Across the Universe: Hunches

First published in The Tablet in December, 2005 

Every December, along with the Christmas rush and the endless round of holiday parties, planetary astronomers have another deadline facing them: the annual Lunar and Planetary Science conference. The meeting is in March; the deadline for submitting papers is January 10.

It’s challenging enough to write up results on deadline; but harder, is that really you ought to have some results worth writing up. My last month has been a scramble as I try chasing after the faintest wisp of an idea to see if it has enough substance to talk about in front of a thousand highly critical peers.

Lately we’ve been observing Centaurs, objects so named because they’re half comet, half Kuiper Belt Object. Their orbits look like they originated out beyond Neptune and Pluto, but they are now traveling in eccentric paths that intersect the orbits of the major planets and will some day be deflected into the inner solar system, where their ices will boil away into the long streams we call comet tails.

Some of them are seen to get systematically brighter and fainter over a few hours, implying that they are elongated objects showing us a broad side and a narrow side as they spin. But there’s an interesting connection between spin and shape: the spin wants to pull the object into an elongated shape, while gravity acts to counter that pull. And the innate strength of the body resists both. Measuring elongation against spin, you could in theory get some idea of how dense, or how strong, the body is. Actually coming up with real values for strength and density is much messier than I’ve just made it sound, however.

My idea for a paper to submit to this meeting is to talk about some of the asteroids and small moons that we’ve already got shape and density data for: the handful that spacecraft have flown by and imaged, one or two others for which we have indirectly inferred shapes and masses. How does this spin-shape theory actually work for them? That’s meant digging through old papers, finding bits of data for a dozen different bodies, plotting one factor against another, scratching my head, looking for patterns...

I found some patterns. Some of them, I expected; but some patterns are complete surprises, and I can’t see why they should exist. I’ve got one plot where the data points make two lovely parallel lines. Why lines? Why parallel? Why two of them? The trouble is, I only have a dozen or so data points. So this pattern could be pure coincidence. Or it could be hinting at something significant.

Chance, or eureka? I have to decide which it is, now, before I invest any more time and effort into trying to get more data, or to figure out whatever significance this pattern might (or might not) have. My guess today could lead me to a golden opportunity -- or a year’s wasted effort.

I pace the cobblestone streets of Castel Gandolfo trying to make up my mind. And all around me people are celebrating the birth of a Saviour.

It’s easy enough today to say the right words about peace on Earth, and follow the crowds to the manger scene. But 2000 years ago, the shepherds and the magi had only their hunches to follow. Were those really angels singing? Does that star mean something? How did they know? The Wise Men and the fishermen, the prostitute in Judea and the wealthy woman in Macedonia; what stirred them to jump to this new, strange Gospel of confessing and forgiving sin, to follow a baby born in a stable whose teachings got him hung upon a cross?

All of life consists of judgement calls made with inadequate data. Our hunches are shaped by our histories and our knowledge, our fears and hopes. But ultimately they are mysterious... which is only right, as they are what lead us into Mystery itself.

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.

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