Posts by Brother Guy Consolmagno

Across the Universe: Three Galileo Sound Bites
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This column first ran in The Tablet in October 2014

I had been invited to Australia this month [October, 2014] to give a science and religion talk to an association of Catholic professionals, but by the time I arrived in Brisbane my schedule had expanded into seven presentations, from school groups to university colloquia. Three of those groups asked to hear about Galileo.

The guy with the beard is NOT Galileo. The city behind me is Brisbane, Australia

What makes Galileo such a touchstone for science/religion debates? Over his 30 year career Galileo was a friend of Popes and princes, Jesuits and Dominicans (at a time when those two orders could hardly agree about anything). His reflections on science and religion have been praised by Popes since Leo XIII. If it weren’t for a few unfortunate months in 1633, he’d be hailed universally as a hero of Catholic thought. But ever since the late 19th century, when the myth of a war between science and religion first captured the popular imagination, Galileo has been cited as hero, villain, and victim of that “war.”

The Galileo story is complicated and confusing. Check your favorite on-line bookseller and you’ll find 400 different Galileo biographies, all of them with a different slant as to what really happened. I certainly don’t have the answer; what’s more, I've found that even an hour’s presentation can’t communicate anything like a complete picture of what happened. Most people only have a sound-bite understanding of the issue. They want sound-bite answers. So, as a service to my fellow Catholic science popularizers, here are three sound bites that have worked for me:

Everything you know about Galileo is probably wrong; but the truth doesn’t make the Church look any better. No modern historian thinks the Church was simply being anti-science when it put Galileo on trial in 1633. But her actual reasons are still hotly debated. Was it because Galileo had insulted the Pope? Was his philosophy in some subtle way thought to be dangerous during unstable times? Was it all wrapped up in the politics of the Thirty Years’ War, which was entering a climax just as Galileo published his most controversial book? In one sense it doesn’t matter… none of those reasons justify declaring that his work (lauded just a few years earlier) made him guilty of “vehement suspicion of heresy.” It looks like Pope Urban VIII used his religious authority over Galileo as a way of dealing with non-theological issues, be they personal injuries or political expedience. That was wrong.

When Bellarmine and Galileo debated, Galileo was the better theologian, but Bellarmine was the better scientist. In 1616, seventeen years before his infamous trial, Galileo was called before Cardinal Bellarmine to explain his views. At that time, Bellarmine had written to a friend that if Galileo could prove the Earth moved, then theologians would merely have to re-interpret passages of the Bible that appeared to state otherwise. “But I do not think he can prove it,” Bellarmine concluded. And given the evidence available at the time, Bellarmine was right. The scientific debates continued for nearly a century afterwards. It wasn’t until the publication of Newton’s laws of physics, whose final edition was a hundred years after Galileo, that science (and the Church) finally understood how a sun-centered system could make sense.

The reason that people always cite Galileo to show the Church suppressing science is that it’s the only example they’ve got. From the medieval universities, where science was first invented, through pioneer clerical-scientists like Gregor Mendel and Angelo Secchi, to Fr. Lemaitre’s Big Bang theory, the Church has supported science – sometimes literally, as with telescopes supported by the roofs of churches and Papal palaces.

But her support is also social. Our Church is proud of her scientists. We even get invited to travel around the world… to give talks about Galileo.

Want to know more about Galileo? Visit our Faith and Astronomy digital library, which has a whole section of dozens of downloadable articles and other materials about Galileo.

Also in Across the Universe

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

View the entire series

Across the Universe: Return to Dust
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This column first ran in The Tablet in October 2013

For about six months, our Moon had a moon of its own: a small artificial satellite called “Ladee”, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer. Costing just under $300 million, a bargain, it is a little bit smaller than a Smart Car, a little bit larger than a Tardis: 7.7 feet tall, with a hexagonal cross section 4.7 feet in diameter.

The spacecraft even looks like a Tardis. (NASA artist's conception of the spacecraft above the Moon.0

NASA launched it with an assembly of rockets built from old “Peacemaker” ICBM missiles. Originally designed to send nuclear bombs to the Soviet Union, these rockets are strictly controlled under a US-Russian arms treaty: the small facility at Wallops Island, off the Virginia coast, is one of the few places allowed to launch them. Thus, a bit before midnight on September 6, 2013, the rockets’ red glare was visible from nearby Washington DC and the eyes of the Congress who’d paid for it.

These small rockets put the spacecraft into a highly eccentric orbit, swinging first close to Earth then out towards the Moon. As Ladee project manager Butler Hine described it, “On the third pass, we’re hanging out there in space right around where the Moon is going to come by… it swings by [the Moon], whips around behind it, and then once we come out from behind the Moon, we do a big braking burn with our main engine.” The braking burn, killing the spacecraft’s speed so the Moon’s gravity could capture it, occurred on October 5. 2013. (At that time the US government, including Nasa, was shut down; fortunately, the laws of gravity were not suspended.) Further burns lowered the spacecraft to 20 km above the lunar surface. [Its ultimate fate is found on the LADEE web site: "10:59 p.m. PDT, April 17, 2014 - Ground controllers at NASA's Ames Research Center have confirmed that the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft has impacted the surface of the moon, as planned."]

