Posts by Brother Guy Consolmagno

Across the Universe: Ice dreams
avatar

This is a slightly edited version of a column that first ran in The Tablet in August 2014

ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft arrived at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on August 6, 2014. Launched more than ten years earlier, upon arrival it took up an orbit around the sun that parallels the comet’s path, to keep the comet in its cameras from a distance of only a few tens of kilometers. The next two months saw intense preparation for the final stage of the mission: in mid November, 2014, a lander was sent to the comet’s dark surface with instruments to measure its composition in close up detail. (The original plan was for it to drill about 20 cm into the comet itself, to pierce the dusty crust and reach the icy material beneath. Alas, it landed into a shadowed region and was not able to get enough power to do its job or communicate with the orbiter... its fate is described here, on the ESA website.)

Rosetta's comet: 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Comets are famously known as “dirty snowballs”, accumulations of ice and dust. When they approach the Sun and warm up, the ice turns to gas, producing the glorious comet tail and a “coma” of gas and dust that obscures comet’s core from our earth-based telescopes; hence the need for close-up views from a spacecraft. Meanwhile, as the ice boils off it also leaves behind a slag of dark dust masking the icy interior; hence the surface drill.

This space probe was named “Rosetta” in the hope that, like the Rosetta Stone, it would help us interpret the original composition and physical state of the material that formed the planets, four and a half billion years ago. The images it has sent us of the comet’s shape and surface already have shown that some small bodies in our solar system, like this comet, can be “contact binaries:” two distinct lumps with a bridge of material gluing them together. On seeing the first clear images of Comet 67P’s shape, some scientists on Twitter immediately dubbed it the “rubber ducky” comet.

First seen in 1969, this comet is named for its discoverers, the Ukrainians Klim Churyumoy and Svetlana Gerasimenko. Recently, when Dr. Geramisenko was asked, “did you ever think that one day people might plan to land on this comet?” she replied, “I had dreamed of it, yet did not think it would happen so fast… life has presented me a great gift.”

Dreams of flights to a comet fit in well with another event in August 2014, the annual World Science Fiction convention held that year at the ExCeL Center in London. Ten thousand writers, editors, and readers gathered to talk business – both science and fiction – and speculate about the future of a world that already has dystopian global warming, instant universal knowledge in your pocket, and spaceships to comets.

The popular culture likes to poke fun at SF fans from a distance. I’ve attended these conventions for more than 40 years. Unlike the stereotype of the spotty young-white-male, today’s attendees show a remarkable age and gender balance. Yes, some of us “look funny;” there are more disabled and otherwise physically challenged folk here than you usually see in, say, a typical television sitcom. And if some of us enjoy the chance to disguise ourselves in exotic costumes, it’s only a healthy reminder not to mistake the surface for what’s inside.

I met up at LonCon, in front of the British Interplanetary Society exhibit, with astronomer Daiana Di Nino. She and her husband, Michele Trenti, taught at our 2014 Vatican Observatory Summer School; they were finishing up their time at Cambridge University at the time of the convention. They are now at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

But in fact it’s very misleading to make assumptions about science fiction fans. No two are alike in background or taste; any attempt to lump us together, gets us wrong. This diversity speaks both to the welcoming nature of SF fandom, and the universal nature of the ability – and desire – to dream.

Turns out, that’s also true of comets. For all we’ll learn about Rosetta’s target, we know a single visit won’t let us completely understand all comets. Indeed, spacecraft have visited half a dozen different comet nuclei to date, and no two of them are alike. Comets, like SF fans, are individuals.

It’s an echo of what theologians call “the scandal of particularity.”

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?
  130. Across the Universe: Planetary Prejudice
  131. Across the Universe: Pennies from heaven
  132. Across the Universe: Shrine to the stars
  133. Across the Universe: Ice dreams

View the entire series

Across the Universe: Shrine to the stars
avatar

The column first ran in The Tablet in August 2013

The Milky Way arched over my head, a swath of light through an inky-black sky streaking from Cassiopeia on the northern horizon, through the cross of Cygnus, to the hook of Scorpius just above the horizon due south. I was on a hilltop in southern Vermont attending this year’s annual convention of amateur telescope makers known as Stellafane. The name, we were told, means “shrine to the stars.”

Me at Stellafane, 2012. Note the inscription on the roofline of the clubhouse.

