In the last two hours of darkness before dawn on the morning of January 31, 2018, the Moon waded into the shadow of the Earth. The result was a total eclipse of the Moon. Despite a forecast of high clouds during the night, the sky remained clear.
There is a profound difference between a total eclipse of the Sun and a total eclipse of the Moon. As some of us witnessed last August, a solar eclipse begins quietly and innocuously, and as the Moon crosses over the Sun, the sky begins to darken, first gradually, and later precipitously and suddenly until, for a magic minute or two, the Sun disappears and is replaced by a jeweled crown. The eclipse of the Moon began gradually around 4:00 am, as the Earth’s partial shadow or penumbra began to work its way across the face of the Moon. Instead of a sudden start, the beginning is so gradual that at least half the Moon has to be covered by the Earth’s penumbral shadow before it becomes noticeable. I woke up at 4:30 AM and crawled out to see the penumbral phase already well advanced.
Then, at about 4:45 AM, the dark edge of the umbra, the Earth’s central shadow, began its onslaught. That was obvious. For the next hour, more and more of the Moon became covered as the shadow crossed craters, mountain ranges, and maria. Wendee appeared shortly after 5:00 AM with an idea to watch the event through a closed window in our warm front room. That was a special treat. Even though it was not particularly cold outside, the warmth of the front room was beckoning and fun. As we watched, I noticed a classic eclipse effect: the bright blue sky around full Moon, known to offer only the brightest stars, was giving way to a progressively darker sky filled with thousands of beautiful stars.
Jan 2018 Lunar Eclipse Panorama. Image credit: David Levy
I had planned for this eclipse to be a mostly visual event for me. But I did want to take one picture using my camera’s fish-eye lens. About twenty minutes into totality, I took a 30-second exposure of the night sky, at full Moon, with the totally darkened Moon in the picture.
Artist's Concept of a dwarf nova double-star system, similar to TV Corvi. Credit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF
There was also a chance to check on my favorite variable star. Discovered by Clyde Tombaugh, who found Pluto in 1930, this star is known formally as TV Corvi even though I call it Clyde’s Star. It was nice to get a check on my old friend in the middle of a lunar eclipse.
It was certainly time to look back at the Moon. The eclipse was dark, but not particularly dark. On Danjon’s luminosity scale for total lunar eclipses, I gave this one about a 2.5. This is also not the first time I have seen this particular eclipse. When I first saw it in the predawn hours of December 30, 1963, dust from the erupting volcano Mt. Agung darkened the shadow so much that the Moon essentially disappeared at totality. By coincidence the volcano was erupting again in the months preceding this eclipse but not nearly as calamitously. That distant eclipse of my youth was a L=0 on the Danjon scale.
Eclipses prove that things happen in the sky. The heavens are not static. Thomas Hardy knew that, and he even wrote of it in 1903:
Thy shadow, Earth, from pole to Central Sea,
Now steals along the Moon’s meek shine
In even monochrome and curving line
Of imperturbable serenity.
Meteorites from the Hamburg Michigan fall have been classified as H-Chondrites; these are stony meteorites with a high iron content. The meteorites show distinct chondrules, have black fusion crusts, and are strongly attracted to a magnets. - John M. Zawiskie, Geologist/Paleontologist, Curator of Earth and Life Sciences at Cranbrook Institute of Science.
NASA Meteor Watch posted this video to their Facebook page showing that the Hamburg meteoroid came in almost vertically.
Orbit of Asteroid 6 Hebe. Credit: JPL Small Body Database Browser.
The American Meteor Society posted more images of Hamburg meteorites, this one showing iron flecks spread throughout the meteorite's interior.
The week after the Hamburg fall I got into contact with some local astronomers who found several fine specimens.
Michigan astronomers and meteorite hunters who found Hamburg meteorites (left to right) Sandra Macika, Todd Slisher, Tony Licata, Brian Wolff. Image credit: Lisa DeLuca.
I was sent this series of meteorite images by Tony Licata:
Hamburg fall meteorites. Image Credit: Tony Licata
Hamburg fall meteorite. Image Credit: Tony Licata
Hamburg fall meteorite. Image Credit: Tony Licata
Hamburg fall meteorite. Image Credit: Tony Licata
Hamburg fall meteorite. Image Credit: Tony Licata
Hamburg fall meteorite. Image Credit: Tony Licata
Hamburg fall meteorite close-up, showing fusion crust. Image Credit: Tony Licata
Hamburg fall meteorite close-up. Image Credit: Tony Licata
Hamburg fall meteorite close-up. Image Credit: Tony Licata
Hamburg fall meteorite close-up, showing olivine crystals. Image Credit: Tony Licata
Hamburg fall meteorite close-up, showing olivine crystals. Image Credit: Tony Licata
Samer Hariri, geologist at Oakland Community College. Image Credit: Tony Licata
John Zawiskie geologist at Cranbrook Institute of Science. Image credit: unknown/internet.
I sent these images to John Zawiskie, a geologist and curator of Earth and life sciences at Cranbrook Institute of Science, whom I've know for several years. I was CCed in a email between John and Samer discussing mineral content and if the meteorites were L or H chondrites (low or high iron content). I shouldn't be surprised that the two knew each other.
As more pieces were found, it was decided that the fall was an H chondrite.
