Eta Aquariids Meteor Shower 2017
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Eta Aquariids Meteor Shower Radiant. Credit: Stellarium

The Eta Aquariids meteor shower appears strongest when when viewed from the southern tropics. From the equator northward, the shower typically produces only medium rates of 10-30 per hour just before dawn. Meteor activity is good for a week centered the night of peak activity. These meteors travel at a high rate of speed, and produce a good percentage of persistent trains, but few fireballs.

Waxing Gibbous Moon. Credit: Stellarium

Peak: May 6-7th
Active from: April 19th to May 26th
Radiant: 22:32 -1° (see image above)
Hourly Rate: 55
Velocity: 42 miles/sec (swift - 66.9km/sec)
Parent Object: 1P/Halley

The moon will be a waxing gibbous, setting around 4:00 AM.
Source: American Meteor Society

Eta Aquariids Meteor Stream. Credit: Ian Webster.

Meteor. Credit: Creative Commons, CC BY 3.0

Across the Universe: Edge of the World
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This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2015

The guys who made our ALMA trip possible, Fernando Comeron (ESO representative to Chile) and Pierre Cox, ALMA director

At the edge of the world, the top of the world, is a window of our world into the rest of the universe: the telescopes of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile. Nearby are other large observatories at Cerro Tololo, Las Campanas, and the Alma radio array at Chajnantor. These telescopes have shown how the expansion of our universe is accelerating; they’ve explored hundreds of planets around other stars; they’ve traced the motions of stars orbiting a super-massive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

I am visiting [in 2015] here with a half-dozen patrons who support such telescopes (including the Vatican’s own telescope in Arizona). Along with our host, Dr. Fernando Cameron, our small group includes a businessman who sits on the boards of universities; a retired schoolteacher; a NASA engineer… eclectic in background, but joined by a fascination of the bigger universe, and the instruments we’ve built on this remote desert mountain. Last night, after touring the telescopes at La Silla, we did our own small observations with binoculars and a nice amateur telescope to watch the clusters and nebulae only visible from this hemisphere of the Earth.

Eso is more than 50 years old, and some of the original telescopes now look almost quaint in their configuration — massive structures to support relatively small mirrors by today’s standards. The naming of these telescopes is also a lesson in humility; the “New Technology Telescope” is nearly 20 years old. But our tour will continue to even more remote sites in the Atacama desert, with new telescopes under construction whose names will some day also sound quaint: the “European Extremely Large Telescope” is already more than just European, and will doubtless be dwarfed by even larger instruments.

Fr. Picetti, from an article in the Chilean magazine Tell http://www.tell.cl/magazine/6134/laserena/agosto/2012/entrevistas/dios-y-el-universo.html

How do the locals feel about the presence of these expensive European toys in their back garden? Without a doubt, it’s a point of local pride. While we northerners have paid for them, it’s the locals who have built them and who maintain them; indeed, as part of the agreement to put them here, local astronomers are guaranteed a significant amount of time to use them. As a result, the astronomy programs in Chilean universities are magnets for talent from around the world.

Father Juan Bautista Picetti, a Basilian father from Italy, is a perfect example of that local connection. He arrived in Chile in 1955 and since then has served as a priest while teaching science, especially astronomy, in this part of the country. He set up a public observatory outside La Serena, the nearest city to these telescopes, that has inspired thousands of local students, including – but not limited to – many who have gone on to work at these observatories. This past year, an annual Picetti Prize was established by the Cerro Tololo observatory for promotion of astronomy to the public in this part of Chile. The winner gets a telescope to use at their school.

Astronomy is a science that is also an art. It won’t make you rich or powerful in the eyes of the world; it won’t fill your belly, but it feeds your soul – which, after all, requires more than bread. And souls, even in such a remote part of the earth as northern Chile, both need feeding and are capable of feeding the rest of us.

I first heard of Fr. Picetti from a student of his, our local guild, while visiting a small museum in the small town of Vicuña. It’s the birthplace of a certain Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, a poet and educator, who once taught a young Pablo Neruda. Writing under the name of Gabriela Mistral, she herself won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945. Windows to the universe can be found in surprising locations.

Observant readers may recall that I wrote four posts about our trip, published here in 2015...and Katie Steinke published a video about it, here!