It’s not only the dark skies that attract amateurs to this location. Ninety years ago a group of twenty precision toolmakers in the small mill town of Springfield, Vermont, first gathered to share their knowledge of mirror-making and show off their equipment. In 1923, if you wanted a small telescope to look at the stars you either paid a small fortune or you made it yourself. Grinding a mirror into the parabolic shape that can focus faint starlight into a bright point was both a science and an art, well suited to the skills of the precision toolmakers in Springfield. Within ten years the annual Stellafane group had built a clubhouse and an enclosed observatory; and, thanks to publicity in magazines like Scientific American and Sky and Telescope the annual convention with contests for items like best-optics and best-mountings became world famous. Among the thousand attendees this year I met folks from northern Ireland and Australia.

Over the last thirty years, a small revolution in amateur telescope making, such as elegant mounts that rely on Teflon and springs, or computer-controlled optics fabrication, have dropped the price of amateur telescopes. Almost anyone can afford a ’scope as good as any award-winner of years past. Moreover, modern eyepieces – for example, those developed by Roger Tuthill, who during his lifetime was a regular Stellafane attendee – have meant that what you see in modern amateur telescopes can match the best professional telescopes of the past.

But as our technology has advanced, it has also destroyed the dark skies that visual observers depend on. Even a small telescope on a remote dark site can outperform a monster mirror under typical suburban conditions.

Pope Benedict once used this simple truth to tell a spiritual message: in just the same way that artificial lights blind us to the faint but beautiful lights of starry skies, we lose sight of God in the noise of our daily lives.

Indeed, stargazing teaches many spiritual lessons. Anyone can appreciate the stars; but we need a community of teachers to really understand what we’re seeing, and to learn how to see deeper and further, to know where to find the subtle galaxies and nebulae. Perhaps the “cheap astronomy” of flashy internet images draws us from the deeper satisfaction of a faint object seen live, in a mirror carved by our own hard work and discipline.

On occasion I took a break from my eyepiece to lay back on the ground and absorb the whole dome of the sky overhead. The human eye sees the stars as bright and dark spots on a distant black surface. Only centuries of careful measurements have revealed that the universe is not a simple spangled orb encircling Earth, but a vast emptiness punctuated by rare but brilliant globes of fantastic brightness at even more fantastic distances. In the same way, we tend to see God in simple two dimensions, and our mind reels at the understanding of the length and breadth and depth of him; his power, his majesty, his love.

Astronomy and religion both are at their best when they remind us that there’s more to existence than worrying about what’s for lunch. Painted on the roofline of the Stellafane clubhouse, shrine to the stars, are the words of the psalmist: the heavens declare the glory of God.

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?
  130. Across the Universe: Planetary Prejudice
  131. Across the Universe: Pennies from heaven
  132. Across the Universe: Shrine to the stars
  133. Across the Universe: Ice dreams

View the entire series

Across the Universe: Pennies from heaven
avatar

A slightly shorter version of this column first ran in The Tablet in August 2012

Scientists who do experiments need material to experiment on. Thirty years ago, a grad student friend of mine ran into a problem researching motor skill development in infants because there were too many other students in her field writing theses, and not nearly enough infants available in her university town with parents willing to have them studied. (Ironically, my friend was herself pregnant at the time. Her baby, now grown, defended her own psychology dissertation in the fall of 2012; she's now a psychology professor herself. And a mom, as well.)

In meteoritics we cannot advertise for samples, much less produce them ourselves. We have to wait for our subject matter to fall, like manna, from the heavens. In 2012, however, we were fortunate to have two fascinating new meteorites land at our feet. They were each the subject of special sessions at the annual Meteoritical Society meeting that year in Cairns, Australia. (Appropriately, the cathedral in Cairns houses a spectacular series of modern stained glass windows depicting the Genesis of the Universe.)

The creation of the Earth as imaged in the stained glass of Cairns Cathedral. Note the planets in the first pane, and the infalling meteors in the second pane. (Scanned from the St. Monica's Cathedral Creation Windows perpetual calendar.)

The first fell a year ago in Morocco near the village of Tissint. It’s a special kind of meteorite called a “shergottite” (the type example landed near the village of Shergotty, India, in 1865): one of those rare meteorites that we’re pretty sure comes from Mars. While almost all meteorites were crystalized back at the beginning of the solar system, 4.5 billion years ago, Tissint is a mere half billion years old… younger even than the youngest Moon rock, implying that it came from a body bigger than even the Moon and thus able to hold onto its heat longer (hence its younger age). Where almost all meteorites are poor in oxygen, this one was formed where oxygen and carbon dioxide were abundant – like Mars. And, the final kicker, shergottites have been found to contain bubbles of air whose composition exactly match the unique chemical make-up of the atmosphere measured by our rovers, like Curiosity, on Mars.