I'm thrilled that this meteorite fall generated so much local interest in astronomy. I'd like to capitalize on that by having several schools in Michigan install cameras that watch for fireballs as part of NASA's All-Sky Fireball Network.
Site Requirements for Participation in the NASA All Sky Fireball Network
Need an outdoor location that is/has:
A mostly unobstructed view of the sky, horizon to horizon
Relatively free of light pollution – no bright lights near the camera. For example:
No sports field or stadium lights nearby
No towers with blinking lights visible
No parking lot lights that would shine into the camera
Stable; we cannot mount a camera on a moving roof or other platform that would change the camera’s position from night to night.
Distant from kilowatt radio transmitters or other sources of radio noise
Need an indoor location that is/has:
Climate controlled (ideally)
Fast, reliable Internet connection (minimum upload speed of 100 KB/s) with the ability to assign a static IP address
The ability to open port 22 for internet communication in/out (only necessary if a firewall is in place)
Located within 100 feet of the camera
The means to run cables from the camera to the computer
A window or some other means (e.g. short cable run to the outdoors) by which the GPS unit can get a lock. The cable on the GPS receiver is 22 feet long, so the window would need to be located within 22 feet of the computer. Similarly, a cable run to the outdoors shouldn't be more than 22 feet long.
I was intrigued by the European Space Agency's mission to comet 67P/ CG (Churyumov–Gerasimenko). Some of you might ask what is a 67P ? . 67P/ CG is a periodic comet. That means that as it orbits the sun its pathway brings it between the orbits of Jupiter and Earth once every 6.5 years. The short orbit makes it a periodic comet with a very predictable trajectory. Comets are named after the person or group of people or telescopes who discover them. Back in 1969, Klim Ivanovich Churyumov and Svetlana Ivanovna Gerasimenko, discovered this comet jointly.
The European Space Agency built the Rosetta space craft to rondezvous with a comet, it launched in 2004.The comet eventually choosen was 67P/C G. ESA sent a passenger along with Rosetta , this companion was the Philae Lander. This is a small probe ( about the size of a washing machine) . Philae's job was to land on the comet and investigate the surface and the activity on the comet . The entire mission was of epic proportions. Landing on a comet had never happened before.
In fact nobody knew what this comet even looked like because it is the nature of comets to cloak themselves in their own self-produced dust and gasses. The dust/ gas surrounds the comet as it moves through space hiding the nucleus and its secrets. Rosetta and Philae were undertaking an adventure of epic proportions.
Making the model
During 2014 I decided I was going to make a model of 67P C G . Having models or something tangible in the room is always an ingredient of my workshops. So I took myself off to a local recycle plant in search of a large chunk of polystyrene . When I eventually ( after months) found a suitable block I then had to wait to see what Rosetta's images would reveal. Oh boy !! the first image was very complex. However I had to give it a try. It took a lot of carving and cutting , my yard looked like it had snowed . The polystyrene stuck to my hands and face, white beads were flying through the air like mini comets. After several weekends my model of 67P/ CG began to take shape. I used an image on my phone to work from while I hoped for more images from the amazing Rosetta. At one stage I had to add extra polystyrene from an areosol can as one end of 67P/ CG was much larger than the other.
As the mission continued my comet model developed alongside a model of the Rosetta Spacecraft and a small model of the Philae Lander. I was almost ready to offer my Action Comet workshops to Science Foundation Ireland and other bodies so that children could learn about the mission. The Rosetta Spacecraft and Philae were also made from recycled materials with as many science instruments as I could muster included.
Slide Show of Images from my Action Comet 67P/ CG Workshop
Support from ESA
My Action Comet workshop was supported by The European Space Agency. They kindly sent me lots of Rosetta stickers, posters, cut out Philae kits and mission pins to give away to attendees. It is always lovely to have these kind of educational products to give away . It was handy also that ESA sent a lot of Rosetta booklets so I could give them to teachers to extend the learning after the workshop. Every library I dealt with also got a booklet for their shelves and a poster for their wall. My workshop was further enhanced by using the many beautiful Rosetta educational cartoons made by ESA for the mission.
The workshop began with a twenty-minute presentation about the mission , its purpose , its goals, the latest images. The role of Irish scientists in the mission was mentioned in every workshop. Having my models in the room, hugely increased the story of the mission for children to enjoy. Children were challenged to produce a pencil drawing of 67P/CG, a task they carried out with surprising enthusiasm and inventive pencil work. This was followed by each child making a mini comet from a small polystyrene ball and long streams of paper representing the gas and dust tails of comets in general. Occasionally the children made plasticine models of 67P/CG itself depending on their age group. Thousands of children took part in my Action Comet workshops over two years or so.
A BIG Surprise
Just two days before Christmas 2017, a large envelope arrived. Inside was a Certificate of Recognition from The European Space Agency for my contribution to the Rosetta mission. A massive surprise , totally unexpected. I feel very grateful and humble to have my workshops supported by ESA education and now to have this recognition has me smiling from ear to ear.
Thanks to all the teachers, schools, libraries , science centres, arts centres and observatories who hosted Action Comet.
A certificate of recognition from the European Space Agency for Deirdre's contribution to the Rosetta Mission to Comet 67P/CG
Two of Maria Clara Eimmart’s renditions of the moon as seen through a telescope.