“LADEE has two main science goals: To understand the lunar atmosphere, as well as the dust environment around the Moon,” according to Sarah Noble, Ladee’s program scientist. During the 1960s, a camera on the Surveyor 7 robot lander and the Apollo astronauts in orbit around the Moon noticed a glow above the surface of the Moon at sunrise. It’s thought that sunlight gives dust an electrical charge, causing it to levitate off the surface. But how much dust is there? How big and how strongly charged is it? Actual measurements of this dust can calibrate our models for how dust elsewhere in the solar system behaves. (I could have used those numbers 35 years ago, when I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the role of electrostatics in the formation of planets.) Ladee will also measure the composition and number of atoms per cubic centimeter in the Moon’s tenuous atmosphere, and how that varies above the lunar surface.

Besides understanding the physics of dust and thin neutral gases near a rocky surface in space, there’s also an engineering purpose to the mission. Quoting Hine again, “Dust is a very difficult environment to deal with on the moon. It’s… kind of evil. It works its way into equipment… How do you design things so that they can survive the dust environment?”

Sending the mission now was critical. The Chinese are planning to launch the robotic Chang’e-3 lunar lander later this year [it launced successfully on December 14], rumored to be part of a program to land Chinese astronauts on the Moon by 2020. “Things have been relatively quiet around the moon in terms of landings in the last few decades,” noted Dr. Noble, “but it’s not going to stay that way for long. Now is actually an ideal time to go and take a look at it while it’s still in its pristine, natural state.”

The very act of observing the Moon disturbs it. While this effect is most famously known in quantum physics, it’s true even in our macroscopic day-to-day existence.

We cannot know what the universe would have been like if we were not here, participating in it. Simply by being, we co-create our world.

[What did they find? From a 2016 paper by M. Horanyi:

"The Lunar Dust Experiment (LDEX) ... discovered a permanently present dust cloud engulfing the Moon... consistent with ejecta clouds generated from the continual bombardment of the lunar surface by sporadic interplanetary dust particles. Intermittent density enhancements were observed during several of the annual meteoroid streams, especially during the Geminids.

LDEX found no evidence of the expected density enhancements over the terminators where electrostatic processes were predicted to efficiently loft small grains...

Several of the yearly meteor showers generated sustained elevated levels of impact rates, ... LDEX observations are the first to identify the ejecta clouds around the Moon sustained by the continual bombardment of interplanetary dust particles. Most of the dust particles generated in impacts have insufficient energy to escape and follow ballistic orbits, returning to the surface, 'gardening' the regolith. Similar ejecta clouds are expected to engulf all airless planetary objects, including the Moon, Mercury, and the moons of Mars: Phobos and Deimos."]

Also in Across the Universe

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

View the entire series

Across the Universe: Feeding Curiosity
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This column first ran in The Tablet in October 2012

Finally [in 2012!], a planet has been discovered orbiting Alpha Centauri. That star, a neighbor of the Southern Cross, is actually a triplet of stars orbiting each other – as first discovered by a Jesuit missionary, Fr. Jean Richaud, some 300 years ago. And it’s is our nearest neighbor, merely four and a half light years away.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft was racing away from Jupiter following its seventh close pass of the planet when JunoCam snapped this image on May 19, 2017, from about 29,100 miles (46,900 kilometers) above the cloud tops. The spacecraft was over 65.9 degrees south latitude, with a lovely view of the south polar region of the planet. This image was processed to enhance color differences, showing the amazing variety in Jupiter’s stormy atmosphere. The result is a surreal world of vibrant color, clarity and contrast. Four of the white oval storms known as the “String of Pearls” are visible near the top of the image. Interestingly, one orange-colored storm can be seen at the belt-zone boundary, while other storms are more of a cream color. JunoCam's raw images are available for the public to peruse and process into image products at: www.missionjuno.swri.edu/junocam

Granted, the new planet orbits so close to its star (the middle member of the triplet) that its surface would be hotter than molten lava. But its existence gives hope that Alpha Centauri could also host another planet at a more temperate location, which we just haven’t seen yet. Unlike other detected planetary systems, you could actually envision a conversation with hypothetical intelligences inhabiting such a hypothetical planet; the conversation lag would be a mere nine years between exchanges.

Could we go there? Half a century ago, it took Apollo about a week to get to the Moon and back. Getting people to Mars (round trip, two years with present technology) is technically doable but so challenging and expensive that we’ve only sent robots on one-way trips so far. But Alpha Centauri is a bit further away. A chart that placed our Moon one centimeter from Earth would need to be a thousand kilometers wide before you could map Alpha Centauri’s position. At the rate Apollo went to the Moon, it would take a million years to get there.