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: The Glory of a Giant
  12. Across the Universe: Fire and Ice
  13. Across the Universe: Science as Story
  14. Across the Universe: Recognition
  15. Across the Universe: Tending Towards Paganism
  16. Across the Universe: The Ethics of Extraterrestrials
  17. Across the Universe: Orbiting a New Sun
  18. Across the Universe: Seeing the Light
  19. Across the Universe: DIY Religion
  20. Across the Universe: Truth, Beauty, and a Good Lawyer
  21. Across the Universe: Techie Dreams
  22. Across the Universe: By Paper, to the Stars
  23. Across the Universe: Transit of Venus
  24. Across the Universe: Ordinary Time
  25. Across the Universe: Deep Impact
  26. Across the Universe: New Worlds
  27. Across the Universe: Tom Swift and his Helium Pycnometer
  28. Across the Universe: Tradition… and Pluto
  29. Across the Universe: Bucks or Buck Rogers?
  30. Across the Universe: Key to the Sea and Sky
  31. Across the Universe: Off The Beach
  32. Across the Universe: All of the Above
  33. From the Tablet: Tales of Earthlings
  34. Across the Universe: Heavenly peace?
  35. Across the Universe: Help My Unbelief
  36. Across the Universe: Stories of Another World
  37. Across the Universe: Planetary Counsels
  38. Across the Universe: Words that Change Reality
  39. Across the Universe: New Heavens, New Earth
  40. Across the Universe: Souvenirs from Space
  41. Across the Universe: For the love of the stars…
  42. Across the Universe: Spicy planet stories
  43. Across the Universe: Asking the right questions
  44. Across the Universe: Everything You Know Is Wrong
  45. Across the Universe: Errata
  46. Across the Universe: Clouds of Unknowing
  47. Across the Universe: Being Asked the Right Questions
  48. Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
  49. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
  50. Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
  51. Across the Universe: When Reason Itself Becomes Flesh
  52. Across the Universe: Spinning our Hopes
  53. Across the Universe: Relish the Red Planet
  54. Across the Universe: Obedience
  55. Across the Universe: Traveling Light
  56. Across the Universe: The Still Voice in the Chaos
  57. Across the Universe: Europa
  58. Across the Universe: Defamiliarization
  59. Across the Universe: Forbidden Transitions
  60. Across the Universe: Genre and Truth
  61. Across the Universe: False Economies
  62. Across the Universe: Reflections on a Mirror
  63. Across the Universe: Japan
  64. From the Tablet: Why is Easter So Early This Year?
  65. Across the Universe: Oops!
  66. Across the Universe: Dramatic Science
  67. Across the Universe: Me and My Shadows
  68. Across the Universe: Touch the Sky
  69. Across the Universe: The Eye of the Lynx
  70. Across the Universe: Treasure from Heaven
  71. Across the Universe: Gift of Tongues
  72. Across the Universe: Maverick Genius
  73. Across the Universe: Awareness
  74. Across the Universe: Friends in high places
  75. Across the Universe: A Moving Experience
  76. Across the Universe: Grain of truth
  77. Across the Universe: Clerical Work
  78. Across the Universe: Teaching new stars
  79. Across the Universe: Science for the Masses
  80. Across the Universe: Changelings
  81. Across the Universe: Three Lunatic Answers
  82. Across the Universe: Dawn of My Belief
  83. Across the Universe: Martian Sunrise
  84. Across the Universe: Under the Southern Cross
  85. Across the Universe: Clouds from Both Sides
  86. Across the Universe: The Year (2011) in Astronomy
  87. Across the Universe: Jabberwocky and the Curious Cat
  88. Across the Universe: Waiting for the Call
  89. From the Tablet: God is dead; long live the eternal God
  90. Across the Universe: Taking the Heat
  91. Across the Universe: Stellar Round Up
  92. Across the Universe: A Damp Kaboom
  93. Across the Universe: Featureless Features
  94. Across the Universe: Confronting Fear and Terror
  95. Across the Universe: Eye Candy
  96. Across the Universe: The New Paganism
  97. Across the Universe: Immigrant Stars
  98. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
  99. Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
  100. Across the Universe: When reason itself becomes flesh
  101. Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
  102. Across the Universe: Awaiting the stars
  103. Across the Universe: Tides in our affairs
  104. Across the Universe: A Piece of the Action
  105. Across the Universe: Forced Perspective
  106. Across the Universe: Touched by Heaven
  107. Across the Universe: View from afar
  108. Across the Universe: What good is God?
  109. Across the Universe: Global warning
  110. From The Tablet: Precisely Strange
  111. Across the Universe: Faith and Expectations
  112. Across the Universe: The Boundaries of the Unknown
  113. Across the Universe: Happy Birthday to Us
  114. Across the Universe: Words, Words, Worlds
  115. Across the Universe: Rocket Science
  116. Across the Universe: Maybe
  117. Across the Universe: Perturbing the Universe
  118. Across the Universe: Edge of the World

View the entire series

Strange Tales of Galileo and Proving: Splitting the Stars
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This is the third in a series of posts on the subject of Galileo and proving the Earth’s motion.  The first post was on how even books for children and travel books state (incorrectly) that Galileo proved that the Earth circles the sun like Copernicus said, and how those books probably make that statement because occasionally even reputable sources do.  The second post was on some strange things about Galileo’s efforts to argue that the tides of the sea were evidence for the Earth’s motion, and how he left out some data when he made his tides argument in his 1632 Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—Ptolemaic and Copernican.

I noted in the second post that in Galileo’s time, telescopic observations were unlikely to prove Earth’s motion.  This was because, prior to the invention of the telescope, Tycho Brahe had proposed a geocentric theory in which the planets circled the sun, while the sun, moon, and stars all circled the Earth.  This theory was mathematically and observationally identical to Copernicus’s heliocentric theory as regards the Earth, sun, moon, and planets.  Like a wind-up toy where one part or another is grabbed and held on to, the “machinery” of both systems was the same: in Brahe’s theory the Earth was held immobile; in Copernicus’s the sun was.  Galileo’s telescopic observations proving Venus circles the sun, for example, proved nothing about Earth’s motion.  Venus circled the sun in both Brahe’s theory with its immobile Earth, and in Copernicus’s theory with its moving Earth.

The Tychonic geocentric (left) and Copernican heliocentric

The Tychonic geocentric (left) and Copernican heliocentric (right) theories.

However, in Copernicus’s theory Earth moved with respect to the stars, whereas in Brahe’s it did not.  You might, therefore, think that observations of the stars could prove one theory over the other.  However, Copernicus had specified that in his theory the stars were so far away that the Earth’s motion was nothing by comparison, and so observing the stars would reveal nothing.

Nevertheless, if you construct a sufficiently sensitive instrument for observing the stars, it must be possible to detect the motion of the Earth with respect to the stars.  Galileo, within the pages of the Dialogue, proposed an idea for just such an extremely sensitive instrument, one that could use the stars to detect Earth’s motion.

His proposed instrument consisted of a pole or beam, a telescope, and a lot of distance.