Maria Clara Eimmart was an eighteenth-century German astronomer and illustrator who created remarkable depictions of the moon as seen through a telescope. I learned about her from the book Astronomie in Franken, a 2015 volume, edited by Gudrun Wolfschmidt, of papers related to astronomy in the Franconia region of Germany. A chapter by Regina Umland focuses on the life and work of Eimmart.
Eimmart was tutored in art, languages, mathematics, and astronomy by her father. Her father ran a successful business in Nuremburg as an artist and engraver, but had a strong interest in astronomy. He even built a private observatory on the city wall. Eimmart became a skilled artist, and she became especially good at representing the moon seen telescopically. She produced over 300 renderings of the moon while she was in her late teens and early twenties. Her lunar artwork laid the foundation for better lunar studies.
One of Eimmart’s works of lunar art—a depiction of a crescent moon—is featured in Astronomie in Franken. It caught my eye, because her depiction shows a distinct “edge glow” along the unlit limb of the moon.
Maria Clara Eimmart’s depiction of a crescent moon, with “edge glow”.
This “edge glow” is something that Johann Georg Locher illustrated and discussed at some length in his 1614 book Mathematical Disquisitions Concerning Astronomical Controversies and Novelties. Locher was a student of the Jesuit astronomer Christoph Scheiner of Ingolstadt, Germany. Galileo had no love for Scheiner, and he devotes quite a few pages of his 1632 Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems to lampooning Locher’s book.
As Vatican Observatory Director and “Blogger in Chief” for The Catholic Astronomer Br. Guy (also a Jesuit) was so kind to announce last fall, the University of Notre Dame Press just published my translation of Locher’s book, which Locher wrote in Latin (click here and buy multiple copies for your friends! and especially note the cool hardbound version!). I believe this is the first time that a complete astronomical work, by an astronomer who opposed Galileo’s ideas, has ever been translated into a modern language.* Disquisitions lets us have a look at what the “other side” thought, in their own words, so we don’t have to rely on Galileo’s portrayal of them. And thus the question of “edge glow”.
Locher’s sketch of the moon, showing the edge glow. Click image to enlarge.
You see, Locher looked through his telescope and saw all the lunar features that Galileo saw—the craters, etc.—but Locher argued that the telescope showed the moon to be fundamentally a different sort of body than the Earth. Why? Because of the edge glow. Locher illustrates this glow in his book, and based in large part on this glow he argues that the moon interacts with light in the same manner as does a cloud. A cloud reflects light—when light shines on it we see it bright and white in color, and obviously a cloud will cast a shadow. But clouds are also somewhat translucent—on an overcast day they allow some light to filter through; they do not block the light of the sun so much as to make a cloudy day as dark as night, and where clouds are thinner more light comes through. The edge glow, which Locher explains as existing on account of the sun’s light not having to penetrate through as much of the translucent moon near its edge as it does near the moon’s center, upholds his view (the traditional view at the time) that heavenly bodies are made of a different sort of material than is Earth.
Galileo in his Dialogue says that Locher’s book is full of “falsehoods and fallacies and contradictions”, one of which is the edge glow. “It is false...” Galileo says through his character of Salviatti, “that a sort of ring or circle is formed that is more brilliant than the rest of the field.” He acknowledges that sometimes it seems like the edge of the moon glows more brightly, but he states that this glow “originates deceptively in differences between the boundaries which terminate the lunar disc over which this secondary light is spread.” If Locher had blocked the bright light of the illuminated crescent, Salviatti says, “he would have seen it all equally luminous.” Locher had done this sort of thing, which Galileo has his character of Simplicio point out. “Well, if that is so,” responds Salviatti, “then what I have called an oversight of his is turned into a lie that borders upon rashness, since anybody can put it to the test as often as he likes.”
Galileo’s version of this is usually accepted. For example, The Routledge Guidebook to Galileo’s Dialogue summarizes Galileo’s discussion of the idea of a translucent moon thus—
This explanation would imply that the secondary light is brighter at the edges of the lunar disk and weaker in the middle, since sunlight has less distance to go through in the region near the edges, as compared to the full diameter to go through in near the middle; but this is not in fact observed, although some have wrongly claimed to have observed it.
The Kelleghan sketch that I used. Click image to enlarge.
But of course, it is in fact observed. Maria Clara Eimmart observed it. Locher observed it. And Deirdre Kelleghan, my fellow blogger for The Catholic Astronomer observed it—she sketched the edge glow effect long before I ever brought this issue to her attention. She graciously allowed me to use one of her sketches as an illustration in my translation of Disquisitions.
The edge glow effect is a strange thing. I have seen many sketches or paintings of the crescent moon that show it. However, I am yet to see any photograph that captures it, so it must be some effect of the eye—Galileo was right in that regard. But it is reproducible: independent observers see it and record it. In 1614, with telescopic astronomy just five years old and photography 250 years in the future, how would someone really know that this effect that Maria Clara Eimmart so nicely illustrated was not a real thing? Sometimes science is portrayed as just a matter of opening your eyes to the simple evidence—“anyone can put it to the test as often as he likes”. But oftentimes things are not so simple, and the evidence is not so clear. Galileo’s claim that Locher is just flat-out lying about the evidence is therefore a bit much (although, as I have discussed in a number of other posts, Galileo could be pretty loose with his language in the Dialogue).