The same week that this announcement was made in Switzerland, I was with six hundred planetary astronomers in Nevada at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences. The reaction there to Alpha Centauri’s planet was, “cool!” – followed immediately by each of us returning to all the talks and posters and collaborations-in-the-hallways that make up a typical scientific meeting. Science is not only done in major discoveries; it is also many tiny bits of work, innumerable puzzle pieces, accumulated by a small, dedicated, slightly crazy clan of scruffy astronomers.

We heard a new twist on the standard theory for the origin of the Moon, immediately challenged by a fellow modeler... who later told me, “that was the best paper of the meeting, even though I don’t agree with her results.” We heard plans to image the poles of Jupiter with a camera on a Nasa mission due to arrive in four years. [That's the Juno mission, whose results and incredible polar images can now be seen here.] For the first time, a planet’s been found orbiting a star that’s part of a quadruple system.

These last two items had a special twist. The quadruple star’s planet was found by amateurs using the “Planet Hunters” citizen science website (planethunters.org). And, likewise, on-line amateurs will make the target selection decisions for the Jupiter camera and reduce the resulting images, cleaning up the computer glitches and balancing the colors. Those amateurs are already providing images of Jupiter with backyard telescopes that rival what once only the best professional telescopes could provide.

Amateurs’ telescopes are often the fruits of their lucrative high tech careers; we professionals spend our lives grubbing for the grants that pay for our Curiosities. But amateurs don’t get paid to dedicate all their thinking hours to the latest discoveries in the field. Nor do they get to gossip over coffee with friends who’ve known each other since student days, mixing new data on Mercury with news on who’s just become a grandfather.

The discovery of a planet around a nearby star can inspire the imagination of the amateurs (and taxpayers), our biggest fans and supporters. But we professionals are consumed by the minutia of daily data. Only with such work can we help the amateurs make sense of what they’ve seen, like a spiritual director guiding someone through a numinous experience.

And in return, their enthusiasm reminds us of why we do the work.

Also in Across the Universe

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

View the entire series

Across the Universe: Clouds of witnesses
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This column first ran in The Tablet in September, 2016

Scientists communicate with images. We want to know not simply one value, but how each value compares with other values measured in other situations: other times, other samples, other planets. Picturing our data as spots on a grid is worth a thousand numbers.

A plot of meteorite magnetic properties against density nicely sorts many meteorite samples into distinct chemical groups... an example of pictures telling a story. (from a paper I published many years ago...)

At the 2016 meeting of the Meteoritical Society in Berlin, every paper relied on images with specks of many colors (each color also a different shape, for the the color-blind) representing different sets of data.

No number is perfect; no single measurement is perfect. We repeat each measurement tens, hundreds, thousands of times. If you were to plot each measurement you’d get a cloud of dots and hope that the truth is somewhere within that cloud. The better your precision, the tighter your cloud, the better you can guess where the truth may lie.

Instead of plotting all the thousands of individual measurements, though, it’s usually sufficient to mark on the diagram one spot that represents the average value of all the points. Through that spot you can then draw a cross of lines embracing the area that would have been covered by the whole cloud. We call these lines error bars.

One great tool for understanding meteorites over the past 40 years has been measuring their different mix of oxygen isotopes. It would take a book to explain what isotopes are, how they’re made (supernovae come into it), or how we measure them in the lab; suffice to say that they’re excellent tracers of the parent planets where our meteorites came from. Thus every rock from planet Earth has one given mix of oxygen isotopes; rocks from Mars have a different mix; and each meteorite type has its own distinctive mixture of oxygen isotopes.

While most meteorites have the texture of concrete, pebbles and dust squeezed together, one particular class looks instead like chips of basaltic lava. For forty years we’ve believed that most of these basaltic meteorites came from one asteroid, Vesta. Their chemistry is identical and, so far as we could tell, their oxygen isotopes were also all the same.

A plot I saw at our meeting showed a cloud of dots representing the oxygen isotopes of various basaltic meteorites. Each dot, newly measured with the latest techniques, represented hundreds of measurements made on each given meteorite. Presumably the real oxygen value of Vesta is somewhere in that cloud, right?

This wasn't the paper I was thinikng of; but it is recent work on the same field which comes to the same conclusion... there are a lot of "Vesta"-like meteorites that do not have the same oxygen isotopes inside the gray band (EFL=Eucrite Fractionation Line) at the bottom of the figure. (Source: The mineralogy, petrology, and composition of anomalous eucrite Emmaville by T. J. Barrett et al., MAPS, 2017)

But wait: the error bars for each meteorite’s dot are now as small as the dots themselves. Once, we would easily have assumed with a cloud like this that the spread in their locations just represented the general imprecision of our data. No more. Each point is precise, and different from its neighbor point. If each meteorite had actually come from the same parent planet like Vesta, they all should have been piled one on top of the other. They’re not.

