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Across the Universe: Perturbing the Universe
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This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2014

A member of our Vatican Observatory community, Fr. Bill Stoeger, died of cancer last month [2014].

Bill Stoeger: priest, cosmologist, and lover of the fine things that the universe had to offer.

I could say that Bill was both the smartest man and the holiest man I have known; but he would have rejected that characterization out of hand. So I will only say that his goodness and his genius never ceased to move me. He’s the only person I know who could work the mathematics of the Big Bang, and also direct retreats for religious women.

Bill’s religious faith did not control the science he did, but how he did it. For example, more often than not he collaborated with scientists from the developing world – South Africa and Brazil in particular. And he showed a special patience with those members of our scientific community who could be brilliant but eccentric and sometimes hard to deal with.

His scientific output was astonishing. At Cambridge in the 1970s he was student of Sir Martin Rees (later Astronomer Royal) and a classmate of Stephen Hawking. Over the years, like clockwork Bill published two major scientific papers a year on cosmology or relativity. His most recent work was to search for a connection between some of the more esoteric aspects of cosmology theory and actual observations of the structure of our universe as seen in distant galaxies. All told, several hundred papers and theses on cosmology have relied on his published work.

“All of our theories about the origin of the universe assume spherical symmetry; it’s the only way we can handle the math,” I remember him saying. “But the one thing we know for certain about the early universe is that in some important way, it wasn’t precisely symmetric.” His paper, “Proving almost-homogeneity of the universe” written with R. Maartens and George Ellis and published in 1995, was his most-referenced work.

Those tiny differences made the news last month when the BICEP2 telescope in Antarctica announced the detection of polarization in the cosmic microwave background, consistent with gravitational waves propagating during the period of cosmic inflation soon after the Big Bang. Out of those tiny perturbations, eventually galaxies and stars – and we – would arise.

Bill’s work with his colleagues in religious life is not so easy to quantify, but it was just as important. He was in regular demand as a spiritual director and leader of retreats, both in the US and Europe. Connected with this work were the series of books he co-edited on Divine Action in the Universe, published jointly by the Vatican Observatory and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at Berkeley.

He followed the popular career of his classmate, Stephen Hawking, who a few years ago famously proposed that quantum fluctuations in the primordial gravity field might have led to the Big Bang, thus obviating the need for a “creator God.” Bill disagreed. He wrote (in a book chapter that I have cited, many times) that Creatio ex nihilo is not an answer to the question of how things got started at the beginning; Creatio ex nihilo is, instead, the answer to the ultimate question of why reality itself exists, with all its dimensions of space and time, and all its rules for how those dimensions behave. While the Creator gives the physical processes of the universe the power to be what they are, the Creator is not the same thing as those physical processes.

To the secular world the line from life to death is simple, direct, and final. But Bill’s priesthood reflected his faith that, like the Big Bang, reality is slightly more complex than that. The tiny exception of the Resurrection, which we celebrate this Easter season, is that perturbation from which all our future hope arises.

(On the Vatican Observatory Foundation web page we connect to a video featuring Bill talking about limits of science...)

