Posts by Brother Guy Consolmagno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also in Across the Universe

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

View the entire series

The Milky Way is Lost…
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The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano has published on Easter my article (in Italian) about light pollution, Rome, and the homily of Pope Benedict XVI on Easter of 2012.

Here's the English text I sent them:

from Tucson, Arizona:
The controversy over Rome’s new LED streetlights has made it into the American press, with articles in both the New York Times and the Smithsonian Online, the publication of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. It was even a topic of discussion among our fellow astronomers here in Tucson, a world center of astronomy and also the headquarters of the International Dark Sky Association.
 
Light pollution is the bane of all astronomers. When city lights shine up into the skies, it becomes impossible to observe faint galaxies and nebulae. The Specola Vaticana located its modern telescope in Arizona as a direct result of the increasing light pollution around Castel Gandolfo, which by 1980 had made observations from our telescopes there unworkable. And indeed we had moved from Rome to Castel Gandolfo in the 1930s for exactly the same reason, to avoid the burgeoning street lighting in Rome. Even with some of the strictest regulations on city lighting in the world, Tucson itself has grown so much in population over the last 50 years that many of the telescopes on the mountains surrounding us here have been affected. New big telescopes nowadays must be built in the remote northern desert of Chile or on isolated volcanic islands in the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.
 
More than astronomy is affected by the reckless installation of too many city lights. Animal migrations are disrupted. Newly hatched turtles on beaches near brightly lit resorts cannot find the ocean, and die. In many cities, birds fly themselves to death while endlessly circling lit up skyscrapers. Along with birds and turtles, the human animal’s life cycle is also disturbed: sleep is made difficult with too much blue light shining into our windows at night. That’s one of the major problems with many LED streetlights.
 
One irony is that such bright city lights are mostly useless for human needs. It is understandable that light directed towards the ground can help pedestrians and drivers; but who walks in the sky? Yet so much of our city lights shine upwards, where they are not needed. A lighted alleyway gives the illusion of safety, but in fact most street lights produce dark shadows where thieves can hide with impunity. Meanwhile, graffiti artists like to be able to see the walls they are defacing!
 
Too often city lights are designed with more care for how quaint they look in the daytime than how well they serve our purposes at night. Would you feel welcome in a friend’s living room if all the electric lights were unshaded? Yet we rarely think to shade our streetlights, allowing them to shine directly into our eyes. If you can see the source of the light, the light is badly designed… and more likely to blind you than to illuminate your path.
 
In fact, human eyes are well adapted to low light levels. Starlight and moonlight are actually enough to light our ways. As a stargazer who has traveled to many remote dark sites I have been able to see my shadow just from the light of the Milky Way. Traditionally the darkest nights are cloudy nights when the stars and moon are hidden. Today, alas, low clouds just reflect our human lighting and turn a cloudy night into a sickly-illuminated day. 
And how many children today have ever seen the Milky Way?

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

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

Across the Universe: Maybe
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This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2013

The Kepler Space Telescope, monitoring a hundred thousand stars to catch the faint flickers of light that might indicate the shadows of planets, announced [April 2013] the discovery of a star that may have two super-Earths orbiting within its “Goldilocks zone.” That’s the distance from the star where liquid water should be stable. The idea of a system with two planets that could harbor life brings up all sorts of exciting science-fictional possibilities.

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

Well, maybe. We don’t know for sure yet that either planet really is Earth-like; they could be small gas balls. We don’t know yet if either planet has an atmosphere, much less the sorts of chemicals we associate with life. And after all, our own solar system has two bodies within its Goldilocks zone – Earth and its Moon – but only one has life. For that matter, Mars is close enough to that stable zone that some alien H. G. Wells observing our system from a distance could well have invented stories of inter-species interactions that, alas, are only fiction, not science.

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

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

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

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

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

Just ask St. Paul.

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

Also in Across the Universe

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

View the entire series

Across the Universe: Rocket Science
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This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2012

“This isn’t rocket science...” It’s a common reproach, heard when we make a simple task too complex.

Of course, making a rocket work is not science; it’s engineering. The difference between the two is like the difference between theology and liturgy. Both are important, and each informs the other, but it’s dangerous (in both directions) to substitute the one for the other.

Another flaw in the cliché is that it assumes launching a rocket is the height of complexity. In fact, it’s a well-understood piece of engineering. Today’s rockets are marvelous pieces of machinery, and getting it right can indeed be harder than it looks (see the recent failure of North Korea’s attempt). But the basic principles are nothing new. The rockets that lift supplies to the International Space Station today are Soviet designs dating from the cold war, more than half a century old.

The issue, as the North Koreans can attest, isn’t knowing what to do; it’s actually doing it.

