Digging up Astronomical Fossils
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Imagine looking up at the night sky. With our own eyes we can see at most a few thousand of the nearest stars to us. Now consider looking through a large telescope with a very large field of view. Through such an instrument millions of objects come into view, with most of these objects being galaxies, not stars. Interestingly, galaxies are not scattered randomly about the sky, as one might expect. Rather, they trace out a structure that looks a bit like a 3D spider web, called by astronomers the “cosmic web.” Fair enough. The story gets more interesting though when we find out that the mean separation between galaxies, equating roughly to the mean separation between the threads of a spider web, was set early on in the universe’s history. When the universe was only about 370,000 years old, various sound waves that traversed its extent were frozen into place by changing physical conditions. Astronomers maintain that events that … Continue reading

The Disappearing Star
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And now for the next trick, we will make a star disappear! Astronomers have just discovered a star in the Galaxy that is losing brightness fast. Although generally stable, a star can and does vary in brightness every so slightly during the adult phase of its lifetime. A star can slowly increase in brightness as it builds up more nuclear fusion products in its stellar center. This happens to all stars. For the Sun this amounts to a 30 percent increase in brightness since it formed 4.5 billion years ago. Eventually, in another 1 billion years, the Sun will be so hot that it will boil away the oceans (but let us not digress). Secondly, many stars brighten and fade on regular timescales of hours to years. These are wee brightness changes amounting to about 0.1 – 1 percent of the total flux on average, with some more extreme cases known especially for the smallest stars. There is one attribute … Continue reading

A Slice of Solar Drawing in h-alpha
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On my 50th birthday my better half gave me a present of a PST 40 (Personal Solar Telescope) with a 40 mm objective. This gift was literally a piece of visual heaven. Since I acquired this fabulous instrument my work with it has always been drawing. Drawing the sun or even drawing features on the sun is without a doubt the biggest challenge in astronomical drawing. Here is the thing, the telescope objective is just 40 mm, the sun as I see it is only about 30 mm of that 40mm to the eye. Using an 8 mm eyepiece gives about a 50X magnification and therefore the best view of the features and action on the disc and on the limb. There is no point whatsoever in drawing something at a diameter of 30 mm unless you provide your viewers with magnifying glasses or the object is a daisy. Therefore I work mostly at dinner plate size, sometimes at side … Continue reading

Environmental Ethics and Ethos. The RSE Symposia on the Adriatic and Baltic Seas.
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One of the newest fields of theology and philosophy is Environmental Ethics. In addition to being new, this field is also one of the more challenging subjects to keep current. The reason for this difficulty is that the rapid growth of technology often outpaces our ability to reflect on a given technology’s moral implications. This lag between the advancement of technology and the moral implications of technology have, at times, allowed for great damage to be done to our environment. This tension between technological advancement and environmental crisis led the members of the Religion, Science, and Environment Symposia (RSE) to organize two events to accomplish two main goals: The development of ethical principles to address ecological issues and the development of an environmental ethos to inspire people to put those ethics into action. Once again, the spiritual leader of these symposia was Patriarch Bartholomew and the locations of the symposia were the Adriatic Sea and the Baltic Sea. The RSE … Continue reading

From the Cabinet of Physics: Reflection and Invisible Waves
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In the 19th century, James Clark Maxwell’s theory explained the inter-relation of electricity and magnetism. It also predicted that electromagnetic waves should exist. In the 1880s Heinrich Hertz worked in the laboratory to produce these waves, and to measure their properties. The Cabinet of Physics can demonstrate experiments similar to some of Hertz’s. The transmitter is a spark gap driven by an induction coil; the receiver includes a Marconi-style coherer (remember the coherer?). The coherer is part of a circuit containing a battery-powered bell. So when waves from the transmitter arrive at the receiver, the coherer transitions from being a bad conductor of electricity into being a good conductor, and we hear the bell ringing. It keeps ringing until a sharp whack returns the coherer to its original state. In today’s video, the curators first use this setup to show that interposing a sheet of copper reflects away the waves from the transmitter. The receiver’s coherer detects nothing, and the … Continue reading

Connecting Religion and Intelligence over 230,000 years
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An archaeological discovery was announced from South Africa this week of new skeletal remains of Homo Naledi. Multiple age-dating techniques indicate that these early hominids lived an estimated 230,000 years ago. It was expected that they would have used their arms and legs much like humans do today, except that these beings would have had a brain only one-third that of modern humans. We refer to the blog from last week to learn how astronomy plays a role in such age measurements. Even so, there is new evidence that these hominids buried their dead deliberately in cave structures. From this behavior, archaeologists infer some level of religious ritual to have been present in their community. One wonders if this might be the first example of religious rituals. Expanding on this idea, one can wonder also by which process did these beings decide to build religious rituals into their lives? Finally one can take a step back and ask if religious … Continue reading