One of the reasons I became interested in Locher’s work was because, just as with Eimmart’s work, his art caught my eye. Those illustrations in Disquisitions looked much more interesting and much more reasonable than the work of Galileo’s opponents is usually portrayed as being. Disquisitions was interesting and reasonable, and Eimmart’s depiction of the crescent moon is a further demonstration of that.
A couple of additional artist’s representations of the moon, showing edge glow.
A final note about Eimmart—and not a happy note. She seems to have been the only child of her parents to survive much past birth. This may be why she received so much education and encouragement in astronomy, at a time when we would not expect a woman to be educated and involved in such a manner. She married a man who himself became interested in astronomy, no doubt because of the influence of his wife and of his father-in-law. And then in 1707 Eimmart died in childbirth at the age of thirty-one, as did the son she gave birth to. Her entire short life was wrapped in astronomy.
*As opposed to a work that was written in opposition to Galileo by someone who argued from a non-astronomical (e.g. theological or philosophical) perspective.
Clearly, the hot word was megastructure. “Astronomers may have found giant alien 'megastructures' orbiting star near the Milky Way” proclaimed the Independent last October. “The strange star that has serious scientists talking about an alien megastructure” echoed the Washington Post. Even The Daily Mail used the “megastructure” word.
NASA/Cal Tech image of comets falling into a star
The basic observation was a bit more prosaic, if no less exciting to astronomers.
Since 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope has been focused at the same patch of the Milky Way, observing 150,000 stars over and over to look for tiny variations in their brightness. These fluctuations can, famously, be evidence of planets blotting out a tiny bit of starlight in a regular pattern; the size of the dip tells us the size of the planet, while the rhythm of these dips tells us the period of the planet’s orbit, and thus its distance from its sun. But other fluctuations reveal stars with active sunspots or even stars undergoing pulsations, clues to their internal structure.
There are so many stars to study that amateur astronomers have been invited to look through the data; it’s a project called Planet Hunters, run by Tabitha Boyajian, a young astronomer at Yale University. [She's now got a faculty job at Louisiana State University] In October, she and some of her “citizen scientists” reported that an otherwise run-of-the-mill star was showing a bizarre pattern of fluctuations in its brightness. Their best guess was that a swarm of large comets was passing between the star and us.
But this pattern was not all that different from what some folks had speculated might occur to a star’s light if an alien civilization were to cover it over with giant panels to collect the star’s energy, powering some far advanced technology. Hence the “megastructures.”
This past month, a new wrinkle has been added to the story. Brad Schaefer, an astronomer at Louisiana State University, has looked through old photographic plates taken at Harvard going back to the 1890s, and he found that the brightness of the star itself has dimmed by nearly 20% over the last century. While comets might perhaps explain the short term fluctuations that the Planet Hunters found, they couldn’t be causing such a large, long-term dimming.
Cover of the first edition of Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon
Brad’s no stranger to science fiction. (We were student members together at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s science fiction society in the 1970s.) He discounts the “megastructure” idea, however. For one thing, any starlight absorbed by such structures eventually has to be re-emitted as infrared energy, but this star has no such excess emission. And it’s unlikely a civilization could build a structure to block 20% of a star’s light in just 100 years; celestial mechanics alone suggests it’d take much longer to assemble that much material in place around the star.
However… this new discovery also rules out every other idea that’s been suggested, as well. “Either there’s a hidden loophole in our arguments, or there’s a need for a clever theorist to come up with a totally new explanation,” he told me. “It’s like a classic locked-room mystery. We know there must be an answer, but…” He also noted, wryly, that the Daily Mail has still been trying to get him to endorse the alien megastructure theory.
Megastructures were first suggested in an SF novel by Olaf Stapledon in 1937. But to Brad and Tabitha and the others studying this odd star, such last-century daydreams aren’t nearly as fun as uncovering a new, previously unknown aspect of how stars behave. Science doesn’t exist to “solve” mysteries, to merely sort nature into tight prefab boxes. Rather, our joy is to reveal new mysteries to treasure up and ponder in our hearts.
[The 2018, consensus is that we are looking at dust around the star, not megastructures at all. Unless the dust is from some civilization that destroyed itself!]
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Our readership has grown steadily over the last year, but we'd love to have more! Please pass the word about the Catholic Astronomer blog, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus. Image Credits:
Messier 45 - The Pleiades Star Cluster. Image via Project Nightflight.
Messier 13 - The Great Cluster in Hercules. Image acquisition by Jim Misti, image processing by Robert Gendler.
Messier 31 - The Andromeda Galaxy. Credit: NASA, ESA, Digitized Sky Survey 2 (Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin)
Mars, Saturn and Jupiter are all visible in the southern predawn sky; the gap between Mars and Jupiter growing as Mars gets closer to Saturn each morning.
Southern sky before dawn, Jan. 30, 2018. Credit: Stellarium / Bob Trembley.
Total Lunar Eclipse (~90%) Oct. 26, 2004. Image credit: Bob Trembley
The Moon will be full on the 31st, and with it will come a total lunar eclipse. The total phase of this lunar eclipse will be visible in large parts of US, Russia, Asia, northeastern Europe, the Indian Ocean, Australia, and the Pacific. Hawaii will get an almost perfect view of totality.
