An Urgent Plea: Pray for Peru.
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Originally, I had planned this post to be a light-hearted reflection on stargazing in the southern hemisphere. The parish of which I am Pastor, St. Joseph Parish in Menomonie, Wisconsin, took a ten-day mission trip to our Diocesan Orphanage, Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II, in Lurin, Peru. In light of my past mission trips to Casa, I was already mapping out a post for the The Catholic Astronomer before departure. However, events from the trip forced a change of theme. One afternoon, I was offering spiritual direction to a Casa staff volunteer. We were sitting outside underneath the shade of a tree when a low flying helicopter caught our attention. It was so low that it sounded like it was going to land on the orphanage grounds. It was blaring a loud siren while slowly hovering over the city of Lurin. We began to wonder what this warning was about? We had heard earlier of flooding in parts of Peru, but since there was … Continue reading

The Most Recent Chapter on the Hubble Constant
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Astronomers agree that the universe is expanding in all directions, a notion now called the “Hubble expansion” to refer discoverer Mr. Edwin Hubble. A useful analogy to understand the Hubble expansion is to draw dots onto a balloon to represent galaxies in the universe. As you blow up the balloon the dots expand away from each other. While there seems to be no way around a universal Hubble expansion, now there is controversy brewing regarding the exact value for this rate of expansion. What is at stake may be a tiny misunderstanding in how we make the measurements, or may be a signal of new physics. Oh, we all agree now on the approximate answer, that the space between galaxies grows such that for every 3.3 million light years a galaxy moves in distance away from us, the velocity of that distant galaxy becomes 70 km/s faster. Equivalently, in astronomer’s jargon we say that the rate of expansion (H0) equals … Continue reading

Learning from a Flashlight in the Sky
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While many of us are dazzled by the spectacular examples of galaxies each one with its own 10-100 billion stars, some of us choose instead to study the regions between the galaxies. There is a fair amount of hydrogen gas in this “intergalactic medium,” yet this gas typically is too faint to see directly in images. We are able to study this dim gas only by looking at how it affects the light coming from bright objects in the background called quasars. There are a great many bright quasars, or galaxies with extremely bright nuclei, in the universe. These quasars each produce a tremendous amount of light much like the welcome sight of a flashlight on an otherwise dark and deserted hiking trail. Indeed if you were to look at the flashlight of a distant hiker during an evening walk, you may see the flashlight seem to ‘flicker’ not because the battery was running out but rather as a result … Continue reading

When Religion and Science Sought To Save The Black Sea: 1997 Waterborne Symposium
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What would it take to “kill off” an entire sea? In the late 1990’s, those who depend on the Black Sea for food and the stability of their economy wondered if this question had become reality. In the 1980’s, the Black Sea was seen by many as a body of water that could feed the world given its abundance of aquatic life. In the late 1990’s, this bountiful sea was being transformed into a kind of “underwater desert.” Fishermen were coming back with empty nets, promising both economic hardship and social difficulties given the region’s dependence upon the Black Sea for food. This shocking turn of events led world leaders to ask a logical question: What happened to this bountiful body of water? A simple summary of a very complex problem was that the amount of pollutants finding their way into the Black Sea was dramatically increasing. As these pollutants were being introduced, the chemistry of the Black Sea was … Continue reading

Smile Black Hole – You’re on Camera (Part Two)
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Who wouldn’t dream of seeing a black hole up close (but not too close)? In this second article we will take a look at the advances in technology that allow us to view the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. First, we should understand the obstacles. As we are situated in a disk galaxy, there are large numbers of stars situated exactly in between us and the Galaxy’s center. This introduces a kind of ‘light pollution’ in the form of starlight which interferes with our ability to see faint emission emanating from the accretion disk surrounding the black hole. This is analogous to watching a friend holding a piercingly-bright flash light on a dark path. You see the flashlight but not the physical features of your friend who you know must be holding the light. By choosing the color The Milky Way’s central supermassive black hole carefully, we are able to view the black hole at a … Continue reading

Turn Right At The Cow: Stargazing In Wisconsin With My Mother.
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(With Ash Wednesday coming up, my time has been consumed with parish work. Therefore, I will be taking a week off from the summaries of the Waterborne Symposia. If you have been following these posts, we will get back into “Christian Ecology” next week.) A little over a week ago, I had a rare opportunity to run back to the family farm for dinner. I had just come off of a long stretch of funerals at the parish and felt the need to get away, even if it just be for a night. As soon as I got home, my father told me how beautiful the night skies had been. It has been an unusually warm February in Wisconsin, providing crystal clear skies and weather warm enough for some stargazing with no winter gear necessary. After nightfall, my parents asked me if I brought my telescope home? Unfortunately, I had not since I was just looking to rest for the … Continue reading

