Across the Universe: Ice dreams
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This is a slightly edited version of a column that first ran in The Tablet in August 2014 ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft arrived at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on August 6, 2014. Launched more than ten years earlier, upon arrival it took up an orbit around the sun that parallels the comet’s path, to keep the comet in its cameras from a distance of only a few tens of kilometers. The next two months saw intense preparation for the final stage of the mission: in mid November, 2014, a lander was sent to the comet’s dark surface with instruments to measure its composition in close up detail. (The original plan was for it to drill about 20 cm into the comet itself, to pierce the dusty crust and reach the icy material beneath. Alas, it landed into a shadowed region and was not able to get enough power to do its job or communicate with the orbiter… its fate is described here, on … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Shrine to the stars
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The column first ran in The Tablet in August 2013 The Milky Way arched over my head, a swath of light through an inky-black sky streaking from Cassiopeia on the northern horizon, through the cross of Cygnus, to the hook of Scorpius just above the horizon due south. I was on a hilltop in southern Vermont attending this year’s annual convention of amateur telescope makers known as Stellafane. The name, we were told, means “shrine to the stars.” It’s not only the dark skies that attract amateurs to this location. Ninety years ago a group of twenty precision toolmakers in the small mill town of Springfield, Vermont, first gathered to share their knowledge of mirror-making and show off their equipment. In 1923, if you wanted a small telescope to look at the stars you either paid a small fortune or you made it yourself. Grinding a mirror into the parabolic shape that can focus faint starlight into a bright point … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Pennies from heaven
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A slightly shorter version of this column first ran in The Tablet in August 2012 Scientists who do experiments need material to experiment on. Thirty years ago, a grad student friend of mine ran into a problem researching motor skill development in infants because there were too many other students in her field writing theses, and not nearly enough infants available in her university town with parents willing to have them studied. (Ironically, my friend was herself pregnant at the time. Her baby, now grown, defended her own psychology dissertation in the fall of 2012; she’s now a psychology professor herself. And a mom, as well.) In meteoritics we cannot advertise for samples, much less produce them ourselves. We have to wait for our subject matter to fall, like manna, from the heavens. In 2012, however, we were fortunate to have two fascinating new meteorites land at our feet. They were each the subject of special sessions at the annual … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Planetary Prejudice
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This column first ran in The Tablet in July 2015 The wonderful excitement about Pluto, visited by the New Horizons spacecraft [July 2015], has resurrected the old issue of defining a “planet”. But why? Most people approaching this question have one clear goal: they want Pluto to be a planet. Once you realize that, you can make your definition clear and simple: “A planet is one of the bodies that I was taught was a planet when I was a child.” Of course, such a definition is useless for any other purposes. The IAU, which defined Pluto and similar bodies as “dwarf planets” back in 2006, needed a definition so it could name such objects and the features on them, to know whose committee and what set of rules will apply. But there’s another aspect to this issue. Fifteen years ago I was involved in a research program studying the Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNO) that orbit alongside Pluto, comparing their shapes … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Where’s the olivine?
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This column first ran in The Tablet in July 2014 It was a beautiful theory, while it lasted. Most meteorites are well-compressed lumps of primordial dust and little beads of rock. But some are chips of lava, bits of some small asteroid that melted and sorted itself into a small iron core and a crust of frozen basaltic lava. We’ve even seen one such asteroid: the spectra colors of Vesta (the brightest, and second-biggest, of the asteroids) uniquely match these basaltic meteorites [in particular, the Howardite-Eucrite-Diogenite meteorites known familiarly as the HED meteorites]. When a mixture of various minerals gets hot, as inside a volcano, only some of those minerals melt; they make the lava that erupts to the surface, leaving behind other unmolten minerals deep below the volcano. These meteorite lavas should behave the same way. During my student days in the 1970s, we calculated that that for every basaltic meteorite, there should be about four times as much … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Hidden inclusions
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This column first ran in The Tablet in July 2013 I was in a state of high excitement (or what passes for such when you’re sixty years old): the Pope was coming to lunch with our Jesuit community at the Vatican Observatory! Meanwhile, I was also preparing a paper for the annual Meteoritical Society meeting, and I had just noticed a wonderful correlation in my data. These sorts of insights are as rare as Papal visits… if indeed I had really made one. I’ve been studying iron meteorites; and it’s been hard work. For one thing, they are, quite literally, hard – lumps of nickel-iron, too hard to cut up easily to see what’s inside. I’ve seen iron meteorites being cut at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC; their saw sits in a room the size of gymnasium, makes an awful racket, and spews water everywhere. (The water cools the meteorite while a diamond-encrusted wire scrapes through it.) When you do … Continue reading

From The Tablet: Big Science, Hurrah!