Imagine, he says, an open plain.  On the north side of the plain is a mountain.  Atop that mountain is a chapel.  Galileo imagines mounting a horizontal beam of wood or some other material above the roof of the chapel.  Then, he says,

I shall seek in the plain that place from which one of the stars of the Big Dipper is hidden by this beam which I have placed, just when the star crosses the meridian.  Or else, if the beam is not large enough to hide the star, I shall find the place from which the disc of the star is seen to be cut in half by the beam—an effect which can be discerned perfectly by means of a fine telescope.

The idea is this: as Earth moves, the star will (when observed under the same conditions at some later date) peek out on one side or the other of the beam, owing to the change of Earth’s position relative to the star.

Galileo consistently reported that telescopes showed stars to be disks measuring 1 to 5 seconds of arc in apparent diameter.  For example, in the Dialogue he writes,

[T]he apparent diameter of a fixed star of the first magnitude is no more than 5 seconds... and the diameter of one of the sixth magnitude measures 50 thirds [5/6 seconds]....

The figures below show a representation of the appearance of a star as seen through a very small telescope such as Galileo’s,* next to simulations of the beam cutting the star in half and revealing Earth’s motion in the manner Galileo envisioned.

Left—a star seen through a telescope of very small aperture. This illustration is from the Treatise on Light by the nineteenth century astronomer John Herschel (son of William Herschel). Center—simulated view of the star supposedly divided in half by Galileo’s distant beam. Right—simulated view showing how, after a period of months, the Earth’s motion relative to the star might cause the position of the beam against the star to change ever so slightly, proving that Earth indeed moves. If, after one year, the star is once again divided in half by the beam, then Earth’s motion around the sun (in which it returns annually to the same place) will be clearly demonstrated.

Left—a star seen through a telescope of very small aperture. This illustration is from the Treatise on Light by the nineteenth century astronomer John Herschel (son of William Herschel). Center—simulated view of the star supposedly divided in half by Galileo’s distant beam. Right—simulated view showing how, after a period of months, the Earth’s motion relative to the star might cause the position of the beam against the star to change ever so slightly, proving that Earth indeed moves. If, after one year, the star is once again divided in half by the beam, then Earth’s motion around the sun (in which it returns annually to the same place) will be clearly demonstrated.

Stars appear very small in a telescope like Galileo’s, so these views (or even smaller views) might better simulate what Galileo was saying would be seen.

Stars appear very small in a telescope like Galileo’s, so these views might better simulate what Galileo was saying would be seen.

A second of arc is small: 1/3600 of a degree.  The moon has an apparent diameter of half of one degree, or 1800 seconds of arc, so the stars and the beam when viewed through the telescope would all be but a tiny fraction of the apparent size of the moon.  Were Galileo’s beam about 10 cm (4 inches) thick, and were he viewing it with his telescope from a spot on the plain about 12 miles (20 kilometers) away, it would have a width of a second or two of arc, and be about the right size to divide a typical star in the way Galileo suggests.  No doubt finding the exact right spot to line everything up and make this idea work would be quite a challenge!  But beyond the challenge of making the idea work, there is something strange in what Galileo has said here.

Unlike Galileo, John Herschel (who lived three centuries later) understood that the appearance of a star in a small telescope is entirely spurious: This is not the body of a star, as Galileo thought, but an artefact of light formed inside the telescope.

Unlike Galileo, John Herschel (who lived three centuries later) understood that the appearance of a star in a small telescope is entirely spurious: This is not the body of a star, as Galileo thought, but an artefact of light formed inside the telescope.

You see, the disk-like appearance of stars that Galileo saw through his telescope was completely spurious.  Telescopes have limitations, brought on by the fact that light is a wave.  They cannot concentrate light waves down into a small enough spot to show a star truly (the scientific term for this issue is diffraction).  Very small telescopes are particularly limited in this regard.  That disk-like appearance of 5 arc seconds in diameter that Galileo writes about is entirely a product of his telescope.  That disk is formed inside the telescope.  It does not exist outside the telescope.  And since it does not exist outside the telescope, it cannot be cut in half by anything outside the telescope.  But Galileo did not know this.

This is, in fact, how astronomers first began to figure out that the star disks were spurious.  They watched the moon pass in front of stars.  They noticed (to their surprise) that the moon did not cut into a star and gradually cover up the star’s disk.  Rather, the moon had no effect on the star at all for a while, and then suddenly the star winked out all at once (when the moon finally covered the true body of the star, which is just a vanishingly small point as measured from Earth).  But at the time of Galileo and the Dialogue, no one had realized this.

So, if the telescopic disk of a star does not exist outside the telescope, and if it cannot be cut in half by some beam placed between the telescope and the star, then Galileo’s reference to cutting a star disk as “an effect which can be discerned perfectly by means of a fine telescope” is strange indeed.  It seems Galileo just made that up.

Galileo’s divided star could never happen!

Galileo’s divided star could never happen!

In science, it is not cool to just make things up!  It is not cool to declare an effect that cannot happen to be perfectly discernable.  In science, it is not supposed to pay to make things up (although I do not know that Galileo was ever called out on this, like he was on the tides question).  It was strange, and un-cool, that Galileo did just that while trying to prove that the Earth moves.

So, Galileo left out data that went against his argument that the tides of the sea show that Earth moves.  And Galileo made stuff up for his argument that certain kinds of star observations could show that Earth moves.  But wait!  There was another scientific no-no that Galileo committed in this area... and that will be the subject of a future post.