I couldn't agree more with this Wired article about the over-use of media-hyped terms for astronomical events like this eclipse.
Lunar eclipses are sometimes called "Blood Moons." Sunlight gets filtered and refracted by the Earth's atmosphere; when the Moon passes through the Earth's shadow, it takes on a red-orangeish hue.
A Supermoon is when the full Moon is at perigee (its closest approach to Earth). The Moon will be at perigee during this eclipse.
A Blue Moon is the second full Moon in one calendar Month; the full Moon on the 31st will be the 2nd full Moon in January - a fairly rare event.
January's Moon is sometimes referred to as the Wolf Moon.
So what does that give us? SuperDuperBlueBloodWolfMoon!
This animation shows where the total lunar eclipse can be viewed:
The Sun has been spot-free for 9 days. Triangular prominences, seem to be a recurring theme in the Sun's chromosphere in recent weeks - there's a fine example on the right side of the image below.
The Sun in 304 angstroms, Jan. 30, 2018. Image credit: NASA/SDO and the AIA, EVE, and HMI science teams.
There are large coronal holes at both of the Sun's poles. The solar wind speed is 330 km/sec, with a density of 5 protons/cm3- lowest values I've seen in several weeks.
The Sun in 193 angstroms - Jan. 30, 2018 - Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA). Image courtesy of NASA/SDO and the AIA, EVE, and HMI science teams.
As a priest with an assignment of diverse ministries (parish, primary school, jail ministry, and university students), there are ample opportunities to receive and address questions about faith and science from multiple perspectives. What I find fascinating is that, regardless of what ministerial environment the questions are posed, there is a common narrative that often emerges: Faith is against science.
Much can be said about how this presumption has come to be the norm. Often times, I find that much of the fuel that feeds this fire doesn't come from scientists, new atheists, or secular politics. Rather, I find that it is the poor understanding and presentation of biblical creation in a hyper-literalist manner combined with a history of scandals in the Church that has flipped the opinion of many to view Catholicism not as the vessel that pursues truth to a fallen institution that is riddled with scandal and corruption, lacking the needed transparency to foster trust in the faithful.
For those who love the Church, both lay person and clergy, there can be an inner frustration of feeling a deep need to defend the Church while at the same time feeling helpless to address the legitimate criticism levied against the Church. This tension reminds me of a simple distinction I use is spiritual direction of identifying the difference between our Sphere in of Concern and our Sphere of Influence.
The Sphere of Concern constitutes those things that can trouble us on a personal level, but are realities we have little to no ability to impact on a personal level. This sphere can be as intimate as our concerns for a dear friend in crisis to global realities like the mounting tensions between nuclear powers. The danger of only living in the Sphere of Concern is that it can lead to discouragement, thinking that we really can't do anything to change our world, so why bother?
To snap us out of the melancholic heart that presumes we can't change the world is to embrace the truth that there is a sphere in which we do have direct impact to bring about good we can call our Sphere of Influence.
For example, when I was in seminary I expressed to one of my professors that I was frustrated that the first time I really learned about what the Church taught about human dignity was in seminary. When I was ordained, this professor sought me out, reminded me of this frustration, and simply stated, "As a priest, make sure your parishioners learn what you wished you would have learned in your youth." Even though I affirm that, as a priest, my Sphere of Influence has broadened, there is another lesson I am learning that this influence also needs to be met by a heart receptive to this truth. As time goes by, I often wonder if I actually did receive the Church's vision of human dignity in my youth, but, for whatever reason, my heart was still shut off to receive this truth?
With this distinction in mind, the first lesson I have learned is that the best way to reclaim the truth about the authentic relationship between faith and science is to avoid lingering in the Sphere of Concern that becomes an endless hamster wheel of negativity. Rather, I try to focus primarily on the Sphere of Influence God has blessed me with as a Catholic Priest and an author for The Catholic Astronomer. In light of this, I feel a need to ask you a simple question: What is your Sphere of Influence to bring good into this world?
Applying this ministerial philosophy has led to a basic starting point when addressing questions of faith and science: Simple is better. For example, last week I was invited to visit our Freshman religious education class where many questions had to do with faith and science. It was a beautiful moment when I simply asked the students, "What's the difference between a scientific question and a faith question?" After overcoming the initial fear of many Freshman to answer a question from their pastor, the discussion led to a healthy starting point: Scientific questions lead to truth about the material world that is tentative, meaning that it may change or be disproved in the future, while faith focuses on questions of meaning, purpose, ultimate beginnings, and ultimate ends in a way that science does not address.
We were able to realize that faith and science ask different kinds of questions to discover different kinds of truth. It reminded me of the writings of the Benedictine priest, Fr. Stanley Jaki. Here is a video I did for the Vatican Observatory Foundation explaining his insight into the relationship between faith and science.
This first lesson leads to a second, equally powerful lesson: There is no better way to demonstrate the true relationship between faith and science than to learn about real people who embody this relationship. Everyone knows about Galileo. Many know about Bruno. Most people presume that these two figures embody the relationship between faith and science (even though of the list of things Bruno was condemned for, his view of the sun centered universe was not one of them).