We’re not looking at a cloud of unknowing, but a cloud of different bodies, each dot a witness from a different parent planet. Our old idea — they all came from the same place — doesn’t stand up to the new precision of our data. Vesta alone is not the ultimate source of these bodies; the early solar system must have been a far richer and more complex place than we ever had believed.

We know this now because with improved precision we have grown to have greater faith in our data. Like the cloud of witnesses who testify to Christ invoked by Saint Paul, such combined testimony leads us deeper into a richer truth. Every witness is essential; no single witness can suffice.

Also in Across the Universe

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

View the entire series

Across the Universe: Reaching out
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This column first ran in The Tablet in September 2015

Eighty years ago, on September 29, 1935, Pope Pius XI dedicated new quarters and telescopes of the Vatican Observatory in his summer palace in Castel Gandolfo. To celebrate the anniversary,in September 2015 we held a symposium in Castel Gandolfo, including a visit to the old domes that Pius XI had dedicated. The party ended in a private audience in Rome with Pope Francis (less than 24 hours before he left for Cuba and the US).

After giving us a short address, the Pope looked up and caught my eye. He smiled, and said, “Ah! The New Director!”

It’s true. As of that day, I became the new director of the Vatican Observatory. (I actually didn’t completely believe it until I heard him say it.)

Lunch with the Cardinal Secretary of State in the hall of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, celebrating my new appointment as director, in September, 2015. Ignore the goofy guy with the beard telling a joke; check out that ceiling!

Would I continue to write articles like these (for the Tablet)? Yes, as long as there’s a place for me. It’s not only because I love being a part of this journal. When Pope Leo XIII founded the Vatican Observatory in 1891 it was so that “the world could clearly see” the Church supporting good science. Doing good science is, obviously, essential; otherwise we have nothing to show. But the “showing” is also essential.

We’ve done that in an ad-hoc way for the past 20 years. Now I am trying to organize a more systematic approach to our education and public outreach. We’re developing programs from a Faith and Astronomy Workshop for parish educators [the next one will be held in a year's time, January 2019], to a range of high school collaborations, to our Catholic Astronomer blog page. My columns are part that work.

A lot of my outreach has always been through public talks at churches, schools, and science fiction conventions. For example, the summer of 2015 summer I was a Guest of Honor at a convention in Chicago for folks who like to tinker and invent; then, at the Sasquan World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane that August, I gave the keynote science lecture, part my duties as this year’s Carl Sagan medalist. [In 2017 I was guest of honor at two science fiction conventions!] Alas, once I learned of my new job I had to cancel three weeks of talks in the UK; I needed to be here to sign all the paperwork and learn where the gears and levers of the new job are to be found.

Such events as science fiction conventions are an ideal place to talk about science. Here you find bright and curious folks who love to hear about astronomy and place it in the human context. That context, after all, is what science fiction is all about. The human context includes religion, in all its forms, organized and personal and everything in between.

Just another gratuitous pretty astropicture, in this case, the Horsehead Nebula as imaged at the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope.

That context figured strongly in our symposium as well. Historians and philosophers spoke eloquently of how doing science shapes the scientists (and their culture). But even the astronomers pointed out, time and again, that human decisions are required at critical points in our work, from choosing our experiments to reducing our data. The active involvements of each Pope in our work during all those years reminds us of the importance that they attached to our work. After all, this Observatory was a Pope’s idea, not ours!

But we do this work not just because a Pope wants us to do it. All the outreach we do, from science fiction conventions to think-pieces in intellectual journals, reflects another quality that motivates everything we do in astronomy: a sense of joy. The stars are glorious, and it’s a treat to be engaged in their study… because, their glory proclaims the Glory of their Creator.

Astronomy is a joyful profession, and I intend to have fun at this job. To quote the poet e.e. cummings: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go! 

Also in Across the Universe

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

View the entire series

Across the Universe: The Church of UFO
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This column first ran in The Tablet in September 2014

“Preparing for Discovery,” a two day symposium at the US Library of Congress to discuss the possible impact on society of finding life in space, was my destination [September 2014]. Discovering life outside Earth would be a major advance in understanding biology; finding intelligent life would colour how we understand being human. But it’s a magnet for our hopes and fears.

The proceedings of the symposium came out in January, 2016. This image links to the amazon.com site; for a direct link to the Cambridge Press site, link here 

The field of astrobiology still has a hard time escaping the taint of “little green men.” Thus nearly all the speakers went out of their way to emphasize that they were Serious Scientists, viewing life and intelligence from a purely secular and, indeed, materialistic viewpoint. Constant reference was made to the “N=1” problem: how can you define life, much less intelligence, when the number of planets known to harbour life only equals one? Still, the laws of physics do provide some guideposts. And understanding the origin of that one example we do have of life, here on Earth, would certainly help us place how life might be found elsewhere.

