SANTA CRUZ -- For every type of particle in the universe, there is a partner particle. It has a different spin, but interacts similarly with the particles around it. For Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams, the theory of supersymmetry isn't a bad analogy for marriage.
The UC Santa Cruz astrophysicist and his wife, a writer, musician and cultural philosopher, have spent 36 years joining forces to explain what's going on in the universe.
As director of the High-Performance AstroComputing Center, Primack designs programs to simulate the conditions of the early universe. In his new 3-D visualization lab, eye-tracking goggles will allow the user to peer around galaxies onscreen, grabbing and manipulating them with a controller wand.
Primack's work is light years from where he started. The Princeton and Stanford graduate first drew attention as a particle physicist, exploring nuclear fission and subatomic particles in the 1970s. Primack had offers from many universities, but chose to teach at UCSC. "I was only interested in going back to the Bay Area, because I had fallen in love with this area," he said.
Meanwhile, Abrams was tackling science from a different angle. Armed with an international law degree, she helped policymakers deal with tough scientific questions. When Abrams met Primack on scientific advisory council in Washington, she found both a partner and a collaborator.
The couple settled in Santa Cruz in 1977, but Primack was restless as a particle physicist. "The whole field began to feel kind of old," he said. As astrophysics flourished at UCSC, a new line of research drew him in: an invisible particle called the supersymmetric WIMP, or weakly interacting massive particle.
He proposed the WIMP was the same thing as dark matter, the glue that holds galaxies together.
"When he started getting into this, it got really interesting to me," said Abrams, who studied the history of physics as an undergraduate. Abrams also sang in cabaret troupe, and now her musical talent found a new venue. She composed songs to summarize scientific conferences, performing before auditoriums of astrophysicists.
In 1984, Primack and his colleagues released the theory of "cold dark matter," describing how the sluggish movement of these newly discovered particles may have shaped the universe after the big bang. "We always said 'sluggish' in our papers, which, of course, is a call-out to the mascot," he said.
When initial evidence confirmed Primack's theory, Abrams saw the big picture: the elements making up stars, planets, and our own bodies were a tiny fraction of the matter in the universe. The scientific view of the universe was changing, "and it was changing in my house," she said.
The couple began co-teaching a UCSC course called Cosmology and Culture, borrowing religious metaphors to explain modern cosmology. "Our goal is to be able to describe the universe beautifully," said Abrams, "but have it be absolutely accurate."
Abrams also put a different spin on Primack's work. "Joel was going around saying that we are made of the least important stuff in the universe," she said. "We are made of the rarest material in the universe, and that makes us special." The couple released two books to express this message, "The View From the Center of the Universe" and "The New Universe and the Human Future."
In their home, decorated with the cosmos-inspired art from past students, Primack and Abrams teased and talked over one another to describe their work. "Joel, get to the point," Abrams interjected when her husband lost himself in a scientific tangent.
As Primack constructs the new supercomputer, the couple continues to schedule public lectures, embellishing the science with fly-through videos and original musical compositions. Primack said of their collaboration, "What comes out is something that represents more than what either of us has put in."