Musings From a 7th Grade Biology Class
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When people ask me what I do for a living I generally respond:  For the past 16 years I have been teaching science to the hormonally impaired. Here in the United States that means teaching sixth through eighth grade, i.e., my students range from 10 to 14 years old.  These students are either entering the fun age of puberty, or are in the complete throws of hormonal impairment , which means they have other things on their mind besides studying. About this time of year I usually enter into the biology phase of science with my 7th graders; and inevitably, the introduction of cells leads to a discussion of evolution and God. I teach in a small town in southeast Michigan called New Haven. The religious base of this town is either Baptist or Lutheran, along with some Catholics and various other religions. When I bring up that prokaryotic cells eventually evolved into eukaryotic cells (single-celled organisms into complex multi-celled … Continue reading

Monsignor Bouchet’s Telescope
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Astronomy pops up in unexpected places.  Consider, for example, this fantastic old refracting telescope: This telescope has an aperture of roughly 4 inches (10 centimeters).  The tube appears to be brass.  The telescope has a very stout wooden case, visible in the picture above.  The picture below gives another view of the telescope, the case (now open), and an eyepiece for the telescope (lying to the left of the telescope). By now you have probably noticed the telescope’s surroundings, namely the monstrances and crucifix on display in the background.  Why is an old telescope sitting on a table, surrounded by religious articles?  Because this is the telescope of Monsignor Michael Bouchet (1827 to 1903), former vicar-general of the Diocese of Louisville, Kentucky.  It is housed within the Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget Library, which itself is part of the Archdiocesan History Center of Louisville’s Cathedral of the Assumption.  Tim Tomes, a parishioner at the Cathedral who does a lot of work … Continue reading

Meet your bloggers on YouTube!
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  Did you know that the Vatican Observatory Foundation has its own YouTube channel? A number of the films there feature bloggers like Brenda Frye and Father Jim… and we’ve just posted three new videos there! Here’s Brenda talking about Dark Energy and Dark Matter, which we posted about a year ago:   Here’s three new short films: Fr. Jim on Fr. Georges Lemaître, St. Bonaventure, and Fr. Stanley Jaki:     … Continue reading

The Visit of the Astro-Nerds
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Merry Christmas to all!  To mark my first Christmas as a blogger for the Vatican Observatory I must of course write on The Star of Bethlehem.  Consider these verses, from the second chapter of Matthew, that discuss The Star: When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?  We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”  When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, … Continue reading

Across the Universe: When reason itself becomes flesh
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This column was first published in The Tablet in December 2008 “In the beginning was the Word.” So opens the Gospel according to St. John. When I was young they called John’s Chapter 1, verses 1-14, “The Last Gospel.” We heard it repeated so often, at the end of every Mass, that the words went past us without registering. Word as used here is our weak English translation for the Greek logos. Logos carries a great weight of philosophical meaning, from “rational discourse” to the fundamental order of the universe. It is the word from which we get logic. Try substituting “Logic” or “Reason” for “Word” in that Gospel: “In the beginning was Logic. In the beginning was Reason. In the beginning was the fundamental rational basis of the universe…” This is our foundation, of course, for science. Logic and reason were with God from the beginning. God is He who built the universe on them. Indeed, the first verse concludes, “and the Logos was God.” That is one … Continue reading

Copernicus and the “High Seas” (iii)
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My posts from last week and the previous week were both about Copernicus and how he rejected the Two Spheres Theory (TST) regarding the shape of our world—that body we now call Planet Earth.  As discussed in those posts, the TST supposed that the world was composed of two spheres of material: an earthy sphere and a water sphere, with the earthy sphere bulging out from the watery sphere, like in the figure at right. As discussed last week, some people thought that the sphere of waters had been displaced away from the sphere of earthy stuff, with the result being that the oceans were higher than the lands, and this explained springs.  The thing that kept the waters from flowing back over the earth was the action of God. It’s not that seas being higher than the land, or needing to be held back, was a peculiarly Judeo-Christian idea.  According to David Wootton in his 2015 book The Invention … Continue reading

Copernicus and the “High Seas” (ii)
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Last week’s blog post was about Copernicus and how he rejected the Two Spheres Theory (TST) regarding the shape of our world—that body we now call Planet Earth.  As discussed in that post, the TST supposed that the world was composed of two spheres of material: an earthy sphere and a water sphere, with the earthy sphere bulging out from the watery sphere as shown at right. There were a variety of ways by which this was explained.  Copernicus cites one in On the Revolutions—the idea that the earthy sphere has cavities within it, and thus apparently is buoyed by the water sphere.  David Wootton devotes a chapter to the Two Spheres Theory in his 2015 book The Invention of Science,* and notes other ways of explaining the TST.  One of these, he says, was that …the waters have been displaced from their original position, and their sphere now has a centre other than the centre of the universe.  This … Continue reading