What saddens me are the many positive stories about faith and science many people don't know, but should be common knowledge. For example, Laura Bassi (1711-1778) was a Catholic laywoman who was the second woman in Europe to receive a Doctorate in the emerging sciences of the day and was the first woman to become what we would call today a professor at the University of Bologna. This breaking of a historical glass ceiling was made possible by the patronage of a Catholic Cardinal who later become Pope Benedict XIV. It is important to remember that these events took place after Galileo was accused of grave suspicion of heresy. Bassi was never condemned for her involvement in science as a Catholic laywoman, but eventually was invited to be a part of the Pope's inner intellectual elite that he brought together to promote the emerging science of the day in Bologna.
Laura Bassi - Image Credit: Wikipedia
Another story that should be common to all people who study science is the "Father" of the Big Bang Theory. I still find it astounding that many well educated Catholic adults and youth are shocked to discover that what we call The Big Bang Theory doesn't find its origins in Einstein or Edwin Hubble, but a Diocesan Priest by the name of Monsignor Georges Lemaitre. Equally confusing and ironic is the presumption that somehow the Big Bang Theory is in opposition with biblical creation. Lemaitre's idea of a "cosmic egg" was first met with resistance. The resistance was rooted in the fact that many presumed a priest-scientist promoting a theory of the universe beginning from an infinitely small, infinitely dense point seemed a bit too close to the book of Genesis. This, and other concerns, led some scientists to question Lemaitre's theory, mocking him by called his idea "Lemaitre's Big Bang Theory." Needless to say, history vindicated his theory. Here is another video I did for the VOF on Lemaitre.
The list of significant Catholics who have made major contributions to science is long and could be turned into multiple volumes. Whether it be the father of modern genetics, Fr. Gregor Mendel, the Catholic layman whose name identifies one of the more troubling mental illnesses of our time, Alois Alzheimer, or Roger Bacon who is often credited as the forerunner of the modern scientific method, the list of Catholic scientists, both layperson and clergy, is long and provides one of the strongest examples of the true relationship of faith and science.
Last, but definitely not least, we need to remember that the very reason this blog exists is because of the Vatican Observatory, the continuing symbol established by Pope Leo XIII to demonstrate that Catholicism supports true science.
Spiritual Exercise: What is the Sphere of Influence God has blessed you with to support the true vision of faith and science? Pray with this question and ask God to open doors for you to help promote faith and science as dialogue partners in truth instead of the common myth that they are and must be sworn adversaries.
Is there gravity in space? An answer of "no" makes sense as astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) float around within the spacecraft. At the same time, an answer of "yes" makes sense as this spaceship does orbit the Earth? What is the right way to think on this problem?
To begin with, yes, there is gravity in space. The gravity we feel is caused by the attraction that all of us feel towards the center of the Earth.
The relevant bit is that the gravitational force depends on the distance between the center of you and the center of the Earth. As the distance between you and the Earth increases, the gravitational force decreases. Here are some examples.
If we go to the highest floor of a skyscraper, then do we feel lighter than when we are on the ground? Yes, technically we do, but the difference is too small to mention. How about the top of a mountain? Yes, there is less gravity there too, and the difference is also very small. Now then, what if we go to the ISS?
The ISS orbits the Earth in space. It is very far from the center of the Earth compared to the skyscraper. And this time the difference results in a measurable difference. On the ISS we feel a downward pull of gravity that is 88 percent of that on Earth.
This leads us to the interesting part: if we would feel a not-so-different pull of gravity in space, then why do astronauts float? They should be standing up normally, but feel just a bit lighter, right? Well, not quite.
It is the fact that the spacecraft plus astronauts are constantly in free fall that makes them feel weightless. We can get at this idea with another example. When one jumps off of the high dive at the local swimming pool, recall that a nauseous feeling, almost like the stomach wants to fly up into the heart. This is because during that short-lived journey towards the surface of the water we are in free fall. This makes us feel weightless (and for many of us that is a most uncomfortable sensation).
Likewise, in space we are constantly falling towards the Earth. In other words, in space also feel like we are falling down off the diving board towards the water, but in this case the duration of that scary "fall" never ends. Orbiting around Earth is really just another way of saying that we are constantly falling towards Earth but just manage to miss it, over and over again.
Do you ever look around for examples of astronomy in art and architecture? I particularly enjoy finding examples of such things—especially if the astronomy in question is more than something like just generic “stars on a ceiling”. (Click here for other posts on Astronomy in Art & Architecture).
A wonderful example of astronomy in art—indeed, of a sort of functional astronomical art—is the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Frankfort (Kentucky’s capital). The memorial is a giant sundial. Its purpose is to honor Kentuckians who died in the Vietnam War, both collectively and individually. In doing so, it also teaches a little bit about astronomy, and it even draws a connection to the Bible.
Names of veterans are inscribed on the stone surface upon which falls the shadow of the sundial’s gnomon (the large central silver pointer).
As the sun travels across the sky from East to West on a given day, the gnomon’s shadow travels from West to East, touching the names of soldiers who died on that day. Earlier in the day the shadow touches the names of soldiers who died earlier in the war; later in the day the shadow touches the names of those who died later in the war. Thus while the memorial collectively honors all the Kentucky soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, it also honors each soldier individually.