That’s not to say that there weren’t any number of exotic ideas being promoted. Indeed, the talks were often an infuriating mixture of the profound and the absurd.

One speaker asked, why do we limit our search to either microbes or intelligence? Why do we discount other “non-human animals”? It’s a legitimate question (with a simple answer — microbes and intelligence will probably be easier to find) but it was immediately upended by the speaker’s insistence that it’s unscientific to value humans over other animals.

Is the search for life the same as the search for intelligence? By equating intelligence with calculational complexity, another speaker concluded that advanced beings would upload themselves into superintelligent computers – only to become obsolete 18 months later, I suppose.

Why do we assume that civilizations with advanced technology will also have advanced ethical systems? This certainly hasn’t been the case in human history. From that, another speaker questioned the very reality of ethics, altruism, and love. (Like extraterrestrial ponies, they're hard to observe with a telescope.)

In teaching undergraduate physics, I would always remind my students that when they come to the end of a calculation they need to take a deep breath, look at their answer, and ask themselves: does this really make sense? Or have I made a blunder somewhere along the way? It’s a step that too many of my fellow panelists seem not to have taken. Seeing the absurdities that can result from their strict application of materialism gave me a new appreciation of my own Christian faith.

Meanwhile, the audience’s questions and comments suggested that many of them were UFO true believers. Several insisted in telling me about UFO sitings that they had experienced, complete with sketchy artists’ renditions of the events. (Odd how the spread of cell phone cameras has not supplanted such drawings.)

The online comic xkcd pointed out the interesting lack of correlation between UFO reports and cellphone cameras...

Several reporters were more interested in the literal question of my talk’s title (“Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?”) than my more mundane musings on the reactions of both believers and atheists to possible ET sightings. Both believers and atheists insist that finding ET would vindicate their beliefs; it hasn’t shaken either side that we haven’t found them yet!

Linda Billings of the National Institute of Aerospace closed the seminar by suggesting that SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, had all the trappings of a fundamentalist religion. Blockbuster movies and overheated cable TV shows are the revival tents that fan a desperate passion for finding our nemesis, or saviour, among the extraterrestrials. Seth Shostak, of the SETI Institute, took exception; if SETI were a religion, he muttered, it would be better funded!

Given my position as fundraiser for the Vatican Observatory, I only wish that were true.

Also in Across the Universe

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

View the entire series

Across the Universe: Leaving the neighborhood
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This column first ran in The Tablet in September 2013

At the annual European Planetary Science Congress [held in September 2013] in London, I was chatting with some postgraduate students about their studies of Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. It’s the target of the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer mission that the European Space Agency hopes to launch in 2022. Europa’s subcrustal oceans may be the best place in our solar system to look for non-terrestrial life forms – an idea that I can claim credit for first proposing in print in 1975, based not so much on my computer models as on all the science fiction I’d been reading.

This page from a paper I submitted more than 40 years ago, based on my MS thesis with John Lewis at MIT, shows how crude our models (and ability to draw figures) were in the days before PCs...

 

 

 

 

 

It’s exciting to see a crazy idea of mine (and, to be honest, of many other folk) turned into a space mission. But it’s sobering to realize I will be 78 years old in 2030, when it arrives. Indeed, not only were those postgraduate students not yet born when I had made my models, they hadn’t even been born by the time my models were obsolete.

NASA artist's rendition of Voyager 2. "Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to study all four of the solar system's giant planets up close. It is now exploring the outermost reaches of where the solar wind and the sun's magnetic field dominate space. In September 2007, it crossed the termination shock (where the speed of the solar wind drops below the speed of sound) at 84 AU (more than twice the distance to Pluto)."

I had based my models in 1975 on two data points and a lot of imagination. (Hence the science fiction.) The Pioneer 10 spacecraft had zoomed past Jupiter in 1973, but far from Europa; likewise Voyager 1 in March, 1979 targeted other moons in Jupiter’s neighborhood.  Only Voyager 2 got close enough to Europa, in July 1979, to send back the first decent images of its cracked icy surface... and data that indicated my models were probably right for the wrong reasons. (Europa produces and transports heat in ways I hadn’t imagined in 1975.) The magnetometers on the Galileo orbiter in 1996 finally detected a faint deflection of Jupiter’s magnetic fields, signaling the presence of a conductive salt water layer beneath Europa’s crust.

Magnetic fields and the Voyager spacecraft were also in the news [in September 2013]. It appears that finally, after many false calls, Voyager 1 really has exited the bubble of the Sun’s magnetic field and entered the plasma of interstellar space. A human artifact is now, in a real sense, voyaging among the stars.

