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Across the Universe: Where’s the olivine?
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This column first ran in The Tablet in July 2014

It was a beautiful theory, while it lasted.

Image of Asteroid 4 Vesta

Asteroid 4 Vesta. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDA

Most meteorites are well-compressed lumps of primordial dust and little beads of rock. But some are chips of lava, bits of some small asteroid that melted and sorted itself into a small iron core and a crust of frozen basaltic lava. We’ve even seen one such asteroid: the spectra colors of Vesta (the brightest, and second-biggest, of the asteroids) uniquely match these basaltic meteorites [in particular, the Howardite-Eucrite-Diogenite meteorites known familiarly as the HED meteorites].

The meteorite Juvinas, one of the samples in the Vatican collection thought to come from Vesta

When a mixture of various minerals gets hot, as inside a volcano, only some of those minerals melt; they make the lava that erupts to the surface, leaving behind other unmolten minerals deep below the volcano. These meteorite lavas should behave the same way. During my student days in the 1970s, we calculated that that for every basaltic meteorite, there should be about four times as much of the complementary unmelted rock, rich in a dark green mineral called olivine. Presumably this olivine made a mantle of rock between the basaltic crust and the metallic core.

So why is it we see thousands of basaltic meteorites, but no olivine meteorites? Our answer: all that olivine is still hidden beneath the basaltic crust of Vesta. Ergo, as the only large intact asteroid where we could hide the olivine, only Vesta could be the source of the basalts.

Of course, even then we knew it wasn’t a perfect theory. There are a few other rare basaltic meteorites that are chemically very different from the Vesta samples; they must have come from different parent asteroids. Worse, we also have thousands of metal meteorites, presumably the cores of such molten asteroids; where did their mantles and crusts go? Maybe all the rocky parts of every other molten asteroid were battered to dust in the violent early days of the solar system, when asteroids smashed each other apart and collapsed back together to form planets, while the leftover shards were scattered into the asteroid belt. If so, then Vesta was unique indeed; it would be the only example of such a body that survived intact.

For that reason, in 2007 NASA launched the Dawn spacecraft to visit Vesta. After its arrival in 2012, it spent two years imaging Vesta’s surface and testing its gravity field. [Dawn is now in orbit around Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt.] It was our chance to see a primitive protoplanet, close up.

Dawn found a big impact basin at Vesta’s south pole, which should have dug at least thirty kilometers deep into the body – deep enough to expose the olivine mantle. Indeed, this basin actually overlaps an older, bigger basin that itself would have dug another thirty kilometers down. The two, combined, should surely have exposed the mantle. But we see no olivine there; none scattered on the surface from the impacts; no olivine fragments orbiting in the asteroid belt nearby. Vesta’s crust must be unexpectedly thick.

At the Asteroids-Comets-Meteors conference in Helsinki this month [July 2014], I pointed out another problem. Dawn’s gravity measurements tell us that Vesta has a bigger iron core than we expected. But that means, between the thick crust and the big core, there’s no room left for the olivine that our chemical models demand.

We used to think that the interior of Vesta looked like the figure on the left; that's what can reproduce the chemistry of the HEDs. But only the version on the right actually matches the Vesta that Dawn saw. So what happened to all that green stuff, the olivine? Good question!

But that leaves the question: where’s the olivine? Our observations and theories still don’t fit.

I’m often asked if science contradicts religion – a foolish concern, since science and religion don’t treat the same subjects. The real fun occurs when science contradicts science.

[This work continues to puzzle and astound us. It's still controversial -- the Dawn team refuses to admit that Vesta isn't the pristine asteroid that they promised NASA they'd be exploring. But our 2015 paper in the scientific journal Icarus continues to be referenced, and nothing we've learned since has change my mind... so far.]

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
  118. Across the Universe: Edge of the World
  119. Across the Universe: A Thousand Stars are Born
  120. Across the Universe: Expect Surprises
  121. Across the Universe: Song of Praise
  122. Across the Universe: Jesuit Science
  123. Across the Universe: Of stars and sheep
  124. Across the Universe: Ephemeral science
  125. Across the Universe: Fast changes
  126. Across the Universe: The Hows of Science
  127. From The Tablet: Big Science, Hurrah!
  128. Across the Universe: Hidden inclusions
  129. Across the Universe: Where’s the olivine?

View the entire series

How Frs. Riccioli and Dechales Argued that Science Shows the Earth to be at Rest – The Coriolis Effect
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Hurricane Sandy from 2012. Credit:NOAA.

Hurricane Sandy from 2012. Credit:NOAA.

The Coriolis Effect is an apparent deflection of projectiles and falling bodies that is caused by the rotation of the Earth.  It is named for Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis, a French scientist who described it mathematically in the early 19th century.  It is responsible for the rotation of weather patterns such as hurricanes.  But it turns out that a century and a half before Coriolis did his work, other scientists were discussing the Coriolis Effect.  These scientists were Jesuits—Fr. Giovanni Battista Riccioli, who discussed the effect in his 1651 book Almagestum Novum, and Fr. Claude François Milliet Dechales, who discussed the effect and included some nice simple diagrams of it in his 1674 book Cursus seu Mundus Mathematicae.

What is interesting about this is that Riccioli and Dechales were discussing an effect that they did not believe to exist.  Their whole point was that, were Earth rotating like Copernicus says, that rotation would produce observable effects—deflection of projectiles and falling bodies.  Since these effects are not observed, that is an argument against Copernicus, and in favor of an immobile Earth.

Now, they were wrong about the effect not existing.  The effect exists, but it is much harder to observe than one might expect.  Indeed, even Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke in 1679-1680 tried, without success, to use the effect to prove Earth’s rotation.

From a 1690 edition of Cursus seu Mundus mathematicus. Click here for the entire page.

Dechales's cannon illustration, from a 1690 edition of Cursus seu Mundus mathematicus. Click here for the entire page.

How does the Coriolis Effect work?  Well, let’s let Dechales explain it—he explains it well, using very clear illustrations.  First the deflection of falling bodies:

A ball F, hanging from the top of a tower directly above point G, is dropped.  While the ball descends, point G is carried [by Earth’s rotation] into I.  I propose the ball F to be unable to arrive at point G (now at I).  This is because the ball when positioned at F has a momentum [impetus] requisite for passing through arc FH (through which the tower top moves while the ball descends) which is greater than that requisite for arc GI.  Therefore, if the ball is dropped, it will not arrive at point I, but will advance forward farther [to L].

Then, the deflection of projectiles:

Likewise, consider a cannon discharged in the direction of one of the poles [of the Earth].  During the time in which the ball would traverse the distance MO, the cannon [originally at M] would be carried to N, while the target [originally at O] would be carried to P.  While the ball was at M, it had from the rotation of the Earth momentum able to carry it through arc MN (which is greater than arc OP) during the time required to travel from M to O.  But the ball, separated from the cannon, conserves this momentum whole [totum hunc impetum conservat].  Therefore it should run through a distance greater than OP, and consequently not hit the target.