Copernicus and the “High Seas” (i)
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Copernicus’s 1543 book On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres is known for its proposition that our world is a planet circling the sun, but it also contains a discussion on the shape of our world, and even a mention of America.  There a story behind this, a story that contains within it a very strange incidence of the intersection of science and religion, one you may have never heard of.  This story will be the basis for the next few blog posts. Within Book 1 of On the Revolutions Copernicus includes two chapters on the shape of our world.  Chapter 2 of Book 1 he entitles “The Earth Too Is Spherical.”  He writes, The earth also is spherical, since it presses upon its center from every direction. Yet it is not immediately recognized as a perfect sphere on account of the great height of the mountains and depth of the valleys…. For a traveler going from any place toward the … Continue reading

Astronomy on the Frontier
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This summer I had the pleasure of visiting the “Jewel of the Wabash”—“Indiana’s First Library” —the Old Cathedral Library of St. Francis Xavier parish in Vincennes, Indiana, within the Diocese of Evansville.  St. Francis Xavier, which dates to 1732,* is the “Old Cathedral” of what was at one time the Diocese of Vincennes.  The library, which dates to 1794, consists in large part of the eight thousand volume collection of the first bishop of Vincennes, Simon Guillaume Gabriel Bruté de Rémur (1779-1839).  Since 1969 almost all these books have resided (thanks to the generosity of the Eli Lilly Endowment, Inc., of Indianapolis) in an underground vault, behind a massive steel safe door that would do a bank proud; but before that they just lived in an old brick building on the parish grounds.  Bruté served as bishop of Vincennes from the establishment of the diocese in 1834, but it took him until 1838 to get his library shipped to the … Continue reading

What do the Kentucky Ark and Soviet Scientists have in common?  Opposition to the Big Bang Theory!
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Last week, in a post about discussing theories like the Big Bang theory with those who hold traditional views of the age of the universe (such as the folks who built the Kentucky Ark), I mentioned how Arthur Eddington and Edwin Hubble expressed opposition to the idea of a finite age to the universe, and how the name “Big Bang” was a derisive joke-name given to it by Fred Hoyle. Guess who else disliked the Big Bang Theory?  Soviet scientists.  Yes, in 1949 Soviet astronomers pledged to fight against the theory of the “widening of the Universe” and declared that, in order to counterbalance this pro-religious “bourgeois” idea …Soviet science must intensify its work on regions beyond our galaxy, to give a materialistic explanation of the red displacement in the spectra of galaxies.* And, during the same time period, members of the Soviet establishment made statements such as Today’s bourgeois science supplies the church and fideism with new arguments… [which] … Continue reading

Adam and the Big Bang
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Noah’s Ark has been re-built, right here in Kentucky.  It just opened to the public this summer.  It is supposed to bring in many tourists who will see something from Genesis on a Kentucky landscape.  The Kentucky Ark will probably generate plenty of the usual discussion of science versus traditional belief systems—that is (from an astronomy perspective), The Big Bang versus Genesis. Some years back in the Communicating Astronomy with the Public Journal, two authors, Martin Griffiths and Carlos F. Oliveira, wrote a contribution to that usual discussion. Their article, “The Big Bang—a Hot Issue in Science Communication,”* portrayed the communication of ideas from science that challenge traditional belief systems as “an ideological war that is worth the fight.”  They said— The Big Bang theory strikes at the heart of human philosophical and cultural meaning, uprooting a secure humanity from a known place in the Universe to one of unimaginable smallness, adrift in the unfathomable sea of space.  This is … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Science for the Masses
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This column first ran in The Tablet in July 2008 [In July 2008], the members of the Vatican Observatory spent a week contemplating our hopes and plans for the future while enjoying the views from an Italian retreat house in the Abruzzi. The highlight of the week was a visit from the then newly-elected Jesuit Father General,  Fr. Adolfo Nicholás. In preparation for the General Congregation that elected him, we had prepared a number of documents suggesting that the Jesuit order take more notice of science and technology, both to answer the kinds of science and religion questions we get asked all the time, and to better minister to the growing number of people (in places like India, never mind the industrialized West) who make their living with computers and other high-tech equipment. It turns out, Fr. Nicholás had read those documents. When he spoke to us, he suggested that a new Jesuit order of studies should be developed that incorporates … Continue reading