Dawn Mapping of Ceres Continues

Ceres' Haulani Crater

Ceres' Haulani Crater, with a diameter of 34 kilometers (21 miles), shows evidence of landslides from its crater rim. Smooth material and a central ridge stand out on its floor. This image was made using data from NASA's Dawn spacecraft when it was in its high-altitude mapping orbit, at a distance of 1,470 kilometers (915 miles) from Ceres. This enhanced color view allows scientists to gain insight into materials and how they relate to surface morphology. Rays of bluish ejected material are prominent in this image. The color blue in such views has been associated with young features on Ceres. Image Credit:NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The Dawn mission as almost completely mapped the surface of dwarf planet Ceres at a resolution of 35 meters (120 feet) per pixel - far surpassing the original objective of imaging 80% percent of Ceres’ surface at a resolution of 200 meters (660 feet) per pixel.

From the Dawn Blog:

"Since April 11, instead of photographing the scenery directly beneath it, Dawn has been aiming its camera to the left and forward as it orbits and Ceres rotates. By May 25, it will have mapped most of the globe from that angle. Then it will start all over once more, looking instead to the right and forward from May 27 through July 10. The different perspectives on the terrain make stereo views, which scientists can combine to bring out the full three dimensionality of the alien world."

Dawn is using its gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) to reveal the atomic composition of Ceres' crust to a depth of about a meter. Researchers have gathered three times as much GRaND data as they had required, and instruments in the detector will continue to collect data, achieving a longer exposure time, and revealing a sharper nuclear picture of Ceres.

This map shows a portion of the northern hemisphere of Ceres with neutron counting data acquired by the gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) instrument aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft. These data reflect the concentration of hydrogen in the upper yard (or meter) of regolith, the loose surface material on Ceres. The color information is based on the number of neutrons detected per second by GRaND. Counts decrease with increasing hydrogen concentration. The color scale of the map is from blue (lowest neutron count) to red (highest neutron count). Lower neutron counts near the pole suggest the presence of water ice within about a yard (meter) of the surface at high latitudes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

This map shows a portion of the northern hemisphere of Ceres with neutron counting data acquired by the gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) instrument aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft. These data reflect the concentration of hydrogen in the upper yard (or meter) of regolith, the loose surface material on Ceres. The color information is based on the number of neutrons detected per second by GRaND. Counts decrease with increasing hydrogen concentration. The color scale of the map is from blue (lowest neutron count) to red (highest neutron count). Lower neutron counts near the pole suggest the presence of water ice within about a yard (meter) of the surface at high latitudes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

Tracking the Dawn probe via radio signals, researchers have been able to chart Ceres' gravitational field at at accuracy twice what they had anticipated. As with the GRaND, gravitational measurements are continuing.

From the Dawn Blog:

"Dawn has dramatically overachieved in acquiring spectra at both visible and infrared wavelengths. We have previously delved into how these measurements reveal the minerals on the ground and what some of the interesting discoveries are. Having already acquired more than seven times as many visible spectra and 21 times as many infrared spectra as originally called for, the spacecraft is adding to its riches with additional measurements."

Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn Mission, told New Scientist that the Dawn spacecraft could visit a third object in the asteroid belt, but would not name that object until a mission extension was approved by NASA. A post on Reddit suggests: "Out of its original budget of 425 kilograms of Xenon propellant for its ion engine, 275 kg was allocated to reaching Vesta and 110 kg for reaching Ceres, leaving some 40 kg of Xenon unallocated."

I'm all for it! #DawnThirdTimesTheCharm


Browse images of Ceres at JPL's Photo Journal.
Dawn's Twitter Feed.
Dawn Homepage.

More on Spectra from the Cabinet of Physics

Bill Higgins’s posts on the Cabinet of Physics in Florence have been fascinating, and especially interesting in regards to astronomy was the one about the spectrum of a carbon lamp.  The carbon lamp spectrum is a continuous spectrum, with the Red-Orange-Yellow-Green-Blue-Indigo-Violet ROYGBIV rainbow of colors where one color blends seamlessly into the next.

