The Irish Leviathan: Spending Money on Space Exploration
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This past March, on the way to join the Vatican Observatory’s tour of astronomical sites in Italy, my wife and I visited Birr (Parsonstown) in Ireland.  Birr is home to Birr Castle and its great telescope, the “Leviathan of Parsonstown”—the giant mirror-based “reflector” built by William Parsons, the Earl of Rosse.  The Leviathan was the largest telescope in the world for over seventy years, from its completion in 1845 until 1917.  It was arguably the first modern telescope—the first successful effort to produce a big “Light Bucket” reflecting telescope* that could tease out details about what are today often called “deep sky objects”—the “faint fuzzies” that are galaxies and nebulae and the like.  The Leviathan was bigger than any lens-based “refractor” telescope existing at that time, and bigger than any refractor that ever would be built.  It had (and still has) a mirror of diameter 72 inches, or 6 feet, or 1.8 meters (the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope on Mt. … Continue reading

From the Faith & Science pages: The Louvain Lectures of Robert Bellarmine
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Have you noticed the little ads for the Vatican Observatory Foundation’s “Faith & Science” resource?  This is a collection of articles, videos, book excerpts, selections from this blog, and even whole books that pertain to faith and science.  There are all kinds of interesting things in it, such as a poem of prayer and praise written by James Clerk Maxwell (Maxwell developed the theory of electromagnetic waves—he ranks just behind Newton and Einstein in the Hall of Fame of Science).  And, there are the Louvain Lectures of a young Jesuit named Robert Bellarmine (click here to go to the Louvain Lectures entry on the Faith & Science pages). These lectures were published by the Vatican Observatory in 1984.  They were translated into English from Latin by Ugo Baldini and Fr. George V. Coyne, S. J. (who was Director of the Vatican Observatory at that time).  They are the teaching notes of the young Bellarmine—later to be Cardinal Bellarmine, still later … Continue reading

Get the Moon in your head – Learn from Galileo and Apollo 11
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          Learn from  Galileo – 1610 ‘At conjunction the moon occupies a position between the sun and the earth; it is then illuminated by the sun’s rays on the side which is turned away from the earth. The other hemisphere, which faces the earth, is covered with darkness; hence the moon does not illuminate the surface of the earth at all. Next departing gradually from the sun, the moon comes to be lighted partly upon the side it turns toward us, and its whitish horns, still very thin, illuminate the earth with a faint light. The sun’s illumination of the moon increasing now as the moon approaches first quarter, a reflection of that light to the earth also increases. Soon the splendour on the moon extends to a semicircle, and our nights grow brighter; at length the entire visible face of the moon is irradiated by the suns resplendent rays, and at full moon the whole … Continue reading

Kicking up some more dust – Apollo 11 Memories part 2
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The Apollo 11 Moon landing in July 1969 had a profound effect on my life. It gave me an interest in astronomy and space that has stayed with me ever since. It has inspired my paintings and my outreach education efforts later in life. In September 1969 I went back to school full of anticipation that my teacher would talk about the biggest global event of the summer. For some reason I truly thought, she would tell us more about it and make a big deal of it in class. No, not a word, not a mention, nothing at all. I was beyond disappointed at the time, that has stuck in my craw ever since. Back in 1969, you did not really engage with your teacher, ask questions or bring up issues. You sat at your desk (wooden with an ink well) with 54 other children and absorbed whatever they dished out. My last year in primary school was in … Continue reading

Kicking up some dust – Apollo 11 Memories Part 1
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July 20 1969, I was  12 years old living in a regular suburban house with regular suburban parents. In my family I the eldest of five at the time. As with most families then we had to be in bed at 8 pm on weeknights, maybe 9.30pm at weekend’s school holidays or not that was the way it was. The Moon landing held a big interest for me, I really wanted to see it. Irish TV (Telefis Eireann) were going to cover the story with a special programme. Much to my surprise, the pestering of my parents in just the right way and at just the right time produced a yes. Deirdre was allowed to stay up and see how the story unfolded. Telefis Eireann didn’t start broadcasting until 6 pm in those days, the Moon landing programme started at 9 pm and was presented by Kevin O’Kelly. We had a small black and white TV with a rabbit-ear aerial. … Continue reading

Strange Tales of Galileo and Proving: Telescopic Evidence for Earth’s Immobility through Double Stars
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This is the fourth in a series of posts on the subject of Galileo and proving the Earth’s motion.  This is the year 2017, and 2017 marks the 400th anniversary of the first observation of a double star, made in 1617 by none other than Galileo and his friend the Benedictine Fr. Benedetto Castelli.  Up until our current century, the first observation of a double star had been attributed to the Jesuit Fr. Giovanni Battista Riccioli, but in 2004 Sky & Telescope magazine published an article by Leos Ondra on how Galileo and Castelli were the first to do it (“A New View of Mizar,” July 2004).  Ondra discovered this by going through Galileo’s observing notes.  An extended version of the Sky & Telescope article is available on Ondra’s web page. The double star that Castelli and Galileo observed was Mizar, the star in the bend of the handle of the Big Dipper.  Seen with the naked eye, it appears … Continue reading

