Across the Universe: Song of Praise
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This column first ran in The Tablet in May 2016 When Pope Francis issued his groundbreaking encyclical, Laudato Sì, the Italian publishing house Elledici took the moment to reissue a book written in the 1960s by the Italian scientist Enrico Medi: Canitco di Frate Sole, a meditation on the Franciscan poem that gave Pope Francis his title. At that time, they asked me as the “Pope’s astronomer” to write an introduction for the book. On first anniversary of the Pope’s encyclical, in 2016, I was invited to Medi’s home town of Senigalia, on the Adriatic coast, to celebrate the publication of this book. I’d never heard of Medi; but I discovered that he was the spokesperson of his generation in Italy on faith and science. Reading his words, even with my poor Italian, I can see why. For example, in one chapter Medi begins with our scientific understanding of water as a marvelous molecule, but he arrives at finding in … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Shapes of Things
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This column first ran in The Tablet in May 2015 In May of 2015, the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory of the University of Arizona honored the retirement of Dr. Randy Jokipii, Regent’s Professor of Planetary Sciences… and the man who directed my doctoral dissertation. It’s customary at such events to downplay the scientific work of the honoree, and praise instead the “life lessons” taught. But Randy was not my father, my pastor, or my guru; he taught me physics. I chose to work for him for the simple reason that I thought he was the smartest guy in the department. (I still think so.) His field, cosmic ray physics, was far from what I had done before… or since. That was another attraction: I wanted to be challenged to learn new stuff. I got what I wanted. Under his direction I spent two years applying techniques that he’d invented for tracing cosmic rays in solar system magnetic fields, to the … Continue reading

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

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