That’s not an unusual situation in space science. Our study of meteorites has convinced us that any of the thousand asteroids whose orbits bring them close to Earth – comparable to the distance from the Earth to the Moon – will have enough iron and nickel and rarer metals like platinum and iridium to provide for humankind’s needs for the centuries. Actually getting up to such an asteroid and mining it for its valuable minerals is another matter entirely, however.

Every calculation for the mineral worth of an asteroid gets a different answer. I came up with this one for a talk in 2016. Don't take it too seriously. In fact, some folks now think that the water in an asteroid might be the first material to be commercially exploited, by people already in space who would want the oxygen to breath and the hydrogen as fuel.

It’s not that we don’t know, in principle, how to do it. Forty-plus years ago we were able to send the Apollo astronauts as far from Earth as some of these asteroids come. And not long ago a Japanese robot spacecraft brought back to Earth a few grains of asteroid Itokawa, which is not close to Earth at all but out in the asteroid belt. But mining an asteroid commercially requires a large investment of money (and time and human effort, which presumably the money can buy).

Certainly plenty of people have looked carefully into how this could be done. My old advisor at MIT, John Lewis – now retired – spent the last thirty years of his career in planetary science working out the details of exploiting space resources. The result was a successful NASA grant and several fascinating books; but, alas, no asteroid mines.

In 1973, my classmate Greg Ruffa borrowed my notes from John Lewis's class on planetary sciences and returned them to me with various cartoons inserted... this is a pretty good depiction of what John Lewis looked like back then!

This past week [April 2011, that is!], though, a group of wealthy space enthusiasts including the filmmaker James Cameron and Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi, along with other veterans of private spaceflight ventures, have announced the formation of a space exploration corporation, Planetary Resources, Inc. Their plans as of this writing are still vague – the company will ‘help insure humanity’s prosperity... create a new industry and a new definition of “natural resources”...’ This sounds like asteroid mining to me. One of their announced advisors is the retired astronaut Tom Jones, also a student of John Lewis (we’ve been scientific co-authors), who has written that “asteroid resources are the key to industrializing near-Earth space.”

Living and working in space, rather than just visiting as tourists, will also mean overcoming all the expected human problems. For example, it requires re-thinking, or at least a creative interpretation, of a long-standing UN treaty banning the commercial exploitation of space. While mining asteroids may well save Earth’s environment, it might also destroy the economy of mineral-exporting (mostly poorer) nations. And where humans go, greed and envy and all the other sins will inevitably follow. C. S. Lewis once famously proposed that humans should stay quarantined on Earth, rather than spreading sin into space.

But there’s nothing new about those problems. And if implementing their solutions is challenging, the solutions themselves are well known. Living a just life isn’t, after all, rocket science.

The field of asteroid mining hasn't gone away since this was written in 2011; there are now several other companies involved. But it's yet to bring back its first ingot from space...

Also in Across the Universe

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

View the entire series

Across the Universe: Words, Words, Worlds
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Originally published in The Tablet in March, 2004 – the first of many columns I wound up writing about the definition of a planet, leading up to the IAU decision about Pluto in 2006. And this is a repeat of a blog entry first published at the Catholic Astronomer three years ago... as I have run out of Tablet columns to publish!

On the other side of Neptune live the Trans-Neptunian Objects, or TNOs. They are worlds so faint that to measure their colors, we use a mirror nearly two meters across to gather their light, which we focus into a spot of only a few hundreds of a millimeter, collecting it with an ultra-sensitive electronic chip, over a five-minute time exposure. They move – more than five minutes and the spot turns into a streak. But take enough exposures over a few hours and you can plot their motions against the background stars and galaxies.

The TNOs are thought to be the home of a class of comets, and they may represent material that’s been kept in “deep freeze” since the solar system was first formed. Though theorized about for years, it’s only in the last decade that new telescopes, more sensitive detectors, and a crew of patient observers have begun to discover them. To date, more than 500 such objects have been found.

Pluto has gotten all the press as what a dwarf planet should look like, but let's not forget Triton, a moon of Neptune, which might be a captured dwarf planet.  Certainly its bizarre surface, as imaged here by Voyager, should have prepared us to be surprised by Pluto.  Credit: NASA

On February 20 [2004], astronomers Mike Brown, Dave Rabinowitz, and Chad Trujillo added one more to the list. It’s designated 2004DW (a code indicating when it was discovered), while awaiting the approval of a more conventional name.

Once we know where a TNO can be found, we can look for it in old, archived images. This particular body was found in Sky Survey plates going back to 1951. From that information, it was possible to work out its orbit, including how far away it is from us now. This distance, and the amount of light it delivers to the telescope, tells us its intrinsic brightness. And it turns out that 2004DW was brighter (corrected for its distance) than any previously known TNO. Assuming all these bodies are equally efficient at reflecting light, this would imply that 2004DW was the biggest TNO ever seen.

