Across the Universe: Fast changes
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This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2013 Summer began [in 2013] on Friday morning, 21 June, at 5:14 am GMT…in the northern hemisphere, of course; south of the equator, it’s winter. [The summer solstice 2017 in Northern Hemisphere occurred at 4:24 am GMT on Wednesday, June 21.] This definition is based on the precise orientation of the Earth in its orbit. The Earth is tilted relative to its orbit, and like a gyroscope its spin axis stays pointed in the same direction, year round. In a convenient coincidence for navigators, our north pole is pointed near the star Polaris. Polaris is not directly above the Sun; it’s directly above Earth’s tilted spin axis. In June, the Earth is in the part of its orbit where it’s on one side of the Sun, and Polaris is on the other side. The northern half of the Earth, tilted towards Polaris, is also tilted towards the Sun; that’s why it gets warmer. The … 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

Across the Universe: Ephemeral science
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  This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2016 Over the past thirty years the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo has been hosting a biennial summer school, where we invite young scholars from around the world to spend four weeks with us, exploring in depth some topic in astrophysics. [The 2016] school was centered on water in the solar system and beyond. It’s an area that I’ve worked in since I was a young scholar myself; my master’s thesis, now more than 40 years old, was all about Jupiter and Saturn’s icy moons. All of my work on the topic, of course, is long obsolete. Just four years after I had made my computer models to predict what we’d see at those moons, the Voyager spacecraft actually visited Jupiter and revealed its moons to be worlds far more elaborate than anything I could have proposed. Still, the basic science hasn’t changed; at our school we taught how to use properties like … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Of stars and sheep
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This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2015 ‘Today we can illuminate our cities so brightly that the stars of the sky are no longer visible. Is this not an image of the problems caused by our version of enlightenment? With regard to material things, our knowledge and our technical accomplishments are legion, but what reaches beyond, the things of God and the question of good, we can no longer identify.’ — Pope Benedict XVI At Notre Dame University [in June 2015], Katharine Mahon, a doctoral student in theology, reminded me of this passage from Pope Benedict’s Easter 2012 homily. One of the striking hallmarks of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, was how it was rooted in the theology and writings of his predecessors, like the passage above. Just as our badly-overlit cities blind us to the stars, our desire to wrap ourselves in the soft wool of technology insulates us from the reality of … 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

What time is it? – Musings on time from zero to Webb
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The concept of time on this Earth is a fictitious delusional notion to facilitate human beings to operate collectively and individually. We humans live on this Earth as it is moving through space and time at 18.5 miles per second. The imaginary line through Greenwich in London gives us a vertical starting point for longitude at zero. East away from zero adds positives in time and west away from zero produces negatives from time zero. A straight line south of Ireland reveals that vast areas of Africa and Antarctica share the same time zone as we do. The ancient Egyptians were the first to understand and put to use the concept of a year. The Egyptians kept accurate astronomical records on papyrus scrolls circa 4,500 BC. Through careful astronomical observations they realised that Sirius one of the brightest stars in the sky was visible rising next to the sun every 365 days. Exactly the days the earth takes to orbit … Continue reading

Hymns of Faith and Science
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A few years ago, I gave an astronomy-themed retreat in the UK and among those attending was Trevor Thorn, who among other things writes hymns. He shared a few of his astronomy-themed hymns with me. Now, I’ll be honest, I find most such mash-ups tend to be pretty cringe-worthy. So I was all the more surprised to read his; they were very good… as you can see, on his blog site, The Cross and the Cosmos. (Which also includes a lot of other faith/astronomy themed art.) One particular bunch were written with kids in mind, and they’re quite fun. He’s “test-run” some of his songs with local church schools in Cambridge. Here’s a short video about that effort: … Continue reading

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: Expect Surprises
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This column first ran in The Tablet in May 2014 In a recent [2014!] homily, Pope Francis used a colorful image to describe how the early Church reacted when gentiles approached the apostles and asked to be baptized. Imagine, he suggested, if “a Martian with a big nose and big ears came up and asked for baptism. What would you do?” Naturally, the press decided that the Pope had just endorsed extraterrestrial baptisms. Journalists with access to the internet added a few choice links to similar quotes of mine from years ago. I can’t complain, really. “Would you baptize an extraterrestrial?” is a wonderful starting place to explore the meaning of baptism and redemption. I used the analogy myself in May of 2014, addressing the graduating class of Georgetown University, where my final exhortation was to “be prepared to be surprised.” (Not surprisingly, we have a book with that question as its title, which came out in fall 2014.) But a … 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

The Milky Way is Lost…
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The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano has published on Easter my article (in Italian) about light pollution, Rome, and the homily of Pope Benedict XVI on Easter of 2012. Here’s the English text I sent them: from Tucson, Arizona: The controversy over Rome’s new LED streetlights has made it into the American press, with articles in both the New York Times and the Smithsonian Online, the publication of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. It was even a topic of discussion among our fellow astronomers here in Tucson, a world center of astronomy and also the headquarters of the International Dark Sky Association.   Light pollution is the bane of all astronomers. When city lights shine up into the skies, it becomes impossible to observe faint galaxies and nebulae. The Specola Vaticana located its modern telescope in Arizona as a direct result of the increasing light pollution around Castel Gandolfo, which by 1980 had made observations from our telescopes there unworkable. And … 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