From a 1690 edition of Cursus seu Mundus mathematicus. Click here for the entire page.

Dechales's cannon illustration, from a 1690 edition of Cursus seu Mundus mathematicus. Click here for the entire page.

Note how Dechales illustrates the cannon ball passing to the right of the target.

You can read all about this in this month’s issue of Physics TodayJust click here.  For a more detailed discussion from the Cornell University ArXiv preprint server, click here.

 

 

 

Kicking up some dust – Apollo 11 Memories Part 1
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Airfix model of the LEM - A gift sometime later. I really enjoyed making it.

July 20 1969, I was  12 years old living in a regular suburban house with regular suburban parents. In my family I the eldest of five at the time. As with most families then we had to be in bed at 8 pm on weeknights, maybe 9.30pm at weekend’s school holidays or not that was the way it was. The Moon landing held a big interest for me, I really wanted to see it. Irish TV (Telefis Eireann) were going to cover the story with a special programme. Much to my surprise, the pestering of my parents in just the right way and at just the right time produced a yes. Deirdre was allowed to stay up and see how the story unfolded.

Telefis Eireann didn’t start broadcasting until 6 pm in those days, the Moon landing programme started at 9 pm and was presented by Kevin O’Kelly. We had a small black and white TV with a rabbit-ear aerial. TV sets then had to warm up and as they did so dust at the back kinda threw out a burning smell. When you looked inside the gaps at the back you could see the glass valves and the tube.

Our TV had lots of dots on the screen plus problems with the vertical and horizontal hold. TV’s of that era often suffered from this affliction, unpredictably and always inappropriately. Televisions from 1969 had the original rolling news way before Sky! ‘Hitting the box’ as it was referred to, was the required cure when twiddling the dials at the back did not fix the problem. Late into the night only my Dad and I were still watching fine-tuning and adjusting the TV to get the best picture. There were lots of previews and progress reports, and chat about what was going to happen. I had never been up so late in my life. The biggest moment in the history of space exploration was going to play out in front of my eyes directly from the surface of the Moon. My memory is full of beeps and tech talk from Houston (Houston Texas was the mission control centre for the Apollo mission) to the Command Module and from Houston to the Lunar Lander. I recall seeing the tiny triangular window which was the view from the Eagle as it came in to land on the surface of the Moon.

Apollo 11 Transcript

EAGLE: 540 Feet, down at 30 feet per second …down at 15 … 400 feet down a 9…forward…350 feet down a 4… 300 feet, down 3½ … 47 forward… 1½ down…13 foreword…11 forward coming down nicely…200 feet, 4½ down…5½ down…5 percent…75feet …6 forward …lights on…down 2½…kicking some dust… 30 feet, 2½ faint shadow…4 forward… 4 forward… drifting to right a little …OK…

HOUSTON: 30 Seconds fuel remaining

EAGLE: Contact light! OK, engine stop…descent engine command override off…

HOUSTON: We copy you down, Eagle

EAGLE: Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed!

Touchdown 9: 18 pm  (USA time) A Caption on the TV screen saying “Man on the Moon”, overlaid onto live shots of Houston control room.

There was continuous coverage in preparation for the Moonwalk, which was originally scheduled for 2.00am but delayed. Pictures of mission control, the sound of Houston - Apollo conversations and then the first TV pictures from the lunar surface just a few minutes before the Moonwalk. I remember what seemed like endless hours waiting for the hatch to open. Kevin O’Kelly had to do a lot of talking, and a lot of speculation about what was going on and just what the two astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were doing inside the lunar landing module.

Many people all over Ireland waited and waited to see this monumental moment and at last at 3.56am Neil Armstrong came down the ladder and said those words “One small step for man one giant leap for mankind” it was a neck choking emotional thing to see live on TV. A man standing on the surface of the Moon 250,000 miles from Earth, the first human ever to be on another world. At 4.16 am Armstrong was joined on the lunar surface by Buzz Aldrin.

My memories of how they bounced around in the Moons weaker gravity will never leave me. Also, the American flag is placed on the lunar surface. Collins orbited the Moon in the Command Module waiting for Armstrong and Aldrin to blast off when their incredible visit was over to re dock for the journey home.

Some sleep was badly needed, Dad had to go to work the next day, as it was Monday so we went to bed. Telefis Eireann covered the missions dramatic lift off from the Moon. I don’t remember seeing that live, I think I saw it on the news later in the evening.

For many days after the Moonwalk was repeated on TV. It really was an incredible achievement. The astronauts were so courageous because if something went wrong with the Lunar Module there was no way back to Earth for them. Michael Collins would have had a crushing and lonely trip home if he could have done it by himself.

The Apollo 11 crew left among other things a 9 by 7-inch stainless steel plaque on the Moon, to commemorate the landing and provide basic information about the visit to any other beings that may eventually see it. The plaque reads:

Here men from the Planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969, A.D.

We came in peace for all mankind.

The plaque depicts the two sides of planet Earth and is signed by the three astronauts, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins as well as US President Richard Nixon.

On the return journey to Earth, I recall the splash down and recovery. A large aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean, a partly clouded sky and the world’s press. Everyone was waiting to see the parachute bringing the Apollo crew back to Earth. I recall the crew displayed in an oblong chamber with big windows and people looking in at them. The reason for the chamber was the paranoia about Moon bugs or Moon viruses that might have contaminated the astronauts, all three of them even though Collins did not set foot on the surface. So they endured this quarantine and later on August 13 they had a ticker tape parade in New York, which I saw, on the news. This was to honour these brave men who had been on an extraordinary journey and had survived . They had given our planet and its people an extraordinary milestone in human history that has not been surpassed since that incredible day.

Back in February 1969 when I was 11, I had bought a copy of  National Geographic Magazine. The issue came with supplement map of the Moon showing the proposed landing sites for the Apollo missions. It says in the bottom left-hand corner of the map about the proposed Apollo 11 mission for July 1969.

THE MOST DARING EXCURSION IN THE HISTORY OF HUMAN ENDEAVOR IS ABOUT TO TURN THE MOON INTO EARTHS STEPPING STONE TO THE UNIVERSE

Interestingly enough, while the Moon has not as yet become a launch pad to the universe, July 20, 1969, is linked directly to my life today. My interest in space exploration has led me to write several articles on the subject for local and International amateur astronomy magazines. My immersion in astronomy and space is linked to being a witness of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. Many of my drawing workshops, drawings and paintings stem directly from that moment. The National Geographic moon map hangs in my study to this day and is an inspiration.

What’s in the Sky July 18, 2017
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Eastern Sky - July 18 2017 4:30 AM

Eastern Sky - July 18 2017 4:30 AM; Venus orbit is shown in red. Image credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley

Venus continues to dominate the morning sky in the east, but appears slightly lower in the sky each morning as it pulls ahead of us in its orbit.

