Across the Universe: Expect Surprises
avatar

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)
avatar

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…
avatar

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
avatar

  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: Rocket Science
avatar

This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2012 “This isn’t rocket science…” It’s a common reproach, heard when we make a simple task too complex. Of course, making a rocket work is not science; it’s engineering. The difference between the two is like the difference between theology and liturgy. Both are important, and each informs the other, but it’s dangerous (in both directions) to substitute the one for the other. Another flaw in the cliché is that it assumes launching a rocket is the height of complexity. In fact, it’s a well-understood piece of engineering. Today’s rockets are marvelous pieces of machinery, and getting it right can indeed be harder than it looks (see the recent failure of North Korea’s attempt). But the basic principles are nothing new. The rockets that lift supplies to the International Space Station today are Soviet designs dating from the cold war, more than half a century old. The issue, as the North Koreans … Continue reading

Punished for Proving
avatar

History of astronomy turns up in unexpected places.  Unfortunately that history is often poorly presented.  Consider this example, found in a children’s book called C is for Ciao: An Italy Alphabet by Elissa D. Grodin and Governor Mario Cuomo: G is for Galileo, punished when he proved that the sun was sitting still and the earth’s the one that moved On the same page is— Until the Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus discovered that the sun is the center of our solar system… people since the second century had thought the sun revolved around the earth. —and— In developing the telescope, Galileo was able to prove that Copernicus’s theory was correct.  This caused a problem with church leaders of the day, who—disrespectful of scientific facts—were offended by the idea that the earth was not the center of the solar system. But Copernicus did not discover that the sun is the center—he hypothesized that it was.  Galileo did not prove that the … Continue reading

On Operas and Stars, Aliens and Refugees
avatar

I was recently in correspondence with Carl Pennypacker at Berkeley. To quote Wikipedia: “Dr. Pennypacker has spent much of his career as a research astrophysicist, receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1978. His principal research was the studying of supernovae and the building of techniques for their automated discovery. With Rich Muller, he co-founded the Berkeley Supernova Search, which later became the Supernova Cosmology Project. He shared the 2007 Gruber Prize in Cosmology and the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for the Supernova Cosmology Project’s discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.” All true. But in addition to that, he has a deep interest in science outreach… and music. When he shared with me a video he’d been involved with (see below) I asked if I could post it here, and if he would give me a few words of introduction. He graciously agreed to both. He writes (edited from a couple of emails): I was part of “The Global Skylight” opera, as part of the IAU’s … Continue reading

The Beer and the Telescope
avatar

During a bout of insomnia Thursday morning, around 2 am, my phone buzzed with an incoming email from the editor of L’Osservatore Romano asking if I could get them an article about the TRAPPIST-1 planets. By noon. Italian time. So I stayed up another hour — I wasn’t getting any sleep anyway — and shipped one off to them by 3 am Tucson time. It ran in the Feb 23 edition… click here for a link. Of course, they translated it into Italian. Here is the original English text that I sent them… they edited it slightly. Last year, a team of astronomers led by Michaël Gillon of the STAR Institute at the University of Liège in Belgium announced the discovery of three planets around a star observed by one of their telescopes, TRAPPIST South. This week they have published new results in the scientific journal Nature that expands the number of planets in this system to seven. Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ, director … Continue reading

From The Tablet: Precisely Strange
avatar

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: Global warning
avatar

  This column first ran in The Tablet in February 2015 My travels started in Boston, hit by a record number of massive snowstorms this winter; yet another blizzard trapped me inside the convention hotel all weekend. During a lull between storms, I was able to catch a flight to California… where the occasional flooding downpour failed to put an end to a five year drought. Climate is not the same as weather, but weather certainly reflects climate. And our climate is in serious trouble. It’s not just the anecdotal bad storm; it’s the sustained change in weather patterns – five years of drought, for example – that is finally getting our attention. One of the most common questions I get asked (just behind baptizing extraterrestrials!) deals with climate change. I give the same answer everywhere; the reaction I get varies wildly with the venue, however. Most of my questioners have already made up their mind that global climate change … Continue reading

Across the Universe: What good is God?
avatar

  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

Across the Universe: Touched by Heaven
avatar

This column first ran in The Tablet in January 2014 On February, 15, 2013 [one year before this column first ran], a twenty-meter chunk of space rock hit the Earth over Chelyabinsk, Siberia. Shining brighter than the sun, its fall was recorded by video cameras as far as 700 km away. Thousands of people in Chelyabinsk ran to their windows to see what that bright light was; a few moments later, the impact’s sonic boom arrived and shattered those windows. More than 1500 people were hurt by flying glass and debris. Seventy kilometers west of Chelyabinsk, an eight meter wide hole was found in the ice of Lake Chebarkul; last summer, a half-ton meteorite was recovered from the lake bottom. It’s not every day that a rock with half a megaton of energy hits the Earth above a major city (a million people live in Chelyabinsk). But near earth asteroids are hardly rare. The Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, keeps … Continue reading