But its reign as the largest TNO was short lived.

On March 15 [2004], the same team announced the details of another object, first seen a few months earlier, 2003VB12. Its discoverers propose to name it Sedna, after the Inuit sea goddess. The motion of this object was surprisingly slow, implying that it is located extremely far away: some 76 times the distance from the Sun to the Earth. That is nearly twice as far away as any previously-seen solar system object. From there, the Sun itself would look like a pinhead.

The fact that we can see it at all suggests that it must be quite large. Estimates of its diameter (which depend on guessing its intrinsic reflectivity) range from 1700 km up to 2300 kilometers, which would make it as big as the planet Pluto.

So, is this a new planet?

As far away as it is from us now, Sedna is actually at the closest point of its orbit. Its path is extremely eccentric, like that of a comet, spending most of its life more than ten times farther away from us. That hardly sounds like a well-behaved planet.

And besides, while 2000 km might look large compared to a comet, that’s still smaller than any planet. Plus, it is probably just one example, the first seen, of a whole population of similar bodies. Undoubtedly larger ones are out there, waiting to be found.

Of course, many of those same arguments could be said about Pluto itself. But previous efforts to “downgrade” Pluto have led to a storm of outrage. Schoolchildren especially identify strongly with a planet that’s little, eccentric, and just hanging on at the edge of the solar system. It seems churlish to let the bigger planets bully the little guy out of its status.

The official arbiter of such issues is the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Among other services, it comes up with common astronomical definitions so that we can all speak the same scientific language. For example, the IAU defines the zero-longitude of each planet, and approves the names of features on those planets. But to date, the IAU has never officially defined just what a planet is.

The Vatican is one of the nations represented in the IAU and Vatican astronomers currently serve as two of the fifty-one commission presidents. I’m one of them. And in light of these these recent TNO discoveries, I’ve been put on a working group to come up with a way to define a planet. The definition may be harder to find than the planet.

How does one define a planet? We could say that planets are objects that share a common formation process. That would help us to solve just how they were formed -- and thus define which ones are planets! Well, perhaps not: unlike a planet's orbit, our definition should be neither circular nor eccentric.

Size alone would certainly work against Pluto. The Earth's diameter at nearly 12,800 km is more than five times Pluto's, and even little Mercury (the next smallest planet) is twice Pluto's diameter. (Seven moons, including Earth's, have larger diameters than Pluto as well.) Remember that volume goes as the diameter cubed, and icy Pluto is less dense than these planets; Mercury has twenty times Pluto's mass, and Earth is five hundred times more massive. Yet even Pluto appears to be much bigger than any other object in its immediate neighborhood. Should the criterion be relative size? Or perhaps we'll just have to give Pluto honorary planet status, for historical (or sentimental) reasons.

It may seem, at first, that such a definition is arbitrary and of no scientific importance; we’ve lived this long without one. But in fact nomenclature has a powerful effect in many fields. Much of geology and biology gets its start with the classification of species. From classifications, one can separate general trends from random variations, the “essential” from the “accidental.”

Indeed, the words one uses can often define the way one thinks and behaves. What kind of relationship constitutes a “marriage”? Are the English Europeans? Wars have been fought over less.

This defining and sorting is the kind of thing the human mind does all the time, but it’s no trivial task. It’s a challenge to design a computer artificial intelligence that can see a room full of furniture and identify the chairs. Indeed, classifying and naming seems to be a particularly Personal activity. Naming the animals was the first activity attributed to Adam; sorting sheep from goats was one image Jesus used for Divine action.

The ability to sort different objects into common pools is one way gain a handle on what those objects are. In the process of making a definition of a planet, we’ll have to look very deeply at just what a planet is.

I do hope we’ll find a way to satisfy the schoolchildren of the world. But even if everything we learned as schoolchildren were true, we’d have to be ready to accept there’s always more new true things out there for us to learn. And sometimes we have to admit that our old classifications are incomplete.

Asteroid 2004DW is now named and numbered: it is 90482 Orcus. And of course, Sedna was eventually superseded as well... but that story will have to wait for future columns in this series!

Also in Across the Universe

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

View the entire series

Across the Universe: Happy Birthday to Us
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This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2016

We celebrated last year's anniversary with a cake!

It has been a month of anniversaries.

Exactly four hundred years ago (2016) Galileo first got into hot water with the Church over the Copernican system. Starting with a hearing of the Holy Office on 23 February, the affair stretched across all of spring 1616 including Galileo’s meeting with Cardinal Bellarmine on 26 February, and the formal censure of Copernicus’ work issued on 5 March. Curiously, Galileo’s works were not mentioned at that time.