Also in Across the Universe

  1. Across the Universe: What’s in a Name?
  2. Across the Universe: Fools from the East
  3. Across the Universe: Hunches
  4. Across the Universe: Desert or a dessert?
  5. Across the Universe: Stardust messages
  6. Across the Universe: The best way to travel
  7. Across the Universe: Original Proof
  8. Across the Universe: Pearls among Swine
  9. Across the Universe: One Fix Leads to Another
  10. Across the Universe: Limits to Understanding
  11. Across the Universe: The Glory of a Giant
  12. Across the Universe: Fire and Ice
  13. Across the Universe: Science as Story
  14. Across the Universe: Recognition
  15. Across the Universe: Tending Towards Paganism
  16. Across the Universe: The Ethics of Extraterrestrials
  17. Across the Universe: Orbiting a New Sun
  18. Across the Universe: Seeing the Light
  19. Across the Universe: DIY Religion
  20. Across the Universe: Truth, Beauty, and a Good Lawyer
  21. Across the Universe: Techie Dreams
  22. Across the Universe: By Paper, to the Stars
  23. Across the Universe: Transit of Venus
  24. Across the Universe: Ordinary Time
  25. Across the Universe: Deep Impact
  26. Across the Universe: New Worlds
  27. Across the Universe: Tom Swift and his Helium Pycnometer
  28. Across the Universe: Tradition… and Pluto
  29. Across the Universe: Bucks or Buck Rogers?
  30. Across the Universe: Key to the Sea and Sky
  31. Across the Universe: Off The Beach
  32. Across the Universe: All of the Above
  33. From the Tablet: Tales of Earthlings
  34. Across the Universe: Heavenly peace?
  35. Across the Universe: Help My Unbelief
  36. Across the Universe: Stories of Another World
  37. Across the Universe: Planetary Counsels
  38. Across the Universe: Words that Change Reality
  39. Across the Universe: New Heavens, New Earth
  40. Across the Universe: Souvenirs from Space
  41. Across the Universe: For the love of the stars…
  42. Across the Universe: Spicy planet stories
  43. Across the Universe: Asking the right questions
  44. Across the Universe: Everything You Know Is Wrong
  45. Across the Universe: Errata
  46. Across the Universe: Clouds of Unknowing
  47. Across the Universe: Being Asked the Right Questions
  48. Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
  49. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
  50. Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
  51. Across the Universe: When Reason Itself Becomes Flesh
  52. Across the Universe: Spinning our Hopes
  53. Across the Universe: Relish the Red Planet
  54. Across the Universe: Obedience
  55. Across the Universe: Traveling Light
  56. Across the Universe: The Still Voice in the Chaos
  57. Across the Universe: Europa
  58. Across the Universe: Defamiliarization
  59. Across the Universe: Forbidden Transitions
  60. Across the Universe: Genre and Truth
  61. Across the Universe: False Economies
  62. Across the Universe: Reflections on a Mirror
  63. Across the Universe: Japan
  64. From the Tablet: Why is Easter So Early This Year?
  65. Across the Universe: Oops!
  66. Across the Universe: Dramatic Science
  67. Across the Universe: Me and My Shadows
  68. Across the Universe: Touch the Sky
  69. Across the Universe: The Eye of the Lynx
  70. Across the Universe: Treasure from Heaven
  71. Across the Universe: Gift of Tongues
  72. Across the Universe: Maverick Genius
  73. Across the Universe: Awareness
  74. Across the Universe: Friends in high places
  75. Across the Universe: A Moving Experience
  76. Across the Universe: Grain of truth
  77. Across the Universe: Clerical Work
  78. Across the Universe: Teaching new stars
  79. Across the Universe: Science for the Masses
  80. Across the Universe: Changelings
  81. Across the Universe: Three Lunatic Answers
  82. Across the Universe: Dawn of My Belief
  83. Across the Universe: Martian Sunrise
  84. Across the Universe: Under the Southern Cross
  85. Across the Universe: Clouds from Both Sides
  86. Across the Universe: The Year (2011) in Astronomy
  87. Across the Universe: Jabberwocky and the Curious Cat
  88. Across the Universe: Waiting for the Call
  89. From the Tablet: God is dead; long live the eternal God
  90. Across the Universe: Taking the Heat
  91. Across the Universe: Stellar Round Up
  92. Across the Universe: A Damp Kaboom
  93. Across the Universe: Featureless Features
  94. Across the Universe: Confronting Fear and Terror
  95. Across the Universe: Eye Candy
  96. Across the Universe: The New Paganism
  97. Across the Universe: Immigrant Stars
  98. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
  99. Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
  100. Across the Universe: When reason itself becomes flesh
  101. Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
  102. Across the Universe: Awaiting the stars
  103. Across the Universe: Tides in our affairs
  104. Across the Universe: A Piece of the Action
  105. Across the Universe: Forced Perspective
  106. Across the Universe: Touched by Heaven
  107. Across the Universe: View from afar
  108. Across the Universe: What good is God?
  109. Across the Universe: Global warning
  110. From The Tablet: Precisely Strange
  111. Across the Universe: Faith and Expectations
  112. Across the Universe: The Boundaries of the Unknown
  113. Across the Universe: Happy Birthday to Us
  114. Across the Universe: Words, Words, Worlds
  115. Across the Universe: Rocket Science
  116. Across the Universe: Maybe
  117. Across the Universe: Perturbing the Universe

View the entire series

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 of the Social Doctrine of the Church was to safeguard the environment. As I read through the principles we now label "Care for Creation," I was struck with their common sense approach to the environment that can be summarized with the statement, If we destroy the environment, we ultimately destroy the human person and if we care for creation, we uphold human dignity. These sentiments were reinforced by St. John Paul II in his 1990 World Day of Peace address. The introduction of the address reaffirmed the key points of safeguarding the environment found in the Compendium.

In our day, there is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources and by an progressive decline in the quality of life. The sense of precariousness and insecurity that such a situation engenders is a seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty.

Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past. The public in general as well as political leaders are concerned abut this problem, and experts from a wide range of disciplines are studying its causes. Moreover, a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programmes and initiatives.

Many ethical values, fundamental to the development of a peaceful society, are particularly relevant to the ecological question. The fact that many challenges facing the world today are interdependent confirms the need for carefully coordinated solutions based on a morally coherent world view.

For Christians, such a world view is grounded in religious convictions drawn from Revelation.

As I read more from this "socially conservative pope," I was struck with how St. John Paul II  sounded more "green" than college friends I had who were studying natural resources. One of the healthiest aspects of this exploration was the eroding of what I would call the "false politics" of placing all people in a polemical relationship based on a uniquely American interpretation of the terms conservative and liberal. I was beginning to see that the faith I embraced did not fit into these polemics, but pointed to a third way, a transcendent way that placed the pursuit of truth as the primary goal of the Christian. This pursuit began to awaken in me a deep love for the consistent tapestry of human dignity found in CST and how that dignity calls us to care for creation by recognizing that we are a part of creation.

This understanding of care for creation was reaffirmed by the Pope who followed St. John Paul II's, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Again, the shallowness of political ideology often sought to label Benedict XVI as "even more conservative" than St. John Paul II. The irony was that Benedict XVI was clearly "greener" than St. John Paul II. It didn't take long for Benedict XVI to make a clear statement for the care of creation by installing enough solar panels in the Vatican to power all of Vatican City. This and other actions by the Pope Emeritus gained him the nickname, "The Green Pope." So strong were the statements of St. John Paul II  and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI that Earth Day celebrations began to reflect, in some circles, a deep appreciation and admiration for Catholicism's approach to the environment. To this day, there are few Papal addresses about care for creation that impacts me more than Benedict XVI's World Day of Peace address from 2010.

