Across the Universe: Clouds of Unknowing


It's not everyone you know who gets their own biography... written for kids!

(This column first appeared in the Tablet in November 2006)

When she first knew me, I was a rabbi; Heidi played drums in the band. It was a production of Fiddler on the Roof at MIT, where I was a lecturer and she a student – in fact, she wound up taking a course from me. Six years later, I had entered the Jesuits and she, with a newly minted PhD, had a job at the Jet Propulsion Lab helping guide the Voyager spacecraft towards Neptune. Then Comet Shoemaker-Levy hit Jupiter, and she was the scientist in charge of the Hubble images of the event...

This past week, Dr. Heidi Hammel was in my classroom again, but this time as a lecturer. This year [2006] finds me at Fordham University, in the Bronx, filling the Loyola Chair for visiting Jesuit scholars. It’s not far from where Dr. Hammel now lives and works. We’d run into each other at a meeting recently, and she had agreed to tell my astronomy class – and me – the latest about her research into Uranus and Neptune, the giant ice planets in the outer solar system.

The Voyager spacecraft had visited Uranus and Neptune some 20 years ago, revealing a fascinating set of moons around each of them; but the planets themselves, to our eyes, had seemed rather bland. Uranus itself was revealed to be so featureless that JPL’s favorite press release photo was just an artistic crescent, snapped after the spacecraft had passed. So it was a great surprise when Heidi had spotted a recent poster on some of the newly discovered moons of Uranus; the planet they were orbiting looked odd.

She asked the moon-hunters about it. They had used the Hubble telescope to image the moons, overexposing Uranus in the process, so they took one more image of Uranus at proper exposure just to add it to their poster. They hadn’t noticed what she noticed: in the fifteen years since Voyager, Uranus had developed clouds so big that even a telescope on Earth could see them.

That started a five year project for her, imaging the Uranian cloudtops with the world’s-largest Keck telescope in Hawaii; with adaptive optics twisting its mirror to counter the twinkling of Earth’s atmosphere, Keck outperforms Hubble and matches all but the closest spacecraft images.

Not only does Uranus now have clouds; a whole new set of brighter clouds have appeared over the southern hemisphere in just the past year. They are changing our thinking about how its atmosphere (and planetary atmospheres in general) behave. Understanding them, may some day help us understand climate change here on Earth. And the clouds are telling us about the planet beneath the clouds, the thick slurry of ice and gas that has never been seen directly.

We’d only seen Uranus close up, with a spacecraft, once. When it appeared boring at that moment, we never gave it another look. We were wrong. Appearances are deceiving, especially if we allow ourselves to be deceived. Uranus was no more a boring, unchanging planet any more than I was really a rabbi; we were fooled by the outfit it happened to be wearing when we first encountered it.

Heidi has seen me many times over the years, mostly in the regular scientist’s uniform of tee-shirt and jeans. This past week, she also saw me in full clerical garb, what I wear when teaching science to undergraduates. As she packed up her computer and briefcase to head back home (and rescue her kids from daycare) I asked her if she was surprised to see me in a clerical collar.

“Oh, no,” she said. “I’m used to it. My mom wears one all the time.”

I never knew; her mother is a Lutheran minister. Even after twenty years, we can still learn new things about old friends.

(The 2011 Special Edition of the magazine Argentus, edited by our friend Steve Sliver, is dedicated to planet Neptune; it includes an interview of Heidi by me.)

Br. Guy Consolmagno

About Br. Guy Consolmagno

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director of the the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and masters' degrees from MIT, and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona; he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989.

At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, observing Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican's 1.8 meter telescope in Arizona, and applying his measure of meteorite physical properties to understanding asteroid origins and structure. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of a number of popular books including Turn Left at Orion (with Dan Davis), and most recently Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? (with Father Paul Mueller, SJ). He also has hosted science programs for BBC Radio 4, been interviewed in numerous documentary films, appeared on The Colbert Report, and for more than ten years he has written a monthly science column for the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Dr. Consolmagno's work has taken him to every continent on Earth; for example, in 1996 he spent six weeks collecting meteorites with a NASA team on the blue ice regions of East Antarctica. He has served on the governing boards of the Meteoritical Society; the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (of which he was chair in 2006-2007); and IAU Commission 16 (Planets and Satellites). In 2000, the small bodies nomenclature committee of the IAU named an asteroid, 4597 Consolmagno, in recognition of his work. In 2014 he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences.

This blog is made possible by contributions from visitors like yourself. PLEASE help by supporting this blog.

Get the VOF Blog via email - free!

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Leave a Reply