Frye Fire: VATT Damage Assessment on June 27
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I was happy to report a few days ago that the news about the demise of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) in a fire on Sunday June 18 had been exaggerated. The good people at the site informed me that the VATT appeared unharmed but I was still a little uneasy. I knew that there had been a lot of heat and even more smoke. The heat could have damaged the dome. If the dome’s roundness had been compromised, it would have lost its ability to rotate freely. If the smoke had deposited conductive soot on the electronic circuit boards and corrosive tar on the coated optical surfaces, it would have made us expend considerable resources on cleaning, testing, recoating and recommissioning. I feared that months of diligent work lay before us. The only way to restore my peace of mind was to hasten to the VATT and assess the damage. But how?  I made some preliminary arrangements to … Continue reading

VATT Smoked but not Cooked in Frye Fire
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At 12:27 local time on Sunday June 18, Kevin Newton emailed this image from the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) building with the caption, “VATT is in trouble.” The photograph shows a red plume of fire in the direction where the VATT (Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope) ought to be. When I saw it, I was very nervous but I knew that things cannot be quite as bad as the picture suggested. Kevin’s email came to me via the microwave communications tower standing 15ft from the VATT building. ‘If the tower is OK,’ I kept telling myself, ‘then the VATT must be OK, too.’ … Continue reading

Faith and Science: One Stop Shopping!
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We’re pleased to announce the latest outreach project of the Vatican Observatory Foundation: A Faith and Science resource site (click here!) The idea is to have a place where Catholic educators – and educated Catholics – can go to find links to materials all over the web dealing with a variety of topics on the broad issue of Faith and Science. This web site is not complete, of course, and probably never will be… new material is being posted (and being brought to our attention) all the time. In fact, when you go to the site you’ll notice a certain bias towards material that our own members of the Vatican Observatory, past and present, have prepared and posted on-line. Rather than describing it further, I encourage you to go explore the site itself. And if you have comments or suggestions, please let us know. However, there’s one point I do want to make here. Sites like these don’t happen for … Continue reading

Should you (or someone you love) go to MIT?
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Today is “PI” day (written in American style, 3/14…) and MIT is holding a one day fundraiser… In honor of this day, this provides me with an excuse to post something I wrote for my Live Journal account a few years ago and which I get asked about from parents (and grandparents) of prospective students all the time. Of course the MIT I attended was nearly half a century back, but things haven’t changed all that much… Do I recommend MIT? Only if you are a very particular type of student. There is a reason why schools like MIT are so rare: because for most people, it is the wrong school to go to. MIT is not a place to find yourself. Because it is such an intense environment, it can be devastating to anyone who doesn’t already have a strong sense of who they are, and where they want to go. (Mind you, after MIT is finished with you, the person … Continue reading

Five Reasons Why Clickbait Works
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There’s two opposing theories about posting stuff in the week between Christmas and New Years. On the one hand, everyone’s off having a good time and not paying attention to the internet. On the other hand, nobody else is posting anything so you have a better chance than usual of actually being noticed by the folks who do. It’s been a while since I have posted a diary on The Catholic Astronomer about this blog itself, so I am taking these off-days to do so. Since the self-referential title promised five points (I just made up the number five now, I have no idea how many points I’ll have) let me start numbering them. Even though we don’t charge you for reading it, this web site is not free. I pay (a pittance, admittedly) to our bloggers, and that money has to come from someplace. In addition we pay a standing fee to Cyrcle Systems for regular maintenance, etc. Some months … Continue reading

Habemus Papam Neram!
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I am writing to you from Rome with wonderful news — we have a new Father General… the so-called “Black Pope”! As you may have seen in our Fall Newsletter I was elected to attend the 36th General Congregation. More than 200 Jesuits from around the world (including six brothers like myself) gathered in Rome at the beginning of October. Our first task was to choose a new Father General, to replace Fr. Nicholas who has retired due to failing health. It was a fascinating process. We spent the first week discussing in detail the current state of the Church and the Jesuit order (while recovering from jet-lag!). Then this past Monday we entered a four day period called “Murmuratio” — where we all broke off into pairs and discussed, one on one, the possible candidates, their strengths and their weaknesses. In this way I had deep conversations — and got to know very well — probably a quarter of all … Continue reading