The place where the flowing water is balanced by the standing water, is analogous to the heliopause

This idea of a “magnetic bubble” can be illustrated in any household sink. [See a previous post about that, here.] Turn on a tap and let the water run onto the sink’s flat bottom. You’ll see a disk of water rushing out away from the spot where the stream hits; from this spot, the circle of water rushes out into an every larger area. Since the same amount of water has to cover a wider area, it moves ever more slowly as it moves outwards. The disk of outrushing water stops, suddenly, at a ring of apparently still water. That’s where the weight of the still water is exactly balanced by the onrush of the falling water.

In the same way, the Sun produces a hot plasma called a Solar Wind that pushes outwards in all directions, carrying the Sun’s magnetic field. But as it blows out into wider space, its “ram pressure” drops away, though in this case the it’s the wind’s density, not its speed, that decreases as it expands. This bubble of solar plasma and magnetism stops when its pressure is so low that even the weak static pressure of the gases between the stars can match it. That’s the boundary Voyager crossed this month.

Voyager is still within our solar system; it won’t reach the Oort cloud of comets for another 300 years. But nonetheless this boundary is a milestone. In contrast to the cosmology of the ancients, who imagined a barrier between the fallen Earth and the perfect stars, we and the stars are physically connected, able to touch one another. It reminds us that we – and whatever lifeforms are swimming about inside Europa, or anywhere else – operate under rules that are the same on Earth as they are in the heavens.

Also in Across the Universe

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

View the entire series

Calendars!
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Happy September the first... and happy Calendar Day!

Yes, the official Vatican Observatory Foundation calendar is now available for sale:

These calendars have been a tradition for more than ten years. Every month has an excellent astrophotograph, donated to us for our use, by some of the best amateur astrophotographers in the world. The 2018 calendar features work by Damian Peach from the UK (who did the cover photo above), Bernard Hubl from Austria, J-P Metsavainio from Finland, Adam Block from the University of Arizona... and more. Twelve... no, make that, fourteen fantastic images. (Counting the cover, and January 2019.)

The calendar itself contains a delightfully eclectic selection of astronomically significant dates. And probably one or two typos, even though Dr. Brendan Thomson (who puts this together for us every year) and I must have proofread it at least three times each. Tell us of a typo and I will send you a cookie.

The calendar is meant to be a fundraiser for us, but still it is ridiculously cheap at only $25 a copy. (Or $20 each for bulk orders of 4 or more... and we'll mail them out to whatever address you give us.) (Click Here To Order) The hope, of course, is that you'll give them to lots of friends to spread the word about what we do, and them maybe each of them will subscribe here to The Catholic Astronomer!

Finally... the back cover has a taste of the images inside...

Across the Universe: Myriad planets
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This column first ran in The Tablet in September 2012

The 2012 IAU General Assembly was held in the convention center in Beijing across the street from the Olympic Stadium

One hundred thousand planets. That’s the census we can infer for just one corner of the Milky Way Galaxy being watched by the Kepler space telescope, according to results presented [August 2012] at the International Astronomical Union in Beijing.

Kepler's Field Of View In Targeted Star Field Credits: NASA Ames

Watching each of 145,000 stars in a bit of the Milky Way about 10 degrees wide over many years (three and a half years, [as of that time]), Kepler is looking for faint dips in brightness occurring on a regular basis that can be attributed to the passage, a “transit”, of a planet in front of that star. So far some 2300 candidate planets have been identified. (Many stars have more than one candidate.) But in order for us to see such a blip, the planet’s orbit must be lined up almost exactly between the star and us; we’re missing any planets whose orbits are tilted above or below their star relative to our point of view. For every planetary system we can see, odds are there are 50 more systems oriented in other directions. So, about 2000 candidates, times fifty, gives 100,000 planets likely to be orbiting the stars we’re observing.

Of course, not all the candidates will turn out to be confirmed as planets. There are other effects that can cause dips in a star’s brightness... spots on their surface, or a periodic variability in the amount of light the star puts out. But we understand how stars work well enough that we’re confident we can sort out the different effects.

You need to see a dip at least three times, to be able to time the period of the planet’s orbit. That means that, with three years’ observing, we’ve only been able to identify planets relatively close to their stars, those orbiting within a roughly a one Earth-year period. A telescope like Kepler looking back at our own solar system might have been able to detect Earth by now, but it wouldn’t yet be able to confirm the presence of Jupiter or the other giant planets that take many years to orbit our Sun.

There are other ways to find planets, of course. For example, the mass of a planet gives a slight pull on its star, altering the precise spectra, the colors of its light, in a way we can measure. Once Kepler suggests we look at a given star, we can check its spectra to confirm the possible planet: if this fluctuation matches the period of the light dips, we’re in business.

What’s more, the size of the spectra fluctuation tells us the mass of the planet, while the depth and duration of the transit dip tells us the planet’s size. Combining size and mass information this way, we can calculate the density of the planet.