These colors were described by Isaac Newton in his 1704 Opticks. Or, a Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of LightOpticks is a landmark work of science by a great scientist—but it is nonetheless an approachable work, one to which both the layperson and the beginning student of physics can relate and one whose content they are likely to understand.  Within Opticks you will find described (in English, not Latin) and well-illustrated phenomena everyone has encountered.  You will find laid out principles that are studied in introductory physics and physical science classes of every level, and even in art or photography classes: rays of light; reflection; refraction; colors; rainbows; the workings of the human eye.

Newton states on the fourth page of Opticks the principles of reflection and refraction of light: “The Angle of Reflexion is equal to the Angle of Incidence”; “The Sine of Incidence, is either accurately or Very nearly in a given Ratio to the Sine of Refraction.”  This latter ratio he states as being 4 to 3 for light passing between air and water, 17 to 11 for light passing between air and glass.  These ratios are known today as the indices of refraction for water and glass.  A little further on he puts forward the idea that different colors of light are differently refracted when they pass from one substance to another: “Lights which differ in Colour, differ also in Degrees of Refrangibility.”  Newton states his ideas carefully, claiming not that they are absolutely true, but that they describe truly what occurs “either accurately or very nearly” and “either accurately or without any sensible Error.”

Based on these simple ideas, tested through experiments, Newton proceeds to explain how sunlight contains within it different colors—or as he puts it, “The Light of the Sun consists of Rays differently Refrangible.” These colors that comprise sunlight, or indeed white light in general, are the colors of that staple of even elementary school science classes: the familiar ROYGBIV rainbow spectrum produced by a glass prism: “the Lights of several Colours are more and more Refrangible one than another, in this order of their Colours, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blew, Indigo, deep Violet.”  He even provides a detailed explanation of the formation of rainbows by droplets of rain—although he notes that on this subject he is merely adding to work done in the previous century by René Descartes and especially by “Antonius de Dominis Archbishop of Spilato,” who he says taught “how the interior Bow is made in round Drops of Rain by two refractions of the Sun’s Light, and one reflexion between them, and the exterior by two refractions and two sorts of reflexions between them in each Drop of Water, and proves his Explications by Experiments made with a Phial full of Water, and with Globes of Glass filled with Water, and placed in the Sun to make the Colours of the two Bows appear in them.”

The significance of the spectrum began to be appreciated in the nineteenth century as a means of learning about distant objects.  In 1835 the French philosopher Auguste Comte had written that

Parmi les trois sens propres à nous faire apercevoir l'existence des corps éloignés, celui de la vue est évidemment le seul qui puisse être employé relativement aux corps célestes; en sorte qu'il ne saurait exister aucune astronomie pour des espèces aveugles, quelque intelligentes qu'on voulût d'ailleurs les imaginer; et, pour nous-mêmes, les astres obscurs, qui sont peut-être plus nombreux que les astres visibles, échappent à toute étude réelle, leur existence pouvant tout au plus être soupçonnée par induction.  Toute recherche qui n'est point finalement réductible à de simples observations visuelles nous est donc nécessairement interdite au sujet des astres....  Nous concevons la possibilité de déterminer leurs formes, leurs distances, leurs grandeurs et leurs mouvemens; tandis que nous ne saurions jamais étudier par aucun moyen leur composition chimique, ou leur structure minéralogique, et, à plus forte raison, la nature des corps organisés qui vivent à leur surface, etc. Among the three of our senses by which we perceive the existence of distant bodies, the sense of sight is obviously the only one that can be used in relation to celestial bodies.  Thus there can be no astronomy for a sightless species, no matter how intelligent they might be.  And for us, the stars and planets that cannot be seen, which are perhaps more numerous than the visible ones, escape any real study—their existence can, at most, be suspected by induction.  Any research that is not ultimately reducible to simple visual observations is necessarily prohibited in regards to the stars and planets....  It may be possible to determine their shapes, their distances, their sizes and their motions, but by no means we can ever study their chemical compositions or their mineralogical structures, and certainly we can never study the nature of the organisms that live on their surfaces, etc.