(It wasn’t Galileo’s first run-in with the Church. In 1604 he had been turned in to the Inquisition by his mother, who didn’t like the bad names he’d called her or the fact that he’d skip Mass to spend time with his courtesan girlfriend, later mother to his three children.)

By the end of the 19th century, of course, the Church view on astronomy had changed. Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) essentially endorsed Galileo’s view on science and religion. And on 14 March 1891, 125 years ago  (2016), Pope Leo promulgated a “Motu Proprio” that established the modern Vatican Observatory. Two months later, his encyclical Rerum Novarum would mark a new beginning of the Church’s engagement with the modern world.

Finally, just thirty years ago  (2016) this month, on 15 March 1986, the Vatican Secretariat of State informed the Vatican Observatory that Pope John Paul II had given his blessing to build the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope. Since then, that telescope on a remote Arizona mountaintop has been our mainstay for astronomical observations.

Birthdays and anniversaries are a time to reflect on where we’ve been and how we’ve changed over the years. At the time of Galileo, astronomy meant cosmology, the philosophical basis of how we understood our place in the universe. Thus questions of astronomy took on a philosophical and theological significance.

But our cosmological ideas moved from Copernicus’ fixed sun, through Kepler’s elliptical orbits, to Kant’s idea of galaxies as island universes and Herschel’s measurement of our place in the Milky Way. Our modern speculations about multiple universes carry as much a tinge of science fiction as of natural philosophy. One lesson I hope we’ve learned is that no modern cosmology is a good basis for theological doctrine, simply because no matter how well founded our astronomy is we can expect it will eventually go out of date.

What is striking to me is the development of the Church’s attitude towards astronomy. After the Galileo affair showed the danger of too-close ties between science and theology, Pope Leo XII’s reasons to establish an observatory were primarily as a way of shoring up the reputation of the Church. He was responding to the late Victorian view that science and religion were somehow inevitably at war, a quaint idea held today only by journalists and the occasional elderly Oxford biologist.

Over the last hundred years, however, the emphasis of the Church’s role in astronomy has changed from mere public relations to a recognition that astronomy is a Good Thing in its own right, as a way of coming closer to the Creator. One of the earliest examples of this attitude can be found in an address of Pope Pius XII to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1939, where he mused, “Man ascents to God by climbing the ladder of the Universe.”

Closing the loop, in 2008 Pope Benedict XVI approved how “Galileo saw nature as a book whose author is God, in the same way that Scripture has God as its author.” Of course, this echoes St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “Since the beginning of time, God has revealed Himself in the things He has created.”

Also in Across the Universe

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

View the entire series

Across the Universe: Spotting Ceres
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This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2015

Ceres was the first body found in the region between Mars and Jupiter now called the Asteroid Belt. In the late 1700s Titius and Bode had noted a pattern in planet positions that suggested there should be a planet in the gap between Mars and Jupiter; on New Year’s Day of 1801, Father Giuseppi Piazzi found Ceres from his observatory in Sicily.

Bode's Law appears in the footnote on page 635 of his book of astronomy, Anleitung zur Kenntniss des gestirnten Himmels ("Manual for Knowing the Starry Sky") as seen in the Vatican Observatory copy here.

They expected a planet, so that’s what they called Ceres – though William Herschel, who had just discovered the gas giant Uranus, sniffed that such a tiny dot of light was neither planet nor star (Latin, “aster”) but a mere “asteroid.” Only fifty years later, when a number of other such small bodies had been found, did Ceres and the other asteroids get “demoted” to the status of “minor planet.” (And later work showed that the Titius-Bode pattern which predicted a planet at Ceres’ position was actually just a coincidence of numbers, not a reliable law.)

A mere 950 km in diameter, Ceres is indeed small – even Pluto’s diameter is two and a half times bigger and more than 15 times its volume – but it’s still by far the biggest object in the asteroid belt. It’s nearly twice the diameter and six times the volume of Vesta. We can measure its gravity’s tiny pull on Mars to estimate its mass, and we can just make it out as a disk in our biggest telescopes to get its diameter and volume, so we know it has a density somewhere between water and rock. We also know that, for its size, it reflects little light; its surface must be almost jet black, like a dark meteorite.

Indeed, this small size and dim surface made Ceres seem for many years a dull subject for study. But in 2006, when Pluto and other similarly-sized objects out beyond Neptune were recognized as a separate family of bodies called Dwarf Planets, it seemed reasonable to add Ceres to their number. So once again Ceres was re-classified. (Unlike Pluto, Ceres doesn’t have a vocal fan club so its repeated reclassifications have gone mostly unnoticed by the general public.)