Conjunction of the Moon, Venus and Aldebaran- July 19-20, 2017 4:30 AM

Conjunction of the Moon, Venus and Aldebaran - July 19-20, 2017 4:30 AM. Image credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley

The waning crescent Moon will appear near Venus the the star Aldebaran on the mornings of July 19th and 20th. The New Moon will be on the 23rd.

Southwestern Sky - July 18, 2017 11 PM

Southwestern Sky - July 18, 2017 11 PM. Image credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley

Jupiter and Saturn appear in the south-southwestern sky after sunset; Jupiter will appear slightly lower in the western sky each day as the Earth pulls ahead of Jupiter in its orbit.

Andromeda rising in the northeast -July 18, 2017 11 PM

Andromeda rising in the northeast - July 18, 2017 11 PM; position of M31 is highlighted. Image credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley

The constellations Pegasus and Andromeda appear low in the northeast sky after sunset; the wispy cloud of M31, the Andromeda galaxy, makes a good target for telescope observers.

Andromeda Galaxy

Andromeda Galaxy. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

M31 is the nearest major galaxy to the Milky Way. It is 2.5 million light years distant, and heading straight at us; in a little over 4 billion years, it will collide with the Milky way, and the two galaxies will merge into a large elliptical galaxy.

Don't expect M31 to look like this time-exposure image in your backyard telescope tho - it typically appears as a circular blue-greenish cloud, surrounded by a larger and dimmer cigar-shaped cloud.

Sharpest ever view of the Andromeda Galaxy. Click to see ZOOMable 6000px image.
Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton (University of Washington, USA), B. F. Williams (University of Washington, USA), L. C. Johnson (University of Washington, USA), the PHAT team, and R. Gendler.

In January of 2015, the Hubble Space Telescope team released this GIANT mosaic image of the Andromeda galaxy. There is a clickable-version that lets you explore a 48,000-light-year-long swath of the Andromeda galaxy in exquisite detail.

The Sky Overhead - July 18, 2017 11 PM

The Sky Overhead - July 18, 2017 11 PM. Image credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley

The Solar System July 18-24, 2017

Animation of the Solar System from July 18-24, 2017. Image credit: NASA Eyes on the Solar System / Bob Trembley

Apps used for this post:

Stellarium: a free open source planetarium app for PC/MAC/Linux.
NASA Eyes on the Solar System: an immersive 3D solar system and space mission app - free for the PC /MAC.

Problems in the Poles: A new iceberg in Antarctica meets an old message from the Arctic
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Map of Antarctica Peninsula Ice Shelves. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Last week, a new iceberg the size of Delaware broke off from Larsen C, an ice shelf off the peninsula of Antarctica. Larsen C is named after Carl Anton Larsen, a whaler who sailed along Antarctica's Peninsula in 1893 (down to about the 68th parallel south). The map on the right displays many ice shelves, including four that bear Larsen's name (A, B, C, and D).

The Larsen A ice shelf toward the northern tip of the peninsula collapsed and disintegrated in 1995. From January to March of 2002, the Larsen B ice shelf collapsed, sending a group of ice chunks the size of Rhode Island into the Weddell Sea. Larsen B is in the process of disintegrating as did Larsen A. It is speculated that the ice shelf will completely disintegrate by 2020.

This latest iceberg is the fourth largest to break off from Antarctica's ice shelves, decreasing the size of Larsen C by 10%. The impact this iceberg will have on the environment and local shipping routes is still unclear. There is equal uncertainty of the impact this iceberg will have upon the future of the Larsen C ice shelf. Some scientists think Larsen C will remain intact due to the health of underwater "pillars" that provide stability for the shelf while others believe Larsen C's days are numbered, facing a similar fate as did Larsen A and B. Time will tell what the long-term impact of this iceberg will be, but events of this nature often provoke questions about the potential of rising sea levels, the stability of Antarctica's remaining ice shelves, and how such events will impact global climate in the future?


NASA image of the crack that developed over the years, creating this large iceberg. Graphic Credit: NASA/USGS Landsat

A question of immediate concern is whether or not global warming is contributing to these events? Eugene Domak, Professor of Geological Oceanography at the University of Southern Florida and Director of LARISSA, a group that analyses climate change and its impact upon the Larsen ice shelves, stated in 2015 that it is unclear what is definitively causing these collapses, but a potential smoking gun could be the increase in water and air temperature in this region. If this is the case, the next logical question would be whether or not human activity contributed to these temperature increases? For more information on the new iceberg that broke off of Larsen C, check out this article from NASA entitled, "Massive Iceberg Breaks Off from Antarctica."

As new icebergs are born in the south, my attention is drawn north to the Arctic and Greenland. Recent NASA research has shown that the Arctic is experiencing a higher number of warm weather events. The significance of this finding is that warmer weather in the north will keep Arctic ice from thickening and growing. This development also leads to the melting of ice in the Arctic that can adversely impact the existing Arctic ecosystem, contribute to the rising of sea levels, and creates hardship for the indigenous peoples whose livelihood depends upon the stability of Arctic ice.

In 2007, Patriarch Bartholomew organized the seventh Religion, Science, and Environment (RSE) Symposium, which explored Greenland and the Arctic Sea.  The clear focus for this Symposium was how pollution has adversely impacted Greenland's people and ecosystem. A sobering truth about these contaminants is that their origins emanate from Europe and the United States. The Symposium explored how these contaminants are contributing to a higher frequency of diabetes, increasing mercury levels in Greenland's food supply, and impacting childbirth by decrease the ratio of male births from 1.1 male child per female to 2 female children for every male birth. From the standpoint of ethics and morality, one must ask what level of responsibility countries have when their pollution adversely impacts the people of another country such as Greenland? This ethical question was not lost to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who offered a letter of greeting to Patriarch Bartholomew and the participants of the RSE Symposium.

Preservation of the environment, promotion of sustainable development and particular attention to climate change are matters of grave concern for the entire human family. No nation or business sector can ignore the ethical implications present in all economic and social development. With increasing clarity scientific research demonstrates that the impact of human actions in any one place or region can have worldwide effects. The consequences of disregard for the environment cannot be limited to immediate area or populus because they always harm human coexistence, and thus betray human dignity and violate the rights of citizens who desire to live in a safe environment (cf. Message for the 2007 World Day of Peace 8-9)...

Your Holiness, the international and multi-disciplinary nature of the symposium attests to the need to seek global solutions to the matters under consideration. I am encouraged by the growing recognition that the entire human community - children and adults, industry sectors, States and international bodies - must take seriously the responsibility that falls to each and every one of us. While it is true that industrializing countries are not morally free to repeat the past errors of others, by recklessly continuing to damage the environment (cf. ibid., 10), it is also the case that highly industrialized countries must share 'clean-technologies' and ensure that their own markets do not sustain demand for goods whose very production contributes to the proliferation of pollution. Mutual interdependence between nations’ economic and social activities demands international solidarity, cooperation and on-going educational efforts. It is these principles which the Religion, Science and the Environment movement courageously upholds. (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, To His Holiness Bartholomaios I. September 1, 2007)

When reflecting upon Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's call for world leaders to take seriously the responsibility of care for creation, we are reminded that care for creation is not a uniquely Orthodox or Catholic issue. Rather, it is a universal ethic, realizing that all people participate in God's plan of salvation upon this good Earth and the health of this good Earth is necessary to allow God's plan of salvation to be accomplished. Patriarch Bartholomew affirmed this universal approach to environmental ethics and explained how Scripture can help a modern world rethink how we are to interpret the "signs of the times."