Yet at the very time Comte was stating this, astronomers were learning that by studying the spectra given off by celestial bodies, they could indeed learn about the compositions of the stars and planets.

Incandescent IronThere is more to spectra than just pretty colors.  Continuous spectra, as seen in the case of the carbon lamp, are given off by dense, incandescent bodies, like a piece of heated iron.  The proportion of colors depends on temperature—the hotter the iron, the more it radiates light from the blue and violet end of the spectrum verses the red and orange end.  Thus as a dense body’s temperature rises its color changes from glowing dull red, to glowing orange-yellow, then white, and then even blue-white.  Also, the amount of light increases with temperature—a piece of iron that is glowing red hot glows less brightly than if it is glowing orange-yellow.  Stars, and the sun, have the same sort of continuous spectra as incandescent dense objects, and stars also come in colors of red, orange-yellow, white, and blue-white.  This suggests to us that stars and the sun are incandescent dense objects of differing temperatures.

And then there are the line spectra.  These are produced by more gaseous materials.  There is also a Cabinet of Physics video showing some of these.  The pattern of colors given off by differing substances is a spectral “fingerprint” that can be used to identify those substances.  For example, in the Cabinet of Physics video can be seen the spectra for water vapor and argon.

The lines themselves are affected by motion, the presence of magnetic fields, and more, so all sorts of things can be determined about a distant object through its spectrum.  Through the analysis of spectra, astronomers really can determine the compositions and structures of celestial bodies, even though all we have to work with is light!

Of course the web is full of information on spectra.  What is especially cool about the Cabinet of Physics videos is that they show spectroscopy being done with old technology, technology centered around a simple glass prism.  It gives a nineteenth-century flavor to spectroscopy, which is appropriate since spectroscopy was a nineteenth-century invention.  It is valuable for students and members of the general public to see this, because many have very little idea where our technology comes from, and how we know the things we know.  The Cabinet of Physics makes it easier to connect the dots between the early work of Antonius de Dominis and Isaac Newton, and the modern instruments that astronomers currently use to determine the composition of celestial bodies, and might someday use to tell us something about the nature of the organisms that might live on the surfaces of those bodies.

Priests, Deacons, and Religious of Science: Stanley Jaki, OSB – The Priest Who Questioned the Plausibility of a Theory of Everything (TOE)

Fr. Stanley Jaki. Click on the image to read a brief biography proved by Seaton Hall University.

Fr. Stanley Jaki. Click on the image to read a brief biography provided by Seaton Hall University.

Theology measures nothing, while "exact science" deals only with numbers and measurements of material change.  This sentence summarizes the core thesis of much of Fr. Stanley Jaki's approach to faith and science.  Arguing that the proper relationship between faith and science is that each discipline should strictly adhere to their own principles, Fr. Jaki strongly emphasized that the unique focus science has upon the material world makes it impossible to create a "theology-science" or "philosophy-science."  When reading and listening to Fr. Jaki's brilliant reflections, it becomes clear that his detailed critique of matters of faith and science point to the fundamental distinction that science deals with the "how" aspect of creation while philosophy and theology deal with the "why" aspect of creation.

To demonstrate this distinction between faith and science, Fr. Jaki would often share an old story about explaining the properties of electricity.  The story is of a young scientist who gave a factory tour to Lord Kelvin (1824-1907), arguably one of the greatest scientists of his time. The factory created equipment that measured the effects of electricity and was built by Lord Kelvin himself.  Unfortunately, the young man giving the tour was not aware of this fact.  After the young man spoke in great detail of all the equipment the factory made and how these gadgets measured electricity, Lord Kelvin complemented him on the tour, but wanted to ask one last question to his tour guide, "What is electricity?"  When the young man was unable to answer this question, Lord Kelvin consoled him by explaining that both he and Lord Kelvin were equally ignorant of the answer to this question.  The moral of the story is that it is one thing to measure how electricity behaves, but it's a completely different thing to understand what electricity actually is at its essence.  Fr. Jaki would use this story to argue that science and theology should not be combined, but rather they should stay within the parameters that each naturally adhere to.