A thin section under crossed polarization of the Martian meteorite Tissant, from the Vatican collection. The different crystals at submillimeter scale make their own version of a stained glass window.

Tissint is a wonderfully typical example of such a rock. It’s special only in that it’s fresh, recovered soon after it was seen to fall; there was essentially no time for it to have been contaminated by Earth elements – or Earth life. Looking carefully at pieces carved from the center of this meteorite, we can put new limits on the concentration and composition of organic chemicals with some confidence that what we’re seeing really came to us from Mars.

The other meteorite arrived this April near Sutter’s Mill, California. That town became famous in  1849 when gold was discovered there, setting off a rush to California that hasn’t let up yet. Prices for bits of this meteorite soon skyrocketed past the dollars-per-gram on offer for gold as news of its fall spread. One group of hunters even hired a Zeppelin (hangered at the nearby NASA Ames Research Center) to fly slow and low over the fields where it was seen to fall. It’s one of the rare carbonaceous chondrite types, but chemically unusual even compared to other examples of its class. Again, having fresh samples raised hopes of getting uncontaminated measurements; alas, only a few samples were recovered before rains hit the strewn field.

A one-half gram fragment of the Sutter's Mill meteorite, from the Vatican Collection, gift of Greg Hupe

Our lab has measured the physical properties of both samples. Tissint is perfectly ordinary in its density, porosity, and magnetic properties; Sutter’s Mill is unusual in being very porous but very hard – a surprising combination that we’re still trying to puzzle out.

Whether you study rocks or babies, you need to know both kinds of samples, the typical and the extraordinary. You can’t remark on what’s unusual without knowing what “normal” looks like. Granted, it seems odd to call “normal” something as remarkable as a Mars meteorite. But then, how many other miracles, like meteorites and babies, do we take for granted every day?

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?
  130. Across the Universe: Planetary Prejudice
  131. Across the Universe: Pennies from heaven
  132. Across the Universe: Shrine to the stars
  133. Across the Universe: Ice dreams

View the entire series

Diary: Where does the money go? (Part 2)
avatar

The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, which the VOF (and this blog site) supports. The opening in the dome is where large coins are to be inserted...

In a previous post, I noted that the Vatican Observatory Foundation (which sponsors this blog) has to raise about $800,000 a year to cover its commitments, and at the moment we are running very much behind. On the order of $300,000 a year behind, to be exact. That's... distressing.

What do we plan to do about it? Lots of things, but one in particular concerns you, the readers of this blog.

The Catholic Astronomer has been around for about three years, and every year our readership is doubled and our support has likewise increased.

Let's just give an overview of where we are as of the end of July, 2017:

  1. We have 584 people who subscribe to our free email notification whenever there is a new posting. In addition, we publicize these on the Foundations's Facebook site (just under 3,900 followers), and on our Vatican Observatory twitter site (6,600 followers) and the Foundation twitter site (1,400 followers).
  2. We get on an average about 1,000 people viewing some entry on this blog every day. Mind you, about half of those people are directed to one particular blog entry, Chris Graney's posting about Biblical Signs in the Sky and the supposed event of September 23. Presumably some popular site out there is directing folks to us.
  3. We have 113 paid supporters: 89 at the Pleiades ($10/month) level, 16 at the Hercules ($50/month) level, and 8 at the Andromeda ($100/month) level.

Many of our paid supporters actually pledge more than those amounts, but taking them at face value means that we raise $10,680 per year from the Pleiades folks, $9600 per year from the Hercules folks, and another $9600 a year from the Andromeda folks. (It's been the case over several years that the amounts raised in these three categories are almost, if not exactly, identical. Fun coincidence.) That comes to about $30,000 per year.

We need to raise ten times as much. Do you see where I am going?

What you can do – besides joining up yourself if you haven't already – is simply to spread the word about our existence. Ten percent of our readers are supporters. If we could increase our readership by ten times, and increase the number of supporters by ten times, we'd have no problem raising the money we need. If we keep doubling our readership every year, within four years we could be there.