Astronomy Bucket List: Experiencing The Wonder!
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Do you have an astronomy “bucket list?” This past Sunday, I had a wonderful afternoon at the home of one of my parishioners. I took my H-Alpha solar telescope along with me to look at the Sun. As I am getting a little older and my assignments are getting a little more complex, I am finding myself gravitating more to solar observation during the day. Night calls me to go to sleep earlier and earlier as the years roll by. As I was setting up my telescope, I began to see a palpable joy emerge from the family that I was visiting. The father of the family sprang up from his patio chair, displaying the same type of eagerness a child displays on Christmas morning before opening their gifts. Suddenly, he informed me, “Father James, observing a solar flare (or prominence) on the Sun is on my bucket list!” The statement caught me off guard. I have observed solar prominences … Continue reading

How Astronomy Helps Us Learn about the Mastodons
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An exciting discovery was made just this past week in the well-known Cerutti Mastadon site near San Diego, CA. Near to one of the mastodon skeletons was found also large stones that showed tell-tale signs to use as tools by early hominid visitors. What is interesting is not that people lived near San Diego before we called it by that name, but rather that hominids arrived there a full 115,000 years earlier than archaeologists had ever expected. Meanwhile the mastadons, a slightly smaller version of the mammoth, were commonly found in the Americas 130,000 years ago. A natural question to ask is how do we know that this particular mastodon site really is that old? Archaeologists determine ages by measuring the radioactive decay of certain elements like carbon or in this case uranium. Okay, fine, so where does the astronomy part fit in? Well in addition to the sunlight we appreciate so much in springtime, the sun also makes cosmic … Continue reading

Ideology Vs. Environment: What the Danube River can teach us about faith, ecology, politics, and human dignity.
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Continuing our series on the Religion, Science, and Environment (RSE) Symposia organized by the Greek Orthodox Church, today we explore the 1999 symposium on the Danube River. The previous RSE symposium explored the ecological crisis that threatening the Black Sea. One of the main themes of the symposium was how pollution from the Danube River was flowing into the Black Sea, contributing to its denigration. In light of this, it makes sense that the symposium to follow the Black Sea gathering would be held on the blue Danube. The Danube River connects ten countries with a drainage basin that finds its way into a number of other counties. The countries themselves represent some of the most war-torn regions of Europe, originating in Germany and making its way through Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine. These countries, along with the Czech Republic, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, have developed the International Commission for the Protection of the … Continue reading

Why the Upturn in UFO Sightings?
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A new book serves to document sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) in the past decade. The punch line is that UFO sightings are on the rise. When I discuss UFOs in my class I feel it is important to point out from the start that we have never found compelling evidence for life outside of Earth in any form. In fact, the term UFO refers simply to an object in the sky for which we do not know what it is. One can imagine that many of us do see UFOs by that description. The curious part is that when we see one, we do not stop there, but rather tend to jump suddenly to a conclusion such as to say “Oh, I don’t know what that is – that it must be a space ship from another planet that has come to Earth.” Why is that? Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson remind us that there is a human tendency … Continue reading

Embracing the need for faith and science: How not to read the story of the “Doubting Thomas”
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This past Sunday was Divine Mercy Sunday. It is a new feast, established by St. John Paul II, to emphasize the need for our world to encounter Christ’s mercy. Many parishes held daylong events of prayer and confession, centered on the Divine Mercy devotion established by St. Faustina Kowalska. Though the feast day is new, the readings of the day are not. Completing the octave of Easter, the Church has long reflected upon Jesus’ appearance in the upper room to his disciples on this Sunday. Though the doors of the upper room were locked, the risen Jesus enters the room, presenting to them his wounds and saying, “Peace be with you.” It is a powerful passage that, even after almost 14 years of priesthood, brings a moment of pause to the congregation when Christ’s words of peace are proclaimed. The second half of the Gospel presents what many call the story of the “Doubting Thomas.” The typical misread of this … Continue reading

Earth Day and Catholicism: What Is A Christian To Do?
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So, how are you going to celebrate Earth Day? If you were to ask me this question about twenty years ago, you probably would have received a dumbfounded look with the simple response, “Why would I celebrate Earth Day?” Like many Americans, I had a rather suspicious attitude toward such celebrations, thinking of them as merely days of political statements and protests against anyone who didn’t embrace a 100% “Green” lifestyle. As a devout Catholic, I also struggled with expressions of what I would call an Environmental Spiritualism, treating the Earth as if it were God or another type of deity. In short, Earth Day was not high on my priority list. In time, however, my attitude began to change toward Earth Day. The beginning of the change occurred when I was in college and started to delve into Catholic Social Teaching (CST). I was surprised to discover that one of the seven themes of CST put forward in the Compendium … Continue reading