The Church has a responsibility towards creation, and she considers it her duty to exercise that responsibility in public life, in order to protect earth, water and air as gifts of God the Creator meant for everyone, and above all to save mankind from the danger of self-destruction. The degradation of nature is closely linked to the cultural models shaping human coexistence: consequently, “when ‘human ecology’ is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits”. Young people cannot be asked to respect the environment if they are not helped, within families and society as a whole, to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible; it includes not only the environment but also individual, family and social ethics. Our duties towards the environment flow from our duties towards the person, considered both individually and in relation to others. ~ Benedict XVI, World Day of Peace 2010. Paragraph 12

These and other writings from Pope Emeritus Benedict helped me see that "being green" was not a political slogan or a cultural mantra that will be forgotten in the future. Rather, care for creation was a clear matter of morality, affirming that good conservation and stewardship of the land is essential to upholding human dignity now and in the future. Our current Pope, Pope Francis, has taken this aspect of CST a step further, expanding upon Benedict XVI's development of a human ecology and casting care for creation in the broader sense of integral ecology. Chapter four of Laudato Si' provides the main themes of integral ecology that touches on social, political, economic, global, local, and personal dimensions of how we need to be more attentive to our ecological decisions. Toward the end of chapter four of Laudato Si', Pope Francis provides a clear, practical reflection I have offered in the past for your consideration. The words ring with a meditative tone worth reexamining.

What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? This question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal. When we ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave behind, we think in the first place of its general direction, its meaning and its values. Unless we struggle with these deeper issues, I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results. But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn. ~ Pope Francis, Laudato Si'. Paragraph 160

These and other writings of the Church on Care for Creation have moved me from viewing Earth Day as something to be suspicious of to something for Christians to take seriously, reflecting upon how we are called to care for our common home.

Do I still find expressions of Earth Day that evoke the same discomfort as I experienced 20 years ago?  Yes, I do. However, this discomfort is also met with the sobering call of Scripture and Tradition to take seriously the care of our common home for current and future generations. In light of this, I have decided to start moving toward being "more green" in my life. I still have a lot of work to do to embrace an integral ecology in my personal life, but it's a journey worth taking.

Embracing integral ecology also points to an implicit ecumenism, realizing that environmental decisions, good and bad, impact all people regardless of race, gender, country of origin, or state of life. This recognition of the universal impact of our ecological decisions upon humanity allows Earth Day to be a time that we can bring the diversity of religious, political, and social thought found in our world into dialogue with one another, seeking common themes we can mutually embrace. In the United States, one of the mystic voices about God and creation through the experience of the National Park system is John Muir. To conclude this reflection, I offer this passage from his work, The Yosemite, for your enjoyment. Happy Earth Day!

The making of gardens and parks goes on with civilization all over the world, and they increase both in size and number as their value is recognized. Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike. This natural beauty-hunger is made manifest in the little window-sill gardens of the poor, though perhaps only a geranium slip in a broken cup, as well as in the carefully tended rose and lily gardens of the rich, the thousands of spacious city parks and botanical gardens, and in our magnificent National parks--the Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, etc. -- Nature's sublime wonderlands, the admiration and joy of the world. Nevertheless, like anything else worth while, from the very beginning, however well guarded, they have always been subject to attack by despoiling gainseekers and mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to Senators, eagerly trying to make everything immediately and selfishly commercial, with schemes disguised in smug-smiling philanthropy, industriously, shampiously crying, "Conservation, conservation, panutilization," that man and beast may be fed and the dear Nation made great. Thus long ago a few enterprising merchants utilized the Jerusalem temple as a place of business instead of a place of prayer, changing money, buying and selling cattle and sheep and doves; and earlier still, the first forest reservation, including only one tree, was likewise despoiled. Ever since the establishment of the Yosemite National Park, strife has been going on around its borders and I suppose this will go on as part of the universal battle between right and wrong, however much its boundaries may be shorn, or its wild beauty destroyed. ~ John Muir, The Yosemite. Chapter 16

A Saint, a Medallion, and a Highway
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Travel through far western Indiana in the U.S. (so far western that it is almost Illinois), and you might find yourself passing by Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.  The college was founded by Théodore Guérin (1798–1856, birth name Anne-Thérèse Guérin), a remarkable woman.  She travelled from Europe to the American frontier in 1840, along with Sisters Olympiade Boyer, St. Vincent Ferrer Gagé, Basilide Sénéschal, Mary Xavier Lerée, and Mary Liguori Tiercin.  They arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs, and proceeded to build up an order of nuns and a college (the first institution of higher education for women in Indiana)—all while managing in an alien culture and clashing with the local bishop.  Saint Mother Théodore Guérin was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.  She even has a section of U.S. Highway named after her—part of US 150 near Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College is the “Saint Mother Theodore Guerin Memorial Highway,” so named in 2014 by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.

US Highway 150 west of Terra Haute, Indiana. Note the road sign at right. Image from Google Street View.

US Highway 150 west of Terra Haute, Indiana. Note the road sign at right. Image from Google Street View.

But why feature Saint Mother Théodore Guérin in the Vatican Observatory’s “The Catholic Astronomer” blog?  Because Guérin was recognized by the king of France for her ability at math.  An older biography of her states

So universal were her talents that everything to which she applied herself seemed to be her specialty; yet it might be said that she excelled in mathematics.

I discovered this when my wife and I stopped by the college last summer, returning from a trip to Yerkes observatory.  My aunt was an alumna of the school, and had talked about what a great place it was, but I had never been there.*  The college was more or less on the way from Yerkes, so we stopped in.  And there, and among the exhibits in the place, was a medal that Guérin had been awarded for her mathematical abilities.

As you have seen emphasized here many times, math is crucial to astronomy.  It is how we know the size and shape of the Earth, or what the stars are like.  Guérin, being on the frontier, certainly would have had to put her math skills to more practical, business-oriented uses than astronomy.  She did just that, and apparently drew attention for it.  She once wrote—

One does not see a woman in this country involved in the smallest business affairs, the religious any more than the others. They stare at me in Terre Haute [Indiana] and elsewhere when they see me doing business, paying, purchasing…

I suspect that Guérin would be disappointed to see the disregard shown today in our society, even by those who consider themselves educated or intelligent, toward mathematical knowledge.  Mathematical knowledge is cool, and important for astronomy.  Being good at math is cool.  And an honored-with-a-road-sign western Indiana frontier saint who was skilled at mathematics is really cool, and certainly worthy of mention on “The Catholic Astronomer”!