Smile Black Hole – You’re on Camera!
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Black holes are notoriously difficult to catch on camera. They are completely dark objects that consume unsuspecting objects that get too close.. Just before stars and gas fall into black holes they spiral around and around as if caught in a whirlpool. They emit a great deal of light as a sort of “last hurrah” as they are torn apart en route within the black hole surface, or event horizon. This light is evidence that a star was recently there. It also means that when black holes are consuming stars they are not entirely black. The dark center is surrounded by a ring of light. That is how the story goes, anyway. We are quite (but not completely) sure that black holes exist. There is a great deal of circumstantial evidence to support this mathematical solution first proposed by Karl Schwarzschild in the early 20th century. One detail missing is that we have never actually seen one. We need verification. … Continue reading

Giant Elliptical Galaxies
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Our own Milky Way is huge at 100,000 light years across, yet is dwarfed by the so-called giant elliptical galaxy which can be up to ten times its size. Giant ellipticals are the biggest galaxy type of them all. Curiously, giant ellipticals are always situated in the denser regions of space. They are framed by up to hundreds of other galaxies. Each one of these other galaxies has its own 10-100 billion stars replete also with star forming gas and a supermassive black hole. As the giant elliptical is so massive and thus has stronger gravity, these other smaller galaxies fall in toward the giant elliptical. Like some bad science fiction movie about a “blob,” the giant elliptical has a chance to grow by cannibalizing its smaller galaxy neighbors. The giant elliptical tears apart each nearby galaxy, separating out the stars from the gas, the dense nucleus, and the supermassive black hole. Interestingly, the supermassive black hole is thought to … Continue reading

The Book of Revelation and the Environment: 1995 Waterborne Symposium – Aegean Sea
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I had never thought of the Book of Revelation as containing an ecological message until recently. In my childhood, I fell into the trap that most do of seeing the gloom and doom of Revelation in a way that literally scared the “Hell” out of me. In my college years, I revisited the Book of Revelation through the lens of it being a book of hope for the early Christians under the persecution of Nero. In seminary, there was a push to approach Revelation from a liturgical perspective, seeing in its mystic and symbolic language a type of “code” the author used to communicate a mystical experience of celebrating the Eucharist. Recently, I have discovered a new approach to Revelation as being profoundly connected to the environment, arguing that when we are not in right relationship with God the impact is not only personal, but global. This vision of Revelation containing a commentary on our environment was a central theme … Continue reading

Just How “Green” Is Christianity? Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of Patriarch Bartholomew
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A lesson quickly learned when studying theology is that the terms liberal and conservative are of little to no help. In a culture that demonizes such labels, there can be a deep desire to find a different language that transcends the volatility of these terms. Traditionally, theologians will use the terms Orthodoxy (correct belief) and Orthopraxy (the proper practice and application of our belief). When the terms liberal and conservative are removed in favor of Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy, one quickly finds that authentic Christian belief is a fascinating weave, providing a beautiful tapestry of the world that fails to fit nicely into a cultural ideology, limited by political designations. One of the clearest examples of this transcendent tapestry is ecology and care for creation. As a priest for the Catholic Church that is pro-life, pro-family, pro-personal responsibility, and pro-subsidiarity, many find it contradictory for Catholics to also be pro-immigration, pro-workers rights, pro-solidarity, pro-preferential option for the poor, and pro-ecology. An example … Continue reading

A Milky Way “Seed” Discovered?
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It is well known that our Milky Way galaxy has a spiral shape. Perhaps it is less well-known that the Milky Way is surrounded by about 150 dense star clusters. To picture this better, if we imagine that a beehive is the Milky Way galaxy, then the bees orbiting the beehive in all directions would be the dense star clusters. It was in the year 1919 that Harlow Shapley counted these star clusters, also known as globular clusters. Interestingly, he found that there were about twice as many stars in one direction compared to the anti-direction, from which he inferred that the Sun + Earth system lies about two-thirds of the way out from the center. This resulted in a shift in our philosophical outlook, for with this one exercise humans were humbled out of their assumed ‘central’ placement in our own galaxy. A new use for globular clusters is discussed in this week’s issue of Nature magazine. In this … Continue reading

From the Cabinet of Physics: Better and Better Spectra
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In the past, I remarked on the Cabinet of Physics demonstration using a single-prism spectroscope to view the continuous spectrum of a hot carbon-arc light source. Christoper Graney compared this demonstration video to another where a spectroscope reveals “emission lines” in gases heated by electrical discharges. In today’s demonstration, we examine an improved spectroscope, comparing it to the single-prism spectroscope we have seen before. As the nineteenth century marched on, instrument-makers developed devices more precise and easier to use. Here we have a specially-shaped prism, mounted on a turntable, which gives greater dispersion to the incoming light and “stretches out” the spectrum, so that it is possible to see more detail. In the eyepiece of the older spectroscope, the entire spectrum of light from a copper arc is visible: a continuous glow from the heated vapor, punctuated with the bright emission lines characteristic of copper. The fancier instrument dispays only a portion of the spectrum. As the user turns a … Continue reading