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

Across the Universe: Planetary Prejudice
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This column first ran in The Tablet in July 2015 The wonderful excitement about Pluto, visited by the New Horizons spacecraft [July 2015], has resurrected the old issue of defining a “planet”. But why? Most people approaching this question have one clear goal: they want Pluto to be a planet. Once you realize that, you can make your definition clear and simple: “A planet is one of the bodies that I was taught was a planet when I was a child.” Of course, such a definition is useless for any other purposes. The IAU, which defined Pluto and similar bodies as “dwarf planets” back in 2006, needed a definition so it could name such objects and the features on them, to know whose committee and what set of rules will apply. But there’s another aspect to this issue. Fifteen years ago I was involved in a research program studying the Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNO) that orbit alongside Pluto, comparing their shapes … Continue reading

This Post is Heretical! (and best read on long flight)
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This past Spring semester a student in my Astronomy 101 class at Jefferson Community & Technical College here in Louisville asked an interesting question: “Are Star Wars and Star Trek science fiction, or are they fantasy?”  Well, if science fiction requires scientific plausibility, then they are probably fantasy.  Why?  Because they rely on faster-than-light travel.  As best we can tell from the laws of physics, faster-than-light travel and communication are highly problematic from a theoretical perspective.  Moreover, even far slower travel has turned out to be problematic from a practical perspective.  Technology is not advancing in these key areas, and in one way we are significantly retreating.  Technology is endlessly hyped and marketed, so to say such things in today’s culture—or pop culture, if we are thinking of Star Wars and Star Trek—is to speak heresy.  But is it not true? Star Wars and Star Trek are built around an imagined advanced technology that allows for rapid travel and communication … 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

From The Tablet: Big Science, Hurrah!
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This article was first published in The Tablet in July, 2012 “How will the discovery of the Higgs Boson impact the Catholic Scientific Community?” asked one panicked email I received soon after CERN announced its discovery. “How can the new discovery and our belief be reconciled?” So many misconceptions in one email… where to start? Emails like this, not to mention all sorts of press inquiries, came to us at the Vatican Observatory following the announcement by CERN that they had detected a “a new particle in the mass region around 126 GeV… the results are preliminary but dramatic… we know it is a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found.” The press, if not the scientists, immediately jumped on the news, calling it the discovery of the Higgs Boson (something that the CERN press release was careful not to do) which they inevitably referred to as “The God Particle.” Right away, the internet was filled with instant pundits giving opinions … Continue reading

Nibiru, Kepler, and some basics on orbits
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Let’s take another look at Johannes Kepler and at Nibiru, the supposed planet that supposedly will wreak havoc on Earth in October.  This is my second Nibiru post on this blog, the first being a couple of months ago.  As I mentioned then, some people find this Nibiru business to be a lark, or just an example of the worst sort of internet misinformation.  Others take it seriously—or don’t know how they are supposed to be able to know what to believe.  But here at The Catholic Astronomer, Nibiru is a great opportunity to talk about how the solar system works, and about Johannes Kepler, the first astronomer to really figure out how the solar system works. The Washington Post asked “Will the mysterious shadow planet Nibiru obliterate Earth in October?”  They answered “No”, but no one need take their word for it, or anyone else’s.  A person can reason this out for himself or herself, with a little help … Continue reading

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