A few years ago the Hubble telescope observed Ceres’ blurry disk to be slightly flattened. With a little fancy math (and some assumptions) you can compare the flattening with the spin rate to conclude that, unlike rubble-pile asteroids, Ceres was a solid body compressed by its own gravity, with a dense core. That implied its upper regions were full of low density stuff, probably ice, below a dust-covered surface. This idea gained traction when Esa’s Heschel Space Telescope, looking for water in our galaxy, stumbled on a detection of a plume of water from Ceres itself.

Dawn, approaching Ceres earlier this year, added the final touch: the discovery of two small white spots that many scientists are suggesting might be bits of ice poking through its dusty crust. Now we’re speculating that this fresh ice may indicate liquid water – and life? – inside this body, once thought so dull and uninteresting.

Occator Crater, measuring 57 miles (92 kilometers) across and 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) deep, contains the brightest area on Ceres. 
Dawn's close-up view reveals a dome in a smooth-walled pit in the bright center of the crater. A separate figure shows the bright spots in a mosaic of two Dawn images taken using a shorter exposure time to show details within the bright features that are overexposed, or nearly so, in the full mosaic. The images used to make these mosaics were taken from Dawn's low-altitude mapping orbit (LAMO), 240 miles (385 kilometers) above Ceres. Credit: NASA

 

But we’ve only just arrived; it is far too early to jump to conclusions. Planet or asteroid or dwarf? Black meteorite, dusty ice ball, or a home for life? If we’ve learned any lesson from Ceres, it’s to take in what it shows you with an open mind, rather than assume you know it all ahead of time, and only see what you expect to see.

That would be like worrying over the empty Tomb, without noticing the Gardener standing beside you.

(Most recently, organic material has been found on the surface of Ceres; for the latest Ceres information, check out the Dawn website.)

Should you (or someone you love) go to MIT?
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Today is "PI" day (written in American style, 3/14...) and MIT is holding a one day fundraiser... In honor of this day, this provides me with an excuse to post something I wrote for my Live Journal account a few years ago and which I get asked about from parents (and grandparents) of prospective students all the time. Of course the MIT I attended was nearly half a century back, but things haven't changed all that much...

This was MIT's Bexley Hall, where I lived in the early 1970's. It was not nearly as neat on the inside. I barely recognize it here without the "Impeach Nixon" banner... It's recently been demolished. (We would have done it ourselves if they'd asked.)

Do I recommend MIT? Only if you are a very particular type of student.

There is a reason why schools like MIT are so rare: because for most people, it is the wrong school to go to.

MIT is not a place to find yourself. Because it is such an intense environment, it can be devastating to anyone who doesn't already have a strong sense of who they are, and where they want to go. (Mind you, after MIT is finished with you, the person you thought you were at 18 won't be the person you are at 22; but if that were not so, then what would be the point of going there?)

I roomed at MIT with my best friend from high school, and frankly he would have been much happier at a small liberal arts school. Another high school friend was admitted to some big name schools but wound up (for family/financial reasons) at the University of Detroit, which is a small Jesuit school, not a top-flight school; but he made a point of seeking out the best professors there, regardless of their subject matter, and as a result is one of the best-educated people I know. He got a better education there than most Harvard grads get. (His daughter went to Harvard.)

The fact is, you will learn exactly the same things in the classroom at the University of Michigan (or any other big state school) that you will at MIT, and in the classroom at Enormous State University you will find students just as capable and professors just as good at their work (and just as bad at their teaching); and that would be a whole lot cheaper and closer to home.

But... for me, MIT was exactly the right place to go. It (along with Peace Corps and the Jesuit novitiate) was one of the major experiences that formed my life, and I love the place to this day.

Here's what you get at MIT, and only MIT:

1. You get a degree that opens doors around the world... including doors inside yourself. There have been many times in my later career when I might have doubted my ability to move forward, but then looked at that MIT ring on my finger and told myself to suck it up and get back to work. For myself at least, I don't think a degree from Penn State would have given me that same sense of confidence.

2. You get an institute that immediately treats you as an adult, expecting you to take care of yourself. It doesn't give you an education so much as provide a place where you can educate yourself. This attitude is very different from what you find at most other colleges, who pride themselves on their support and guidance. You don't get much support or guidance at MIT. It can be scary to go to an institution that will happily let you fail.

3. On the other hand... you get an institution that is not out to weed people out. At big state schools, the attitude is that they've admitted more students than they can graduate, and so the first year or two is full of hurdles to test how much you really want to get an education. MIT is just the opposite; it is hard enough to get in, that they don't want to admit they made a mistake in admitting you! So, while they will give you enough rope to hang yourself, they will also be there to help you when you finally admit you need help. (But you have to take the first step.)