These are incredibly tiny fluctuations in brightness and spectra; but from these subtle hints, we can guess the nature of the places we are finding. The variety exceeds anything in our own solar system... we’ve found planets denser than iron, water planets near Earth’s size, rocky planets ten times bigger than Earth, hot gas giants orbiting near their star, even diamond planets around a pulsar.

The next question everyone asks, of course, is if there’s life on those planets. Truth is, we just don’t know. We’ve studied enough different kinds of stars that we can pick out the slight oddities that mean planets. But we only know one sort of life; our understanding of how life works is so poor that we don’t know the best assumptions to make about where it could be found, or what we should look for.

It is reminiscent of prayer: only within the context of an accumulated wisdom can you recognize the still, small voice in the data... while still being open to surprises.

[For the latest on the Kepler mission and what it has discovered, link here.  As of August 31, 2017 the original mission and its extended mission K@ have more than 5000 candidate exoplanets.]

While in China for the 2012 IAU GA, José Funes and I got to visit the tombs of the Jesuits who came in the 17th Century; they ran the Beijing Observatory for several centuries.

The text in Latin (and a bit of Chinese) on the monument to Fr. Ricci in Beijing

Closeup of the Ricci tomb in Beijing, with the Jesuit IHS emblem

Also in Across the Universe

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

View the entire series

Bob Garrison (1936-2017)
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A noted astronomer and great friend of the Vatican Observatory, Bob Garrison, died on August 13.

The Specola's Fr. Chris Corbally, a friend and close collaborator of Dr. Garrison, writes:

After 81 years of life, and over 21 years of Parkinson's, Bob Garrison died last Sunday morning. Today I received this obituary, written by his son, Lee, with input from his partner, Susanna.

There's a mention of how he treasured being a VOSS' 90 faculty person.

You will remember that he was my doctoral mentor at the University of Toronto, during which he became a lasting friend and collaborator. The Vatican Observatory hosted a Festschrift for Bob in Tucson in 2002, a few years after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's. Yes, Bob had great regard for VO!

I was able to congratulate him for reaching his 80th birthday when I visited him and Susanna in Toronto last November.

Astronomer Robert Garrison outside David Dunlap Observatory. (KEITH BEATY / TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO)

His obituary reads:

Dr. Robert (Bob) Frederick Garrison

Born in 1936 to Robert W. and Dorothy I. (Rydquist) Garrison in Aurora, Ill., died peacefully on August 13 with Susanna, his beloved partner of over 36 years at his side.

Predeceased by his brother, David R. of Salem, Oregon. Survived by his life partner, Susanna E. Jacob; his sister, Mary Lynn Carlson; former wife, Ada V. (Mighell) and children, Forest Lee (Claudia Salzmann), Alexandra (Kwanza Msingwana) and David Charles (Nicole Egenberger). He leaves grandchildren Moya Garrison-Msingwana, Imogen Esme Egenson and Heath Severin Egenson.

Known to most simply as "Bob", he graduated from West Aurora High School where he met his first wife, Ada V. Mighell, before serving in the US Marine Corps (1954- 56). While attending Earlham College, Bob was influenced by Professor Clifford Crump to pursue a career in Astronomy attaining degrees in Math (BA, Earlham Coll. 1960), Physics (Univ. of Wisc. 1960-61) and Astronomy (Ph.D.,Univ. of Chicago, 1966). While working on his Doctorate at Yerkes Observatory, he met his supervisor, William “Bill” Morgan, who inspired him to his life’s work on the MK Process and Stellar Classification. Moving the family to California, Bob worked as a research associate for the Carnegie Institute at Mt. Wilson and Palomar Observatories and then accepted a teaching position at the University of Toronto where he remained on the faculty for over 40 years. He served as Associate Director of the David Dunlap Observatory and for 28 years traveled to Chile as the Director of the University’s Southern Observatory.

In the international Astronomical community, Bob was well-known for his research and discoveries of a Pure Helium Star (1973) and the brightest-known Cataclysmic Variable Star (1983) as well as his support for student Ian Shelton in the discovery of Supernova 1987A. He was a frequent lecturer at conferences around the world and contributed as a board member of many non-professional and professional associations and committees including the Royal Canadian Institute, the International Astronomical Union and the Canadian Astronomical Society. In 2003, he was honoured to receive the Queen’s Golden Jubilee medal for service to Canada.

One of Bob’s greatest loves was teaching and it earned him the respect of many generations of students along with distinctions such as the Dean’s Award Lifetime Achievement as Outstanding Teacher (2001). Whether it was introducing Astronomy to undergraduates in the course, “Life on Other Worlds”, mentoring graduate students or traveling across the country to meet and inspire amateurs as president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, he loved engaging with people and sharing their fascination for the night sky.

One of his proudest moments was teaching at the Vatican Observatory Summer School in 1990 where an international collection of keen students came simply to learn without the incentive or pressure of grades.