*If you have a telescope of your own, you can see this appearance for yourself.  Fashion a cover that blocks the entire aperture of the telescope (construct the cover from thin cardboard, such as a cereal box).  Then cut a clean hole, the size of a small coin like a U.S. dime or a Euro cent, in that cover.  Now use your telescope to look at a star.  Once you have the star centered in the telescope’s field of view, put the cover over the telescope’s aperture, so the only light entering the telescope enters through the coin-sized hole.  You will see stars roughly the way Galileo did.  They will look nice and round, just like in the figures here.

 

Why the Upturn in UFO Sightings?
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A new book serves to document sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) in the past decade. The punch line is that UFO sightings are on the rise.

When I discuss UFOs in my class I feel it is important to point out from the start that we have never found compelling evidence for life outside of Earth in any form. In fact, the term UFO refers simply to an object in the sky for which we do not know what it is. One can imagine that many of us do see UFOs by that description.

The curious part is that when we see one, we do not stop there, but rather tend to jump suddenly to a conclusion such as to say “Oh, I don’t know what that is - that it must be a space ship from another planet that has come to Earth.” Why is that?

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson remind us that there is a human tendency to spring to a conclusion based on very little evidence. Might this be related to a necessary survival skill from the past, such as being able to make a quick recognition of whether the animal before you is dangerous and/or tasty, or if a certain plant may be safely consumed? And might this be related to the same knee-jerk reaction that arises when we see a car pulled off to the side of the road by the police and venture the reason, “Oh, that must be another DUI.” Psychologists call this tendency “argument from ignorance.” Of course if we really cannot tell why a car was pulled off the side of the road, or identify a foreign object in space, then perhaps we should just stop there.

It is interesting to ask what amateur astronomers make of UFOs. After all, they are looking up more often than the average person. It turns out that there are fewer UFO sightings among these space enthusiasts who are more likely to take the sighting of a bright moving object in the sky and cross reference it with the set of known communications satellites (which tend to move east-west), and suspected spy satellites which tend to move north-south). They also are good to identifying sources that “suddenly” appear in the night sky but do not move such as supernovae. Isn’t it curious that this upturn in the number of UFO sightings matches also the timescale over which most adults have engaged in rapid communication by social media applications? Why do you think there is a prevalence for the recording of UFOs in the past decade?

Embracing the need for faith and science: How not to read the story of the “Doubting Thomas”
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This past Sunday was Divine Mercy Sunday. It is a new feast, established by St. John Paul II, to emphasize the need for our world to encounter Christ's mercy. Many parishes held daylong events of prayer and confession, centered on the Divine Mercy devotion established by St. Faustina Kowalska.

Though the feast day is new, the readings of the day are not. Completing the octave of Easter, the Church has long reflected upon Jesus' appearance in the upper room to his disciples on this Sunday. Though the doors of the upper room were locked, the risen Jesus enters the room, presenting to them his wounds and saying, "Peace be with you." It is a powerful passage that, even after almost 14 years of priesthood, brings a moment of pause to the congregation when Christ's words of peace are proclaimed.

The second half of the Gospel presents what many call the story of the "Doubting Thomas." The typical misread of this passage is that the disciples were elated at Jesus' resurrection while Thomas, noticeably absent from Jesus' first visit to the upper room, played the empiricist, demanding hard facts instead of faith to believe in the resurrection. Here is the passage I am speaking of to help us all explore this together.

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve,
was not with them when Jesus came.
So the other disciples said to him, "We have seen the Lord."
But he said to them,
"Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands
and put my finger into the nail marks
and put my hand into his side, I will not believe."

Now a week later his disciples were again inside
and Thomas was with them.
Jesus came, although the doors were locked,
and stood in their midst and said, "Peace be with you."
Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands,
and bring your hand and put it into my side,
and do not be unbelieving, but believe."
Thomas answered and said to him, "My Lord and my God!"
Jesus said to him, "Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed." (John 20:24-29)

At first, it may seem that what I have called a "misread" of this passage might have a great deal of merit. Some may argue that the words of Jesus to Thomas, "'Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed," seem to be a clear belittlement of Thomas' supposed empiricism. However, this is not the case. Instead, what this passage is referencing is a blessing to be given to future generations who did not have the privilege of being present at the resurrection, not a marginalizing of Thomas' desire for physical proof.

The reason I start this post with a brief reflection on Thomas is that it bothers me how some will use this passage to bash science. Too often I have come across oversimplified reflections of how Thomas' doubt reflects the scientism of our world, casting Thomas' doubt as a bad thing. I disagree with this assessment. Instead, I belief that Thomas simply reflects the natural human desire to seek evidence that all of us possess and that this desire is necessary to help us come to truth and prepare our hearts for an encounter with Divine Revelation. Let's explore what I mean.

When reading the resurrection narratives, they need to be read as a whole and not in isolation. Drawing upon St. Augustine, it is dangerous to isolate one passage from Scripture and develop an entire theology around it apart from the rest of the Bible. Therefore, when examining Thomas' approach to the risen Lord, we must also explore how the rest of Jesus' followers received the news of the resurrection.

When we look at how Jesus' followers received the news of the resurrection, one word can summarize their initial reaction: Doubt. Earlier in the same passage we have just explored, Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb, runs back to the disciples, and explains that Jesus' body was taken. Peter and John then run to the tomb to see with their own eyes what it was that Mary had seen. Do these reactions sound like expressions of "blind faith" to you?

I could reference other passages from Scripture as well, but the main point is that all the disciples questioned the first news of the resurrection. Thomas, unfortunately, was simply absent when Jesus appeared in the upper room. If Peter had been gone, we would have the story of the "doubting Peter." Therefore, to cast Thomas as some type of modern empiricist among Jesus' followers is simply a gross exaggeration.