4. You get a student body where you will fit in; or at least where no one will judge you harshly for not fitting in. And where you will actually be given the space to learn how to interact and deal with other very smart people. Note that the majority of the students at MIT are not (as they are at Cal Tech, say), hopeless geeks. Yes, MIT has its large share of Asperger's, but they are not the majority! (Do you want to know what it is like being a student at MIT? See the movie Real Genius. Yes, it is actually based on Cal Tech, but it is the same idea; and it is not that much of an exaggeration.)

5. You're at the best location in Boston, which is the best city in the world to be a student.

6. You get the world's largest open-shelf collection of science fiction. (The sailing pavilion is excellent, too.)

Across the Universe: The Boundaries of the Unknown
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This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2014

Isaac Newton thought that planetary orbits in our solar system were kept stable by God’s direct intervention; they were proof to him that God existed. A hundred years later, the great French mathematician and skeptic Pierre-Simon Laplace described his new orbital theory to Napoleon and supposedly quipped of God’s role, “I have no need for that hypothesis.” In fact, it is bad theology to reduce God to merely a gap-filling hypothesis. Only recently, however, have we learned that, actually, planetary motions may sometimes not be so stable after all.

I took this selfie with Jack Wisdom in St. Peter's Square where we went to hear the Sunday Angelus

One of the pioneers of studying chaos theory in celestial dynamics is Jack Wisdom, an MIT professor (and MacArthur “genius”) who is visiting the Vatican Observatory this month. He’s working now on modeling the complex interaction between the Moon’s orbit and spin with the spin and orbit of the Earth. It’s all tied to the larger issue of the origin of the Moon.

After the Apollo program ended, more than forty years ago, the study of the Moon went into a gradual decline. The annual “Lunar Science Conference” in Houston changed it name to the “Lunar and Planetary Science Conference” as other bodies, especially Mars, began to dominate its sessions. But in the last ten years, a series of Moon probes (including some from Japan, India, and China) have taken a new look at our nearest neighbor. In September 2013, the Royal Society hosted a big meeting on the topic; and the 2014 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference opened with a special session on “new perspectives of the Moon.”

This photo of the moon was taken at the Vatican's 16-inch refractor in Castel Gandolfo, so long ago that I forget what camera we used...

Understanding how the Moon was formed can tell us how planets form in general. What’s more, its early evolution should also have affected conditions on Earth while life was getting started here. Both questions figure into our guesses about the likelihood of planets with life elsewhere in space.

The Moon’s origin is a thorny problem in both celestial mechanics and geochemistry. Unlike meteorites or Mars rocks, Moon rocks are identical to Earth’s in many subtle chemical ways. But compared to Earth, the Moon lacks water, a big iron core, and certain other elements. The least-bad theory we have to date suggests the Moon was formed when a Mars-sized object hit Earth while the planets were forming, four and a half billion years ago. (The idea of rogue Mars-sized impactors seemed unlikely until computer models showed that planets big and small were changing orbits, chaotically, back then.) A mix of Earth and impactor material could explain the Moon’s chemistry; but actually forming the Moon from such debris into its slightly inclined, elliptical orbit is trickier.

That’s where Jack’s work comes in. From the quiet of the Pope’s summer gardens, he connects via the internet to a cluster of computers back in Cambridge, Massachusetts running a series of simulations for the tidal evolution of the early Moon. Its final orbit depends on how energy is dissipated within the Earth and the Moon (my own work plays a small part in understanding that question). But under certain conditions, the Moon’s spin becomes chaotic, varying unpredictably even when the calculations start with identical conditions.

Unpredictable is not the same as unconstrained; these bodies still operate under Newton’s deterministic laws. But the different forces interact such that tiny uncertainties in the initial conditions (or even just round-off error in the calculations) can lead to wildly different results. Thus in practice we can cannot determine what outcome is certain, but only which is most likely.

Laplace’s experience led him to believe that as our maths got more advanced, our ability to explain things would become ever more precise. But in fact the opposite has occurred. We know better now the boundaries of what we can know for certain.

Also in Across the Universe

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

View the entire series

On Operas and Stars, Aliens and Refugees
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I was recently in correspondence with Carl Pennypacker at Berkeley. To quote Wikipedia: "Dr. Pennypacker has spent much of his career as a research astrophysicist, receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1978. His principal research was the studying of supernovae and the building of techniques for their automated discovery. With Rich Muller, he co-founded the Berkeley Supernova Search, which later became the Supernova Cosmology Project. He shared the 2007 Gruber Prize in Cosmology and the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for the Supernova Cosmology Project's discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating."