A short begging diary…
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I am at Sevenhill, in South Australia, the place where Dan Davis and I observed the southern skies for Turn Left at Orion, and I am about to start eight days of a silent retreat. That means I’ll be off-line for a while. Please take care of the internet while I am gone… In particular, it would be great if you could help take care of one small part of the internet that has become quite dear to me: this blog, The Catholic Astronomer. I’m really proud of the contributors and all they have done for us, and delighted that with your financial help we’re able to pay them. (A pittance, but it’s the principle of the thing.) Where does the money to pay them (and support our other Education and Public Outreach efforts) come from? People like you, as PBS likes to put it. We’ve got a solid cadre of just over 100 people who subscribe at various levels, … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Clouds from Both Sides
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This column first ran in The Tablet in August 2010 Saturday, seventeen hours from California, my friend Dan and I land in Australia. We’re looking forward to a week of observing southern stars, researching our latest book, a guide for amateur astronomers. Brother Ian meets us at the airport and leads us to the Jesuit winery and retreat house at Sevenhill, two hours north of Adelaide. Even jet-lag and a partly cloudy sky can’t stop us from pulling out our telescopes that night and peeking at Rigel Kentaurus, our Sun’s nearest neighbor, and Acrux, the brightest star of the Southern Cross. Both are double stars, first split by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century.  After half an hour, the sky clouds over completely. But not to worry, we have the whole week before us. (A heat wave across North America threatens the lives of the poor and elderly.) Sunday, Ian shows us around the vineyards and the tells us the history of the … Continue reading

Fan Mail Poetry
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I get fan mail now and then; but this one included a poem, which I thought I would share, just for the fun of it! Dr. Will Buckingham is a reader in Writing and Creativity at De Montfort University, in Leicester, England, adjacent to the River Soar. He’s the author of a number of books, both academic and fiction, including children’s books. He included this note: “I was rummaging through some old boxes prior to moving house, and I stumbled across a bunch of notebooks from something like ten years back. Leafing through, I found a short poem that I’d written having seen you talk at the science museum in Birmingham. A few days after the talk, if I remember rightly, I was teaching a writing class, and I was encouraging my students to write sonnets, so I weighed in and produced the attached poem. The title is ‘The Pope’s Astronomer’’. I’m more of a fiction/philosophy writer than a poet, but it … Continue reading

Another meta-posting…
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I’ve just come back from a wonderful week at Notre Dame University’s Institute for Church Life, joining an all-star cast to talk about how science and religion can be taught in Catholic high schools. Naturally I spent no small amount of time bragging about this blog to the assembled high school teachers; I think what we have to offer here may well be the kind of content they’d enjoy seeing and sharing. And I’ve seen a nice upturn in our “hits” this week as a result; welcome! At the moment, we typically get 100 – 250 views a day, and I am delighted that these viewers – you – find our blog worth reading. But I would love to raise that number, by a lot. Surely a thousand or more visits a day ought to be possible? Surely on the internet there must be a thousand people who share our enthusiasm for space and our desire to blend together the science … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Ordinary Time
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This column was first published in The Tablet in June, 2006. The coincidence of the church calendar it mentions is also true this year, 2015… the text has been slightly altered to align it with 2015’s calendar. The work detailed here outlines what I was doing nine years ago. An update appears at the end of the column.) This past weekend marked an unusual event in our recent Church calendar: a Sunday in “Ordinary Time.” What with Lent and the Easter season, and then the special Feasts of the Trinity and the Sacred Heart (celebrated last Friday), Ordinary Time has been rare lately. But I’ve been celebrating “ordinary time” at the Vatican Observatory as well. Unusual for me, I’ve actually been able to manage a month’s uninterrupted work in my laboratory. My airline’s frequent flyer program tells me I’ve flown over 27,000 miles since the last ordinary Sunday before Lent: an observing run at the Keck Telescope in Hawaii, a meeting at … Continue reading

Chile Diary 4: ALMA… and Ceres?
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Our last stop on the Chile trip was San Pedro de Atacama, a hiker’s paradise that now serves as the headquarters for the APEX microwave telescope (a friend of mine was using it while we were there) and the ALMA microwave radio telescope array, located at 16,400 feet (5,000 meters). It’s so high up that you have to be examined by a doctor before they let you visit. Everyone in our group passed the test… except me. (I was on antibiotics, fighting a sinus infection I’d picked up in Denver.) As I result, I don’t have first-hand descriptions… but these are some of the photos that Katie took and shared with us: But along with the telescopes, we also got to visit a couple of the remarkable sites near San Pedro… the El Tatio hot springs and geysers (best seen at sunrise, which meant an early start for us) and the “Valley of the Moon”, a remarkable collection of mountains … Continue reading