And I have to believe that, out of 1.2 billion Catholics in the world and 70 million Catholics in the US alone, there must be more than 1000 people who are interested in supporting our work in faith and astronomy.

So the biggest thing that you guys can do is to spread the word. Word of mouth is how people know about us. Spread the word on your social media sites. Spread the word in your schools and parishes. Let people know that we exist! And we'll take care of the rest...

Diary: Where does the money go? (Part I)
avatar

"Angels in the Dome" Photo of the VATT Dome by Ryan Ferguson of Flyback Productions

In a recent post, I put out a short beg for folks to actually subscribe at $10 a month (more if you want!) and keep this blog, and the Foundation, going. This has brought up, quite rightly, a question about where exactly this money goes.

The first item, of course, is to pay for the cost of this blog itself. At the moment, that's covered. But the bigger goal is to have surplus from this funding go to support the Vatican Observatory Foundation and its works.

What is it that the Foundation does? If you want to know what the Vatican Observatory Foundation has been up to lately, click here for a pdf of our most recent newsletter.

What about the details of our funding? Where does it come from, where does it go? That's covered in our annual report, (click here).

The numbers in the annual report are the accountant’s numbers, which is different from actual cash flow. For one thing, it includes in our expenses the depreciation of the telescope. That is not cash we're actually spending, though it does mean that we should be putting away money to replace our telescope at the end of its useful life, probably 30 years from now. For another, it includes the “salaries” of two Jesuits (including me) which are in fact not paid as cash but donated by the Jesuit community. This is put on the books to let people compare our Foundation to other foundations, where their presidents and other folk doing the work are actually paid salaries.

So, to get a sense of what our actual cash flow situation is like, here's what's in this year's budget:

We budgeted $545,000 this year to keep our telescope, the VATT, running. That’s a fixed cost. (In fact we probably won’t spend that much because we are still looking to hire an engineer to replace one who left last year, who was promoted to a higher position at another telescope. It's tough being short handed; but it does save us the cost of a salary.)

In addition, we actually spend about $100,000 (not counting my "salary") in Education and Public Outreach. Much of that pays for itself…  the costs of me going on the road giving talks, which are then reimbursed by the people who invite me; running workshops, most of which have costs covered by those who attend them... and so forth.

The other expenses, about $150,000, are administration and fundraising. We have one part time lay employee, and one full-time employee (who looking to retire and be replaced by a Jesuit). Their salaries makes up the bulk of those costs, but we also have folded into these expenses the regular legal costs of doing business… accountants, lawyers, insurance, registration as a non-profit (which has to be done state by state, every state with different rules and paperwork and fees), etc. Also included in this are the costs of preparing our calendar and newsletters, which really are both EPO and fundraising... but, since they include envelopes to raise money, the accountants have to call that fundraising.

The cover of the 2018 Vatican Observatory official calendar

 Our income is mostly contributions from small family foundations and from individuals. Last year that brought in about $450,000… about half of that from a handful of foundations. We get the honoraria I receive, my royalties from Turn Left at Orion, some fees that we can collect from select users of the telescope, and the income from the blog… which is about 3% of what we need to run the telescope.

So, we need to come up with $800,000 cash every year to cover our costs. And we if we’re lucky we get about $500,000 a year in donations and grants.

You will note that we spend more than we get. By a lot. (Around $300,000). Yes, that is a problem. The bottom line is that if we don’t get a lot more donors involved, we’ll probably go broke within the next ten years.

So what are we going to do about that? That's the topic of another post. Watch this space...

Across the Universe: Planetary Prejudice
avatar

This column first ran in The Tablet in July 2015

Credit: New Horizons Image of Pluto - NASA

The wonderful excitement about Pluto, visited by the New Horizons spacecraft [July 2015], has resurrected the old issue of defining a “planet”.

Many Very Erudite Mathematicians Just Say the Usual Numbers, Probably. Here, Michael Ryschkewitsch of APL and New Horizons Educator Fellow Sally Jensen, who insist that Pluto is still a planet, are shown here as they model spacecraft hats while giving the nine-finger "Pluto salute."

But why? Most people approaching this question have one clear goal: they want Pluto to be a planet. Once you realize that, you can make your definition clear and simple: “A planet is one of the bodies that I was taught was a planet when I was a child.” Of course, such a definition is useless for any other purposes.