Fr. Jaki was born on August 17, 1924 in Hungary.  In addition to joining the Benedictine Order, Fr. Jaki's academic background is quite impressive.  He received doctorates from the Pontifical Institute of Sant'Anselmo in theology and from Fordham University in physics under the tutelage of Victor Hess.  Fr. Jaki also completed post-doctoral research in the area of the philosophy of science at Stanford, Berkley, and Princeton.  His accolades are countless, receiving many awards and numerous honorary positions such as being an honorary member of the Pontifical Academy of Science and receiving the Templeton Prize in 1987.  Before his death in 2009 of a heartatack, Fr. Jaki was a Distinguished Professor of Physics at Seaton Hall University.

In regard to his contribution to science, Fr. Jaki is best known for his affirmation of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem in light of modern physic's search for a "Theory of Everything" (TOE).  The theorem is rather complex to explain, but the main thrust is that it affirms that no mathematical theory can be completely self-sufficient and there will always be parts of a mathematical system that are either self-contradictory or unable to be verified.  The significance of this to Fr. Jaki was that it promised a disappointing road ahead for scientists looking for a TOE that would be able to explain a world that is self-sufficient, meaning that its existence has no need of contingency upon a Creator.  Fr. Jaki observed that, in light of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, a complete TOE is impossible.  Here is Fr. Jaki in his own words, talking about Gödel’s incompleteness theorem.

Ideology seems to have played an important role in the resistance by prominent physicists to perhaps the greatest discovery in the history of mathematical logic, or Kurt Gödel’s formulation, in November 1930, of the theorem that any non-trivial set of arithmetic propositions has a built-in incompleteness. The incompleteness consists in the fact no such set can have its proof of consistency within itself. The bearing of that incompleteness on physical theory, which has to be heavily mathematical, should seem obvious. (Stanley Jaki, On a Study About Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem)

Some mistakenly see this theorem as the "death of modern physics."  Rather, for Fr. Jaki, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem is somewhat of a beginning, promising that science will never come to an end of exploration, but will always have new discoveries and advancements to explore.  Stephen Hawking affirmed this sentiment in a presentation he gave on Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem entitled, Gödel and the End of Physics.

Some people will be very disappointed if there is not an ultimate theory that can be formulated as a finite number of principles. I used to belong to that camp, but I have changed my mind. I'm now glad that our search for understanding will never come to an end, and that we will always have the challenge of new discovery. Without it, we would stagnate. Godel’s theorem ensured there would always be a job for mathematicians. I think M theory will do the same for physicists. I'm sure Dirac would have approved. (Final Paragraph of Gödel and the End of Physics.)

This brief reflection on the thought of Fr. Jaki doesn't even scratch the surface of this great priest and scientist.  However, these reflections remind me that an honest assessment of our limitations doesn't bring us to an end of our understanding of God and the world, but it opens us up to new possibilities, promising an endless well of truth to draw water from.  Whether our interests are in faith, science, or both, may we constantly be open to explore truth in our lives, embracing the never-ending pilgrimage that leads us to the God who is the source of all truth.

Below is a list of links to some of Fr. Jaki's writing and a video presentation he gave entitled, "The Mind and Its Now."  Enjoy this brilliant Priest/scientist's writings and may it enrich your understanding of the relationship between faith and science.

Articles by Fr. Stanley Jaki.

Mars Opposition 2016

Orbital mechanics, being what they are, means that objects orbiting closer to their parent body are moving faster than those orbiting further out: Earth being closer to the Sun, orbits faster than Mars. About every 26 months, the Earth will "catch up to and pass by" Mars. The point where the Earth and another planet are closest in their orbits is called an "opposition."