Another love was photography, which he pursued with a Spectroscopist’s technical skill and an artist’s eye. He loved singing and, together with Susanna, was a much- loved member of the Annex Singers. He was committed to connecting deeply with others, and for many years was very active in the TORI community. Bob had Parkinson’s Disease for over 20 years but through it all maintained a firm commitment to discovery by participating in research studies and joining with other people with the disease in Dancing with Parkinson's classes for 7 years.

Bob will be remembered for his mischievous sense of humour, his love of opera, the legendary pancake breakfasts with friends and family and the warmth of his friendship.

Susanna and the family offer their thanks and appreciation to the staff at Christie Gardens for their dedicated and loving care for “the professor” in his final years.
At his request, Bob’s remains will support medical education and research at the University of Toronto. A memorial gathering will be held for family, friends, and colleagues on Saturday, October 14 at Massey College on the U. of T. campus. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made to the Christie Gardens Foundation or Parkinson’s Canada.

Across the Universe: Super Earths
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This column first ran in The Tablet in August 2015

Half the planets in our solar system are relatively small, rocky, and found near our sun. The other half are all significantly bigger, covered in giant atmospheres, and orbit far away from the sun. Explaining this trend in size and orbits is simple. If the planets formed from a disk of gas and dust (we’ve actually observed such disks around young stars) then planets forming farther from the sun are colder.

This cartoon is meant to illustrate the five stages of a solar nebula, the way we used to understand it. (1) A spinning cloud of gas and dust collapses into a disk, (2) forms protoplanets during further collapse, (3) which then accrete within the disk, (4) until the central condensation ignites as a star whose light pushes the gas away, (5) leaving fragments to continue their accretion

If they’re far enough from the sun that water in the gas freezes into ice, they’ll jump up in size — a gas cloud has twice as much water as rocky material to snowball into a planet. And once a planet reaches a critical size, it captures gas from the nebula to make a thick atmosphere. So, inner rocky planets stay small; but once the icy outer planets get big enough, they jump up to even larger sizes. The result: small rocky inner planets, giant icy outer planets, nothing in between.

That same idea can explain why the large moons closer to Jupiter, Io and Europa, are smaller and rockier than the bigger moons found further away from Jupiter, Ganymede and Callisto. When Jupiter formed, it must have been a source of heat similar to, if not as hot as, the forming sun. (This explanation totally fails to describe the compositions of moons of Saturn or Uranus, but never mind…) Thus the distant location of gas giants, and the huge size gap between Earth (the largest rocky planet) and Neptune (the smallest gas giant) can be explained with one simple model. That’s what I learned, forty years ago. It fit the solar system we saw.

Of course, we only saw one solar system, back then. (Two, if you counted the system of Jupiter and its moons.) But given what we’ve learned about the thousands of new exoplanet systems discovered in recent years, the picture is not so clear.

The problem was described at this month’s meeting of the Meteoritical Society by noted planet discoverer Geoff Marcy. About twenty years ago we first found “hot Jupiters” around other stars, planets as large as our gas giants but in orbits very close to their stars — closer than Mercury is to our Sun. Of course, these “hot Jupiters” were simply the easiest planets to detect, so even if they were very rare they’d be the first ones found. But the fact that any such planets existed at all, suggested that maybe some giant planets could migrate away from wherever they were formed — presumably those colder distant regions like where the gas giants live in our solar system. In fact, once we recognized that such migrations were possible, we realized that even our own giant planets may have moved about when our solar system was forming.

I learned all about how planets were formed... or at least, how they were supposed to have been formed... from Prof. John Lewis at MIT in 1973. At that time, my classmate Greg Ruffa borrowed my notes from John Lewis's class on planetary sciences and returned them with various cartoons inserted. This is a pretty good look at what John Lewis looked, and acted, like back then!

 

And now, with two thousand exoplanets discovered, it turns out that hot Jupiters actually are relatively rare. Whew! But… it also turns out that, rather than planets being divided into either Neptune (and larger)-sized giants and (rarer, but harder to see) bodies smaller than Earth, instead the most common size of planets around other stars is exactly in the size range between Earth and Neptune. Our theories had happily explained the lack of such-sized planets in our system by showing they were “impossible.” Instead, such sizes are actually the rule.

Where did we go wrong? Is our science totally discredited? Hardly; science found the mistake and corrected it. Can we no longer believe our theories? We never did; that’s why we tested them with observations.

Our understanding of planets is naive, incomplete, in need of constant correction. But then, that’s true of everything we try to understand… from our families, to our God.

About a month after this column was published, Geoff Marcy was caught up in a personal scandal and removed from his post at Berkeley. Like the power of the priesthood, of course, one's state of grace does not impinge on the efficacy of one's work. But it's always disappointing when someone so smart can be so in need of correction... and hard to understand how they can act that way.

Also in Across the Universe

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

View the entire series

Across the Universe: Ice dreams
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This is a slightly edited version of a column that first ran in The Tablet in August 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also in Across the Universe

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

View the entire series