Across the Universe: Maybe
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  This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2013 The Kepler Space Telescope, monitoring a hundred thousand stars to catch the faint flickers of light that might indicate the shadows of planets, announced [April 2013] the discovery of a star that may have two super-Earths orbiting within its “Goldilocks zone.” That’s the distance from the star where liquid water should be stable. The idea of a system with two planets that could harbor life brings up all sorts of exciting science-fictional possibilities. Well, maybe. We don’t know for sure yet that either planet really is Earth-like; they could be small gas balls. We don’t know yet if either planet has an atmosphere, much less the sorts of chemicals we associate with life. And after all, our own solar system has two bodies within its Goldilocks zone – Earth and its Moon – but only one has life. For that matter, Mars is close enough to that stable zone … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Words, Words, Worlds
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Originally published in The Tablet in March, 2004 – the first of many columns I wound up writing about the definition of a planet, leading up to the IAU decision about Pluto in 2006. And this is a repeat of a blog entry first published at the Catholic Astronomer three years ago… as I have run out of Tablet columns to publish! On the other side of Neptune live the Trans-Neptunian Objects, or TNOs. They are worlds so faint that to measure their colors, we use a mirror nearly two meters across to gather their light, which we focus into a spot of only a few hundreds of a millimeter, collecting it with an ultra-sensitive electronic chip, over a five-minute time exposure. They move – more than five minutes and the spot turns into a streak. But take enough exposures over a few hours and you can plot their motions against the background stars and galaxies. The TNOs are thought to be the … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Happy Birthday to Us
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This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2016 It has been a month of anniversaries. Exactly four hundred years ago (2016) Galileo first got into hot water with the Church over the Copernican system. Starting with a hearing of the Holy Office on 23 February, the affair stretched across all of spring 1616 including Galileo’s meeting with Cardinal Bellarmine on 26 February, and the formal censure of Copernicus’ work issued on 5 March. Curiously, Galileo’s works were not mentioned at that time. (It wasn’t Galileo’s first run-in with the Church. In 1604 he had been turned in to the Inquisition by his mother, who didn’t like the bad names he’d called her or the fact that he’d skip Mass to spend time with his courtesan girlfriend, later mother to his three children.) By the end of the 19th century, of course, the Church view on astronomy had changed. Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) essentially … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Faith and Expectations
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This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2013, soon after the election of Pope Francis How do I feel about a Pope who is not only a fellow Jesuit, but one who’s studied science (in his case, chemistry) as well? To be honest, I am terrified. For the past twenty years I have lived off the expectations that others have of Jesuits and scientists; now I am going to have to deal with someone who can see past the mystique. Familiarity breeds a certain discomfort. I can only imagine what it’s like for our Observatory’s director, Fr. Funes, who is himself not only a Jesuit and scientist but also from Argentina. [In fact, as it later came out, when José first began the process of entering the Jesuits as a young man, one of the Argentinian Jesuits who interviewed him was a certain Father Bergoglio…] Pope Francis’ chemistry background has not gone unnoticed in the scientific world. A … Continue reading

From The Tablet: Precisely Strange
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This article first ran in The Tablet in February, 2016 At the museum of the history of science in Florence, honoring its famous local son Galileo, one can find a marvelous display of a 17th century high technology peculiar to Italy: fine glasswork. Consider the bubble-free glass that Galileo needed for his telescope lenses, the “Florentine flasks” beloved of chemists, the elaborate thermometers of the “Accademia del Cimento.” Italian glass technology made Italy the birthplace of the scientific revolution.  But a century later, as displayed in another room in this museum, mechanical devices produced in Britain and Germany allowed measurements of our universe to a much higher precision. With such instruments, those nations overtook Italy in the world of modern science. The February 2016 announcement of the observation of gravitational waves demonstrates again how our knowledge of ourselves and our place in the universe is advanced by our ability to measure nature ever more precisely. To detect the tiniest ripple in the space-time continuum, … Continue reading

Across the Universe: What good is God?
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  This column first ran in The Tablet in February 2014 “What Good is God?” was the title of the 2014 Bannan Institute Program at Santa Clara University, the Jesuit school in California’s Silicon Valley. This month they invited me ask: why does science need God? I proposed that the answer is found in a different question. Why do we do science?   What do we hope to achieve when we decide to be a scientist? What counts as success? Tenure, prizes, citations in the literature… are those the ultimate goal of science? And what motivates us personally to choose to do science, instead of going into banking or selling neckties? Maybe it’s the pleasure in finding patterns and solving problems; doing science is like being paid to solve jigsaw puzzles. But is that our ultimate goal? Would we give up tenure for the chance to work on a really fun puzzle? Certainly science is a search for truth. In real life, … Continue reading