For better or worse, we are now living in an age when the destinies of all human beings, and all human communities, are ever more closely intertwined. Patterns of behavior and consumption in one corner of the globe can affect the lives and livelihood of people who live at the other extremity of the earth.  If the environment of the polar region is now changing at a frightening pace, that is because of economic activities and energy choices in the industrialized world, far to the south. And the alteration in the Arctic environment has the potential to inundate islands in the tropics, or cities as far away as Shanghai or New York. Borrowing a phrase from modern journalism, what we are experiencing is the death of distance. There is no segment of the human race which can hope to isolate itself from the destiny of mankind, and of life on earth in general.

This new proximity, this closeness need not be a bad thing if we learn to read the “signs of the times”. (Matthew 16:3).  To some degree, we are all drawn closer by a common experience of fear and suffering as the consequences of climate change are felt in different ways.  At a time when climatic emergencies of many different kinds are affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of people, we have no moral choice but to “bear one another’s burdens” as the New Testament (Galatians 6:2) enjoins us. Here in the Arctic, melting glaciers are threatening the way of life of traditional hunters. In our home region of southern Europe, we have seen an alarming combination of heatwaves, drought, fires and also floods. Scientists inform us that all these phenomena are connected. When we visited Brazil last year, the region was still recovering from a highly unusual drought. Brazilian scientists told us that illegal deforestation was leading to a decrease in rainfall and making fires more common. Fires and deforestation in Brazil are among the many factors which are altering the climate, and hence the environment, here on the northern edge of the earth. (Patriarch Bartholomew I, Speech at the Katuaq Cultural Centre, September 9, 2007)

These reflections from a Pope and a Patriarch combined with the struggles of the people of Greenland and the emerging environmental sciences call us to a new sense of solidarity that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called an "intergenerational solidarity." This vision of ecological solidarity calls us to ensure access to natural resources for both current and future generations, realizing that human dignity is challenged when basic needs are denied. This solidarity has been a constant plea from Pope Francis, finding its strongest voice in his encyclical Laudato Si'.

I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges. Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity. As the bishops of Southern Africa have stated: “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation”. All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents. (Pope Francis, Laudato Si'. 14)

The above video is a summary of the RSE Symposium held in the Arctic. When reflecting upon emerging environmental issues at the South Pole or continued ecological issues at the North Pole, they remind us that care for creation is not to be seen as an isolated issue for the few, but a constant challenge to be faced by all. Pray this week that the world may continue to embrace an ecological solidarity, seeing in this solidarity a conscious decision to provide the material needs that allow humanity to pursue their spiritual needs.

Also in Integral Ecology

  1. Human Ecology: What Is It?
  2. Laudato Si’ – Encyclical on Ecology: Post #1: Let’s All Take a Deep Breath
  3. Laudato Si’ – Post #2: Introduction and Chapter One: A Plea for Action.
  4. Laudato Si’ – Post #3: Chapter Two – Pope Francis and the Last March of the Ents
  5. Laudato Si’ – Post #4: Chapters Three and Four – Unmasking Radical Anthropocentrism.
  6. Laudato Si’ – Post #5: Chapter 5 – Politics, Religion, and Science at the Dinner Table? Yes, When Dinning With Pope Francis!
  7. Laudato Si’: Final Post – Chapter Six: Broadening Our Language of Reverence.
  8. What Happens if the Earth Dies? Astronomy, Ecology, and Social Change.
  9. What Can the Sun Do to Us? Solar Flares, Technology, and Pope Francis.
  10. Amid Creation’s Groaning, There is Hope: Exploring The Intimate Connection Between God And Creation During Advent.
  11. COP21: Understanding the Paris Climate Change Conference in Light of Laudato Si’.
  12. Seeing is Believing: The Role Astronomy Plays in Understanding Global Climate Change.
  13. When the Heavens and Earth Were Sacred: Recapturing a Sacramental Worldview.
  14. Give Drink To The Thirsty: Ecology, Astronomy, And The Year of Mercy
  15. Reading Creation: Exploring The Book of Nature and The Book of Scripture (Part One)
  16. Reading Creation: Exploring The Book of Nature and The Book of Scripture (Part Two)
  17. Priests of Creation: Reclaiming Biblical Ecology through Maximus the Confessor
  18. Astronomy, Ecology, and Social Ethics: Looking at Climate Trends for 2016
  19. Why Introduce Works of Mercy About the Environment?
  20. The Ratzinger Foundation and Ecology: Moving Toward a New Ecological Index Based on Laudato Si’.
  21. Just How “Green” Is Christianity? Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of Patriarch Bartholomew
  22. The Book of Revelation and the Environment: 1995 Waterborne Symposium – Aegean Sea
  23. When Religion and Science Sought To Save The Black Sea: 1997 Waterborne Symposium
  24. Earth Day and Catholicism: What Is A Christian To Do?
  25. Ideology Vs. Environment: What the Danube River can teach us about faith, ecology, politics, and human dignity.
  26. Environmental Ethics and Ethos. The RSE Symposia on the Adriatic and Baltic Seas.
  27. Problems in the Poles: A new iceberg in Antarctica meets an old message from the Arctic

View the entire series

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot from Juno
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Juno over the Great Red Spot

Juno over the Great Red Spot on July 10, 2017 (simulation at 9.7x real-time). Credit: NASA Eyes on the Solar System / Bob Trembley

The Juno spacecraft made its seventh close approach (perijove) to Jupiter on July 10th, flying directly over the Great Red Spot. The raw images from the mission are publicly available, and have been post-processed by several different individuals. The results are as beautiful as they are varied.

This stunning image, processed by Seán Doran, was featured on the Astronomy Picture of the Day on July 15, 2017:

Great Red Spot [ 060 ] V1. Credit : NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran © PUBLIC DOMAIN


Here are some more examples of post-processing from the imaging community:

Great Red Spot Turbulence near Mortyland ROI. Credit : NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Shawn Handran © PUBLIC DOMAIN

Like and Impressionist's Painting.Credit: NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Hilana-69 © PUBLIC DOMAIN

Sleepy Eye. Credit : NASA / SwRI / MSSS /Tom Momary © CC NC SA

This image was processed by Jason Major, who runs the fantastic Lights in the Dark website; the image was used in this post by NASA.

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot imaged by Juno on July 10, 2017. Credit: NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major

This video was created using the NASA's Eyes on the Solar System app shows the Juno spacecraft coming up on the Great Red Spot; I knew the storm was big, but I've never seen it from this perspective... it's BIG!