The inner solar system during the 2016 Mars opposition. Credit: NASA Eyes on the Solar SYstem / Bob Trembley

The inner solar system during the 2016 Mars opposition. Credit: NASA Eyes on the Solar System / Bob Trembley

The best time to observe a planet through a telescope is during an opposition - and that's happening RIGHT NOW with Mars (May 22, 2016). Groups and individuals across the globe will be holding public "Mars Vigils." The NASA Night Sky Network has a list of events across the U.S., and Meetup may have listings for your area. I highly encourage everyone on planet Earth to get eyeballs to eyepieces and have a look at the red planet!

NASA released this stunning Hubble image of Mars on May 19, 2016 showing cloud formations near Mars' southern poles, and in mid-latitudes.

Hubble Space Telescope photo of Mars taken on May 12, 2016, nearing opposition. Credits: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), J. Bell (ASU), and M. Wolff (Space Science Institute)

Hubble Space Telescope photo of Mars taken on May 12, 2016. Credits: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), J. Bell (ASU), and M. Wolff (Space Science Institute)

Mars has several active spacecraft in orbit, and a couple active robotic rovers exploring its surface, and one spacecraft is currently on its way there.

Active spacecraft studying Mars.

Active spacecraft studying Mars. Credit: NASA Eyes on the Solar System / Bob Trembley


Mars Trek - Explore Mars' surface: http://mars.nasa.gov/maps/explore-mars-map/fullscreen/
Mars in our Night Sky - NASA: http://mars.nasa.gov/allaboutmars/nightsky/opposition/
Mars Is Ready For Its Close-Up: Red Planet Easy To Spot This Weekend - NPR: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/05/20/478865020/mars-is-ready-for-its-close-up-red-planet-easy-to-spot-this-weekend
Mars at Opposition: See the Red Planet with Your Own Eyes This Weekend - Space.com: http://www.space.com/32938-mars-opposition-visible-naked-eye.html
Mars Oppositions 2012-2027: http://www.nakedeyeplanets.com/mars-oppositions.htm

From the Cabinet of Physics: Seven Mirrors and a Spectrum

Today's video from the Cabinet of Physics illustrates the malleable nature of light.

A bright white light illuminates a screen. The curator's gloved hand inserts a prism into the white beam. On the screen, the former white spot becomes a wide bar of many colors—a spectrum.

An array of seven small mirrors intercepts the spectrum. Each mirror reflects an intensely-colored  spot onto another screen. The mirrors may be adjusted to make their spots overlap, producing new colors. Finally, when all seven different colors overlap, a new spot of white is created.

This simple apparatus taught students how different wavelengths of light could be extracted or recombined to manipulate colors. Computer users observe the same thing every day. If there's anything white on the screen you're looking at, it may well be a combination of light from an array of tiny single-color light sources, such as light-emitting diodes or the phosphor dots of a cathode-ray tube. (Or not, depending on the technology used in your display.)

So the recombination of light taught by the Seven Mirrors is a ubiquitous phenomenon in today's screen-filled world.

The Foundation for Science and Technics, or Fondazione Scienza e Tecnica, of Florence, Italy, has made available many videos exploring the Cabinet of Physics, a large collection of antique scientific demonstration instruments.  The Foundation's homepage may be found here, and its Youtube channel, florencefst, here.

Across the Universe: Maverick Genius

This column first appeared in The Tablet in May, 2011

This spring [2011], the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) celebrates its 150th anniversary. A breathless article in the Guardian reporting on the celebrations describes MIT as a place of “maverick genius,” contrasting its educational style combining theory and practice against the more stuffy Latin-and-Greek classical schooling found just up the river at Harvard.

