The Earth-Destroying Planet Nibiru! (and Johannes Kepler)
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I wanted to become a theologian; for a long time I was restless:  Now, however, observe how through my effort God is being celebrated through astronomy. —Johannes Kepler in a letter to his former teacher. Will the mysterious shadow planet Nibiru obliterate Earth in October? —from a Washington Post “Morning Mix” headline, January 5, 2017. The question was answered with “No”. You might not think that Johannes Kepler, one of the most influential astronomers in history, and “Nibiru”, the supposed Earth-destroying planet, would share any point of connection.  But they do. Nibiru is a supposed planet that purportedly passes through the solar system periodically, wreaking havoc of one sort or another.  There are various versions of the Nibiru idea.  If you Google Nibiru (something I do not recommend, unless you have a great tolerance for the worst in internet misinformation) you will find there are many Nibiru enthusiasts, but they are not all in agreement on what is supposed to happen.  … Continue reading

Connecting Religion and Intelligence over 230,000 years
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An archaeological discovery was announced from South Africa this week of new skeletal remains of Homo Naledi. Multiple age-dating techniques indicate that these early hominids lived an estimated 230,000 years ago. It was expected that they would have used their arms and legs much like humans do today, except that these beings would have had a brain only one-third that of modern humans. We refer to the blog from last week to learn how astronomy plays a role in such age measurements. Even so, there is new evidence that these hominids buried their dead deliberately in cave structures. From this behavior, archaeologists infer some level of religious ritual to have been present in their community. One wonders if this might be the first example of religious rituals. Expanding on this idea, one can wonder also by which process did these beings decide to build religious rituals into their lives? Finally one can take a step back and ask if religious … Continue reading

Astronomy Bucket List: Experiencing The Wonder!
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Do you have an astronomy “bucket list?” This past Sunday, I had a wonderful afternoon at the home of one of my parishioners. I took my H-Alpha solar telescope along with me to look at the Sun. As I am getting a little older and my assignments are getting a little more complex, I am finding myself gravitating more to solar observation during the day. Night calls me to go to sleep earlier and earlier as the years roll by. As I was setting up my telescope, I began to see a palpable joy emerge from the family that I was visiting. The father of the family sprang up from his patio chair, displaying the same type of eagerness a child displays on Christmas morning before opening their gifts. Suddenly, he informed me, “Father James, observing a solar flare (or prominence) on the Sun is on my bucket list!” The statement caught me off guard. I have observed solar prominences … Continue reading

Across the Universe: A Thousand Stars are Born
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This column first ran in The Tablet in May 2013 Cygnus OB2 is an association of perhaps a thousand young, massive stars, some of them a hundred times more massive than the Sun and a million times brighter, immersed in a much larger molecular cloud known as Cygnus X. Because it is so close to us (“only” 4700 light years away) we can study Cygnus OB2 in detail, comparing model predictions about the formation of such massive stars with actual observations. These studies might help us understand how such stars are born not only in our galaxy but also in more distant galaxies. But that mass of data can overwhelm our understanding. It’s impossible for any one astronomer to keep track of all the latest developments. And so in May, 2013, we held a workshop at the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo where two dozen scientists could compare notes about this star formation region. “This is a meeting of the blind … Continue reading

Johannes Kepler’s Harmony of the World
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Readers of this blog may recall a post from some time ago about the William Marshall Bullitt Collection in the Archives and Special Collections (ASC) of the Ekstrom Library of the University of Louisville here in Kentucky.  I had the enjoyable task of studying the books in the collection and writing discussions of them for the ASC—discussions specifically intended for a diverse audience that might include scholars, students at varying levels, and interested members of the general public.  One of the books in the collection that will interest readers of this blog (and that they can go to see and study at the University of Louisville) is Johannes Kepler’s 1619 Harmonices Mundi or Harmony* of the World.  This post is an adaptation (with permission) of the discussion I wrote for the ASC. Readers who peruse Harmony will discover it to be partly a work of science, partly a prayer, and partly an exhibition of unconstrained creativity.  To Kepler, the universe … Continue reading

How Astronomy Helps Us Learn about the Mastodons
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An exciting discovery was made just this past week in the well-known Cerutti Mastadon site near San Diego, CA. Near to one of the mastodon skeletons was found also large stones that showed tell-tale signs to use as tools by early hominid visitors. What is interesting is not that people lived near San Diego before we called it by that name, but rather that hominids arrived there a full 115,000 years earlier than archaeologists had ever expected. Meanwhile the mastadons, a slightly smaller version of the mammoth, were commonly found in the Americas 130,000 years ago. A natural question to ask is how do we know that this particular mastodon site really is that old? Archaeologists determine ages by measuring the radioactive decay of certain elements like carbon or in this case uranium. Okay, fine, so where does the astronomy part fit in? Well in addition to the sunlight we appreciate so much in springtime, the sun also makes cosmic … Continue reading