One last story about Vera Rubin
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A bit back, I ran a wonderful post by Chris Corbally about the late Vera Rubin. We passed it on to Fr. George Coyne, the emeritus director of the Vatican Observatory, who knew Dr. Rubin very well, as the following story he passed on to us shows… Chris has mentioned Vera’s “doggedness” in the pursuit of data in our search to understand the universe, a pursuit which led Vera to the detection of dark matter. I have experienced personally Vera’s “doggedness.” She was an examiner on my Ph.D. dissertation oral exam at the Georgetown College Observatory. Trying to relax I walked up to the Observatory a bit early and quietly wandered around. What did I find about 30 minutes before my exam but Vera and Father Martin McCarthy busily examining books in a row of the library I had never visited. What’s up? thought I! After they departed, I darted in to find that they were checking out the spectrum … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Tides in our affairs
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  This column first ran in the Tablet in January, 2011 January is the month when novices from my Jesuit province go to a retreat house in Gloucester, Massachusetts, for a month of silent prayer. Surrounded by nature – the tides rolling onto the rocky shoreline, the inevitable winter blizzard – they confront God and themselves. Meanwhile, my nephews are avoiding those same winter storms by visiting their grandparents in Florida, enjoying the tides in the Gulf of Mexico. Surfing is, perhaps, its own form of prayer. The ocean tides are a powerful symbol of God’s presence. Their regular rise and fall makes the whole Earth feel like it’s alive. To the American political commentator, Bill O’Reilly, who strongly identifies himself with his Catholic roots, they are in fact a proof of God. Recently, debating an atheist on his television program, O’Reilly shrugged off his opponent’s arguments by merely observing: “Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You … Continue reading

Endeavour Space Academy
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I cannot remember a time when I haven’t been fascinated with astronomy, the space program, and science fiction. I was a child during the Apollo era, and a young man when the original COSMOS first aired. I cut my teeth on Star Trek, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Larry Niven; Carl Sagan was, and remains to this day, my personal hero. Now that I think about it, I started doing astronomy outreach the moment I got my first cheap telescope in 1968; I showed the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn to the neighbors, and took it with me to summer camp. I had one of those really scary green glass eyepiece solar filters – that got used a lot more than I like to think about! My wife gave me an 8″ Dobsonian telescope for my 40th birthday, that came with a not-scary-at-all solar filter; that telescope has seen a LOT of use in 16 years – so much so, it’s … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Awaiting the stars
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This column first ran in The Tablet in December 2010. We returned to Australia in early December [2010], once more trying to find a clear night or two when we could map the southern sky. After being clouded out in August [see an earlier Tablet column here], nine days straight, we’d gone home without seeing the promised stars. Now we were waiting again, as the weather in Sevenhill stormed around us. Wednesday was the first night we could set up our telescopes without getting rained on. The evening started out promising, but an hour after sunset the clouds rolled in once again. It was just like our experience in August. But this time, with warmer weather than in August, we stayed outdoors and waited. Christmas carols warbled through the small speakers of my cell phone. My colleague sipped his cup of tea. Through cracks in the clouds, slivers of starlight peeped through, tantalizing us with a promise of what lay … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in December 2009 The fall of 2009 found me team-teaching a course called “Dynamic Evolution” at LeMoyne College, a small Jesuit university in Syracuse, New York. The biblical scholar from Leuven, Fr. Jan Lambrecht SJ, concentrated on the world-view of the New Testament in the first half of the course; my task was to bring the students forward through the cosmologies of the middle ages and the scientific revolution, to present day views on space and time: quantum theory and relativity. It’s been an exhausting journey. For many of the undergraduates, the shocking message has been how little we know for certain. After an academic path focused mostly on memorizing “facts” they must now come to the realization that everything they’ve been taught is, if not exactly wrong, then at least woefully incomplete. With everything we learn, we also learn how much more there is to know. Certainly, the world of certainties is an illusion. … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
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This column first ran in The Tablet in December 2007 Job is not a book most people think of for the Christmas season. But there’s an echo of the angels’ Christmas song to the shepherds when God asks Job (in Chapter 38, verse 7) if any human can claim to have been around at the moment of creation, that time “when the morning stars sang together, and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy.” The song of the morning stars is poetry of the highest order. Kepler referred to the motions of the planets among those stars as “the music of the spheres.” In one of my favorite childhood novels, A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle, her young hero actually encounters, in person, the singing spirits of stars. The image reminds us that in its essence, creation is a source of joy; and a lot of fun. What’s it like, I am sometimes asked, to be both a Jesuit brother … Continue reading