What I find to be more insightful with these passages is that they point to the natural, healthy human tendency to question and want proof. Too often Christianity is cast as the uncritical myth of blind, unintelligent credulity. Yet, when we actually read the Bible, what we find is a critical assessment of the most radical and central claim of the Christian faith: Jesus rose from the dead. If Christianity is a "blind faith," why didn't the story of Mary Magdalene have her rejoice at the empty tomb, blindly presuming that Jesus must have risen from the dead? Why didn't Peter and John just believe that Jesus had risen at the report of the empty tomb? Wouldn't the sprint to inspect the burial cloths seem a bit unnecessary? And if Christianity is a faith of unthinking conformity, why at the end of Gospel of Matthew, with the risen Christ standing right in their midst, do we find that some with him still doubted?

The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. (Matthew 28:16-17)

What we can glean from these passages (along with many others I could have cited) is that the resurrection was first approached from a desire to physically see the risen Lord, but then there was a spiritual ascent required to fully understand what Jesus' mission as Messiah meant for them and the world. The resurrection narratives reaffirm that faith and reason are, in the words of St. John Paul II, the two wings upon which the human soul ascends to God.

What I find consoling about this affirmation of faith and reason is that to help overcome the divide between faith and science, Catholics merely need to embrace our own tradition of accepting science on its own terms. Granted, science cannot speak to everything, given its limited scope and indifference to questions of meaning and purpose. Nevertheless, what the Church teaches is very clear: Catholicism embraces both Natural Reason and Divine Revelation.

What I often think is at the root of many fears from people of faith about science is the aggressive tendency of a small number of atheists who not only reject God, but think that science can become the foundation of all of society. As much as I can celebrate and affirm the "March for Science" that occurred in the United States last week that asked our civic leaders to take seriously the issue of climate change, I was concerned about small pockets of people I heard in interviews speaking of wanting all of our public policies as a county to be based completely on science due to its "objective" nature.

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Recipient of the 2016 Templeton Prize

These comments remind me of a BBC documentary put together by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks entitled, "Science Versus Religion." This documentary concludes with a discussion between Rabbi Sacks and atheist Richard Dawkins. Though there were obvious parts of the interview that I clearly disagree with Dr. Dawkins, there was one reflection that I found profoundly hopeful. When discussing Darwinianism and Social Theory, Dr. Dawkins stated that a naive approach to Darwinianism that thinks the science of Darwin can be the foundation of a society's political thought can lead to a type of Nazism in which the strong in society seek to eliminate the weak, disregarding the poor and vulnerable. Dr. Dawkins provides a powerful summary of his understanding of Darwinian thought and Social Theory that I can easily embrace: I (Richard Dawkins) am a passionate Darwinian when understanding how we got here, but I'm a passionate anti-Darwinian when deciding what type of society we want to live in. [Richard Dawkins, Science Versus Religion, BBC Documentary (minutes 23:00 - 23:25)]

This quote then gave way to one of the healthiest discussions I have heard in some time between a person of faith, Rabbi Sacks, and a hard atheist, Richard Dawkins, when both affirmed that the answer to a bad application of science and a bad application of faith isn't to disregard both faith and science, but to weed out the abuse so that faith and science can work together to explore questions of human rights and dignity in a way that does not see each other as enemy. To apply this to my reflection on our "Doubting Thomas," Thomas' desire for proof is not his weakness, but a natural part of the human exploration of truth. And when the risen Christ stands before him, allowing him to see the evidence he seeks, Divine Revelation allows him to ascend to a deeper understand of Jesus as Messiah affirmed in his words, "My Lord and My God."

For those who are interested, I have provided the BBC Documentary I referenced. Rabbi Sacks has dialogues with three atheist scientists, seeking to find common ground between faith and science. It is an illuminating documentary and I would highly recommend it to anyone regardless if you are a person of faith or not. Enjoy and have a great week!

Across the Universe: Perturbing the Universe
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This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2014

A member of our Vatican Observatory community, Fr. Bill Stoeger, died of cancer last month [2014].

Bill Stoeger: priest, cosmologist, and lover of the fine things that the universe had to offer.

I could say that Bill was both the smartest man and the holiest man I have known; but he would have rejected that characterization out of hand. So I will only say that his goodness and his genius never ceased to move me. He’s the only person I know who could work the mathematics of the Big Bang, and also direct retreats for religious women.

Bill’s religious faith did not control the science he did, but how he did it. For example, more often than not he collaborated with scientists from the developing world – South Africa and Brazil in particular. And he showed a special patience with those members of our scientific community who could be brilliant but eccentric and sometimes hard to deal with.

His scientific output was astonishing. At Cambridge in the 1970s he was student of Sir Martin Rees (later Astronomer Royal) and a classmate of Stephen Hawking. Over the years, like clockwork Bill published two major scientific papers a year on cosmology or relativity. His most recent work was to search for a connection between some of the more esoteric aspects of cosmology theory and actual observations of the structure of our universe as seen in distant galaxies. All told, several hundred papers and theses on cosmology have relied on his published work.

“All of our theories about the origin of the universe assume spherical symmetry; it’s the only way we can handle the math,” I remember him saying. “But the one thing we know for certain about the early universe is that in some important way, it wasn’t precisely symmetric.” His paper, “Proving almost-homogeneity of the universe” written with R. Maartens and George Ellis and published in 1995, was his most-referenced work.

Those tiny differences made the news last month when the BICEP2 telescope in Antarctica announced the detection of polarization in the cosmic microwave background, consistent with gravitational waves propagating during the period of cosmic inflation soon after the Big Bang. Out of those tiny perturbations, eventually galaxies and stars – and we – would arise.

