I kept testing the manuscript out on children, reading it at schools, etc., and they responded so positively.”

Her conviction was not misplaced, and in 2000, Dawn Publishing Company in California agreed to publish the first book, Born With a Bang: The Universe Tells Our Cosmic Story. Very important, from Ms. Morgan’s point of view, was the visual aspect of the book. “There was no artist yet, and I had very definite ideas about this. I wanted explosive color and energy.

“One evening, the publisher and I walked out of a restaurant, heading for the car, and we walked by an art gallery. There was a huge painting of a galaxy on the wall, and Dana Lynne Andersen, the artist, was standing under it. She had done the painting based on the books of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, who had been such a strong influence on me.”

It was obviously meant to happen — cosmic forces were at work! — and Ms. Andersen became the illustrator for the trilogy. Her artwork is indeed vibrant and explosive. Born With a Bang, published in 2002, was a big hit with critics and the public, receiving Learning Magazine’s Teachers Choice Award and the highest rating from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

One Aspect

“I was shocked and thrilled,” says Ms. Morgan. “It was wonderful. There was even an endorsement from Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York.”

One aspect of all the books that has intrigued many readers is the concept of the “oneness” of the universe and its “inhabitants”: the idea that “the universe is us, and we are the universe,” from the very moment the first elements were created in the Big Bang.

This idea was important to Ms. Morgan, and she is pleased that it is evident to readers of all ages, including nine-year-old Kori Bloom, who said: “This story makes me feel that humans are part of the universe, not separate and alone.”

Added Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell: “When returning from the moon, I experienced directly and emotionally the personal connection to the universe described by Jennifer Morgan. We are the way the universe knows itself. We are it, and it is us.”

Noted mathematical cosmologist Dr. Brian Swimme, author of The Universe Story, “The great power of Jennifer’s story is its personification of the universe and all the beings within it. We in the modern world find this difficult to absorb. We have been educated to think of the universe as an ‘it’, to think of a tree as an ‘it’, and to regard everything non-human as something that exists for our use rather than for its own intrinsic purpose…. But in the magic of Jennifer’s story and Dana’s art, we begin to feel something very different.”

Born With a Bang was followed in 2003 by From Lava to Life: The Universe Tells Our Earth Story, and in 2006 by Mammals Who Morph: The Universe Tell Our Evolution Story. The latter book was enthusiastically endorsed by the highly respected primatologist Jane Goodall, who called it “A fantastic journey through time. It’s the story of mammalian evolution told in a way that will engage and enchant, as well as educate, children and adults alike. It is a must for every school library.”

Strong Suggestions

This praise was a particular thrill, reports Ms. Morgan, for as she notes, “Jane Goodall read the manuscript for book three, and she sent me back four pages of strong suggestions, all of which I incorporated. What an honor to have her read it.”

Others have commented on Ms. Morgan’s ability to create a wonderfully engaging story out of very complicated material. Points out Princeton resident Michael D. Lemonick, who is a contributing writer for Time Magazine, lecturer at Princeton University, and adjunct professor at New York University, “The ability to translate complex, technical information about the world into language ordinary people can understand and enjoy is an art — and doing so for young readers is the most difficult form of that art. Mammals Who Morph proves for the third time in a row that Ms. Morgan is a master at it.

“Anything that gets kids interested in pure science and makes ‘hard’ subjects less scary and unapproachable is enormously valuable,” he adds, “especially given that Americans in general are woefully ignorant about science. Someone told them it’s incomprehensible; Jennifer Morgan proves that it isn’t at all.”

And notes Princeton University anthropologist Dr. Alan E. Mann, Ph.D., “Our place in the natural world and the marvelous story of how we came about is one of the greatest stories a child can learn. Jennifer Morgan relates our knowledge of human evolution with the wonder and excitement it deserves.”

Interest in the trilogy has been intense, including in many schools throughout the country, and the books have been translated into Korean and Philippino. Ms. Morgan has given many workshops and presentations across the U.S. and abroad.

“I enjoy giving programs and workshops,” she notes, “and I’d like to do more. I love the speaking engagements. I have also become a registered professional development provider for the New Jersey Department of Education. This means I can provide programs for teachers, which will count toward their required hours.”

Extraordinary Gift

One of her favorite experiences was teaching a 10-week course of science concepts to a group of women at the home of Princeton resident Linda Fitch. “These were highly intelligent women who had not studied science, and it was wonderful,” says Ms. Morgan. “The classes were an hour and a half to two hours, and they were very interactive.”