All true. But in addition to that, he has a deep interest in science outreach... and music. When he shared with me a video he'd been involved with (see below) I asked if I could post it here, and if he would give me a few words of introduction. He graciously agreed to both. He writes (edited from a couple of emails):

I was part of "The Global Skylight" opera, as part of the IAU's Year of Light in 2015. It occurred to me recently that the theme of the origin of humanity's matter in the stars was a powerful principle that might help people take a bit better care of each other. So I re-purposed the finale of this Opera (I helped write the music and the words) to be "The Refugee Song and Dance." It is on youtube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWXAvdmRMcM

The Global Skylight Opera was the first in an on-going yearly series of Global Science Operas, originating in Stord, Norway.  Last November's was on the Higgs Boson.  Oded Ben-Horin is our maestro and inventor of this concept.   They are described here: http://globalscienceopera.com/and a video trailer of the Skylight Opera is here in the lower left: http://globalscienceopera.com/resources-media/#videos

Per my musicality: I am really not a musician, but I seem to have tunes running around my under-worked brain all the time.  If I hear a noise from the environment, like a bird singing or creek flowing, my mind has this inexplicable desire to complete the notes nature has given us.  Up to now, some of my collaborative work that went further was a light opera Ms. Judy Goldhaber and I did on Stephen Hawking.  This was performed at San Francisco City College. (If you ever want to hear some of these songs, I have six in good digital form I could relay to you.)  I "compose" by using a music composition program, and although my pitch is far from perfect, I try to write in the music the tunes I hear in my mind. It is frustrating at times for me, because of my lack of any formal musical training -- it takes me some time to get the notes just the way I hear them, and I find my precision is around a 1/32 note.

Dr. Simon Nathan, a friend and Ph.D. physicist, did the hard work of the arrangement. 

Across the Universe: Faith and Expectations
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This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2013, soon after the election of Pope Francis

How do I feel about a Pope who is not only a fellow Jesuit, but one who’s studied science (in his case, chemistry) as well? To be honest, I am terrified. For the past twenty years I have lived off the expectations that others have of Jesuits and scientists; now I am going to have to deal with someone who can see past the mystique. Familiarity breeds a certain discomfort. I can only imagine what it’s like for our Observatory’s director, Fr. Funes, who is himself not only a Jesuit and scientist but also from Argentina. [In fact, as it later came out, when José first began the process of entering the Jesuits as a young man, one of the Argentinian Jesuits who interviewed him was a certain Father Bergoglio...]

At our audience in September2015 celebrating 80 years in Castel Gandolfo, Pope Francis reminisced about when he first met emeritus director José Funes.

Pope Francis’ chemistry background has not gone unnoticed in the scientific world. A blog post about it at Scientific American’s website trots out all the typical complaints we’ve come to expect about the Church and science: the burning of Bruno for his heliocentrism (a complete misreading of that case, invented by the anticlerical 19th-century Italian government); unfounded speculations that the new Pope might somehow reject evolution; a criticism of the Church’s stance on abortion and birth control as being “unscientific.” (One might have hoped that Scientific American could see the difference between what science tells us and how it is used; one can be opposed to nuclear weapons without denying nuclear physics.) Worse, in the midst of this flood of ignorance, the blogger quotes my own work with approval!

More than just one blogger’s hasty ruminations, this reaction sadly reflects our culture’s expectations of how religion and science interact. People assume a tension between faith and science because they mistake both of them as epistemological systems. They think that we knows some facts through science, other facts through faith, and so we ought to expect that they will conflict sometimes.

It’s easy to see how this mistake arises. Most people learn science only through introductory classes or newspaper articles that emphasize “discoveries”. Facts are easy to report, easy to test with multiple-choice exams. But science is not a big book of facts; it’s a conversation among scientists about how those facts can be best understood. And faith is not about blinding ourselves to the facts or accepting facts on some religious authority without evidence. Rather, it is all about proceeding with an expectation of success even when we lack all the facts. In that sense, every scientist is a person of faith. I have to believe, without certainty, that the experiment I propose to work on for the next two years will actually give me something useful that can contribute to the conversation.

That means, of course, that I perform the experiment with an expectation of what kind of results I will get. Without that expectation, I wouldn’t be able to recognize the results when I got them. But if I knew for sure that the experiment would work, or if I could be certain what its results would be, I wouldn’t have to do the work. As the spiritual writer Anne Lamott reminds us, certainty is the opposite of faith.

Furthermore, I have to be open to the possibility that my expectations were wrong. When that happens, though, it doesn’t alter my faith in science; it merely tempers my faith in my own abilities. Indeed, the best scientists live for the day when their expectations are proved wrong. That’s precisely when we learn something new.