This video gives you a good idea of how close the Juno spacecraft gets to Jupiter during perijove:


Juno Raw Images: https://www.missionjuno.swri.edu/junocam/processing

Space is mind-bogglingly big
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Writer Douglas Adams says space is mind-bogglingly big. Here is perhaps an interesting facet for thinking on this topic. Imagine sitting at one end of a room in which at an appointed time a friend enters from the far side. Now imagine that you look and look but cannot see this friend when they first enter, no matter how hard you squint your eyes.

After a while, the person does appear to walk into the room, but the information is delayed from the time at which it actually happened. We are not familiar with such experiences. It does not happen to us on Earth only because of the small size of our planet, but it does happen in outer space.

The reason for this ‘optical illusion’ has to do with the properties of light. Our eyes know that a friend is present only when light from a light bulb, or sunlight coming in through a window, bounces off of that friend and then reflects back into your eyes. On Earth this is not instant, but instead takes some tiny tiny (but non-zero) interval of time amounting to less than a billionth of a second.

This time interval is not so tiny when we consider now moving the setting of the story into space. One doesn’t actually have to go very far away to experience significant apparent ‘disappearances’ of friends.

Imagine this time that a friend is in a space ship in orbit about Jupiter. When the friend appears from the back side of this planet, the light reaches our eyes (or rather our telescopes), about 30 minutes after the friend actually appears! And the effect is mutual.

When the friend circles Jupiter and is in a position to see you send up a gigantic flare into the sky from the Earth, it would be about 30 minutes after the fact before your friend would see the flare.

The farther away, the stronger the effect. From the vantage point of the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, for example, it would take about four years for your friend to see the flare you set off.

From the nearest large spiral galaxy to us, the Andromeda Galaxy it would take about 2.2 million years for the friend (or the friend’s endlessly great grandchildren) to see the flare.

Likewise, if you saw a flare set off by a being in the Andromeda Galaxy all you would know is that some intelligent creature made this deliberate signal 2.2 million years ago. One would not know even if the intelligent species still existed...! And there are 100 billion galaxies.

Across the Universe: Hidden inclusions
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This column first ran in The Tablet in July 2013

I was in a state of high excitement (or what passes for such when you’re sixty years old): the Pope was coming to lunch with our Jesuit community at the Vatican Observatory! Meanwhile, I was also preparing a paper for the annual Meteoritical Society meeting, and I had just noticed a wonderful correlation in my data. These sorts of insights are as rare as Papal visits… if indeed I had really made one.

Cutting into an iron meteorite (this is Mt. Dooling) reveals dark sulfide inclusions, along with the famous crystal pattern of nickel-rich and nickel-poor metal

I’ve been studying iron meteorites; and it’s been hard work. For one thing, they are, quite literally, hard – lumps of nickel-iron, too hard to cut up easily to see what’s inside. I’ve seen iron meteorites being cut at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC; their saw sits in a room the size of gymnasium, makes an awful racket, and spews water everywhere. (The water cools the meteorite while a diamond-encrusted wire scrapes through it.)

When you do slice them open, you find iron crystals several millimeters wide, alternately nickel rich and nickel poor, along with similarly large lumps of sulfide. The meteorites in our collection have another ingredient as well: rust, the result of sitting in the ground for hundreds of years after their fall before being found by some collector. You might see sulfides or rust on the surface of a sample, but there’s no way to tell how much is present inside. Likewise, iron meteorites are classified by their nickel and other trace element content; but you can’t tell their class just by looking.

The meteorite Agustinovka is a rusty lump of iron, which could have lumps of sulfide hidden inside... somewhere.

But I can measure their densities. And if I drop them in liquid nitrogen, I can measure how much nitrogen boils away, which tells me how much heat they hold. Both density and heat capacity ought to vary with the nickel, sulfide, or rust that’s present.

I’d measured dozens of iron meteorite samples, and when I plotted density against heat capacity I saw a nice “vee-shaped” pattern. The sample that plotted at the point of the V looked to be free of sulfides or rust; the rustier meteorites plotted farther from this point. When I measured one sample that was almost completely sulfide, it plotted far from the others – as expected – but exactly on a line with one of the strokes of the “V”. Clearly, the more sulfide a sample has, the further along this line it should plot!

The next step would be to measure some very rusty meteorites, samples so degraded that I’d never thought I would have a use for them. I knew, in my heart, that these would certainly plot along the other stroke of the V; where one trend showed me the sulfide content, the other should show the rust content. The Pope’s wonderful visit came first; but once that was over I could get back into the lab and prove my thesis.

With only a handful of points it's always tempting, but risky, to jump to the conclusion that we're seeing real trends in the data

The result? Yes, they plot exactly on a line; but the wrong line. The rusty samples line up exactly on the same line as the sulfide sample. In other words, I have no idea what’s going.

An “insight” is to “see in”, to see what is hidden within; but my vision here is still cloudy. Maybe when I present this result at our convention, some colleague will have a helpful idea. That’s why we do science as a community; talking about it with other people helps us further our insights.

But the social aspect of science is also what motivates me to do the work in the first place. The excitement I felt was not only anticipating a new discovery, but anticipating the fun of telling my colleagues about it. That’s the joy of being with a friend, whether it’s a scientist or a Pope: sharing insights, stories, or a meal. That’s what the Mass is, after all.

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
  118. Across the Universe: Edge of the World
  119. Across the Universe: A Thousand Stars are Born
  120. Across the Universe: Expect Surprises
  121. Across the Universe: Song of Praise
  122. Across the Universe: Jesuit Science
  123. Across the Universe: Of stars and sheep
  124. Across the Universe: Ephemeral science
  125. Across the Universe: Fast changes
  126. Across the Universe: The Hows of Science
  127. From The Tablet: Big Science, Hurrah!
  128. Across the Universe: Hidden inclusions
  129. Across the Universe: Where’s the olivine?

View the entire series

The Sun’s Many Strange Neighbors
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Distances to and Luminosities of nearby stars.

Distances to and Luminosities of nearby stars.  Click on the table to enlarge.

The table at right* shows the distance to and luminosity of the twenty stars closest to our solar system. Distance is measured in light years (meaning that if a star is 10 light years from Earth, then it would require 10 years to reach that star, travelling at the speed of light). Luminosity, or power output, is given in terms of the Sun’s output (so a star with the same power output as our Sun would have a luminosity of 1). The stars in this table are the solar system’s twenty nearest neighbors.

Notice what a wimpy lot our neighbors are. Yes, there are some respectable stars among the bunch—obviously Sirius A, with 22 times (22x) the Sun’s power output, is a serious*~ star. Sirius is the “Dog Star” in the constellation Canis Major, and the brightest star in the night sky. It appears bright to us both because it is very close and because it is quite powerful. Procyon, the “Little Dog”, weighing in with over 7x the Sun’s luminosity, is another respectable star. And then there are the stars of Rigil Kentaurus (“Alpha Centauri”), which are very comparable to the Sun. There is also Epsilon Eridani (a barely-visible star in the barely-visible constellation Eridanus, the River) with a bit more than a quarter the Sun’s power, and then...