The height of the sun varies with the seasons, so the length of the gnomon’s shadow varies with the seasons. This photo was taken right at the autumnal equinox. Note the shadow’s position (black arrow). Near the summer solstice the shadow at the same time of day will be short (at the position of the green arrow); near the winter solstice it will be long (blue arrow). Thus the names that the shadow touches vary over time—in winter it touches the names of those who died in winter; in summer it touches the names of those who died in summer.
The shadow lines on the memorial also indicate the seasonally changing position of sunset, from winter solstice (left), to equinox (center), to summer solstice (right).
Biblical verses, from the third chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes, also call to mind time and seasons.
If you are anywhere near Frankfort, Kentucky, on a sunny day, make the trip to see the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This piece of astronomical art is worth the effort to see.
It’s obviously not enough to point out that the Church never banned the telescope. I’ve also learned how hard it is to convince anyone that the Church’s mistakes with Galileo, very serious as they were, had nothing to do with it being against science. The science-versus-religion myth has been pushed, for political purposes, for more than a hundred years; a recent British popular science book can still insist that after Galileo went on trial, all science ceased in the Catholic world! (Except, apparently, for Descartes, Riccioli, Cassini, Galvani, Volta, Ampere, Boskovich, Mendel, Secchi…) The hardest students to teach are the ones who think they already know the answers.
I know nothing about the scientist giving that talk (except that he’s ignorant of history, bigoted against Catholics, and arrogant enough to compare himself to Galileo). I might very well agree with what he has to say. But it’s hard for me to listen when I hear a title like his; I too am hard to reach when my own prejudices are provoked. Needlessly alienating a portion of the public seems an odd way of winning a political debate; alas, too often the only goal of political discourse is to make the speaker look clever in front of his friends.
Needless to say, the church not only never banned telescopes; it recently built the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope in Arizona. (Contributors to this blog help support the work of that telescope.) photo: "Angels in the Dome" Photo of the VATT Dome by Ryan Ferguson of Flyback Productions
Telescopes are on feature in Arizona this month, where the Church (in the form of the Vatican Observatory Foundation) is sponsoring its annual workshop on Faith and Astronomy. Two dozen Catholic pastors and educators are getting a chance to become very familiar with telescopes, large and small. Every night we’re outdoors looking through good amateur ’scopes. In the dark Tucson skies, Orion’s nebula looks like an angel with pale green unfolded wings; the open clusters of Cassiopeia stand out like milky clouds in the Milky Way; we see Venus in half-phase, the view that convinced Galileo that it went around the Sun. We’ve also visited the University of Arizona’s mirror lab (where the Vatican’s own telescope mirror was made, thirty years ago) to see the 8.4 meter-wide mirrors for the next generation of giant telescopes being polished.
Touring the U of Arizona Mirror Lab, watching the largest telescope mirrors in the world being made. Our own Fr. Jim leads the charge!
The first pair of these giant mirrors was installed about ten years ago at the Large Binocular Telescope, located next to the Vatican’s telescope on a mountaintop in southeastern Arizona. With two mirrors, this telescope can play a fascinating trick with light: aiming at a nearby star, the light gathered by one mirror can be subtracted (technically, added out of phase) from the light of the other mirror. Everything exactly in the center of the field of view disappears; but anything not exactly in the center is slightly different from one mirror to the other. When the mirrors’ images are combined this way, these differences suddenly become visible. Once the glare of the star has been removed, we can see the faint planets orbiting that star. Dozens of planetary systems have been imaged this way since the technique was first perfected, back in 2013; recently, the technique revealed a flash of light near a very young star that may signal the formation of a new planet.
Both science and religion can act like telescopes. They can be powerful mirrors that gather and focus the truth. But sometimes such a mirror produces nothing but glare. Like a provocative title, glare attracts; but it also blinds. That’s when it is useful to get your light from more than one mirror.
Explorer 1 in orbit - simulated in Kerbal Space Program. Image credit: Bob Trembley.
Sixty years ago next week, the hopes of Cold War America soared into the night sky as a rocket lofted skyward above Cape Canaveral, a soon-to-be-famous barrier island off the Florida coast.
The date was Jan. 31, 1958. NASA had yet to be formed, and the honor of this first flight belonged to the U.S. Army. The rocket's sole payload was a javelin-shaped satellite built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Explorer 1, as it would soon come to be called, was America's first satellite.
Against the backdrop of the 1950s Cold War, after the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, Americans were determined to launch their own Earth-orbiting satellite. Flash back to events leading up to the successful launch of America's Explorer 1, and the beginnings of America's Space Age, as told through newsreel and documentary clips of the time.
"The launch of Explorer 1 marked the beginning of U.S. spaceflight, as well as the scientific exploration of space, which led to a series of bold missions that have opened humanity's eyes to new wonders of the solar system," said Michael Watkins, current director of JPL. "It was a watershed moment for the nation that also defined who we are at JPL."
The Juno-1 launch vehicle carrying Explorer 1 lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 10:48 p.m. EST on Jan. 31, 1958. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
In the mid-1950s, both the United States and the Soviet Union were proceeding toward the capability to put a spacecraft in orbit. Yet great uncertainty hung over the pursuit. As the Cold War between the two countries deepened, it had not yet been determined whether the sovereignty of a nation's borders extended upward into space. Accordingly, then-President Eisenhower sought to ensure that the first American satellites were not perceived to be military or national security assets.
