When Religion and Science Sought To Save The Black Sea: 1997 Waterborne Symposium
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What would it take to “kill off” an entire sea? In the late 1990’s, those who depend on the Black Sea for food and the stability of their economy wondered if this question had become reality. In the 1980’s, the Black Sea was seen by many as a body of water that could feed the world given its abundance of aquatic life. In the late 1990’s, this bountiful sea was being transformed into a kind of “underwater desert.” Fishermen were coming back with empty nets, promising both economic hardship and social difficulties given the region’s dependence upon the Black Sea for food. This shocking turn of events led world leaders to ask a logical question: What happened to this bountiful body of water? A simple summary of a very complex problem was that the amount of pollutants finding their way into the Black Sea was dramatically increasing. As these pollutants were being introduced, the chemistry of the Black Sea was … Continue reading

Smile Black Hole – You’re on Camera (Part Two)
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Who wouldn’t dream of seeing a black hole up close (but not too close)? In this second article we will take a look at the advances in technology that allow us to view the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. First, we should understand the obstacles. As we are situated in a disk galaxy, there are large numbers of stars situated exactly in between us and the Galaxy’s center. This introduces a kind of ‘light pollution’ in the form of starlight which interferes with our ability to see faint emission emanating from the accretion disk surrounding the black hole. This is analogous to watching a friend holding a piercingly-bright flash light on a dark path. You see the flashlight but not the physical features of your friend who you know must be holding the light. By choosing the color The Milky Way’s central supermassive black hole carefully, we are able to view the black hole at a … Continue reading

On Operas and Stars, Aliens and Refugees
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I was recently in correspondence with Carl Pennypacker at Berkeley. To quote Wikipedia: “Dr. Pennypacker has spent much of his career as a research astrophysicist, receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1978. His principal research was the studying of supernovae and the building of techniques for their automated discovery. With Rich Muller, he co-founded the Berkeley Supernova Search, which later became the Supernova Cosmology Project. He shared the 2007 Gruber Prize in Cosmology and the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for the Supernova Cosmology Project’s discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.” All true. But in addition to that, he has a deep interest in science outreach… and music. When he shared with me a video he’d been involved with (see below) I asked if I could post it here, and if he would give me a few words of introduction. He graciously agreed to both. He writes (edited from a couple of emails): I was part of “The Global Skylight” opera, as part of the IAU’s … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Faith and Expectations
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This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2013, soon after the election of Pope Francis How do I feel about a Pope who is not only a fellow Jesuit, but one who’s studied science (in his case, chemistry) as well? To be honest, I am terrified. For the past twenty years I have lived off the expectations that others have of Jesuits and scientists; now I am going to have to deal with someone who can see past the mystique. Familiarity breeds a certain discomfort. I can only imagine what it’s like for our Observatory’s director, Fr. Funes, who is himself not only a Jesuit and scientist but also from Argentina. [In fact, as it later came out, when José first began the process of entering the Jesuits as a young man, one of the Argentinian Jesuits who interviewed him was a certain Father Bergoglio…] Pope Francis’ chemistry background has not gone unnoticed in the scientific world. A … Continue reading

Musings From a 7th Grade Biology Class
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When people ask me what I do for a living I generally respond:  For the past 16 years I have been teaching science to the hormonally impaired. Here in the United States that means teaching sixth through eighth grade, i.e., my students range from 10 to 14 years old.  These students are either entering the fun age of puberty, or are in the complete throws of hormonal impairment , which means they have other things on their mind besides studying. About this time of year I usually enter into the biology phase of science with my 7th graders; and inevitably, the introduction of cells leads to a discussion of evolution and God. I teach in a small town in southeast Michigan called New Haven. The religious base of this town is either Baptist or Lutheran, along with some Catholics and various other religions. When I bring up that prokaryotic cells eventually evolved into eukaryotic cells (single-celled organisms into complex multi-celled … Continue reading

Another Post About Old Science Books? Well, they’re cool!
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If you like astronomy’s history then the University of Louisville (UofL) in Louisville, Kentucky, was a good place to be this past November 5th.  On that day the Kentucky Academy of Science was holding its 102nd annual meeting.  To go along with that meeting, the Archives and Special Collections of UofL exhibited a selection of books from its William Marshall Bullitt collection of rare works in mathematics and astronomy (which happens to be featured in a recent V.O. video).  Prof. Delinda Buie of UofL and I were on hand to talk to KAS attendees.  Almost all the attendees were scientists who work in Kentucky.  Many of them were seeing these historic works of science for the first time, and were absolutely enjoying themselves. Below is a small collection of photographs that I took during the exhibit.  Enjoy.  You can’t have too much of this stuff. … Continue reading