Plaque at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods which reads, ‘1839: Medallion Decoration conferred on Mother Theodore Guerin by Louis Philippe, King of France. Her schools were visited by a prefecteur of the “Forty Immortals,” her system and method of teaching examined, her own masterly attainments tested by profound questions and intricate problems. She stood the examination to the surprise and admiration of the “Learned Faculty.”’

Plaque at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods which reads, ‘1839: Medallion Decoration conferred on Mother Theodore Guerin by Louis Philippe, King of France. Her schools were visited by a prefecteur of the “Forty Immortals,” her system and method of teaching examined, her own masterly attainments tested by profound questions and intricate problems. She stood the examination to the surprise and admiration of the “Learned Faculty.”

Close-up of the medallion.

Close-up of the medallion.  A label beside the plaque identifies this medallion as being for mathematics.


*Oddly enough, in doing some basic research for this post, I discovered that the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College alumni association has a Saint Mother Theodore Guerin Award, and to my complete surprise I further discovered that in 1967 the second recipient of that award was my grandmother, Catherine Connor Graney.

 

Rhapsody in Blue – Saturn / Moon Occultation
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Deirdre Kelleghan Bray, Co Wicklow Ireland 200mm Reflector/10mm eyepiece – 120X 19:01 UT 200mm Reflector/ Binoviewer 20mm eyepieces/2X Barlow – 120X 20:09 UT 300gm paper/Soft Pastels/Quiling Needle Original drawing rotated north is up

On the evening of May 22nd 2007 the beautiful blue sky was host to a first quarter moon. The evening was to bring me one of the most visually rich observations in my drawing odyssey . When I set up my dob I really wasn't expecting to  catch a glimpse of Saturn in a daylight sky. The software gave me an idea of where the planet was, I scanned the area in the hope of finding it. My task was to see Saturn before it went behind the unlit quarter of the moon. In my first look there it was, the white ringed planet, one billion miles away in space. Saturn was there in my eye, embedded softly in the azure sky moving swiftly toward  the invisible limb of the moon.  Nothing could have prepared me for that  revelation, it was a totally different experience to seeing Saturn in a dark night sky.

My drawing paper was hastily endowed in blue pastel, a subtle outline of the lunar disc was inscribed on top. Somehow I just had to try to capture this  planet in the daytime sky. The gap between the planet and the rings was clearly visible,  I drew  very quickly.  My eye waited to see when she would appear to disappear behind the hidden moon. Minutes later I observed the planet begin to lose its leading rings as the moon occulted her.  That moment  had to be sketched,  as I continued to  observe she began to glide behind the lunar orb.

Gershwin's magnificent Rhapsody in Blue was playing in my mind. The opening clarinet glissando  musically describes the entrance  of Saturn into this drama.  The trumpets play as Saturn disappears. Her journey behind the moon was punctuated by marching tones with sections of  ragtime until there is a lull at about halfway when she might cross the terminator on the far side of the moon.  Yes I know the music is only eight minutes in length, plus Saturn is circa one billion km  from Earth as opposed to the 384,400 km  between us and the moon.  Sometimes you have to suspend your disbelief for assimilation to work.

With my easel set up  and I began to sketch the moon through wispy cloud. The wait would be about one hour before Saturn would reemerge from behind the moon.  Not enough time for the desired detail, no cloud would have been preferable. However  I pressed on as I wanted to have some reasonable drawing of the lunar surface achieved before Saturn reappeared  on the  limb. It was ambitious in retrospect to use the binoviewers as the conditions were not perfect, but after setting them up there was no time to change back to a single eyepiece.

As the planet emerged from hiding, there was a wonderful change in her color against the darker sky. Rhapsody in blue ends for me when Saturn is welcomed back by the triumphant brass instruments and clashing symbols. The gas giant was almost tangerine in colour, perhaps dust in our atmosphere as she arced down to set.  Saturn seemed  to be flying along as our moon moved  out of her majestic way.   Rhapsody in Blue George Gershwin - The music may  play automatically depending on your device  but you can turn it off  🙂

 

 

 

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 in groups and ‘incubate’ close to each other. It is only later than when they are fully established stars calmly converting hydrogen into helium that they drift away from their siblings to safer distances.

Astronomers have recently discovered the remnants of a this ultra-rare stellar collision in a molecular cloud in the direction of the constellation of Orion. The event produced a large explosion which sent debris flying in all direction at reckless speeds of greater than 330,000 miles per hour! With high spatial resolution data of the aftermath taken at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, astronomers are able to map out this debris and study the consequences of this collision between two infant stars.

Based on the data, it is inferred that this explosion managed to inflict significant damage to the stellar nursery, and in the process shut down the route to make new stars at that particular location. But not worry, the Milky Way has a healthy birth rate of stars which is likely to continue for a good long while.

The Milky Way is Lost…
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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 indeed we had moved from Rome to Castel Gandolfo in the 1930s for exactly the same reason, to avoid the burgeoning street lighting in Rome. Even with some of the strictest regulations on city lighting in the world, Tucson itself has grown so much in population over the last 50 years that many of the telescopes on the mountains surrounding us here have been affected. New big telescopes nowadays must be built in the remote northern desert of Chile or on isolated volcanic islands in the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.
 