Bill’s work with his colleagues in religious life is not so easy to quantify, but it was just as important. He was in regular demand as a spiritual director and leader of retreats, both in the US and Europe. Connected with this work were the series of books he co-edited on Divine Action in the Universe, published jointly by the Vatican Observatory and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at Berkeley.

He followed the popular career of his classmate, Stephen Hawking, who a few years ago famously proposed that quantum fluctuations in the primordial gravity field might have led to the Big Bang, thus obviating the need for a “creator God.” Bill disagreed. He wrote (in a book chapter that I have cited, many times) that Creatio ex nihilo is not an answer to the question of how things got started at the beginning; Creatio ex nihilo is, instead, the answer to the ultimate question of why reality itself exists, with all its dimensions of space and time, and all its rules for how those dimensions behave. While the Creator gives the physical processes of the universe the power to be what they are, the Creator is not the same thing as those physical processes.

To the secular world the line from life to death is simple, direct, and final. But Bill’s priesthood reflected his faith that, like the Big Bang, reality is slightly more complex than that. The tiny exception of the Resurrection, which we celebrate this Easter season, is that perturbation from which all our future hope arises.

(On the Vatican Observatory Foundation web page we connect to a video featuring Bill talking about limits of science...)

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: The Glory of a Giant
  12. Across the Universe: Fire and Ice
  13. Across the Universe: Science as Story
  14. Across the Universe: Recognition
  15. Across the Universe: Tending Towards Paganism
  16. Across the Universe: The Ethics of Extraterrestrials
  17. Across the Universe: Orbiting a New Sun
  18. Across the Universe: Seeing the Light
  19. Across the Universe: DIY Religion
  20. Across the Universe: Truth, Beauty, and a Good Lawyer
  21. Across the Universe: Techie Dreams
  22. Across the Universe: By Paper, to the Stars
  23. Across the Universe: Transit of Venus
  24. Across the Universe: Ordinary Time
  25. Across the Universe: Deep Impact
  26. Across the Universe: New Worlds
  27. Across the Universe: Tom Swift and his Helium Pycnometer
  28. Across the Universe: Tradition… and Pluto
  29. Across the Universe: Bucks or Buck Rogers?
  30. Across the Universe: Key to the Sea and Sky
  31. Across the Universe: Off The Beach
  32. Across the Universe: All of the Above
  33. From the Tablet: Tales of Earthlings
  34. Across the Universe: Heavenly peace?
  35. Across the Universe: Help My Unbelief
  36. Across the Universe: Stories of Another World
  37. Across the Universe: Planetary Counsels
  38. Across the Universe: Words that Change Reality
  39. Across the Universe: New Heavens, New Earth
  40. Across the Universe: Souvenirs from Space
  41. Across the Universe: For the love of the stars…
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  43. Across the Universe: Asking the right questions
  44. Across the Universe: Everything You Know Is Wrong
  45. Across the Universe: Errata
  46. Across the Universe: Clouds of Unknowing
  47. Across the Universe: Being Asked the Right Questions
  48. Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
  49. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
  50. Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
  51. Across the Universe: When Reason Itself Becomes Flesh
  52. Across the Universe: Spinning our Hopes
  53. Across the Universe: Relish the Red Planet
  54. Across the Universe: Obedience
  55. Across the Universe: Traveling Light
  56. Across the Universe: The Still Voice in the Chaos
  57. Across the Universe: Europa
  58. Across the Universe: Defamiliarization
  59. Across the Universe: Forbidden Transitions
  60. Across the Universe: Genre and Truth
  61. Across the Universe: False Economies
  62. Across the Universe: Reflections on a Mirror
  63. Across the Universe: Japan
  64. From the Tablet: Why is Easter So Early This Year?
  65. Across the Universe: Oops!
  66. Across the Universe: Dramatic Science
  67. Across the Universe: Me and My Shadows
  68. Across the Universe: Touch the Sky
  69. Across the Universe: The Eye of the Lynx
  70. Across the Universe: Treasure from Heaven
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  75. Across the Universe: A Moving Experience
  76. Across the Universe: Grain of truth
  77. Across the Universe: Clerical Work
  78. Across the Universe: Teaching new stars
  79. Across the Universe: Science for the Masses
  80. Across the Universe: Changelings
  81. Across the Universe: Three Lunatic Answers
  82. Across the Universe: Dawn of My Belief
  83. Across the Universe: Martian Sunrise
  84. Across the Universe: Under the Southern Cross
  85. Across the Universe: Clouds from Both Sides
  86. Across the Universe: The Year (2011) in Astronomy
  87. Across the Universe: Jabberwocky and the Curious Cat
  88. Across the Universe: Waiting for the Call
  89. From the Tablet: God is dead; long live the eternal God
  90. Across the Universe: Taking the Heat
  91. Across the Universe: Stellar Round Up
  92. Across the Universe: A Damp Kaboom
  93. Across the Universe: Featureless Features
  94. Across the Universe: Confronting Fear and Terror
  95. Across the Universe: Eye Candy
  96. Across the Universe: The New Paganism
  97. Across the Universe: Immigrant Stars
  98. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
  99. Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
  100. Across the Universe: When reason itself becomes flesh
  101. Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
  102. Across the Universe: Awaiting the stars
  103. Across the Universe: Tides in our affairs
  104. Across the Universe: A Piece of the Action
  105. Across the Universe: Forced Perspective
  106. Across the Universe: Touched by Heaven
  107. Across the Universe: View from afar
  108. Across the Universe: What good is God?
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  111. Across the Universe: Faith and Expectations
  112. Across the Universe: The Boundaries of the Unknown
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  114. Across the Universe: Words, Words, Worlds
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  118. Across the Universe: Edge of the World

View the entire series

Earth Day and Catholicism: What Is A Christian To Do?
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So, how are you going to celebrate Earth Day? If you were to ask me this question about twenty years ago, you probably would have received a dumbfounded look with the simple response, "Why would I celebrate Earth Day?" Like many Americans, I had a rather suspicious attitude toward such celebrations, thinking of them as merely days of political statements and protests against anyone who didn't embrace a 100% "Green" lifestyle. As a devout Catholic, I also struggled with expressions of what I would call an Environmental Spiritualism, treating the Earth as if it were God or another type of deity. In short, Earth Day was not high on my priority list.