Wolf 359 in Star Trek

...and then there are a bunch of lousy excuses for stars! The star Wolf 359 (Star Trek fans will know this as the site of a battle in which a single Borg ship destroyed an entire fleet of Federation star ships) puts out power equal to 0.000019 Suns. The Sun is 53,000 times more powerful than Wolf 359. The Sun is 105,000 times more powerful than Gliese 866 Ab. These stars are not the brightest bulbs in in the proverbial box!

In fact, of the 100 nearest stars,* only four are more powerful than the Sun—Sirius, Procyon, Rigil, and Altair in the constellation Aquila (the Eagle). And only 11 of the nearest 100 are more powerful than Epsilon Eridani. And only 22 have at least 1% of the Sun’s luminosity. That’s right, 78 of the 100 nearest stars can’t muster 1/100th of the Sun’s power output. All 78 of them together would not equal the Sun. In fact, as many of them are like Wolf 359 (perhaps better named “Chihuahua 359”—“Wolf” being too strong a name), all 78 would not come close to equaling the Sun.

The universe seems to be full of low-power stars. The general name given to such stars is “red dwarfs”—“dwarfs” for obvious reasons, “red” because they are not very hot and glow with a dull red color. You will often hear that the vast majority of all stars are red dwarfs.

Yet not a single star that you see in the night sky is a red dwarf. Of the 100 nearest stars, about 15 are visible to keen unaided eyes under very dark, non-light-polluted skies.~* Every single one of those “naked eye” nearest neighbor stars puts out more than 1% of the Sun’s power. Thus every single star that you see with your unaided eye—even the faintest star you might see under pristine, dark skies—would rank among the most luminous 22 of our neighboring stars.

In other words, when you look up at the night sky, you do not see the “average Joes” and “average Janes” of the stars. You see only a select group of stars—the rich and the powerful, the best and the brightest. That’s something to consider: the stars we see are not at all representative of what the vast majority of stars really are. The universe as a whole is not really that much like the stuff we see with our eyes.

This would have surprised many astronomers from the past few centuries. After Copernicus’s heliocentric theory became widely accepted, astronomers tended to assume that what we see is representative of the universe as a whole. For example, as noted in a recent post, Galileo regularly assumed that the stars were just like the sun, and his view was not uncommon. And, as noted in another post from a while back, astronomers also commonly assumed that other planets would be just like Earth. Thus you will find in astronomy books from the past few centuries illustrations showing the universe being full of innumerable star systems like our solar system.

An illustration from the 1742 Atlas Coelestis of Johann Gabriel Doppelmayr showing the stars as being suns. The Latin reads, “Kind viewer, for your consideration we display to you in this little sketch the immense swarm of FIXED STARS, which shine not with reflected light of the Sun, in the manner of the dark bodies of the Planets, but all shine as SUNS, with light innate to them. And without doubt all are surrounded by their own Planets, in the fashion of our Sun, to which they impart their radiance. These have not been placed there in vain by the Creator.... [Benevole Spectator, Innumerabilem FIXARUM exercitum isthoc pusillo schemate tibi considerandum proponimus, quae non velut opaca Planetarum corpora, mutuatitio Solis lumine, sed innata sibi luce totidem SOLES radiant suis quoque adinstar Solis nostri haud dubie Planetis, quibus radios suos impertiantur, circumdatae, non enim frustra illuc a Creatore positas esse arbitramur....]” This image is of a modern reproduction of the Atlas Coelestis that is in the Archives and Special Collections of the Ekstrom Library of the University of Louisville (Kentucky).

An illustration from the 1742 Atlas Coelestis of Johann Gabriel Doppelmayr showing the stars as being suns. The Latin reads, “Kind viewer, for your consideration we display to you in this little sketch the immense swarm of FIXED STARS, which shine not with reflected light of the Sun, in the manner of the dark bodies of the Planets, but all shine as SUNS, with light innate to them. And without doubt all are surrounded by their own Planets, in the fashion of our Sun, to which they impart their radiance. We suppose these have not been placed there in vain by the Creator.... [Benevole Spectator, Innumerabilem FIXARUM exercitum isthoc pusillo schemate tibi considerandum proponimus, quae non velut opaca Planetarum corpora, mutuatitio Solis lumine, sed innata sibi luce totidem SOLES radiant suis quoque adinstar Solis nostri haud dubie Planetis, quibus radios suos impertiantur, circumdatae, non enim frustra illuc a Creatore positas esse arbitramur....]” This image is of a modern reproduction of the Atlas Coelestis that is in the Archives and Special Collections of the Ekstrom Library of the University of Louisville (Kentucky).  Image used with permission.

But as we astronomers have learned more about the stars, we have found that there is great diversity among them. Some stars have been found to be far larger and more powerful than the Sun. The star Rigel, which shines prominently in the constellation Orion, is so powerful that the Sun compared to it is like Wolf 359 compared to the Sun. Seen from Earth, Rigel and Procyon appear to be comparable stars. But that is only because Procyon about 80 times closer than Rigel. Now powerful modern telescopes have shown astronomers that the Rigels are vastly, vastly outnumbered by these red dwarf stars that are much smaller and weaker than the Sun. We now understand that the “typical star” is not much like the Sun. Nor is the typical star much like the stars we see in the night sky such as Procyon, Sirius, and Rigel. The “typical star” is a red dwarf. Just as astronomers in the past learned that planets are diverse, and not all like Earth, astronomers today are learning that stars are diverse, and not all like the Sun.

And, when we consider that astronomers today believe that the universe as a whole consists primarily of “dark matter” and “dark energy”—things that we cannot even find on Earth at all—we understand that neither our planet, nor our Sun, nor even our very matter and substance, is particularly representative of the universe as a whole. It’s a strange universe out there. It is not at all like that endless procession of Sun-like systems that astronomers envisioned not so long ago.

The locations in the night sky of (from left to right) Procyon, Sirius, Rigel, and Epsilon Eridani.

The locations in the night sky of (from left to right) Procyon, Sirius, Rigel, and Epsilon Eridani.


*All data on nearby stars are from Celestia, version 1.6.1.
*~Pun absolutely intended.
~*That is sixth magnitude or brighter (for those familiar with the magnitude system).

 

In the Sky This Week – July 11, 2017
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Venus Aldebaran Conjunction July 10-18 2017

Venus-Aldebaran Conjunction July 10-18, 2017 5:00 AM. Image credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley

Venus continues to be the "morning star" in the east, and will appear very close to the red giant star Aldebaran - the "eye of the bull" in the constellation Taurus. On the 11th, Venus will be 3 north of Aldebaran, over the course of the week, Venus' day to day change in position relative to Aldebaran will be very noticeable.

Vega and Altair at Dawn - July 12, 2017

Vega and Altair Fading with the Dawn - July 12, 2017 5:45 AM. Image credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley

In the west, bright stars Vega and Altair are the last to fade in the oncoming dawn.