More than astronomy is affected by the reckless installation of too many city lights. Animal migrations are disrupted. Newly hatched turtles on beaches near brightly lit resorts cannot find the ocean, and die. In many cities, birds fly themselves to death while endlessly circling lit up skyscrapers. Along with birds and turtles, the human animal’s life cycle is also disturbed: sleep is made difficult with too much blue light shining into our windows at night. That’s one of the major problems with many LED streetlights.
 
One irony is that such bright city lights are mostly useless for human needs. It is understandable that light directed towards the ground can help pedestrians and drivers; but who walks in the sky? Yet so much of our city lights shine upwards, where they are not needed. A lighted alleyway gives the illusion of safety, but in fact most street lights produce dark shadows where thieves can hide with impunity. Meanwhile, graffiti artists like to be able to see the walls they are defacing!
 
Too often city lights are designed with more care for how quaint they look in the daytime than how well they serve our purposes at night. Would you feel welcome in a friend’s living room if all the electric lights were unshaded? Yet we rarely think to shade our streetlights, allowing them to shine directly into our eyes. If you can see the source of the light, the light is badly designed… and more likely to blind you than to illuminate your path.
 
In fact, human eyes are well adapted to low light levels. Starlight and moonlight are actually enough to light our ways. As a stargazer who has traveled to many remote dark sites I have been able to see my shadow just from the light of the Milky Way. Traditionally the darkest nights are cloudy nights when the stars and moon are hidden. Today, alas, low clouds just reflect our human lighting and turn a cloudy night into a sickly-illuminated day. 
And how many children today have ever seen the Milky Way?

The Milky Way appears as a streak of light across the sky in this image taken from Mt. Graham in the 1980s. Note the dust bands obscuring the central plane of the galaxy. The picture was taken to test the skies where the VATT and Large Binocular Telescopes were eventually built. The yellow glows of light on the right are the city lights of Tucson, 75 miles away, and Phoenix, more than 100 miles away.

A famous story among astronomers illustrates the problem. In 1992, after an early morning earthquake in Los Angeles caused a million people to rush outdoors in the dark, the Griffith Planetarium received many, many phone calls from frightened people. “Why did the earthquake make the sky look so terrifying?” they asked. Of course, the earthquake had done no such thing… it merely shut down the electrical grid and the city lights. A million people finally saw, some for the first time in their lives, what the sky actually looks like.
 
Changing our habits of lighting is not easy. Even the lights around our Specola Vaticana headquarters in Castel Gandolfo are guilty of many of the things I complain about here. I may be the Director of the Specola, but I have learned first hand how difficult it is to get lay staff and Vatican engineers to appreciate the need for low, shielded lighting.
 
Even more than all these practical issues, there is also a spiritual price to pay for our bad lighting habits. Light and darkness are a theme of many of our prayers and favorite scripture passages, but their meaning becomes obscure when we do not have an actual experience of darkness… or the ability to see the stars that shine in that darkness.
 
The Liturgy on Easter Saturday Night begins with a celebration of light in darkness, and our first reading is the Genesis account of the creation of the universe, with the fiat, “Let there be light!”. Surely, light is a good thing. We think of darkness as the enemy of that light. 
 
However, spiritual darkness is not the same as the darkness of night. 
 
Pope-emeritus Benedict, in his Holy Saturday homily at Saint Peter’s Basilica in 2012, described this difference beautifully. “The darkness that poses a real threat to humankind, after all, is the fact that while we can see and investigate tangible material things, we cannot see where the world is going or whence it comes, where our own life is going, what is good and what is evil.” 
 
If we can’t see difference between good and evil, then what good are all our other lights, all the fruits of our technological achievements? Our artificial lights can be wonderful signs of progress, yes; but the Pope reminded us, “they can also be dangers that put us – and the world – at risk.”
 
Light created by God gives life. But what of the light we try to make for ourselves, to replace God’s light? “Today we can illuminate our cities so brightly that the stars of the sky are no longer visible,” the Pope noted. “Is this not an image of the problems caused by our version of ‘Enlightenment’?”

Lyrids Meteor Shower 2017
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Lyrids Meteor Shower Radiant

Lyrids Meteor Shower Radiant. Credit: Stellarium

The Lyrids meteor shower is a medium strength shower that typically produces good rates for three nights centered on the maximum. These meteors usually lack persistent trails, but have been known to produce fireballs. This shower is best seen from the northern hemisphere, where the radiant is high in the dawn sky. This shower can be seen from the southern hemisphere, but at a lower rate.

Waning Crescent Moon. Credit: Stellarium

Peak: April 21-22nd
Active from: April 16th to April 25th
Radiant: 18:04 +34° (see image above)
Hourly Rate: 18
Velocity: 30 miles/sec (medium - 48.4km/sec)
Parent Object: C/1861 G1 (Thatcher)

The moon will be a waning crescent, rising shortly before dawn.
Source: American Meteor Society

Meteor. Credit: Creative Commons, CC BY 3.0

Across the Universe: Maybe
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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.

We may not know if any Goldilocks planets really are suitable for life, but we can dream... (NASA poster)

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 that some alien H. G. Wells observing our system from a distance could well have invented stories of inter-species interactions that, alas, are only fiction, not science.

Further afield, observations dating back to the 1930s have shown that stars of other galaxies are being pulled in their orbits by something more than the masses of the stars themselves. Indeed it looks like this “dark matter” is far more abundant than ordinary matter. But what is it? One prime theoretical candidate for dark matter has been dubbed “Weakly Interacting Massive Particles”, or WIMPs. (The other theory proposes Massive Compact Halo Objects, or MACHOs. Yes, really.) Also in April 2013, two different experiments announced that they’ve discovered actual evidence of these WIMPs. Detectors buried deep in a mine in Minnesota, where they are shielded from more mundane cosmic rays, recorded events that they interpret as WIMPs; and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on the International Space Station, which detects all sorts of cosmic rays, has found an excess of anti-matter positrons that they interpret as the products of the collision and destruction of WIMPS.