Exoplanet Extravaganza
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Exoplanet news has been all the buzz since the announcement of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a red dwarf star 39 light-years away from Earth – that’s 229 trillion miles or 369 trillion kilometers. Three of those worlds orbit within that star’s habitable zone, increasing their likelihood of supporting life. Two hours after the announcement, I discussed with students in the Endeavour Space Academy, what exoplanets are, exoplanet detection methods, and the thousands of exoplanets found to date. The questions I got mirror those I’ve seen asked online: Can we go there? Well, there are a lots of gotchas to that question. At our current level of technology, and using the fastest object humans have created as a baseline, it would take well over 100,000 years to reach this star system; Remember: “Space is big. Really big!” Speaking of “we,” what will modern-day humans have evolved into after 100,000 years? Could life exist there? It’s certainly possible. With the discovery of … Continue reading

Turn Right At The Cow: Stargazing In Wisconsin With My Mother.
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(With Ash Wednesday coming up, my time has been consumed with parish work. Therefore, I will be taking a week off from the summaries of the Waterborne Symposia. If you have been following these posts, we will get back into “Christian Ecology” next week.) A little over a week ago, I had a rare opportunity to run back to the family farm for dinner. I had just come off of a long stretch of funerals at the parish and felt the need to get away, even if it just be for a night. As soon as I got home, my father told me how beautiful the night skies had been. It has been an unusually warm February in Wisconsin, providing crystal clear skies and weather warm enough for some stargazing with no winter gear necessary. After nightfall, my parents asked me if I brought my telescope home? Unfortunately, I had not since I was just looking to rest for the … Continue reading

Smile Black Hole – You’re on Camera!
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Black holes are notoriously difficult to catch on camera. They are completely dark objects that consume unsuspecting objects that get too close.. Just before stars and gas fall into black holes they spiral around and around as if caught in a whirlpool. They emit a great deal of light as a sort of “last hurrah” as they are torn apart en route within the black hole surface, or event horizon. This light is evidence that a star was recently there. It also means that when black holes are consuming stars they are not entirely black. The dark center is surrounded by a ring of light. That is how the story goes, anyway. We are quite (but not completely) sure that black holes exist. There is a great deal of circumstantial evidence to support this mathematical solution first proposed by Karl Schwarzschild in the early 20th century. One detail missing is that we have never actually seen one. We need verification. … Continue reading

The Beer and the Telescope
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During a bout of insomnia Thursday morning, around 2 am, my phone buzzed with an incoming email from the editor of L’Osservatore Romano asking if I could get them an article about the TRAPPIST-1 planets. By noon. Italian time. So I stayed up another hour — I wasn’t getting any sleep anyway — and shipped one off to them by 3 am Tucson time. It ran in the Feb 23 edition… click here for a link. Of course, they translated it into Italian. Here is the original English text that I sent them… they edited it slightly. Last year, a team of astronomers led by Michaël Gillon of the STAR Institute at the University of Liège in Belgium announced the discovery of three planets around a star observed by one of their telescopes, TRAPPIST South. This week they have published new results in the scientific journal Nature that expands the number of planets in this system to seven. Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ, director … Continue reading

From The Tablet: Precisely Strange
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This article first ran in The Tablet in February, 2016 At the museum of the history of science in Florence, honoring its famous local son Galileo, one can find a marvelous display of a 17th century high technology peculiar to Italy: fine glasswork. Consider the bubble-free glass that Galileo needed for his telescope lenses, the “Florentine flasks” beloved of chemists, the elaborate thermometers of the “Accademia del Cimento.” Italian glass technology made Italy the birthplace of the scientific revolution.  But a century later, as displayed in another room in this museum, mechanical devices produced in Britain and Germany allowed measurements of our universe to a much higher precision. With such instruments, those nations overtook Italy in the world of modern science. The February 2016 announcement of the observation of gravitational waves demonstrates again how our knowledge of ourselves and our place in the universe is advanced by our ability to measure nature ever more precisely. To detect the tiniest ripple in the space-time continuum, … Continue reading

Vatican Observatory astronomers getting research published
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This is the blog of the Vatican Observatory.* V.O. director Guy Consolmagno is the Blog Boss. Most of the posts here are intended for an audience that is interested in science and has basic scientific literacy; the posts are generally not for conveying to working astronomers the latest research to come out of the V.O. But maybe it would be a good idea from time to time to highlight the latest V.O. research, because the V.O.’s astronomers are publishing stuff in the astronomical journals, and thus contributing to the body of scientific knowledge. So, here are some recent publications from V.O. astronomers with whom I have some direct connection.  At a later date I will do a post featuring publications by other V.O. astronomers. Guy Consolmagno, V.O. Director and El Jefe del Blog for The Catholic Astronomer! “Olivine on Vesta as exogenous contaminants brought by impacts: Constraints from modeling Vesta’s collisional history and from impact simulations,” by D. Turrini, V. … Continue reading