What MIT maverick geniuses looked like in 1974, I'm the one without the beard; with me is my roommate Paul Mailman

What MIT maverick geniuses looked like in 1974. I'm the one without the beard; with me is my roommate Paul Mailman. Credit my parents for taking, and holding onto, this photo. (Even my family can't recognize me here!)

Forty [now 45!] years ago, I was a student at MIT. Thirty years ago, I taught there. Recently I visited it again with fellow graduates whose son is now a student there himself. It’s still the wonderful place I remember. And it is fun to pretend that we somehow live up to the status of “maverick geniuses.”

It’s not true, of course. For one thing, there is nothing inherently preferable to practical knowledge over classical. When I taught physics, I regularly saw that my best students were often those who had in fact also studied Latin or Greek; I myself did classics, not science, in high school. And for that matter, Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) both went to Harvard, not MIT.

The fact is, we all need to learn how to at least appreciate both worlds. And we appreciate those in both worlds, who can. We’ve seen how embarrassing it is when scientists publicly (as happens in the Guardian) display their ignorance of philosophy, or when religious people misunderstand evolution.

But more importantly, science is not something done by mavericks. It is a social activity that only advances as a community.

The figure of the lone genius is a common cliché, of course. One theory dates this back to the way Einstein was popularized in the press during the 1920’s with the same vocabulary used for film stars or sports heros. (The press conference announcing Eddington’s 1919 observations supporting the Theory of Relativity was covered by a sports writer for the New York Times who happened to be in London for a golf tournament.) But even Einstein was no Einstein, at least not the Einstein of the popular imagination.

The real benefit of an MIT is not the education you get in its classrooms. That’s no different from Nairobi to Nagasaki; I’ve taught physics on three continents, and we all used the same textbooks. What makes tech-friendly schools like MIT special is the community that grows there.

These are places where students can feel comfortable enough to follow their curiosity without fighting negative social pressures. They can be inspired by role models, both professors and fellow students. The sociologist Harriet Zuckerman, cited in Nicholas Russell’s recent book Communicating Science, has suggested that what such a setting provides is not any specific technical know-how, but (in Russell’s words) “socialization into the cultural conventions of elite science.”

The stereotype of the antisocial nerd is deeply flawed, but there’s a kernel of truth to it. An essential role for an institution like MIT is to provide the place and space where science and engineering students can learn how to interact socially. They need it. Unlike philosophy or novel-writing, science and engineering is a vocation that is done in teams, not alone.

It’s a familiar pattern. Consider how the Church grew in the first century, as described this season in our daily readings from Acts. Yes, Paul’s genius was of inestimable value. But if Paul had stayed home making tents in Tarsus then someone else, maybe Apollo or Cephas, would have done the job. The Church was not Paul, it was the folks in Corinth and Ephesus and Antioch. Paul wrote the letters; but they practiced what he preached, and passed his words on to future generations. We hardly know the names of the people in those communities. They were never called “maverick geniuses” in the Guardian. But they were satisfied to call each other Christians.

