Across the Universe: Rocket Science
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This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2012 “This isn’t rocket science…” It’s a common reproach, heard when we make a simple task too complex. Of course, making a rocket work is not science; it’s engineering. The difference between the two is like the difference between theology and liturgy. Both are important, and each informs the other, but it’s dangerous (in both directions) to substitute the one for the other. Another flaw in the cliché is that it assumes launching a rocket is the height of complexity. In fact, it’s a well-understood piece of engineering. Today’s rockets are marvelous pieces of machinery, and getting it right can indeed be harder than it looks (see the recent failure of North Korea’s attempt). But the basic principles are nothing new. The rockets that lift supplies to the International Space Station today are Soviet designs dating from the cold war, more than half a century old. The issue, as the North Koreans … Continue reading

Astronomy in Art & Architecture:  Covington, Kentucky, USA
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Ever since Br. Guy invited me on board “The Catholic Astronomer” I have had my eye and camera out for instances of math and science (and astronomy in particular) appearing in public art and architecture, because that would be great subject matter for the blog.  But clear instances of public math and science (versus, say, something like generic stars on the ceiling of a building) have turned out to be rarer than I was expecting.*  As noted in previous posts, some can be found in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Minneapolis, Minnesota.  And then there is this interesting mosaic in Mother of God Church in Covington, Kentucky: What is interesting about this is how the artist has represented the stars.  The stars are merely background for the mosaic: the subject of the mosaic is the Holy Trinity, with symbolic representations of the four evangelists.  But unlike most artistic representations of stars, these stars are not just generic spiky dots (such as are … Continue reading

The Other Feynman
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We have all heard of Rychard Feynman, who was famous for doing fundamental work in the areas of particle physics and in quantum mechanics which led to a Nobel Prize in physics. What is perhaps less well-known is that he also had a sister who was a reknowned physicist. According to an article in Popular Science this month, Dr. Joan Feynman started her career in 1932 when she was 5 years old. At that time she was set to turn switches to help her brother Rychard Feynman do physics experiments in their backyard. As a teenager, she recalls being inspired by reading about the work of Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin in an Astronomy textbook. As Joan put it, “When I came to page 407 it changed my life.” For it was at this time that she realized almost as if in a revelation that women can do science! Joan Feynman graduated from Oberlin College with a B. S. in physics in 1948. … Continue reading

Cosmic Lobster Pot
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I have always visualised Cassini’s journey through the Saturnian system as a kind of orchestrated cosmic dance. Cassini moves silently at great speed in its petal shape overlapping orbits. This precisely executed dance brings Cassini frequently through the icy ring plane north to south and then back again on the opposite side of the planet, south to north. This robot ship continues on its unparalleled odyssey of exploration. On board, Cassini is the custodian of twelve science instruments all primed to seek, gather, and process the offerings of this unique planetary system. Collectively they are performing one of the most important scientific probing of Saturn and its many moons in the history of space exploration. One of these science instruments is the Cosmic Dust Analyser. The CDA looks a bit like a golden lobster pot,that is not a bad analogy. This apparatus is trawling the interplanetary ocean for particles of cosmic dust, tiny particles that are the messengers of the … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Words, Words, Worlds
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Originally published in The Tablet in March, 2004 – the first of many columns I wound up writing about the definition of a planet, leading up to the IAU decision about Pluto in 2006. And this is a repeat of a blog entry first published at the Catholic Astronomer three years ago… as I have run out of Tablet columns to publish! On the other side of Neptune live the Trans-Neptunian Objects, or TNOs. They are worlds so faint that to measure their colors, we use a mirror nearly two meters across to gather their light, which we focus into a spot of only a few hundreds of a millimeter, collecting it with an ultra-sensitive electronic chip, over a five-minute time exposure. They move – more than five minutes and the spot turns into a streak. But take enough exposures over a few hours and you can plot their motions against the background stars and galaxies. The TNOs are thought to be the … Continue reading

Spring cleaning in the Early Universe
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This is yet another installment on dust. Thanks to observations with the mighty Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA, a radio telescope in Chile, we can now view this humble material at a distance of 13.2 billion light years away. This is interesting as we think the universe is only 13.7 billion years old. If we turn the clock all the way back to just before there were any stars, we would find a universe made up of hydrogen, helium, and the slightest amount of lithium. If we now fast-forward to the time when the stars turned on in the universe for the first time, we expect for many of them to make enormous amounts of carbon, silicon and aluminum which combine together with hydrogen to make dust. Yes, we think it is thanks to stars that we have any dust at all. What is missing is finding those (close to the) first stars in that (close to the) first … Continue reading