The IAU, which defined Pluto and similar bodies as “dwarf planets” back in 2006, needed a definition so it could name such objects and the features on them, to know whose committee and what set of rules will apply. But there’s another aspect to this issue.

Fifteen years ago I was involved in a research program studying the Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNO) that orbit alongside Pluto, comparing their shapes and colors with where they orbit. But I kept running into the inconvenient fact that Pluto, which certainly needed to be included in our study, wasn’t listed in any of the tables of KBO orbits. Why? Because back then it was a planet, following a definition maintained mostly to make children happy.

Looking up one extra set of orbits wasn’t so hard, back then. But today we know of easily a dozen TNOs big enough to be “planets” like Pluto, with more to come, no doubt. I can’t be sure I have them all, if I have to go looking in separate tables.

Many definitions suggest that bodies with “interesting geology” (beyond mere craters) should be called planets. A similar suggestion says a planet is any object big enough for its gravity to pull itself into a sphere. That would include our Moon and many other planets’ moons, some much larger than Pluto.

A ball of ice that’s 500 kilometers in diameter can pull itself into a sphere. A ball of iron the same radius would be strong enough to hold itself up against its own gravity. But given their relative densities, the iron body could have eight times the mass as the icy guy. Would we really want to say the massive iron body is not a planet, but the icy body is?

Asteroid Vesta is covered with lavas, suggesting that it has had interesting geological processes in its past. But today you only see craters on its surface. And given its extensive battering by other asteroids in its early history, Vesta is visibly non-spherical today. But back when it was melted, it would have been quite spherical. Is planethood something that changes with time? (In fact, my colleagues and I have proposed that Vesta’s history is even more complicated; it could be a re-accreted collection of lavas from a different, or once larger, asteroid.)

Furthermore, geologists aren’t the only scientists playing in this sandbox. Before we thought about planets as places, we knew them as bodies with interesting orbits. And there is a clean divide between the eight bodies in our solar system whose orbits are stable against perturbations, and bodies (like Pluto, sorry) whose orbits are controlled and moved about by their larger neighbors.

Indeed, the “bones” of a solar system — the complex gravity fields that define what is stable and what isn’t — reflect how the solar system was formed. These orbits are not just curiosities. They are fundamental to what our solar system is, and how it got to be that way. By contrast, there is nothing fundamental about Pluto’s orbit. If Pluto weren’t there, the other planets would never notice.

Besides… Pluto doesn’t need to be a “planet” like us, to be worthy of our affection, or our study. That’s a form of cultural prejudice. Planetary scientists aren’t the only ones guilty of that.

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?
  130. Across the Universe: Planetary Prejudice
  131. Across the Universe: Pennies from heaven
  132. Across the Universe: Shrine to the stars
  133. Across the Universe: Ice dreams

View the entire series

Proclaiming the Heavens
avatar

Since February, our daily readership here at the Catholic Astronomer site has doubled. That's the good news. However, the number of folks who are subscribers or member/supporters hasn't doubled.

A lot of people read this site via the Vatican Observatory Foundation Facebook page, which is great. But you may not realize that we depend on paying supporters of the blog to keep this site operating.

We pay each of our bloggers – not much, but enough to maintain the principle that writers deserve an income, the laborer is worthy of a wage. (1 Timothy 5:18, for those Catholics in the audience who don't know their scripture!) And there are other technical support costs. Only your donations can keep this operation moving.

Of course, what I am hoping is that any donations above our costs (which, thankfully, we do have) can grow to become a major support for the work of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. It takes a lot of money to run a telescope on a regular basis, not to mention all the outreach and other programs that we engage in.

I am glad to accept "a lot of money" from those who can give it; we wouldn't have a telescope (or indeed a foundation) without their generous support. But to be honest, it feels even better to get a little bit of money from a lot of people, because that ensures that we really are doing something that a lot of people can appreciate. The purpose of the Vatican Observatory is to Show The World that the church supports astronomy. The world is more than just a few wealthy donors.

So, for $10 a month (you probably spend that much on coffee in a day) you could be one of that cloud of witnesses (that's another Bible quote) who believe as we do that the heavens proclaim the glory of God, and we can do our part by proclaiming the heavens. To learn how to donate, please click HERE

And by being a member, and only by being a member, you can access the comment section and add your thoughts to our blogs.