In 1954, an international council of scientists called for artificial satellites to be orbited as part of a worldwide science program called the International Geophysical Year (IGY), set to take place from July 1957 to December 1958. Both the American and Soviet governments seized on the idea, announcing they would launch spacecraft as part of the effort. Soon, a competition began between the Army, Air Force and Navy to develop a U.S. satellite and launch vehicle capable of reaching orbit.
At that time, JPL, which was part of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, primarily performed defense work for the Army. (The "jet" in JPL's name traces back to rocket motors used to provide "jet assisted" takeoff for Army planes during World War II.) In 1954, the laboratory's engineers began working with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Alabama on a project called "Orbiter." The Army team included Wernher von Braun (who would later design NASA's Saturn V rocket) and his team of engineers. Their work centered around the Redstone Jupiter-C rocket, which was derived from the V-2 missile Germany had used against Britain during the war.
JPL's role was to prepare the three upper stages for the launch vehicle, which included the satellite itself. These used solid rocket motors the laboratory had developed for the Army's Sergeant guided missile. JPL would also be responsible for receiving and transmitting the orbiting spacecraft's communications. In addition to JPL's involvement in the Orbiter program, the laboratory's then-director, William Pickering, chaired the science committee on satellite tracking for the U.S. launch effort overall.
Explorer 1 stage separation and ignition of solid rocket motors - simulated in Kerbal Space Program. Image credit: Bob Trembley.
The Navy's entry, called Vanguard, had a competitive edge in that it was not derived from a ballistic missile program -- its rocket was designed, from the ground up, for civilian scientific purposes. The Army's Jupiter-C rocket had made its first successful suborbital flight in 1956, so Army commanders were confident they could be ready to launch a satellite fairly quickly. Nevertheless, the Navy's program was chosen to launch a satellite for the IGY.
University of Iowa physicist James Van Allen, whose instrument proposal had been chosen for the Vanguard satellite, was concerned about development issues on the project. Thus, he made sure his scientific instrument payload -- a cosmic ray detector -- would fit either launch vehicle. Meanwhile, although their project was officially mothballed, JPL engineers used a pre-existing rocket casing to quietly build a flight-worthy satellite, just in case it might be needed.
The world changed on Oct. 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched a 23-inch (58-centimeter) metal sphere called Sputnik. With that singular event, the space age had begun. The launch resolved a key diplomatic uncertainty about the future of spaceflight, establishing the right to orbit above any territory on the globe. The Russians quickly followed up their first launch with a second Sputnik just a month later. Under pressure to mount a U.S. response, the Eisenhower administration decided a scheduled test flight of the Vanguard rocket, already being planned in support of the IGY, would fit the bill. But when the Vanguard rocket was, embarrassingly, destroyed during the launch attempt on Dec. 6, the administration turned to the Army's program to save the country's reputation as a technological leader.
Explorer 1 stage separation and ignition of second set of solid rocket motors - simulated in Kerbal Space Program. Image credit: Bob Trembley.
Unbeknownst to JPL, von Braun and his team had also been developing their own satellite, but after some consideration, the Army decided that JPL would still provide the spacecraft. The result of that fateful decision was that JPL's focus shifted permanently -- from rockets to what sits on top of them.
The Army team had its orders to be ready for launch within 90 days. Thanks to its advance preparation, 84 days later, its satellite stood on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The spacecraft was launched at 10:48 p.m. EST on Friday, Jan. 31, 1958. An hour and a half later, a JPL tracking station in California picked up its signal transmitted from orbit. In keeping with the desire to portray the launch as the fulfillment of the U.S. commitment under the International Geophysical Year, the announcement of its success was made early the next morning at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, with Pickering, Van Allen and von Braun on hand to answer questions from the media.
Orbit of Explorer 1 - simulated in NASA Eyes on the Solar System. Image credit: Bob Trembley.
Following the launch, the spacecraft was given its official name, Explorer 1. (In the following decades, nearly a hundred spacecraft would be given the designation "Explorer.") The satellite continued to transmit data for about four months, until its batteries were exhausted, and it ceased operating on May 23, 1958.
Later that year, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established by Congress, Pickering and Caltech worked to shift JPL away from its defense work to become part of the new agency. JPL remains a division of Caltech, which manages the laboratory for NASA.
The beginnings of U.S. space exploration were not without setbacks -- of the first five Explorer satellites, two failed to reach orbit. But the three that made it gave the world the first scientific discovery in space -- the Van Allen radiation belts. These doughnut-shaped regions of high-energy particles, held in place by Earth's magnetic field, may have been important in making Earth habitable for life. Explorer 1, with Van Allen's cosmic ray detector on board, was the first to detect this phenomenon, which is still being studied today.
The twin Van Allen Probes circle through the radiation belts surrounding Earth to help scientists study what processes can accelerate particles there near to the speed of light. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
In advocating for a civilian space agency before Congress after the launch of Explorer 1, Pickering drew on Van Allen's discovery, stating, "Dr. Van Allen has given us some completely new information about the radiation present in outer space....This is a rather dramatic example of a quite simple scientific experiment which was our first step out into space."
Explorer 1 re-entered Earth's atmosphere and burned up on March 31, 1970, after more than 58,000 orbits.
Explorer 1 reentry into the atmosphere - simulated in Kerbal Space Program. Image credit: Bob Trembley.