Well, maybe. The head of the Minnesota team admits, “We do not believe this result rises to the level of discovery. But it does call for further investigation.” In fact, all they found were three events (over several years) when chance suggests 0.7 events; intriguing certainly, but within the realm of random fluctuations of otherwise ordinary detections. And the Space Station scientists admit that there are plenty of other possible sources of the positron excesses, such as rapidly spinning pulsars.

Skepticism of extraordinary claims reported in the newspapers is always safe. Science rarely advances in the kinds of spectacular breakthroughs that are easy to report. But the opposite danger is the cynicism that can grow when too many of these stories turn out to be over-hyped. Forget the hype; the science itself is good science, even if the path from “possible” to “confirmed” is an uncertain one. These claims could be right. Or they may well be the sorts of mistakes that wind up telling us important new truths... as long as we admit we were wrong.

Without goals like habitable Earths or actual dark matter particles, we wouldn’t do the hard work that produces these elusive results. But it’s possible that emphasizing one exciting possibility (“Wimps, at last!” “Pairs of Earths!”) might overshadow an equally exciting possibility (“spinning pulsars everywhere!” “Gas dwarf planets!”).

The trick is knowing how to continue, given such provocative but inconclusive results. Knowing when to persevere, or when to give up and admit that what you’ve been seeing is something different than you expected, is what separates the good scientist from the crank who is convinced his first idea is always right. It’s never an easy judgement.

Just ask St. Paul.

Since this article was written, many more planets in "Goldilocks" zones have been discovered, including perhaps three in the Trappist-1 system. Maybe. Meanwhile, further efforts to detect WIMPS have come up empty... We're still waiting for a road-to-Damascus experimental result.

Also in Across the Universe

  1. Across the Universe: What’s in a Name?
  2. Across the Universe: Fools from the East
  3. Across the Universe: Hunches
  4. Across the Universe: Desert or a dessert?
  5. Across the Universe: Stardust messages
  6. Across the Universe: The best way to travel
  7. Across the Universe: Original Proof
  8. Across the Universe: Pearls among Swine
  9. Across the Universe: One Fix Leads to Another
  10. Across the Universe: Limits to Understanding
  11. Across the Universe: The Glory of a Giant
  12. Across the Universe: Fire and Ice
  13. Across the Universe: Science as Story
  14. Across the Universe: Recognition
  15. Across the Universe: Tending Towards Paganism
  16. Across the Universe: The Ethics of Extraterrestrials
  17. Across the Universe: Orbiting a New Sun
  18. Across the Universe: Seeing the Light
  19. Across the Universe: DIY Religion
  20. Across the Universe: Truth, Beauty, and a Good Lawyer
  21. Across the Universe: Techie Dreams
  22. Across the Universe: By Paper, to the Stars
  23. Across the Universe: Transit of Venus
  24. Across the Universe: Ordinary Time
  25. Across the Universe: Deep Impact
  26. Across the Universe: New Worlds
  27. Across the Universe: Tom Swift and his Helium Pycnometer
  28. Across the Universe: Tradition… and Pluto
  29. Across the Universe: Bucks or Buck Rogers?
  30. Across the Universe: Key to the Sea and Sky
  31. Across the Universe: Off The Beach
  32. Across the Universe: All of the Above
  33. From the Tablet: Tales of Earthlings
  34. Across the Universe: Heavenly peace?
  35. Across the Universe: Help My Unbelief
  36. Across the Universe: Stories of Another World
  37. Across the Universe: Planetary Counsels
  38. Across the Universe: Words that Change Reality
  39. Across the Universe: New Heavens, New Earth
  40. Across the Universe: Souvenirs from Space
  41. Across the Universe: For the love of the stars…
  42. Across the Universe: Spicy planet stories
  43. Across the Universe: Asking the right questions
  44. Across the Universe: Everything You Know Is Wrong
  45. Across the Universe: Errata
  46. Across the Universe: Clouds of Unknowing
  47. Across the Universe: Being Asked the Right Questions
  48. Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
  49. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
  50. Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
  51. Across the Universe: When Reason Itself Becomes Flesh
  52. Across the Universe: Spinning our Hopes
  53. Across the Universe: Relish the Red Planet
  54. Across the Universe: Obedience
  55. Across the Universe: Traveling Light
  56. Across the Universe: The Still Voice in the Chaos
  57. Across the Universe: Europa
  58. Across the Universe: Defamiliarization
  59. Across the Universe: Forbidden Transitions
  60. Across the Universe: Genre and Truth
  61. Across the Universe: False Economies
  62. Across the Universe: Reflections on a Mirror
  63. Across the Universe: Japan
  64. From the Tablet: Why is Easter So Early This Year?
  65. Across the Universe: Oops!
  66. Across the Universe: Dramatic Science
  67. Across the Universe: Me and My Shadows
  68. Across the Universe: Touch the Sky
  69. Across the Universe: The Eye of the Lynx
  70. Across the Universe: Treasure from Heaven
  71. Across the Universe: Gift of Tongues
  72. Across the Universe: Maverick Genius
  73. Across the Universe: Awareness
  74. Across the Universe: Friends in high places
  75. Across the Universe: A Moving Experience
  76. Across the Universe: Grain of truth
  77. Across the Universe: Clerical Work
  78. Across the Universe: Teaching new stars
  79. Across the Universe: Science for the Masses
  80. Across the Universe: Changelings
  81. Across the Universe: Three Lunatic Answers
  82. Across the Universe: Dawn of My Belief
  83. Across the Universe: Martian Sunrise
  84. Across the Universe: Under the Southern Cross
  85. Across the Universe: Clouds from Both Sides
  86. Across the Universe: The Year (2011) in Astronomy
  87. Across the Universe: Jabberwocky and the Curious Cat
  88. Across the Universe: Waiting for the Call
  89. From the Tablet: God is dead; long live the eternal God
  90. Across the Universe: Taking the Heat
  91. Across the Universe: Stellar Round Up
  92. Across the Universe: A Damp Kaboom
  93. Across the Universe: Featureless Features
  94. Across the Universe: Confronting Fear and Terror
  95. Across the Universe: Eye Candy
  96. Across the Universe: The New Paganism
  97. Across the Universe: Immigrant Stars
  98. Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
  99. Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
  100. Across the Universe: When reason itself becomes flesh
  101. Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
  102. Across the Universe: Awaiting the stars
  103. Across the Universe: Tides in our affairs
  104. Across the Universe: A Piece of the Action
  105. Across the Universe: Forced Perspective
  106. Across the Universe: Touched by Heaven
  107. Across the Universe: View from afar
  108. Across the Universe: What good is God?
  109. Across the Universe: Global warning
  110. From The Tablet: Precisely Strange
  111. Across the Universe: Faith and Expectations
  112. Across the Universe: The Boundaries of the Unknown
  113. Across the Universe: Happy Birthday to Us
  114. Across the Universe: Words, Words, Worlds
  115. Across the Universe: Rocket Science
  116. Across the Universe: Maybe
  117. Across the Universe: Perturbing the Universe