Also in Across the Universe

  1. Across the Universe: What’s in a Name?
  2. Across the Universe: Fools from the East
  3. Across the Universe: Hunches
  4. Across the Universe: Desert or a dessert?
  5. Across the Universe: Stardust messages
  6. Across the Universe: The best way to travel
  7. Across the Universe: Original Proof
  8. Across the Universe: Pearls among Swine
  9. Across the Universe: One Fix Leads to Another
  10. Across the Universe: Limits to Understanding
  11. Across the Universe: Words, Words, Worlds: Have We Found Planet X?
  12. Across the Universe: The Glory of a Giant
  13. Across the Universe: Fire and Ice
  14. Across the Universe: Science as Story
  15. Across the Universe: Recognition
  16. Across the Universe: Tending Towards Paganism
  17. Across the Universe: The Ethics of Extraterrestrials
  18. Across the Universe: Orbiting a New Sun
  19. Across the Universe: Seeing the Light
  20. Across the Universe: DIY Religion
  21. Across the Universe: Truth, Beauty, and a Good Lawyer
  22. Across the Universe: Techie Dreams
  23. Across the Universe: By Paper, to the Stars
  24. Across the Universe: Transit of Venus
  25. Across the Universe: Ordinary Time
  26. Across the Universe: Deep Impact
  27. Across the Universe: New Worlds
  28. Across the Universe: Tom Swift and his Helium Pycnometer
  29. Across the Universe: Tradition… and Pluto
  30. Across the Universe: Bucks or Buck Rogers?
  31. Across the Universe: Key to the Sea and Sky
  32. Across the Universe: Off The Beach
  33. Across the Universe: All of the Above
  34. From the Tablet: Tales of Earthlings
  35. Across the Universe: Heavenly peace?
  36. Across the Universe: Help My Unbelief
  37. Across the Universe: Stories of Another World
  38. Across the Universe: Planetary Counsels
  39. Across the Universe: Words that Change Reality
  40. Across the Universe: New Heavens, New Earth
  41. Across the Universe: Souvenirs from Space
  42. Across the Universe: For the love of the stars…
  43. Across the Universe: Spicy planet stories
  44. Across the Universe: Asking the right questions
  45. Across the Universe: Everything You Know Is Wrong
  46. Across the Universe: Errata
  47. Across the Universe: Clouds of Unknowing
  48. Across the Universe: Being Asked the Right Questions
  49. Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
  50. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
  51. Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
  52. Across the Universe: When Reason Itself Becomes Flesh
  53. Across the Universe: Spinning our Hopes
  54. Across the Universe: Relish the Red Planet
  55. Across the Universe: Obedience
  56. Across the Universe: Traveling Light
  57. Across the Universe: The Still Voice in the Chaos
  58. Across the Universe: Europa
  59. Across the Universe: Defamiliarization
  60. Across the Universe: Forbidden Transitions
  61. Across the Universe: Genre and Truth
  62. Across the Universe: False Economies
  63. Across the Universe: Reflections on a Mirror
  64. Across the Universe: Japan
  65. From the Tablet: Why is Easter So Early This Year?
  66. Across the Universe: Oops!
  67. Across the Universe: Dramatic Science
  68. Across the Universe: Me and My Shadows
  69. Across the Universe: Touch the Sky
  70. Across the Universe: Treasure from Heaven
  71. Across the Universe: Gift of Tongues
  72. Across the Universe: Maverick Genius

View the entire series

From imperfect thermostat to the Milky Way

I had the honor to have lunch with Dr. John Mather today, who won a Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the "seeds" of galaxy formation.

We know there are galaxies today, as stunning pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope reveal. What we do not know is what sparked the first tiny masses to start aggregating into the first galaxies.

Dr. Mather and collaborators made careful measurements of the temperature of deep space at colors too red for us humans to see, the sub-millimeter colors called microwaves. This radiation comes from space itself and not from stars or galaxies, so it is called 'background' radiation. This so called "cosmic microwave background" shines at a temperature of 2.73 degrees above the lowest possible temperature in the universe.

Interestingly, this 2.73 Kelvin temperature holds in all directions of space, assuming you first exclude the known stars and galaxies. What Dr. Mather added to this already remarkable story is to discover that while the temperature is always 2.73 Kelvin, there are small variations at the level of one part in 100,000.

This 'imperfection' in the 'thermostat' may seem like too small a difference to worry about, so that we can push it aside and still marvel at the fact that the whole universe radiates at 2.73 Kelvin. But, in addition to radiation in deep space there is also the mass of protons and dark matter which comprises the ingredients of our Milky Way.

These tiny changes in temperature allow also for tiny changes in the mass, and hence the formation of the first galaxies. So we may owe the existence of galaxies like the Milky Way, and even ourselves, to the imperfect thermostat of the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Now Dr. Mather leads the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) project. The JWST is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope with a launch date in October, 2018!