Ideology Vs. Environment: What the Danube River can teach us about faith, ecology, politics, and human dignity.
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Continuing our series on the Religion, Science, and Environment (RSE) Symposia organized by the Greek Orthodox Church, today we explore the 1999 symposium on the Danube River. The previous RSE symposium explored the ecological crisis that threatening the Black Sea. One of the main themes of the symposium was how pollution from the Danube River was flowing into the Black Sea, contributing to its denigration. In light of this, it makes sense that the symposium to follow the Black Sea gathering would be held on the blue Danube. The Danube River connects ten countries with a drainage basin that finds its way into a number of other counties. The countries themselves represent some of the most war-torn regions of Europe, originating in Germany and making its way through Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine. These countries, along with the Czech Republic, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, have developed the International Commission for the Protection of the … Continue reading

Eta Aquariids Meteor Shower 2017
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The Eta Aquariids meteor shower appears strongest when when viewed from the southern tropics. From the equator northward, the shower typically produces only medium rates of 10-30 per hour just before dawn. Meteor activity is good for a week centered the night of peak activity. These meteors travel at a high rate of speed, and produce a good percentage of persistent trains, but few fireballs. Peak: May 6-7th Active from: April 19th to May 26th Radiant: 22:32 -1° (see image above) Hourly Rate: 55 Velocity: 42 miles/sec (swift – 66.9km/sec) Parent Object: 1P/Halley The moon will be a waxing gibbous, setting around 4:00 AM. Source: American Meteor Society … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Edge of the World
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  This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2015 At the edge of the world, the top of the world, is a window of our world into the rest of the universe: the telescopes of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile. Nearby are other large observatories at Cerro Tololo, Las Campanas, and the Alma radio array at Chajnantor. These telescopes have shown how the expansion of our universe is accelerating; they’ve explored hundreds of planets around other stars; they’ve traced the motions of stars orbiting a super-massive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. I am visiting [in 2015] here with a half-dozen patrons who support such telescopes (including the Vatican’s own telescope in Arizona). Along with our host, Dr. Fernando Cameron, our small group includes a businessman who sits on the boards of universities; a retired schoolteacher; a NASA engineer… eclectic in background, but joined by a fascination of the bigger universe, and the … Continue reading

Strange Tales of Galileo and Proving: Splitting the Stars
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This is the third in a series of posts on the subject of Galileo and proving the Earth’s motion.  The first post was on how even books for children and travel books state (incorrectly) that Galileo proved that the Earth circles the sun like Copernicus said, and how those books probably make that statement because occasionally even reputable sources do.  The second post was on some strange things about Galileo’s efforts to argue that the tides of the sea were evidence for the Earth’s motion, and how he left out some data when he made his tides argument in his 1632 Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—Ptolemaic and Copernican. I noted in the second post that in Galileo’s time, telescopic observations were unlikely to prove Earth’s motion.  This was because, prior to the invention of the telescope, Tycho Brahe had proposed a geocentric theory in which the planets circled the sun, while the sun, moon, and stars all circled … Continue reading

Why the Upturn in UFO Sightings?
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A new book serves to document sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) in the past decade. The punch line is that UFO sightings are on the rise. When I discuss UFOs in my class I feel it is important to point out from the start that we have never found compelling evidence for life outside of Earth in any form. In fact, the term UFO refers simply to an object in the sky for which we do not know what it is. One can imagine that many of us do see UFOs by that description. The curious part is that when we see one, we do not stop there, but rather tend to jump suddenly to a conclusion such as to say “Oh, I don’t know what that is – that it must be a space ship from another planet that has come to Earth.” Why is that? Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson remind us that there is a human tendency … Continue reading

Embracing the need for faith and science: How not to read the story of the “Doubting Thomas”
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This past Sunday was Divine Mercy Sunday. It is a new feast, established by St. John Paul II, to emphasize the need for our world to encounter Christ’s mercy. Many parishes held daylong events of prayer and confession, centered on the Divine Mercy devotion established by St. Faustina Kowalska. Though the feast day is new, the readings of the day are not. Completing the octave of Easter, the Church has long reflected upon Jesus’ appearance in the upper room to his disciples on this Sunday. Though the doors of the upper room were locked, the risen Jesus enters the room, presenting to them his wounds and saying, “Peace be with you.” It is a powerful passage that, even after almost 14 years of priesthood, brings a moment of pause to the congregation when Christ’s words of peace are proclaimed. The second half of the Gospel presents what many call the story of the “Doubting Thomas.” The typical misread of this … Continue reading