On the 11th, a waning gibbous Moon will be rise in the east before midnight, and set in the west around 9:00 AM. On the 18th, a waning crescent Moon will rise shortly after 2:00 AM, and be visible until it is lost in the glare of the rising sun after 6:00 AM. The Moon will be at third quarter on the 16th, and will be visible from about 1:00 AM - 1:00 PM.*

Southern Sky - July 11, 2017

Southern Sky - July 11, 2017 11:00 PM. Image credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley

Jupiter and Saturn are visible in the southern sky after sunset; Jupiter sets shortly after midnight, and Saturn sets around 3:30 AM.

Northern Sky - July 11, 2017

Northern Sky - July 11, 2017 11:00 PM. Image credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley

The constellation Cassiopeia, recognizable as a "big W," appears low on the horizon to the north shortly after sunset.

The Sky Overhead - July 11, 2017

The Sky Overhead - July 11, 2017 11:00 PM. Image credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley

The Solar System - July 10, 2017

The Solar System - July 10, 2017. Image credit: NASA Eyes on the Solar System / Bob Trembley

* I was once asked by a very well educated adult relative: "Why can I see the Moon during the day?" The Moon orbits around the Earth - that orbit takes the Moon around both the sunlit and nighttime sides of the Earth. A new Moon, being "in front of the Earth" is lost in the glare of the Sun; first and third quarter Moons can be seen during both day and nighttime hours. The full Moon, being "behind the Earth" is visible from dusk to dawn.

Apps used for this post:

Stellarium: a free open source planetarium app for PC/MAC/Linux.
NASA Eyes on the Solar System: an immersive 3D solar system and space mission app - free for the PC /MAC.

Bursting Bubbles: Understanding Solar Eclipses and the Bible (Part Two)
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In part one of my reflection on solar eclipses and the Bible, I reflected on references to eclipses that were clearly metaphorical. We concluded with the prophet Jeremiah's warning against astrology and the use of heavenly symbols as predictors of the future. This week, we'll delve into passages that seem to contradict this warning, speaking of chaos in the heavens in more apocalyptic tones.

When apocalyptic references to "signs in the sky" are made in the Bible, they are not simply about eclipses, but all of creation seems to be out of sorts. At the same time, there are clear references in Scripture of the heavens that are stable and exhibit beauty. This dynamic points to a vision of liturgy, seeing in the Earthly Liturgy and the Heavenly Liturgy a mirrored relationship where the Mass becomes the meeting point of heaven and earth. This is why traditional Church architecture often depicts stars and the night sky in the ceiling of the Church to represent this sacred meeting.

Image of the stars in the ceiling of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in my home Diocese.

One of the central Scripture passages that make a connection between the harmonious view of the earthly and heavenly liturgies comes from Genesis. Let us reflect upon God's reference to the stars of the sky with Abram (Abraham).

Some time afterward, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: Do not fear, Abram! I am your shield; I will make your reward very great. But Abram said, “Lord GOD, what can you give me, if I die childless and have only a servant of my household, Eliezer of Damascus?” Abram continued, “Look, you have given me no offspring, so a servant of my household will be my heir.” Then the word of the LORD came to him: No, that one will not be your heir; your own offspring will be your heir. He took him outside and said: Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so, he added, will your descendants be. Abram put his faith in the LORD, who attributed it to him as an act of righteousness. (Genesis 15:1-6)

This passage contributes to the biblical understanding of stars as symbolizing either people or heavenly, angelic powers. This is an important clarification to make before we approach apocalyptic texts like the book of Revelation. For example, in Revelation 1:16, reference is made of Christ holding seven stars. Later in Revelation 1:20, it explains that the meaning of the seven stars is that they represent the seven angels of the seven Churches referenced in Revelation.

This passage may seem clear and straight forward, however, the more we dig the more we discover the deep symbolism of the Book of Revelation. At the time of the authorship of Revelation, the image of seven stars being held in the right hand would have been understood as a symbol of the pagan god Mithras and the Cesars that ruled the Roman Empire. This symbol of the seven stars would have instantly reminded early Christians of their persecution at the hand of Nero. The Roman Empire was the most powerful political entity in the world at that time, making this a symbol of authority and dominion.

However, when Revelation clarifies the symbol of the seven stars, it does not reference the oppressive powers of the Roman Empire, but they represent a new authority with new "rulers" to guide the people. When the "angels" that led the seven persecuted Churches are referenced, biblical scholars note that this could be a reference to angelic powers, but also see this reference as a possible code pointing to the people who led the seven Churches. Therefore, a contrast is being made between the kingdom of the Roman Empire with Nero as its head and the infant Kingdom of God with Christ as its head. There is more that could be said, but this reminds us that we must be careful with apocalyptic texts to not over simplify them in a way that strips them of their rich meaning and beauty.

What is also present in images of the heavens is a view of how creation and God are intimately connected. Therefore, when creation is in right relationship and acting as it should, it reflects right relationship with God. When creation is not in right relationship, this reflects a broken relationship with God. Therefore, apocalyptic imagery also contains a commentary that when we mistreat creation, creation itself "rebels" or reflects this disrupted relationship. In one of the more brutal passages of Scripture, Isaiah depicts a mounting war against the Babylonian Empire with a mix of images of war and creation being disrupted.

Upon the bare mountains set up a signal;
cry out to them,
Beckon for them to enter
the gates of the nobles.

I have commanded my consecrated ones,
I have summoned my warriors,
eager and bold to carry out my anger.

Listen! the rumble on the mountains:
that of an immense throng!
Listen! the noise of kingdoms, nations assembled!
The LORD of hosts is mustering
an army for battle.

Image of a Solar Eclipse in Australia. Image Credit: NASA

They come from a far-off country,
and from the end of the heavens,
The LORD and the instruments of his wrath,
to destroy all the land.

Howl, for the day of the LORD is near;
as destruction from the Almighty it comes.

Therefore all hands fall helpless,
every human heart melts,

and they are terrified,
Pangs and sorrows take hold of them,
like a woman in labor they writhe;
They look aghast at each other,
their faces aflame.

Indeed, the day of the LORD comes,
cruel, with wrath and burning anger;
To lay waste the land
and destroy the sinners within it!

The stars of the heavens and their constellations
will send forth no light;
The sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not give its light. (Isaiah 13:2-10)

This passage goes on, but it presents to us one of the clear themes of Scripture we see time and time again: When war and strife are present, all of creation is impacted and reflects this dis-order. I intentionally hyphenated "dis-order" to emphasis that a central theme of being in right relationship with God is when the soul and creation are well ordered. Therefore, when the world and/or the soul are dis-ordered, we find our relationship with God, both individually and communally, in need of something to reestablish a well ordered world.

