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

Across the Universe: Perturbing the Universe
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  This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2014 A member of our Vatican Observatory community, Fr. Bill Stoeger, died of cancer last month [2014]. I could say that Bill was both the smartest man and the holiest man I have known; but he would have rejected that characterization out of hand. So I will only say that his goodness and his genius never ceased to move me. He’s the only person I know who could work the mathematics of the Big Bang, and also direct retreats for religious women. Bill’s religious faith did not control the science he did, but how he did it. For example, more often than not he collaborated with scientists from the developing world – South Africa and Brazil in particular. And he showed a special patience with those members of our scientific community who could be brilliant but eccentric and sometimes hard to deal with. His scientific output was astonishing. At Cambridge … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Maybe
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  This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2013 The Kepler Space Telescope, monitoring a hundred thousand stars to catch the faint flickers of light that might indicate the shadows of planets, announced [April 2013] the discovery of a star that may have two super-Earths orbiting within its “Goldilocks zone.” That’s the distance from the star where liquid water should be stable. The idea of a system with two planets that could harbor life brings up all sorts of exciting science-fictional possibilities. Well, maybe. We don’t know for sure yet that either planet really is Earth-like; they could be small gas balls. We don’t know yet if either planet has an atmosphere, much less the sorts of chemicals we associate with life. And after all, our own solar system has two bodies within its Goldilocks zone – Earth and its Moon – but only one has life. For that matter, Mars is close enough to that stable zone … Continue reading

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

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

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

Across the Universe: The Boundaries of the Unknown
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This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2014 Isaac Newton thought that planetary orbits in our solar system were kept stable by God’s direct intervention; they were proof to him that God existed. A hundred years later, the great French mathematician and skeptic Pierre-Simon Laplace described his new orbital theory to Napoleon and supposedly quipped of God’s role, “I have no need for that hypothesis.” In fact, it is bad theology to reduce God to merely a gap-filling hypothesis. Only recently, however, have we learned that, actually, planetary motions may sometimes not be so stable after all. One of the pioneers of studying chaos theory in celestial dynamics is Jack Wisdom, an MIT professor (and MacArthur “genius”) who is visiting the Vatican Observatory this month. He’s working now on modeling the complex interaction between the Moon’s orbit and spin with the spin and orbit of the Earth. It’s all tied to the larger issue of the origin of … 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

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

Across the Universe: Global warning
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  This column first ran in The Tablet in February 2015 My travels started in Boston, hit by a record number of massive snowstorms this winter; yet another blizzard trapped me inside the convention hotel all weekend. During a lull between storms, I was able to catch a flight to California… where the occasional flooding downpour failed to put an end to a five year drought. Climate is not the same as weather, but weather certainly reflects climate. And our climate is in serious trouble. It’s not just the anecdotal bad storm; it’s the sustained change in weather patterns – five years of drought, for example – that is finally getting our attention. One of the most common questions I get asked (just behind baptizing extraterrestrials!) deals with climate change. I give the same answer everywhere; the reaction I get varies wildly with the venue, however. Most of my questioners have already made up their mind that global climate change … Continue reading

Across the Universe: What good is God?
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  This column first ran in The Tablet in February 2014 “What Good is God?” was the title of the 2014 Bannan Institute Program at Santa Clara University, the Jesuit school in California’s Silicon Valley. This month they invited me ask: why does science need God? I proposed that the answer is found in a different question. Why do we do science?   What do we hope to achieve when we decide to be a scientist? What counts as success? Tenure, prizes, citations in the literature… are those the ultimate goal of science? And what motivates us personally to choose to do science, instead of going into banking or selling neckties? Maybe it’s the pleasure in finding patterns and solving problems; doing science is like being paid to solve jigsaw puzzles. But is that our ultimate goal? Would we give up tenure for the chance to work on a really fun puzzle? Certainly science is a search for truth. In real life, … Continue reading

Across the Universe: View from afar
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  This column first ran in The Tablet in February 2013 I traveled to Tucson to measure the fluctuating brightness of some small bodies in the outer solar system using the Vatican’s Advanced Technology Telescope. By how often they brighten and dim, we measure how fast these bodies spin; by how much their brightness changes during these cycles, we get a measure of their irregular shapes. It is not particularly thrilling work. We point the telescope at a given object; take a three-minute exposure with our electronic camera; and then another exposure; and another; and another… These objects typically take about eight hours or more per spin; so we observe one body per night as it rises, crosses the sky, and sets in the west… checking the images for clarity, tweaking the focus, watching the skies to make sure that clouds are not moving in. (We got three clear nights out of five.) Data in hand, our work is still … Continue reading