Astronomers find Conclusive Evidence for Intelligent Life on Another Planet!
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Have you ever wondered what would happen if major media outlets reported that astronomers had finally found hard scientific evidence that intelligent life exists on another planet? What would be the effect on society? On religion? How would people react? Would we be alarmed, and riot in the streets? Would we all come together and finally have world peace? Would it be the biggest event in human history? Well, wonder no more—it has happened! Surely you have seen the news reported in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other media outlets? You haven’t? Well, it’s not because they didn’t report it! Indeed, the Wall Street Journal stated on the front page that— The most extraordinary development [of the year] has been the proof afforded by the astronomical observations of the year that conscious, intelligent life exists upon the planet Mars. This is from the Wall Street Journal “Review and Outlook—Mars”, December 28, 1907 (Morning Edition), front page. … Continue reading

Astronomical Irish Women
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‘Astronomy is essentially a popular science. The general public has an indefeasible right of access to its lofty halls, which it is all the more important to keep cleared of unnecessary technical impediments’           Agnes Mary Clerke When I was president of the Irish Astronomical Society one of the most interesting guest speakers we had was Dr. Marie Bruck. She was noted for her interest in an Irish astronomer called Agnes Mary Clerke.  Back in 2007 our meeting room in Ely Place Dublin was full to  bursting point.  She delivered an eloquent talk on the centenary of the death of  this unusual lady astronomer. Her erudite presentation finished up to warm applause from all attending. Marie did her doctorate at Edinburgh University and then went on to live and work at  Dunsink Observatory in Dublin in 1950. She met and later married the director of Dunsink, Dr. Hermann Bruck.  After Dublin Marie and her husband moved to … Continue reading

Revealed Through Reason: The Phases of the Jovian Moons
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In 1614 Johann Georg Locher, a student of the Jesuit astronomer Fr. Christoph Scheiner, published a short book called Disquisitiones mathematicae, de controversiis et novitatibus astronomicis—that is, Mathematical Disquisitions, Concerning Astronomical Controversies and Novelties. Among other things, the book discussed the phases of Venus and the satellites of Jupiter, all recently discovered by Galileo using a telescope. Toward the end of the book, Locher engaged in an interesting exercise in astronomical reasoning. He presented to his readers the figure below. And, regarding this figure, he wrote— Vnam hactenus Lunam agnouimus circa terram, quam oculus A in terra positus libere conspexit, modo silentem in B; modo dimidiam in C; alias plenam in D; alias curtatam in E…. At vero, post repertum Oculum Astronomicum, tubum inquam Opticum, plures sese aperuerunt nobis Lunae.   Quarum praecipua videtur esse Venus; ea enim in tubum GH ex I delapsa, oculo A occurrit falcata, dum puncto M Augis opposito vicina agit: & vero in K Auge … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Jesuit Science
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This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2014 [In 2014] Heythrop College celebrated its 400th anniversary. Originally founded in Belgium to educate British Jesuits, it moved back to England during the French Reign of Terror. Located since then at various locations, it finally moved to London in 1970, becoming a part of the University of London in 1971. An anniversary like this calls for a party, of course. On June 19-20, hundreds of scholars gathered at Senate House to reflect on Jesuit scholarship. Among the celebrants were Lord Williams and Jesuit Father General Adolfo Nicholas. I was invited to talk on Jesuit science. [The link above is the recording of my talk, and runs about 55 minutes; in my opinion, it’s more entertaining than this column was!] What has been the particular Jesuit mark on science? One thing that struck me was how entering the Jesuits order gave young men the chance to be a scientist regardless of family … Continue reading

The Earth-Destroying Planet Nibiru! (and Johannes Kepler)
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I wanted to become a theologian; for a long time I was restless:  Now, however, observe how through my effort God is being celebrated through astronomy. —Johannes Kepler in a letter to his former teacher. Will the mysterious shadow planet Nibiru obliterate Earth in October? —from a Washington Post “Morning Mix” headline, January 5, 2017. The question was answered with “No”. You might not think that Johannes Kepler, one of the most influential astronomers in history, and “Nibiru”, the supposed Earth-destroying planet, would share any point of connection.  But they do. Nibiru is a supposed planet that purportedly passes through the solar system periodically, wreaking havoc of one sort or another.  There are various versions of the Nibiru idea.  If you Google Nibiru (something I do not recommend, unless you have a great tolerance for the worst in internet misinformation) you will find there are many Nibiru enthusiasts, but they are not all in agreement on what is supposed to happen.  … Continue reading

Across the Universe: A Thousand Stars are Born
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This column first ran in The Tablet in May 2013 Cygnus OB2 is an association of perhaps a thousand young, massive stars, some of them a hundred times more massive than the Sun and a million times brighter, immersed in a much larger molecular cloud known as Cygnus X. Because it is so close to us (“only” 4700 light years away) we can study Cygnus OB2 in detail, comparing model predictions about the formation of such massive stars with actual observations. These studies might help us understand how such stars are born not only in our galaxy but also in more distant galaxies. But that mass of data can overwhelm our understanding. It’s impossible for any one astronomer to keep track of all the latest developments. And so in May, 2013, we held a workshop at the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo where two dozen scientists could compare notes about this star formation region. “This is a meeting of the blind … Continue reading