Thank you for your attention. Attached is some eye-candy from the Vatican Observatory Advanced Technology Telescope:

The galaxy NGC 2683. imaged at the VATT in 2012

Across the Universe: Where’s the olivine?
avatar

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?
  130. Across the Universe: Planetary Prejudice
  131. Across the Universe: Pennies from heaven
  132. Across the Universe: Shrine to the stars
  133. Across the Universe: Ice dreams

View the entire series

Across the Universe: Hidden inclusions
avatar

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?
  130. Across the Universe: Planetary Prejudice
  131. Across the Universe: Pennies from heaven
  132. Across the Universe: Shrine to the stars
  133. Across the Universe: Ice dreams

View the entire series

From The Tablet: Big Science, Hurrah!
avatar

This article was first published in The Tablet in July, 2012

“How will the discovery of the Higgs Boson impact the Catholic Scientific Community?” asked one panicked email I received soon after CERN announced its discovery. “How can the new discovery and our belief be reconciled?” So many misconceptions in one email… where to start?

I actually got a tour of the CERN ring (while it was down) in 2011. Stealing antimatter for the Vatican, no doubt.

Emails like this, not to mention all sorts of press inquiries, came to us at the Vatican Observatory following the announcement by CERN that they had detected a “a new particle in the mass region around 126 GeV… the results are preliminary but dramatic… we know it is a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found.”

The press, if not the scientists, immediately jumped on the news, calling it the discovery of the Higgs Boson (something that the CERN press release was careful not to do) which they inevitably referred to as “The God Particle.”

Right away, the internet was filled with instant pundits giving opinions at varying levels of cluefulness. The CERN press release itself can be found at http://press.web.cern.ch/press/PressReleases/Releases2012/PR17.12E.html and if you want a wonderful and entertaining explanation of CERN, the experiment, and the deeper reasons of why it really is exciting, I can direct you to http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1489 , a short video put together by the science cartoonist Jorge Cham.

The Higgs Boson is the last missing piece in the zoo of subatomic particles predicted by the “Standard Model” of how subatomic particles work, a theory which for forty years has guided our understanding of how matter is put together. It’s the bit that would account for the way those particles which incorporate it appear to have mass. It’s named for its proposer, Peter Higgs. It’s an example of a type of subatomic particle called a “boson”, named for Satyendra Nath Bose, who worked out the mathematics of how such particles behave. (And these particles are different from the other kind of subatomic particle, “fermions”, named for Enrico Fermi.)

But rather than trying to explain in any more detail what a Higgs Boson is (an impossible task in this space) I would actually like to take my fearful emailer’s questions seriously. What does its discovery mean to the Catholic community, scientific or otherwise?

First, about that “God Particle” moniker: the particle itself has nothing to do with God -- or at least, nothing more than any other particle of creation does… since every particle, in its own way, demonstrates the beauty and subtlety (and indeed at times the sense of humor) of the Creator.

The God Particle was a book written twenty years ago by the physicist Leon Lederman. Ever since the title was nicked by the journalists, he’s been trying to live it down. From the beginning it was meant only as a metaphor, a way to describe the importance of this particular particle which, if discovered, would cap the Standard Model; a particle which, in its elegance, might reflect the elegance of God; and a particle whose existence, like that of God, its believers have had to take only on faith. In discussing this name, Lederman once joked that it came about because his publisher wouldn’t let him call it “the goddamn particle…”

Scientists do, indeed, speak in metaphors. We have to. Even the word “particle” is a misnomer. A boson or fermion is nothing at all like a tiny speck of stuff that you could see in a microscope. It is an entity that can only be described in terms of the mathematics that it appears to follow; and even the maths are a metaphor for the reality they are trying to describe. People who look for “literal” truth in the Bible would be well advised to remember that materialistic science itself is not meant to be taken “literally.” You can’t do justice to any deep truth, be it love or beauty or subatomic particles or God, with mere human language. You can only invoke a meaning through images that, if well chosen, might shadow the shape of reality in your mind.

Why this lesson is so hard to grasp? Why is it that journalists and non-scientists latch on to the a nickname like the “God particle”? Why do so many people desperately seek to find a religious vindication in the latest incomprehensible advances in science, from the Higgs Boson to Dark Energy to The Big Bang?

I’m glad the public does find it so enthralling. That’s why scientists like me can get paid to do the work that obviously fascinates us, too. Certainly I worry that some people may be expecting science to deliver more than it can promise. Turning researchers into a priesthood does science no favors; after all, the priesthood of priests has suffered its share of anticlerical attacks. But this kind of mind-stretching science does have a role to play in our religious understanding.

