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

Across the Universe: Touched by Heaven
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This column first ran in The Tablet in January 2014 On February, 15, 2013 [one year before this column first ran], a twenty-meter chunk of space rock hit the Earth over Chelyabinsk, Siberia. Shining brighter than the sun, its fall was recorded by video cameras as far as 700 km away. Thousands of people in Chelyabinsk ran to their windows to see what that bright light was; a few moments later, the impact’s sonic boom arrived and shattered those windows. More than 1500 people were hurt by flying glass and debris. Seventy kilometers west of Chelyabinsk, an eight meter wide hole was found in the ice of Lake Chebarkul; last summer, a half-ton meteorite was recovered from the lake bottom. It’s not every day that a rock with half a megaton of energy hits the Earth above a major city (a million people live in Chelyabinsk). But near earth asteroids are hardly rare. The Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, keeps … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Forced Perspective
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This column first ran in The Tablet in January, 2013 Over New Years [2013], Pope Benedict welcomed 40,000 attendees to the Taizé Youth Gathering in Rome. A few days later, a somewhat smaller number of them attended my workshop on the life and faith of an astronomer. My setting for the talk most appropriate: the marvelous Jesuit church of St. Ignatius. There are a number of astronomical connections to this church. It was designed in the 1600s by Orazio Grassi, a Jesuit priest who was also quite a good astronomer, the first to observe a comet with a telescope. (Galileo never forgave him for that scoop.) Cardinal Bellarmine is buried beneath an altar of the church. Just two years before Grassi’s comets, Galileo had been questioned by Bellarmine, who finally gave him a document certifying that he was no heretic. Bellarmine wasn’t convinced of Galileo’s science, however; the heliocentric system was a radical change, and accepting it then would have … Continue reading

Across the Universe: A Piece of the Action
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This column first ran in the Tablet in January, 2012… you may see a strong connection with a previous post! They come by post and email, every week… requests from strangers who want me to read over their startling new ideas in astronomy; gifts of self-published philosophical tracts and theorems that will overthrow Einstein; warnings of perils from outer space that angels or aliens have revealed to the letter writers. Every observatory gets these letters. I imagine the coaches of sports teams must get just as many letters from fans with the designs for secret new plays that will win the next match for their favorite team. However, being both an Observatory and a part of the Vatican, we get a double dose. Why are they writing to me? At first, that question was centered on the “me” part; I have no authority on any of the topics they are writing about. But I’ve come to realize that a more intriguing question … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Tides in our affairs
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  This column first ran in the Tablet in January, 2011 January is the month when novices from my Jesuit province go to a retreat house in Gloucester, Massachusetts, for a month of silent prayer. Surrounded by nature – the tides rolling onto the rocky shoreline, the inevitable winter blizzard – they confront God and themselves. Meanwhile, my nephews are avoiding those same winter storms by visiting their grandparents in Florida, enjoying the tides in the Gulf of Mexico. Surfing is, perhaps, its own form of prayer. The ocean tides are a powerful symbol of God’s presence. Their regular rise and fall makes the whole Earth feel like it’s alive. To the American political commentator, Bill O’Reilly, who strongly identifies himself with his Catholic roots, they are in fact a proof of God. Recently, debating an atheist on his television program, O’Reilly shrugged off his opponent’s arguments by merely observing: “Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Awaiting the stars
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This column first ran in The Tablet in December 2010. We returned to Australia in early December [2010], once more trying to find a clear night or two when we could map the southern sky. After being clouded out in August [see an earlier Tablet column here], nine days straight, we’d gone home without seeing the promised stars. Now we were waiting again, as the weather in Sevenhill stormed around us. Wednesday was the first night we could set up our telescopes without getting rained on. The evening started out promising, but an hour after sunset the clouds rolled in once again. It was just like our experience in August. But this time, with warmer weather than in August, we stayed outdoors and waited. Christmas carols warbled through the small speakers of my cell phone. My colleague sipped his cup of tea. Through cracks in the clouds, slivers of starlight peeped through, tantalizing us with a promise of what lay … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Recognizing the Star
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in December 2009 The fall of 2009 found me team-teaching a course called “Dynamic Evolution” at LeMoyne College, a small Jesuit university in Syracuse, New York. The biblical scholar from Leuven, Fr. Jan Lambrecht SJ, concentrated on the world-view of the New Testament in the first half of the course; my task was to bring the students forward through the cosmologies of the middle ages and the scientific revolution, to present day views on space and time: quantum theory and relativity. It’s been an exhausting journey. For many of the undergraduates, the shocking message has been how little we know for certain. After an academic path focused mostly on memorizing “facts” they must now come to the realization that everything they’ve been taught is, if not exactly wrong, then at least woefully incomplete. With everything we learn, we also learn how much more there is to know. Certainly, the world of certainties is an illusion. … Continue reading