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: 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: Stellar Round Up
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in October 2008 Black Mesa, Oklahoma sounds like the setting for a Hollywood Western. It looks like one, too. Every year at the Okie-Tex Star Party, three hundred amateur astronomers camp out for a week with their telescopes there, in hopes of dark dry skies. Some of their “amateur” instruments are larger in aperture than the telescopes of the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo. The miracle of computerized fabrication and the modern Dobsonian mount (a way of holding a telescope in place that replaces complex hardware with simple Teflon pads) has brought the cost of quality optics to the point where the price of a large telescope can be less than that of a small automobile. My GPS unit directed me as far as Boise City, two hours north of Amarillo, Texas; after that, I was following roads too small for most maps. I was there to give a series of talks during … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Awareness
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in May, 2010 “Adolescence,” said my colleague, the father of two teen-aged boys, “is when you’re filled with self-consciousness and completely lacking in self-awareness.” We were watching the students on his campus, obsessed with how they looked while being utterly out of touch with how they actually came across to other people. Of course, it is not just teen-agers. We marvel at how politicians, whose business is selling themselves, can make themselves look so bad; or how often we hear advertising that provokes us to swear we’ll never buy that product. And then we wind up buying the goods anyway. All of us spend our days walking around in a fog, self-obsessed while never really aware of ourselves or the universe in which we live. (Well, that’s true of me, anyway.) Sometimes the fog is literally real. [In 2010, I was] participating in the Texas Star Party, a gathering of 500 amateur astronomers (and … Continue reading

Across the Universe: For the love of the stars…
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This column was first published in The Tablet in October, 2005 Standing in the lee of The Leviathan, a handful of amateur astronomers and their cool white telescopes huddled against the night Irish wind, praying for the skies to clear. We were attending the 20th Whirlpool Amateur Astronomy conference, held every autumn at the castle of Lord Rosse in Birr. Here in the 1840’s the Third Earl had built the world’s largest telescope: rightly called a leviathan, it boasted a mirror five feet in diameter set in a tube fifty feet long. With this giant he’d discovered the spiral arm structure in that galaxy off the handle of the Plough called The Whirlpool. (Actually it’s six feet in diameter, as I will discuss in a later post!) The third Earl was a classic example of an amateur astronomer: one who did his work only for the love of the subject. He had no advanced degrees, and he did not earn … Continue reading

2016 Calendars are available!
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  Every year, the Vatican Observatory Foundation publishes a calendar featuring fantastic astronomical images from amateurs around the world… and noting dates of particular interest to astronomers. They can be purchased online here… This year’s calendar is out, and it looks great. (OK, so as proofreader I missed a couple of glitches, which immediately made themselves obvious as soon as I opened up the printed version. Nothing as bad as a couple years ago when we got Galileo’s birthday wrong!) On the back, I always write a pithy little paragraph or two that nobody reads. As a freebie for readers of The Catholic Astronomer, here’s what I put there this year: A few years ago, a couple of cosmologists who styled themselves as atheists attempted to show that there was “no need for God” to start the universe, at the moment popularly known as the Big Bang. They proposed thatthat a quantum fluctuation in the zero-energy vacuum field of the … Continue reading