Catholic thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas to John Paul II have been at pains to remind us that there are not two different kinds of truth, one for science and another for religion. But there are two kinds of questions. One sort are those that have simple and often quantifiable answers: how many, how big, what happens first, what happens next? Science answers this kind of question. Once these questions are solved, we put them aside and go on to the next set of questions.

The second kind of question, though, are those that we continue to ponder all our lives, even when we already have answers for them... questions about meaning and beauty and love. Rather than answering them, science can provoke us to ask such questions, illuminating them in a new light.. When it does that, science enriches our religion and philosophy without pretending to replace it.

The Higgs Boson, if indeed it is discovered (the report from CERN is tantalizing in how it implies there may be more going on here than just checking off the last open square in our chart of predicted subatomic entities) reminds us that reality exists in ways that matter, on a scale and in a manner that we can partially grasp with our mathematics, but which ultimately go beyond our power of imagination.

It’s a beautiful piece of science. It’s an illustration of how we humans can progress in our understanding of these unimaginable realms of reality. And it’s not over yet.

CERN is a classic example of big science: thousands of scientists, engineers, secretaries, cooks, and cleaners, all working together across many continents to pull off a fabulous feat of discovery. In total, 2400 employees; plus 10,000 visiting scientists. No single individual could have done this work.

The accelerator itself crosses the border between Switzerland and France. The very names of the particles are international -- Higgs, Bose, Fermi: a Geordie and an Indian and an Italian. It requires a lot of communication to get everyone working together. It’s no accident that the Internet itself was first invented at CERN, to promote this communication.

Cern, like any bureaucracy, has suffered from mistakes, setbacks, even scandals. But it is achieving what it was designed to do. It reminds us why we put up with big science; or big government. Or even a big Church. 

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?
  130. Across the Universe: Planetary Prejudice
  131. Across the Universe: Pennies from heaven
  132. Across the Universe: Shrine to the stars
  133. Across the Universe: Ice dreams

View the entire series

Across the Universe: The Hows of Science
avatar

This column first ran in The Tablet in July, 2012

We met this month [July 2012] in a small pensione in Loreto, next the cathedral built around the famous “flying house” (reputed to be the home of the Blessed Virgin, transported from Palestine to Italy – some say by angels – in the 13th century) to plan the next steps for our Vatican Observatory. What’s the future for our telescope in Arizona, and the fundraising that supports it? What about converting our old telescope domes in Castel Gandolfo into a visitor center?

The cathedral in Loreto contains a house said to have flown there from Israel. In front of it today are cars said to have been flown there from Japan...

But a big topic for the group was welcoming seven young astronomers to our group. They come from many countries – three from the US, plus an Italian, a Czech, a Congolese, and an Indian. They’ve studied a variety of scientific topics, from theorizing on subatomic strings to observing meteor showers, at traditional PhD programs in universities around the world. And their immediate challenge now is trying to fit the style of doing science they learned in those places to the unique circumstances of being an astronomer at the Vatican.

Typically, once you’ve earned your doctorate your next step is to spend a couple of years honing your skills as a postdoctoral fellow. Your ultimate goal is to get a permanent position as a lecturer or fully funded researcher, as a part (maybe even head) of a team of like-minded scientists, all working together on some large project funded by the government. Thus, the practical skills you learn in school are geared towards sniffing out what research topic is most likely to get you a job and a successful grant.

However, a young scientist arriving at the Vatican Observatory is given a completely different challenge: No pressures to get the next two-year position, to get the next grant, to produce students of your own whose success at grantsmanship burnishes your own reputation. Instead, we can do any science we want. And that’s the challenge… how do you know what it is you really want to do?

We’re all Jesuits, products of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises; it’s a spirituality designed to give you the tools for making such decisions, free of inordinate attachments to desires like tenure or grant money. But if money or prestige is not our compass, what actually does steer us to choose the topics we decide to pursue?

It’s a tricky business. You want a problem big enough to be worth doing, but small enough that you have a hope of accomplishing something in the not too distant future. And you want a topic that lets you take advantage of this freedom from some government’s research agenda, while still keeping you in conversation with the rest of the field. Not surprisingly, the Observatory historically has specialized in long-term surveys and compendia of lab data... work that our colleagues need, but that they often can’t get time or funding to do themselves.

