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

Getting Baby Stars to “Dohsey-doh” Well with Others
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One hundred billion stars whirl about each other and, collectively, around the Galaxy, yet rarely do they ever collide. This is because stars are much more likely to interact with each other the way people do in a square dance: namely, by approaching one’s partner, linking arms while skipping in a full circle ’dosey-doh,’ and then making a retreat. One tries to avoid the full-on collision to preserve the health of one’s partners. Stars interact similarly to well-trained square dancers, by exchanging momentum with the partner star. The two stars approach, describe a circular ‘dosey-doh,’ and then move away. Having said that, every so often two stars find themselves on a path to a direct collision. This event is so unlikely, and so short-lived, that astronomers do not often get the opportunity to see it. One of the best chances to look for such an unfortunate activity is in stellar nurseries called molecular clouds. This is because stars are born … Continue reading

Punting Black Holes
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As summer approaches, we can see examples of punting in more than just local playing fields. In addition to balls being punted halfway across a field, it looks more and more like 6 billion solar mass black holes can also be punted to vast distances across a galaxy. Now black holes are, as the name implies, completely black. The good news is that they can be spotted anyway for the cases in which the surrounding gas or even stars get too close to the black hole and start funneling onto it. In such cases the black hole can become piercingly bright. In fact the black hole is so bright that there is too much glare to see the fainter galaxy underlying it. Recently, astronomers have found a way to block out this extra glare from the ultra-bright supermassive black hole. Somewhat surprisingly, in a couple of cases a considerable offset is measured in the center of the galaxy compared to … Continue reading

Sketching Eddington Crater with the Grubb refractor at Dunsink Observatory Dublin – a very nice memory
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Last night I was looking up at the moon, it brought back to me a wonderful April evening in 2007 when the phase was exactly the same. That evening was to offer me a great experience in lunar sketching. When I was about fourteen years old I had my first looked through the South Refractor at Dunsink Observatory in Dublin. For months I had pestered my dad to bring me out there, a bit of a long drive in those days, before motorways existed. Jupiter was on view that evening, it was crystal clear. The planet must have been quite high as I could look through the Grubb standing on the floor of the dome. At that time I had my own little white 50 mm Tasco telescope on a short plastic tripod. There was not much to see in it, however the moon always got a look. Since that first planet view at Dunsink I wanted to revisit the … Continue reading

Holy Week: The Tension Between Symbols of Victory, Violence and Peace.
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One of the beautiful aspects of Christianity is its profound use of symbol. During Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, we encounter some of the most powerful symbols of our faith. Yesterday, the Christian world held palm branches, reminding us of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem amid joyful cries of “Hosanna in the Highest!” This procession reminds the Christian of the hope-filled expectation that Jesus was the promised Messiah, seeking to establish a new kingdom for the Children of Israel and the world. The irony of Palm Sunday is that this symbol of victory is quickly met with the ultimate symbol of violence and defeat: the crucifix. This move from Palm Sunday to Passion Sunday in the same liturgy recalls the quick turn from the joyful entry into Jerusalem to the tragic journey of the Way of Cross. This turn also highlights the twofold symbol of the palm branch as both victory and humility, recalling how we were marked at the beginning of Lent with … Continue reading

The Other Feynman
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We have all heard of Rychard Feynman, who was famous for doing fundamental work in the areas of particle physics and in quantum mechanics which led to a Nobel Prize in physics. What is perhaps less well-known is that he also had a sister who was a reknowned physicist. According to an article in Popular Science this month, Dr. Joan Feynman started her career in 1932 when she was 5 years old. At that time she was set to turn switches to help her brother Rychard Feynman do physics experiments in their backyard. As a teenager, she recalls being inspired by reading about the work of Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin in an Astronomy textbook. As Joan put it, “When I came to page 407 it changed my life.” For it was at this time that she realized almost as if in a revelation that women can do science! Joan Feynman graduated from Oberlin College with a B. S. in physics in 1948. … Continue reading

Cosmic Lobster Pot
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I have always visualised Cassini’s journey through the Saturnian system as a kind of orchestrated cosmic dance. Cassini moves silently at great speed in its petal shape overlapping orbits. This precisely executed dance brings Cassini frequently through the icy ring plane north to south and then back again on the opposite side of the planet, south to north. This robot ship continues on its unparalleled odyssey of exploration. On board, Cassini is the custodian of twelve science instruments all primed to seek, gather, and process the offerings of this unique planetary system. Collectively they are performing one of the most important scientific probing of Saturn and its many moons in the history of space exploration. One of these science instruments is the Cosmic Dust Analyser. The CDA looks a bit like a golden lobster pot,that is not a bad analogy. This apparatus is trawling the interplanetary ocean for particles of cosmic dust, tiny particles that are the messengers of the … Continue reading

Spring cleaning in the Early Universe
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This is yet another installment on dust. Thanks to observations with the mighty Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA, a radio telescope in Chile, we can now view this humble material at a distance of 13.2 billion light years away. This is interesting as we think the universe is only 13.7 billion years old. If we turn the clock all the way back to just before there were any stars, we would find a universe made up of hydrogen, helium, and the slightest amount of lithium. If we now fast-forward to the time when the stars turned on in the universe for the first time, we expect for many of them to make enormous amounts of carbon, silicon and aluminum which combine together with hydrogen to make dust. Yes, we think it is thanks to stars that we have any dust at all. What is missing is finding those (close to the) first stars in that (close to the) first … Continue reading

The Power Of A Word: The Movie Arrival and Sacramental Cosmology
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One of the best movies I have seen in some time is Arrival. Many presume this movie is simply about an alien encounter. However, the deeper narrative of the movie explores a simple, but fascinating question: How does language impact how we experience reality? The plot of the movie unfolds with a growing tension between beings whose language is not conditioned by time and humanity with our language that is rooted in the sequential unfolding of time. It is only when these languages come together and are experienced in linguist Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) that the plot is finally resolved as she experiences key, historical events from the future in one moment. (I will refrain from any more details in the event you haven’t seen the movie.) When leaving the theater, I was left with the question, “How much is our understanding of the world we live in limited by the language we speak and are there other languages … Continue reading

Naked Eye Orion sketched from Ireland
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Recently I have spent some time in the west of Ireland . It’s been stormy , with icy rain and sideways on hailstones battering the landscape. The winds have been epic in this wild place where the ancient potato drills shout evidence of our ancestors ribs bursting the Earth , still hungry after all these years. Most evenings I have stepped outside to look up at the night sky while listening to the Atlantic roar its salty roar at stars too far away to listen. Occasionally the clarity of the sky has been impressive but short-lived. However on the evening of March 23rd on opening the door I was met with what I can only describe as a crisis sky. Every familiar constellation was buried in the galaxy. It is sometimes said that there are more stars in the night sky than grains of sand on all the worlds beaches, that sky was the epiphany of that statement. I sat … Continue reading

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