Appealing to the Infinite: Philips Lansbergen and the Battling Star-Armies of God

In 1629, twenty years after the telescope had first been turned to the heavens, launching an explosion of astronomical discoveries, a prominent supporter of Copernicus had something interesting to say about the stars. And therefore it is clear enough, that the fixed stars… are the visible Armies of God.  Each day he calls them by name, and leads them out by number.  In them he exercises his power.  Indeed they are, as it were, the strongest attendants, the guard of the Palace of God.  They endure the approach of any number of human beings who stumble their way onto the palace grounds, yet they will most gladly open the way, when Our Lord Jesus Christ will appear, in order that he may raise us gloriously to himself, and stand us before the Throne of God.* This description of the stars comes from Considerations on the Daily and Annual Rotation of the Earth by the Dutch Copernican Philips Lansbergen (Philippe van … Continue reading

Active Region 2546

Sketch of sunspot AR 2546 by Deirdre Kelleghan, May 15, 2016 1:25-2:30 UT. Sketch details 40mm PST, FL 400mm, 10mm eyepiece, 40X Pastels and Conte on black card. Bray Co Wicklow Ireland The image of the Sun below was taken at the same time as Deirdre’s sketch by cameras on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), an orbiting space telescope that watches the Sun continuously in multiple frequencies. -RJT AR2546 is very large, and the region has let off several C-class flares. Please Welcome our new Blogger: Deirdre Kelleghan! Deirdre is a well-known amateur astronomer in Ireland. She loves sketching astronomical objects, and doing astronomy outreach with children. -RJT. … Continue reading

Truth, Goodness, and Beauty: Exploring the transcendent through the immanent.

In my last post on God and creation, I ended by sharing three themes that emerge when we look at faith and science: Humility, Pilgrimage, and Fear of the Lord/Awe and Wonder.  In the weeks ahead, I want to flesh out these themes, exploring how they can deepen a healthy dialogue between faith and science. To begin with, I find an interesting parallel between the themes I mentioned earlier and the ascetical themes of truth, goodness, and beauty.  Drawn from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, these themes have been reflected upon in numerous ways throughout the history of philosophy and theology.  In regard to modern theology, two figures, Karl Rahner and Hans Urs Von Balthasar, stand out in their treatment of these categories.  In both cases, Rahner and Balthasar affirm that these categories give us a glimpse into God who is the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.  Therefore, the exploration of these categories in the natural world are a type … Continue reading

Heliocentrism Condemned: 396 Years Ago on May 15

Four centuries ago, on March 5, 1616 the Congregation of the Index “suspended” the publication of De Revolutionibus “until corrected”. It took more than four years for that correction to be issued on May 15, 1620. Here it is in full. As you can see, it is by no means very aggressive: just a few tweaks here and there.  One might as well wonder what was all the fuss about in the first place.  (I shall share my suspicions with you on May 26.) The Fathers of the Holy Congregation of the Index decreed that the writings of the distinguished astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, On the Revolutions of the World, were to be absolutely prohibited, because he does not treat as hypotheses, but advances as completely true, principles about the location and the motion of the terrestrial globe that are repugnant to the true and Catholic interpretation of Holy Scripture; this is hardly to be tolerated in a Christian. Nevertheless, since Coper­nicus’s work contains … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Gift of Tongues

This column first ran in The Tablet in May, 2012 “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” We heard that reading a week ago, celebrating the feast of the Ascension. At least, I think that’s what I heard; [in 2012], it was in Japanese, in the small cathedral in Niigata, during an international meeting on asteroids, comets, and meteors. Why do we astronomers stand about, looking at the sky? We heard a number of reasons. One scientist described Nasa’s ambitions to send astronauts to asteroids passing near the Earth. Their expressed reasons involve science (where do asteroids, and we, come from?); resources (commercial efforts to exploit asteroids); and planetary safety (how do we nudge an asteroid out of a collision path with Earth?). The unspoken motivation is political: astronauts at an asteroid is the kind of project that is both exciting and achievable, a reason for voters to support NASA’s budget. We know right now … Continue reading