And so now we are running the experiment of a South American Jesuit scientist as Pope. We all come to this papacy with expectations, just as Pope Francis himself has his own expectations. The punditry of predictions about his papacy, now filling our magazines and blogs, is not a bad thing. But we shouldn’t lose faith if things don’t turn out the way we expected.

Also in Across the Universe

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

View the entire series

The Beer and the Telescope
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During a bout of insomnia Thursday morning, around 2 am, my phone buzzed with an incoming email from the editor of L'Osservatore Romano asking if I could get them an article about the TRAPPIST-1 planets. By noon. Italian time. So I stayed up another hour -- I wasn't getting any sleep anyway -- and shipped one off to them by 3 am Tucson time. It ran in the Feb 23 edition... click here for a link. Of course, they translated it into Italian. Here is the original English text that I sent them... they edited it slightly.

I didn't get a chance to copy the Italian version before it went offline, but thankfully my Twitter friend @fabriziolab did!

Last year, a team of astronomers led by Michaël Gillon of the STAR Institute at the University of Liège in Belgium announced the discovery of three planets around a star observed by one of their telescopes, TRAPPIST South. This week they have published new results in the scientific journal Nature that expands the number of planets in this system to seven. Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ, director of the Vatican Observatory, reflects on the significance of this discovery.

“Do you believe in life elsewhere in the Universe?” It’s a question that astronomers are asked all the time. It is the right question: life in the universe is, so far, a question of belief. We have no data that says such life exists. But our faith that life is there is strong enough that we’re willing to make the effort to search for it.

With the announcement yesterday of the discovery of seven planets comparable to Earth orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1,our faith in such searches has gotten just a little bit stronger. At least three of them might be at the right temperature to support liquid water and thus the possibility of life as we know it.

Their ongoing search for planets around small, relatively cool stars in our nearby galactic neighborhood uses a pair of robotic telescopes called “TRAPPIST”; the acronym stand for the TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope. TRAPPIST South, which made the observations reported here, is located in the Chilean desert at an observatory in La Silla run by the European Southern Observatory; its counterpart, TRAPPIST North, is located outside of Marrakesh, Morocco. The star TRAPPIST-1 bears the name of the telescope that made it famous.

While most of the excitement in the popular press has centered on the possibility that life could exist on these planets, I see a wider significance to the discovery.

It’s important to note that no one has actually seen these planets. They are too small and too faint to be visible in our current generation of telescopes. But even though we can’t see them, we believe they exist because of the effects we can see that they have on their star. This planetary system happens to be aligned so that as each planet orbits this star, it passes between the star and us; thus the starlight is slightly dimmed as the planet passes. Such an effect, though subtle, can be detected even with a small telescope. The TRAPPIST telescopes use very modest 0.6 meter-wide mirrors to capture the flickering starlight.

Since plenty of other things could cause a star to dim, one has to keep looking to see if the effect repeats itself on a regular basis, each time the planet completes an orbit. That’s one reason why the team decided to concentrate their search on dim, red stars. A planet would have to orbit rather close to such a star in order to be warm enough to support life. Close planets orbit more quickly; thus we have many more chances to see them dim the starlight, and each time we see that dimming we are more confident that the planet (or planets, in this case) is really there. What is more, with seven planets it takes a lot of observations to sort out the rhythm of dimmings into seven regular periods. This discovery did not come in one moment of revelation, but only after years of patient observing.

To further increase our faith that these are really planets, the scientists looked for other effects that such planets would have on the star, such as a subtle shifting of its spectral colors. The small flickers seen in a small telescope led to an international effort involving some of the biggest and most sophisticated instruments at our disposal. Besides the TRAPPIST South telescope, the astronomers relied on data from the NASA’s Spitzer space telescope (which observes in the infrared light that this star mostly radiates) and the European Southern Observatory’s VLT (Very Large Telescope) in Paranal, Chile, whose mirror is more than eight meters wide.

No one astronomer could have made all the observations needed to confirm the result. Science is done by a community of people working together toward a common goal. The European Southern Observatory is itself a consortium of astronomers supported by fifteen European nations, plus Brazil.

Astronomy is not stars or planets, but the activity of the people who look at those stars and planets. It is human curiosity, the desire to feed the human soul, that motivates this work. Human longings to know how we fit into this universe, and whether there are other places or even other beings like ourselves, excites our imaginations and keeps us looking patiently, night after night. That passion fuels the faith of the astronomers, giving them the hope they need that their long nights of observing will bear fruit.

Of course, along with passion and faith, scientists are also moved by other appetites… and a sense of humor. The Belgian astronomers who built the TRAPPIST telescopes admit that they chose the name to honor the famous beers made by Belgian Trappists!