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This article was first published in The Tablet in July, 2012 “How will the discovery of the Higgs Boson impact the Catholic Scientific Community?” asked one panicked email I received soon after CERN announced its discovery. “How can the new discovery and our belief be reconciled?” So many misconceptions in one email… where to start? Emails like this, not to mention all sorts of press inquiries, came to us at the Vatican Observatory following the announcement by CERN that they had detected a “a new particle in the mass region around 126 GeV… the results are preliminary but dramatic… we know it is a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found.” The press, if not the scientists, immediately jumped on the news, calling it the discovery of the Higgs Boson (something that the CERN press release was careful not to do) which they inevitably referred to as “The God Particle.” Right away, the internet was filled with instant pundits giving opinions … Continue reading

Across the Universe: The Hows of Science
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This column first ran in The Tablet in July, 2012 We met this month [July 2012] in a small pensione in Loreto, next the cathedral built around the famous “flying house” (reputed to be the home of the Blessed Virgin, transported from Palestine to Italy – some say by angels – in the 13th century) to plan the next steps for our Vatican Observatory. What’s the future for our telescope in Arizona, and the fundraising that supports it? What about converting our old telescope domes in Castel Gandolfo into a visitor center? But a big topic for the group was welcoming seven young astronomers to our group. They come from many countries – three from the US, plus an Italian, a Czech, a Congolese, and an Indian. They’ve studied a variety of scientific topics, from theorizing on subatomic strings to observing meteor showers, at traditional PhD programs in universities around the world. And their immediate challenge now is trying to fit the style … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Fast changes
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This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2013 Summer began [in 2013] on Friday morning, 21 June, at 5:14 am GMT…in the northern hemisphere, of course; south of the equator, it’s winter. [The summer solstice 2017 in Northern Hemisphere occurred at 4:24 am GMT on Wednesday, June 21.] This definition is based on the precise orientation of the Earth in its orbit. The Earth is tilted relative to its orbit, and like a gyroscope its spin axis stays pointed in the same direction, year round. In a convenient coincidence for navigators, our north pole is pointed near the star Polaris. Polaris is not directly above the Sun; it’s directly above Earth’s tilted spin axis. In June, the Earth is in the part of its orbit where it’s on one side of the Sun, and Polaris is on the other side. The northern half of the Earth, tilted towards Polaris, is also tilted towards the Sun; that’s why it gets warmer. The … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Ephemeral science
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  This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2016 Over the past thirty years the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo has been hosting a biennial summer school, where we invite young scholars from around the world to spend four weeks with us, exploring in depth some topic in astrophysics. [The 2016] school was centered on water in the solar system and beyond. It’s an area that I’ve worked in since I was a young scholar myself; my master’s thesis, now more than 40 years old, was all about Jupiter and Saturn’s icy moons. All of my work on the topic, of course, is long obsolete. Just four years after I had made my computer models to predict what we’d see at those moons, the Voyager spacecraft actually visited Jupiter and revealed its moons to be worlds far more elaborate than anything I could have proposed. Still, the basic science hasn’t changed; at our school we taught how to use properties like … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Of stars and sheep
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This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2015 ‘Today we can illuminate our cities so brightly that the stars of the sky are no longer visible. Is this not an image of the problems caused by our version of enlightenment? With regard to material things, our knowledge and our technical accomplishments are legion, but what reaches beyond, the things of God and the question of good, we can no longer identify.’ — Pope Benedict XVI At Notre Dame University [in June 2015], Katharine Mahon, a doctoral student in theology, reminded me of this passage from Pope Benedict’s Easter 2012 homily. One of the striking hallmarks of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, was how it was rooted in the theology and writings of his predecessors, like the passage above. Just as our badly-overlit cities blind us to the stars, our desire to wrap ourselves in the soft wool of technology insulates us from the reality of … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Jesuit Science
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This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2014 [In 2014] Heythrop College celebrated its 400th anniversary. Originally founded in Belgium to educate British Jesuits, it moved back to England during the French Reign of Terror. Located since then at various locations, it finally moved to London in 1970, becoming a part of the University of London in 1971. An anniversary like this calls for a party, of course. On June 19-20, hundreds of scholars gathered at Senate House to reflect on Jesuit scholarship. Among the celebrants were Lord Williams and Jesuit Father General Adolfo Nicholas. I was invited to talk on Jesuit science. [The link above is the recording of my talk, and runs about 55 minutes; in my opinion, it’s more entertaining than this column was!] What has been the particular Jesuit mark on science? One thing that struck me was how entering the Jesuits order gave young men the chance to be a scientist regardless of family … Continue reading