In time, however, my attitude began to change toward Earth Day. The beginning of the change occurred when I was in college and started to delve into Catholic Social Teaching (CST). I was surprised to discover that one of the seven themes of CST put forward in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church was to safeguard the environment. As I read through the principles we now label "Care for Creation," I was struck with their common sense approach to the environment that can be summarized with the statement, If we destroy the environment, we ultimately destroy the human person and if we care for creation, we uphold human dignity. These sentiments were reinforced by St. John Paul II in his 1990 World Day of Peace address. The introduction of the address reaffirmed the key points of safeguarding the environment found in the Compendium.

In our day, there is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources and by an progressive decline in the quality of life. The sense of precariousness and insecurity that such a situation engenders is a seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty.

Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past. The public in general as well as political leaders are concerned abut this problem, and experts from a wide range of disciplines are studying its causes. Moreover, a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programmes and initiatives.

Many ethical values, fundamental to the development of a peaceful society, are particularly relevant to the ecological question. The fact that many challenges facing the world today are interdependent confirms the need for carefully coordinated solutions based on a morally coherent world view.

For Christians, such a world view is grounded in religious convictions drawn from Revelation.

As I read more from this "socially conservative pope," I was struck with how St. John Paul II  sounded more "green" than college friends I had who were studying natural resources. One of the healthiest aspects of this exploration was the eroding of what I would call the "false politics" of placing all people in a polemical relationship based on a uniquely American interpretation of the terms conservative and liberal. I was beginning to see that the faith I embraced did not fit into these polemics, but pointed to a third way, a transcendent way that placed the pursuit of truth as the primary goal of the Christian. This pursuit began to awaken in me a deep love for the consistent tapestry of human dignity found in CST and how that dignity calls us to care for creation by recognizing that we are a part of creation.

This understanding of care for creation was reaffirmed by the Pope who followed St. John Paul II's, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Again, the shallowness of political ideology often sought to label Benedict XVI as "even more conservative" than St. John Paul II. The irony was that Benedict XVI was clearly "greener" than St. John Paul II. It didn't take long for Benedict XVI to make a clear statement for the care of creation by installing enough solar panels in the Vatican to power all of Vatican City. This and other actions by the Pope Emeritus gained him the nickname, "The Green Pope." So strong were the statements of St. John Paul II  and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI that Earth Day celebrations began to reflect, in some circles, a deep appreciation and admiration for Catholicism's approach to the environment. To this day, there are few Papal addresses about care for creation that impacts me more than Benedict XVI's World Day of Peace address from 2010.

The Church has a responsibility towards creation, and she considers it her duty to exercise that responsibility in public life, in order to protect earth, water and air as gifts of God the Creator meant for everyone, and above all to save mankind from the danger of self-destruction. The degradation of nature is closely linked to the cultural models shaping human coexistence: consequently, “when ‘human ecology’ is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits”. Young people cannot be asked to respect the environment if they are not helped, within families and society as a whole, to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible; it includes not only the environment but also individual, family and social ethics. Our duties towards the environment flow from our duties towards the person, considered both individually and in relation to others. ~ Benedict XVI, World Day of Peace 2010. Paragraph 12

These and other writings from Pope Emeritus Benedict helped me see that "being green" was not a political slogan or a cultural mantra that will be forgotten in the future. Rather, care for creation was a clear matter of morality, affirming that good conservation and stewardship of the land is essential to upholding human dignity now and in the future. Our current Pope, Pope Francis, has taken this aspect of CST a step further, expanding upon Benedict XVI's development of a human ecology and casting care for creation in the broader sense of integral ecology. Chapter four of Laudato Si' provides the main themes of integral ecology that touches on social, political, economic, global, local, and personal dimensions of how we need to be more attentive to our ecological decisions. Toward the end of chapter four of Laudato Si', Pope Francis provides a clear, practical reflection I have offered in the past for your consideration. The words ring with a meditative tone worth reexamining.

What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? This question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal. When we ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave behind, we think in the first place of its general direction, its meaning and its values. Unless we struggle with these deeper issues, I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results. But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn. ~ Pope Francis, Laudato Si'. Paragraph 160

These and other writings of the Church on Care for Creation have moved me from viewing Earth Day as something to be suspicious of to something for Christians to take seriously, reflecting upon how we are called to care for our common home.

Do I still find expressions of Earth Day that evoke the same discomfort as I experienced 20 years ago?  Yes, I do. However, this discomfort is also met with the sobering call of Scripture and Tradition to take seriously the care of our common home for current and future generations. In light of this, I have decided to start moving toward being "more green" in my life. I still have a lot of work to do to embrace an integral ecology in my personal life, but it's a journey worth taking.