Adds Ms. Fitch: “Jennifer’s classes at my house were mesmerizing. For the first time, we actively began to get a glimmering of impossible concepts, like CP Violation, particles and anti-particles, a deep sense of deep time. The most extraordinary gift that Jennifer imparted each week was a sense that science is about wonder, excitement, and reverence. And that her books are definitely not just for kids.”

In January, Ms. Morgan was part of an environmental film program at the Princeton Public Library, and Susan Conlon, Teen Services Librarian, reports that it was a big success. “In her presentation, Jennifer put an interesting perspective on the environmental climate crisis, noting that change can come out of it. She explained how crises can channel energy in a positive way.

“Jennifer is a fantastic speaker. She is so enthusiastic about the subject, and I think her books have been so valuable. To get kids excited about and interested in science is a wonderful contribution, especially if it opens doors to children who were not interested in it before. In fact, the books appeal to a wide range of audience, both kids and adults. I think highly of Jennifer. I’m a fan.”

Ms. Morgan has also received many letters, drawings, even poems from students about their reaction to her books. “In one school project, members of a fourth grade class wrote letters to their mitrochondria. They were wonderful.”

A third grade class at Riverside School in Princeton actually performed an opera, Dance of the Universe, based on Born With a Bang.

Act One

Riverside teacher Betty Ann Birbeck remembers the events surrounding the opera. “Because of an opera residency schoolwide initiative, each grade level was integrating opera into their curriculum. At the time, I was a third grade teacher, and astronomy was a third grade science unit. I envisioned Jennifer’s book Born with a Bang (which had initially been introduced to me by a student) as the basis for our opera. The book speaks of music and movement.

“So the third grade together researched how the universe was formed, and that became Act One of the opera. Act Two was how our solar system was formed. We put the opera on for the whole school and parents, and it was fabulous. Jennifer’s books are so important. I think that all children learn best through stories. Her books stimulate their interest in science. Kids are naturally inquisitive, and when they get information they can understand, it sparks more questions.”

Ms. Morgan, now single, after her marriage to Mr. Martindell ended in 2001, continues to love life in Princeton, especially enjoying time spent with her son, a senior at Princeton High School and who will attend Stanford University next fall.

“I love hanging out with my kid,” she says, with a smile, “and I enjoy Princeton so much. I like the intellectual ferment — not just Princeton University, but within the great variety and diversity of people who live here.”

She likes to ride her bike almost every day, enjoys playing the recorder, and is actively involved in the plans for an addition to her house.

Travel is an option when time permits, and she still enjoys going to the Adirondack Mountains where she visited as a child, and she looks forward to returning to Italy and to a first visit to Ireland.

New Books

New books, perhaps one for adults, are on the horizon, she adds. “The most interesting thing is taking the messages emerging from the origin story and applying them to today and the environmental problems we are facing. By looking back on the past and seeing how the universe dealt creatively with crises, you can learn from it. There are so many messages from the ‘Big Story.’”

While more and more information about the 13-plus billion year-old universe and its origins continues to be revealed through scientific inquiry (indeed it was only in the past five years that the age of the universe became known, says Ms. Morgan), there is much that is still elusive. That age-old question of why it all began lingers.

“So many people ask me ‘Where is God in the story?’” says Ms. Morgan. “The word God is purposefully not in the story so that it can be embraced by people of all religious traditions, or of none at all. Another reason is that people usually refer to ‘God’ as a transcendent, supernatural creator who exists outside the physical world. Today, we’re rediscovering a creativity, some might call divine, not simply in the transcendent mode, but also as immanent, as present in the universe itself.

“My degree is in theology, not science. But I followed the advice of Dr. Thomas Berry, author of The Dream of the Earth, who advised Christians to study the primary scripture — the universe itself. Accordingly, for eight years, I lived and breathed science. I learned from some of the best scientists in the world in my home town of Princeton. I came to know — and to feel — a divinity immanent in the universe that is far bigger and more mysterious than I had known before.”

Mystery, and the attempt to unravel it, was also a concern of Princeton’s favorite scientist, Dr. Albert Einstein, who noted: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”

Adds Ms. Morgan, “We can see that humans evolved inside a vast creative universe that has a story full of drama — one that deepens our sense of a profound mystery beyond anything we can see or comprehend.”

Or, as William Shakespeare mused long ago in Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of … ”

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