Like these young Jesuit astronomers, I came to the Specola with many different interests. I finally narrowed my field down to meteorite research (measuring and publishing tables of physical properties) on the simple grounds that, having attended a number of meteorite meetings, I found that I just plain enjoyed hanging out with the other people in this field.

The point is, no scientist works alone. If you don’t tell others what you’ve done – publishing or attending meetings – then it didn’t happen. And it doesn’t matter how brilliant your work may be, if no one gets it. Science only proceeds by ideas growing together, scientists sharing puzzles and solutions, each of us contributing a small stone to an edifice that none of us completely knows the plans for.

And the story of how our edifice gets there is not nearly as miraculous as the fact of its existence itself... rather like that house in Loreto.

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?
  130. Across the Universe: Planetary Prejudice
  131. Across the Universe: Pennies from heaven
  132. Across the Universe: Shrine to the stars
  133. Across the Universe: Ice dreams

View the entire series

Across the Universe: Fast changes
avatar

Sunrise in June from the Papal Palace in Castel Gandolfo. This particular sunrise occurred during the Transit of Venus on June 6, 2012

This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2013

Summer began [in 2013] on Friday morning, 21 June, at 5:14 am GMT...in the northern hemisphere, of course; south of the equator, it’s winter. [The summer solstice 2017 in Northern Hemisphere occurred at 4:24 am GMT on Wednesday, June 21.]

This definition is based on the precise orientation of the Earth in its orbit. The Earth is tilted relative to its orbit, and like a gyroscope its spin axis stays pointed in the same direction, year round. In a convenient coincidence for navigators, our north pole is pointed near the star Polaris. Polaris is not directly above the Sun; it’s directly above Earth’s tilted spin axis. In June, the Earth is in the part of its orbit where it’s on one side of the Sun, and Polaris is on the other side. The northern half of the Earth, tilted towards Polaris, is also tilted towards the Sun; that’s why it gets warmer. The moment when Sun and Polaris are exactly lined up is the solstice, the beginning of our northern summer; that’s what occurred on June 21. Since the other hemisphere is pointed away, it’s winter there. Six months later, December 21, the positions and the seasons are reversed.

Julius Caesar’s “365 days plus a leap year” calendar almost exactly matched the time interval from solstice to solstice – off by less than a day per century. But after 1500 years the error had built up to ten days. Thus Pope Gregory XIII hired some astronomers to tweak the calendar, the first incarnation of the Vatican Observatory.

In the north we see the Sun in the southern sky; Australia always sees it in the north. In effect, we’re looking past the equator towards the Sun. When I lived in Kenya, on the equator, as the year progressed the Sun would first warm the northern half of my apartment, then move to warm the southern side. But what I also noticed in Kenya was that, even with the Sun spending as much time on one side as the other, January was actually much warmer than July. That’s because the Earth’s orbit is an ellipse, not a perfect circle. We are actually closer to the Sun in early January, and furthest away on the 4th of July. (Notice there’s about a five fewer days of northern winter than northern summer – recall how February’s shortchanged. Because of our elliptical orbit we move faster through the northern winter months.)

But the ellipticity of Earth’s orbit, and the position and tilt of our axis, are all items that slowly change with time. Over tens to hundreds of thousands of years, as they change our climate changes. We can see this in the geological record.

A slightly warmer winter in the north means we have moister, hence snowier, winters than in the south. As it happens there’s more landmass in the north, as well, to accumulate this snow. This accident of northern continental positions with warm wet winters, thanks to Earth’s current orbit, means we are actually in a mini ice age right now. Until recently, this has been carefully balanced by the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which keeps us from freezing over.

The issue with climate change isn’t that it’s changing; it has always changed. The problem is the rate of change. In the past fifty years the carbon dioxide has increased by 25%, hitting 400 ppm [in 2013]. That's faster than our human institutions can cope. Our cities are not built to withstand the energetic storms that become more common when more carbon dioxide holds more energy in the air. Our seaports are vulnerable to a rising sea level as the pole caps melt.

In our own lives we make free choices, within parameters set by circumstances beyond our control. Likewise, dealing with climate change the trick is to find those things we actually can do something about; and then make wise choices.

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?
  130. Across the Universe: Planetary Prejudice
  131. Across the Universe: Pennies from heaven
  132. Across the Universe: Shrine to the stars
  133. Across the Universe: Ice dreams

View the entire series