Embracing integral ecology also points to an implicit ecumenism, realizing that environmental decisions, good and bad, impact all people regardless of race, gender, country of origin, or state of life. This recognition of the universal impact of our ecological decisions upon humanity allows Earth Day to be a time that we can bring the diversity of religious, political, and social thought found in our world into dialogue with one another, seeking common themes we can mutually embrace. In the United States, one of the mystic voices about God and creation through the experience of the National Park system is John Muir. To conclude this reflection, I offer this passage from his work, The Yosemite, for your enjoyment. Happy Earth Day!

The making of gardens and parks goes on with civilization all over the world, and they increase both in size and number as their value is recognized. Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike. This natural beauty-hunger is made manifest in the little window-sill gardens of the poor, though perhaps only a geranium slip in a broken cup, as well as in the carefully tended rose and lily gardens of the rich, the thousands of spacious city parks and botanical gardens, and in our magnificent National parks--the Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, etc. -- Nature's sublime wonderlands, the admiration and joy of the world. Nevertheless, like anything else worth while, from the very beginning, however well guarded, they have always been subject to attack by despoiling gainseekers and mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to Senators, eagerly trying to make everything immediately and selfishly commercial, with schemes disguised in smug-smiling philanthropy, industriously, shampiously crying, "Conservation, conservation, panutilization," that man and beast may be fed and the dear Nation made great. Thus long ago a few enterprising merchants utilized the Jerusalem temple as a place of business instead of a place of prayer, changing money, buying and selling cattle and sheep and doves; and earlier still, the first forest reservation, including only one tree, was likewise despoiled. Ever since the establishment of the Yosemite National Park, strife has been going on around its borders and I suppose this will go on as part of the universal battle between right and wrong, however much its boundaries may be shorn, or its wild beauty destroyed. ~ John Muir, The Yosemite. Chapter 16

A Saint, a Medallion, and a Highway
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Travel through far western Indiana in the U.S. (so far western that it is almost Illinois), and you might find yourself passing by Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.  The college was founded by Théodore Guérin (1798–1856, birth name Anne-Thérèse Guérin), a remarkable woman.  She travelled from Europe to the American frontier in 1840, along with Sisters Olympiade Boyer, St. Vincent Ferrer Gagé, Basilide Sénéschal, Mary Xavier Lerée, and Mary Liguori Tiercin.  They arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs, and proceeded to build up an order of nuns and a college (the first institution of higher education for women in Indiana)—all while managing in an alien culture and clashing with the local bishop.  Saint Mother Théodore Guérin was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.  She even has a section of U.S. Highway named after her—part of US 150 near Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College is the “Saint Mother Theodore Guerin Memorial Highway,” so named in 2014 by Indiana Governor Mitch … Continue reading

Rhapsody in Blue – Saturn / Moon Occultation
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On the evening of May 22nd 2007 the beautiful blue sky was host to a first quarter moon. The evening was to bring me one of the most visually rich observations in my drawing odyssey . When I set up my dob I really wasn’t expecting to  catch a glimpse of Saturn in a daylight sky. The software gave me an idea of where the planet was, I scanned the area in the hope of finding it. My task was to see Saturn before it went behind the unlit quarter of the moon. In my first look there it was, the white ringed planet, one billion miles away in space. Saturn was there in my eye, embedded softly in the azure sky moving swiftly toward  the invisible limb of the moon.  Nothing could have prepared me for that  revelation, it was a totally different experience to seeing Saturn in a dark night sky. My drawing paper was hastily endowed in blue … Continue reading

Getting Baby Stars to “Dohsey-doh” Well with Others
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One hundred billion stars whirl about each other and, collectively, around the Galaxy, yet rarely do they ever collide. This is because stars are much more likely to interact with each other the way people do in a square dance: namely, by approaching one’s partner, linking arms while skipping in a full circle ’dosey-doh,’ and then making a retreat. One tries to avoid the full-on collision to preserve the health of one’s partners. Stars interact similarly to well-trained square dancers, by exchanging momentum with the partner star. The two stars approach, describe a circular ‘dosey-doh,’ and then move away. Having said that, every so often two stars find themselves on a path to a direct collision. This event is so unlikely, and so short-lived, that astronomers do not often get the opportunity to see it. One of the best chances to look for such an unfortunate activity is in stellar nurseries called molecular clouds. This is because stars are born … Continue reading

The Milky Way is Lost…
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The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano has published on Easter my article (in Italian) about light pollution, Rome, and the homily of Pope Benedict XVI on Easter of 2012. Here’s the English text I sent them: from Tucson, Arizona: The controversy over Rome’s new LED streetlights has made it into the American press, with articles in both the New York Times and the Smithsonian Online, the publication of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. It was even a topic of discussion among our fellow astronomers here in Tucson, a world center of astronomy and also the headquarters of the International Dark Sky Association.   Light pollution is the bane of all astronomers. When city lights shine up into the skies, it becomes impossible to observe faint galaxies and nebulae. The Specola Vaticana located its modern telescope in Arizona as a direct result of the increasing light pollution around Castel Gandolfo, which by 1980 had made observations from our telescopes there unworkable. And … Continue reading

Lyrids Meteor Shower 2017
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The Lyrids meteor shower is a medium strength shower that typically produces good rates for three nights centered on the maximum. These meteors usually lack persistent trails, but have been known to produce fireballs. This shower is best seen from the northern hemisphere, where the radiant is high in the dawn sky. This shower can be seen from the southern hemisphere, but at a lower rate. Peak: April 21-22nd Active from: April 16th to April 25th Radiant: 18:04 +34° (see image above) Hourly Rate: 18 Velocity: 30 miles/sec (medium – 48.4km/sec) Parent Object: C/1861 G1 (Thatcher) The moon will be a waning crescent, rising shortly before dawn. Source: American Meteor Society … Continue reading