The Power Of A Word: The Movie Arrival and Sacramental Cosmology
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One of the best movies I have seen in some time is Arrival. Many presume this movie is simply about an alien encounter. However, the deeper narrative of the movie explores a simple, but fascinating question: How does language impact how we experience reality? The plot of the movie unfolds with a growing tension between beings whose language is not conditioned by time and humanity with our language that is rooted in the sequential unfolding of time. It is only when these languages come together and are experienced in linguist Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) that the plot is finally resolved as she experiences key, historical events from the future in one moment. (I will refrain from any more details in the event you haven’t seen the movie.) When leaving the theater, I was left with the question, “How much is our understanding of the world we live in limited by the language we speak and are there other languages … Continue reading

Naked Eye Orion sketched from Ireland
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Recently I have spent some time in the west of Ireland . It’s been stormy , with icy rain and sideways on hailstones battering the landscape. The winds have been epic in this wild place where the ancient potato drills shout evidence of our ancestors ribs bursting the Earth , still hungry after all these years. Most evenings I have stepped outside to look up at the night sky while listening to the Atlantic roar its salty roar at stars too far away to listen. Occasionally the clarity of the sky has been impressive but short-lived. However on the evening of March 23rd on opening the door I was met with what I can only describe as a crisis sky. Every familiar constellation was buried in the galaxy. It is sometimes said that there are more stars in the night sky than grains of sand on all the worlds beaches, that sky was the epiphany of that statement. I sat … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Happy Birthday to Us
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This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2016 It has been a month of anniversaries. Exactly four hundred years ago (2016) Galileo first got into hot water with the Church over the Copernican system. Starting with a hearing of the Holy Office on 23 February, the affair stretched across all of spring 1616 including Galileo’s meeting with Cardinal Bellarmine on 26 February, and the formal censure of Copernicus’ work issued on 5 March. Curiously, Galileo’s works were not mentioned at that time. (It wasn’t Galileo’s first run-in with the Church. In 1604 he had been turned in to the Inquisition by his mother, who didn’t like the bad names he’d called her or the fact that he’d skip Mass to spend time with his courtesan girlfriend, later mother to his three children.) By the end of the 19th century, of course, the Church view on astronomy had changed. Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) essentially … Continue reading

An Urgent Plea: Pray for Peru.
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Originally, I had planned this post to be a light-hearted reflection on stargazing in the southern hemisphere. The parish of which I am Pastor, St. Joseph Parish in Menomonie, Wisconsin, took a ten-day mission trip to our Diocesan Orphanage, Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II, in Lurin, Peru. In light of my past mission trips to Casa, I was already mapping out a post for the The Catholic Astronomer before departure. However, events from the trip forced a change of theme. One afternoon, I was offering spiritual direction to a Casa staff volunteer. We were sitting outside underneath the shade of a tree when a low flying helicopter caught our attention. It was so low that it sounded like it was going to land on the orphanage grounds. It was blaring a loud siren while slowly hovering over the city of Lurin. We began to wonder what this warning was about? We had heard earlier of flooding in parts of Peru, but since there was … Continue reading

Strange Tales of Galileo and Proving: Omitted Data and the Tides
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Last week I wrote a post on how even books for children and travel books state (incorrectly) that Galileo proved that the Earth circles the sun, as Copernicus had said it did.  This post tells a strange story about Galileo’s efforts to prove that the Earth circles the sun. In Galileo’s time, no telescopic observation was likely to prove Earth’s motion.  Before the telescope had even been invented, Tycho Brahe had proposed a geocentric theory in which the planets circled the sun while the sun, moon, and stars circled the Earth.  Brahe’s theory was mathematically and observationally identical to Copernicus’s heliocentric theory insofar as the Earth, sun, moon, and planets were concerned: the “machinery” of both systems was the same, it was just that in Brahe’s the Earth stood still, whereas in Copernicus’s the sun stood still.  Galileo’s telescopic observations proved that Venus circled the sun—but Venus circled the sun in both Brahe’s geocentric theory and in Copernicus’s heliocentric theory.  … Continue reading

The Most Recent Chapter on the Hubble Constant
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Astronomers agree that the universe is expanding in all directions, a notion now called the “Hubble expansion” to refer discoverer Mr. Edwin Hubble. A useful analogy to understand the Hubble expansion is to draw dots onto a balloon to represent galaxies in the universe. As you blow up the balloon the dots expand away from each other. While there seems to be no way around a universal Hubble expansion, now there is controversy brewing regarding the exact value for this rate of expansion. What is at stake may be a tiny misunderstanding in how we make the measurements, or may be a signal of new physics. Oh, we all agree now on the approximate answer, that the space between galaxies grows such that for every 3.3 million light years a galaxy moves in distance away from us, the velocity of that distant galaxy becomes 70 km/s faster. Equivalently, in astronomer’s jargon we say that the rate of expansion (H0) equals … Continue reading