View the entire series

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 the center of the black hole. The only way this can be explained is if the black hole was kicked out of the center. How can this happen to a 6 billion solar mass object, afterall?

Well it turns out that it is not just gas and stars that can infall onto the central supermassive black hole. Also, other smaller black holes settle into the center and get consumed by the central supermassive one.

If the impactor is fairly large, then the coalescence of the two objects can induce a strong ‘kick-off’ velocity that punts the whole combined heavyweight black hole out of the galaxy center. In fact, if our own supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way would suffer such a collision, this kick-off velocity would be powerful enough to send the entire supermassive black hole beyond the orbit of the Sun. That corresponds to a 33,000 light year punt - Go Team!

Video from a Vatican Observatory Tour
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Last month (March 2017) Vatican Observatory Director Br. Guy Consolmagno and Vatican Observatory Foundation Development Director Katie Steinke led a week-long tour of astronomy-related sites in Italy.  They invited me to accompany them on the tour, to provide some extra history of astronomy expertise.  I was happy to go, not only for all the obvious reasons (it was a fantastic experience, as you might imagine), but also because many of the places on the tour were connected to material that is part of my Astronomy 101 classes at my college (Jefferson Community & Technical College in Louisville, Kentucky).  I could serve the tour as “the flowing font of history of astronomy knowledge,” and also serve my students by bringing them along on the trip “virtually” (by means of a video camera and YouTube).

The tour group taking a rest in among some Roman ruins the gardens of the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo, near one of the buildings that houses some of the Vatican Observatory’s telescopes.

The tour group taking a rest in among some Roman ruins the gardens of the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo, near one of the buildings that houses some of the Vatican Observatory’s telescopes.

Community college students are a diverse bunch: some have the means to travel and have been to Europe; many others are financially very hard-pressed and have travelled very little.  This “virtual field trip,” made possible by the Vatican Observatory and by those who support the Observatory, would allow all the students to get a taste of being at these scientific sites.  What an opportunity!  What a boon to a class!  This was not something you find in every astronomy class.

I had intended to use the videos just for class purposes, but, thanks to a little encouragement from Katie, I am posting them on this blog (below).  They do give a glimpse of what the tour was like.  However, keep in mind that these videos were made for a specific Astronomy 101 class.  Thus they are addressed specifically to students from a certain place.  And, occasionally they include references to class material that may be unfamiliar to the viewer who is not in the class.  Also, keep in mind that I only took video at sites related to class material, and at sites where cameras were allowed.  Thus there is, for example, no video from the tour’s visit to the Sistine Chapel.

The Vatican Observatory: History and Telescopes

The Vatican Observatory: History and Telescopes—click here to watch the video.

The Vatican Observatory: History and Telescopes—click here to watch.

Spectroscopy & Galileo in Rome—click here to watch the video.

The Vatican Observatory: History and Telescopes—click here to watch.

Florence and Galileo—click here to watch the video.

I was able to “take the slow road” to Rome and make other videos at places that were not on the tour itself.  These will appear in later posts.

 

Sketching Eddington Crater with the Grubb refractor at Dunsink Observatory Dublin – a very nice memory
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Eddington Crater

Galilei,Cardanus, Krafft, Eddington,Seleucus,Briggs, Briggs B, W Oceanus Procellarum South Telescope build by Grubb Dublin 1868, at Observatory Lane Rathmines Objective by Cauchoix Paris 1829 Focal Length 18Ft 10.7inches/Objective 11.75 inches Dunsink Observatory Dublin. April 30th 2007 20:50UT - 21:57UT Lunation 13.43 days Illumination 98% Seeing 1-2 T poor/hazy 300gm Daler Paper/Daler Soft Pastels/Conte Crayons/ Quilling needle/Blending stick - Not rotated

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 moment, and look once again through the eyepiece of this well constructed classic telescope. Over the years I paid several visits to the observatory on public nights, but always cloud, rain, both, or just life got in the way.