This spirituality translates well to the Church's vision of care for creation. We know that if we mistreat the world in which we live, the world will become dis-ordered. Therefore, the symbolic tones of apocalyptic literature should be read less as looking for eclipses and star formations that predict the end, but that they remind us that the way we treat our common home is a part of God's plan of salvation. If we allow war and strife to divide the human family it also will be reflected in creation, pointing to a dis-ordered relationship between God and creation. If there are some that question this "eco-apocalyptic" approach, let us reflect on Isaiah 24.

The earth shall be utterly laid waste, utterly stripped,
for the LORD has decreed this word.

The earth mourns and fades,
the world languishes and fades;
both heaven and earth languish.

The earth is polluted because of its inhabitants,
for they have transgressed laws, violated statutes,
broken the ancient covenant.

Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants pay for their guilt;
Therefore they who dwell on earth have dwindled,
and only a few are left.

The new wine mourns, the vine languishes,
all the merry-hearted groan.

Stilled are the cheerful timbrels,
ended the shouts of the jubilant,
stilled the cheerful harp.

They no longer drink wine and sing;
strong brew is bitter to those who drink it.

Broken down is the city of chaos,
every house is shut against entry.

In the streets they cry out for lack of wine;
all joy has grown dim,
cheer is exiled from the land.

In the city nothing remains but desolation,
gates battered into ruins.

For thus it shall be in the midst of the earth,
among the peoples,
As when an olive tree has been beaten,
as with a gleaning when the vintage is done...

The earth will burst asunder,
the earth will be shaken apart,
the earth will be convulsed.

The earth will reel like a drunkard,
sway like a hut;
Its rebellion will weigh it down;
it will fall, never to rise again.”

On that day the LORD will punish
the host of the heavens in the heavens,
and the kings of the earth on the earth.

They will be gathered together
like prisoners into a pit;
They will be shut up in a dungeon,
and after many days they will be punished.

Then the moon will blush
and the sun be ashamed,
For the LORD of hosts will reign
on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem,
glorious in the sight of the elders. (Isaiah 24;3-13, 19-23)

There are many more passages that could be referenced, but the modern Christian (and non-Christian) needs to remember that the followers of Jesus would have had these texts etched in their sacred memory when references are made to end time imagery. Similar to how the genealogy at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew functions as a reminder of the entirety of Salvation History before Christ, Jesus' reference to apocalyptic imagery serves as a reminder of imagery we have been reflecting upon from the Old Testament.

Immediately after the tribulation of those days,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will fall from the sky,
and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (Matthew 24:30)

When read in context, this passage speaks less to an end time prediction and more to the symbolic language that would have been well known to the Children of Israel at the time of Jesus. The core message being communicated was that disobedience to God's Covenant is reflected in all of creation, not just the human person. This core message is something that I believe could be developed further as a modern application to ecological ethics. Other Scriptural images I find interesting are those that speak of a creation that "mourns" and "groans."

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:18-23)

On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadadrimmon in the plain of Megiddo. And the land shall mourn, each family apart: the family of the house of David, and their women; the family of the house of Nathan, and their women; the family of the house of Levi, and their women; the family of Shimei, and their women; and all the rest of the families, each family apart, and the women apart. (Zechariah 12:11-14)

In other parts of Scripture, these references to a creation that mourns is connected to solar eclipses, falling stars, and other natural imagery of dis-order. Further, when solar eclipses are referenced, they are often spoke of with a more poetic reference to the sun being covered. In Ezekiel 32:7 the sun is said to be covered with clouds while Amos 8:9 simply makes reference to covering the sun. In the book of Revelation, the breaking of a seal is accompanied by the darkening of the sun along with other natural symbols.

Then I watched while he broke open the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; the sun turned as black as dark sackcloth and the whole moon became like blood. The stars in the sky fell to the earth like unripe figs shaken loose from the tree in a strong wind. Then the sky was divided. (Revelation 6:12-14)

A point of significance in this passage is the reference to "dark as sackcloth." This image refers to the skin of black goats that was used to make sackcloth for people to wear as they mourned. Again, this passage uses symbolic language to point to a creation that is grieving. Further, the reference of falling stars and figs that are shaken loss point to strife between human and heavenly powers. The more we explore these texts, the less I am drawn to end of the world predictions and am drawn more to the symbolism of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings in which all of creation participates in the ultimate battle between good and evil. Lastly, if there are any who question this approach to Scripture and want to turn these passages into end time predictors, let us recall the words of Jesus himself when he warns that nobody knows the day nor the hour of the end of the world: Of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. (Matthew 24:36)

The Last March of the Ents from JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings

As stated in my first post on solar eclipses and the bible, the reason I am providing these posts is to help avoid the annoying attempts to turn a fun event of the August solar eclipse into a fearful experience of falsely thinking the world might come to an end. Instead, there are two approaches I would encourage you to embrace for the upcoming solar eclipse. From the standpoint of science, enjoy its beauty and, if you are close to the zone of totality, find a group that will be safely observing this event, pray for clear skies, and have fun!

If your heart feels a need to explore a faith perspective on this event, stay far away from end time predictions, but see in the ancient use of this symbol of Scripture a sober reminder that the choices we make impact both the human person and creation in good and bad ways. And let us specifically be reminded of Pope Francis' call for care of creation, understanding that being in right relationship with God is not only a disposition of the soul, but also how we approach the gift of our common home.

To a Big Telescope Luminary
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Many years ago I was lucky enough to conduct student research at the Keck Observatories, atop the 14,000 foot peak of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. This is the site of the largest optical telescope in the world.

On one of my return flights, coincidentally I found myself sitting next to Professor Jerry Nelson, whose work was largely responsible for existence of this spectacular observatory! I asked many questions which he was willing to entertain without hesitation.

If the accomplishments of this person stopped with the design of a big telescope then that would already be commendable. In this case, though, he also managed to overcome an obstacle blocking progress to building big telescopes. The story goes something like this.

One can build larger and larger solid telescope structures only up to a certain size. Beyond a diameter of around 5 meters (or about 16 feet), the mirror approaches such a weight that it starts to sag until eventually the the ability to collect photons of light is reduced to the point that the telescope becomes unusable.

This record of a maximum diameter of 5-meters stood unchallenged for over 40 years. Then Professor Nelson had the novel approach to make instead many small mirrors and to “glue” them together electronically. His model had 36 separate 1.8 meter mirrors fitting together like puzzle pieces to act as one single mirror with a total diameter of over 10 meters.

Small mirrors are easier to manufacture, although need to be polished with high precision to have the right curvature to fit into the puzzle. Also, the electronics requirements were new and complicated. At the end of the day, the final product was a success.

It is important to note that since then others have learned how to make monolithic mirrors with apertures greater than 5 meters by reducing the weight of the support structure into a kind of 3D honeycomb structure. Both approaches work remarkably well.

Prof. Nelson's accomplishments helped us to break the 5-m aperture barrier.
This is analogous to the story of the runner who broke the 4-minute mile that was thought for a long time to pose a barrier in terms of physical human performance. Now that the 5-m aperture barrier is broken, we are finding viable routes to build still larger telescopes to extend our reach into the universe. This is a tribute to this luminary of astronomy and also a memorial to him.