An idea popped into my head one day so I put it into action. I requested time to sketch something through the eyepiece of the magnificent Grubb at the observatory. This request yielded a positive answer, but it took many months for it to come to fruition.

April 30th 2007 I got a phone call from, Professor Evert Muers at the observatory

“would you like to try a sketch tonight”?

I was out the door and on the M50 with my gear in less than 10 minutes, it was an hour’s drive to the Observatory.
His greeting was warm, the dome was opened, the scope set up, the steps in place.
My position for the next hour and ten minutes was probably the most uncomfortable sketching position in which I had ever worked. I was neither seated or standing, and a big telescope to move.

The Grubb built telescope at Dunsink Observatory

The Grubb was so well-balanced, easy to operate, a joy to hold, and a privilege to use.
Left alone for the most part I quickly got into my zoned in or zoned out
(depends on your point view) sketching mode.The eyepiece was low powered generating about 125X, it is used mainly for public viewing sessions.

Apart from the difficult sketching position, I felt so at home in dome, it felt very me. Up and down moving the steps,to follow the Moon as she charged along heading for her bed below the horizon. My concentration waned after an hour, more work to do than in my garden. I was stiff the next morning but I was high as a kite, because I got to do something with this instrument made so carefully many years ago in Dublin. A full circle moment in my life, moments that seem to happen with more frequency these days.

In brief periods, when the image was still I could see much more detail and fine tones of grey than in my 8 inch dob. Eddington gave me great shapes and that ridge was so slender, only 2% of the Moon was in darkness and even a little of that was seeping through the blackness into the day.

I admire Arthur Stanley Eddington for his communication prowess during his life.
A poem he wrote came to mind on the way home.

“Oh leave the Wise our measures to collate
One thing at least is certain, light has weight
One thing is certain and the rest debate
Light rays, when near the Sun, do not go straight. “

A.S.Eddington

Apart from this poem being about gravitational lensing, the phrase “light has weight” sticks out for me as an artist. Drawing the sunlit wall on the western side of Eddington, 138km or so of sunlit weight, which was up till that lunation invisible, non - existent until our sun made it so. This was a very special opportunity to sketch , apart from the personal satisfaction for me one of the things this illustrates is the need and benefit of public observing sessions at observatories.

Sharing the night sky with a child, can light a spark of interest that can last for a lifetime as it did in my case. It has given me great pleasure for almost  two decades to share the moon , planets and other astronomical objects with the public at Dunsink Observatory and other places in Ireland.

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 the ash of burned palms with the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." These symbols provide a powerful commentary of how the fallenness of humanity often seeks to reduce our world to images of victory and violence rooted in ideologies of power.

Palms from one of the Coptic Churches that endured a terror attack. Image Credit: BBC

The world was given a painful reminder of the mystery of Palm/Passion Sunday with the terror attacks in Egypt against Coptic Christians. The Coptic Church is one of the most ancient branches of Christianity. On the day we reflect upon the tension between victory and violence at the time of Jesus, Egyptian Christians were met with this painful reality in the present, holding palms drenched in the blood of innocent victims.

In Catholicism, we speak of the distinction between mere symbol and Real Symbol. Mere symbols are things that point to something while Real Symbol contains the thing symbolized. The palms for Palm Sunday would be considered a mere symbol, reminding us of the past events of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem while the Eucharist is a Real Symbol, containing Jesus' Real Presence. For the Coptic Christians of Egypt, the palms used yesterday moved from being a mere symbol to a Real Symbol, containing the blood of those martyred in imitation of Christ's death on the Cross. Let us pray for those who lost their lives in this terror attack and for all Christians, Muslims, Jewish, Hindus, and any social group that has been the target of terrorism.

When events like this occur, we are met with another profound symbol of Christianity: Darkness. Darkness signifies many things in the Christian world. In Genesis, darkness signifies a world that is devoid of the light of God's love. During the Easter Vigil, our celebration begins in darkness and is met with a single light from the Easter Candle. Amid the musical cries of "Lumen Christi," the darkness is slowly overcome as worshipers light candles from the Easter flame. It is a powerful reminder that, despite the darkness that can be introduced into the world through acts of terrorism, the light of a non-violent faith, being called to love our enemy and to see God's presence in all people including those who perpetrate acts of terrorism, illumines the darkness of our world with a holy light that manifests God's presence through a life of holiness. The Easter mysteries remind us in a profound way that we are to become what we receive in the Eucharist: An expression of the living presence of God's love in the world. Put another way, the Christian life calls us to be a Real Symbol of God's love.

Often, people forget that the primary meaning of stars in the Bible is that they symbolize people. Whether it be the promised fruitfulness of Abraham's decedents, the seven messengers to the churches in the book of Revelation, or the twelve apostles symbolized in the crown of twelve stars worn by her who was clothed in light, stars signify the hope of God's fecund love to be made real in our world. During this Holy Week, may we gaze upon the darkness of the night sky and behold the beauty of the light that presents itself through the stars we see. May we see the night sky as a perpetual Easter Vigil, reminding us of how the light of Christ illumines the darkness of our world. And may we remember that this light does not call us to embrace fallen ideologies of victory through violence and terror, but that true victory is found in the non-violent love of Jesus Christ, allowing the rising of the Son to bring an end to life's darkest nights through the dawning of hope in the Resurrection. And may we see in these stars a symbol of hope, calling us to allow the light of our faith to shine amid the darkness this world can present.

Are you willing to be a Real Symbol of God's love in the world? Pray for the courage to embrace a life of authentic faith so that the darkness our world endures can be met with the light of the love of Jesus Christ.