Across the Universe: A Moving Experience
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This column first ran in The Tablet in June, 2009 Anyone who has moved to a new home knows the odd, unsettling experience of seeing old furniture in a new, strange settings. Our knick-knacks define home to us; they are, echoing the practice of ancient Rome, our “household gods.” In moving a Jesuit community, the phrase takes on a powerful literal meaning when the tabernacle is moved into a new chapel. June, 2009 was moving month for the Specola. We’d been talking among ourselves about shifting out of the Papal Palace and into the Papal Gardens for some time; still, it was hard to move our inertial mass. But the confluence of a new Pope who continued his active work and string of state visitors through the summer months at Castel Gandolfo, the security issues that everyone has become aware in the past decade, and our own growing needs finally brought the issue to a head. It took three years to get here. … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Forbidden Transitions
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This column was first published in The Tablet in February 2011 Earlier this month [2011], NASA satellites observed a set of flares on the surface of the Sun and predicted that glorious aurorae would soon be visible – a rare sight anywhere in Europe south of Scandinavia. But that was the week I was visiting my brother in northern Michigan, so I resolved to take a moment to look for them. The Northern Lights are a marvelous sight. The easiest to see are sheets of light in the northern sky, moving like curtains in the wind. If they’re bright enough, you can see colors, mostly green, swirling like a light show at a 60’s rock concert. The science behind them is equally fascinating. Electrons and protons burst from the Sun in explosions of an expanding plasma as large as planet Earth. Hot enough to overcome the Sun’s gravity, as they move from the Sun they feel even less gravity; they move further, move … Continue reading

Across the Universe: When Reason Itself Becomes Flesh
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This column was first published in The Tablet in December, 2008) “In the beginning was the Word.” So opens the Gospel according to St. John. When I was young they called this (John’s Chapter 1, verses 1-14) “The Last Gospel.” We heard it repeated so often at the end of every Mass, that the words went past us without registering. When they tried teaching us Greek in High School, this was a favorite passage; it was an easy exercise, using the same few words over and over, ringing changes on their position and grammar. But of course the underlying philosophy is anything but easy. Word as used here is our weak English translation for the Greek logos. Logos carries a great weight of philosophical meaning, from “rational discourse” to the fundamental order of the universe. It is the word from which we get logic. Try substituting “Logic” or “Reason” for “Word” in that Gospel: “In the beginning was Logic. In the beginning was Reason. In the beginning was the … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Christmas Presence
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This column was first published in The Tablet in December, 2007) Job is not a book most people think of for the Christmas season. But there’s an echo of the angels’ Christmas song to the shepherds when God asks Job (in Chapter 38, verse 7) if any human can claim to have been around at the moment of creation, that time “when the morning stars sang together, and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy.” The song of the morning stars is poetry of the highest order. Kepler referred to the motions of the planets among those stars as “the music of the spheres.” In one of my favorite childhood novels, A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle (who, sadly, died this past year [2007]), her young hero actually encounters, in person, the singing spirits of stars. The image reminds us that in its essence, creation is a source of joy; and a lot of fun. What’s it like, I am sometimes asked, … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Spicy planet stories
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This column first ran in The Tablet in October, 2006. Doing science has often been compared to reading a mystery novel; the hunger to know “whodunit” keeps us turning the pages. But what stops us from just skipping to the last page, and moving on to the next book? Perhaps a better metaphor is a spice cake. The real pleasure of the process lies in the spicy experience of wondering. Actually finding out is just the icing on the cake. At the annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society, held earlier this month in Pasadena, California near the famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), dozens of little slivers of spice cake were on offer. A wonderful little asteroid system, called 1999 KW4, passed within half a million kilometers of the Earth about five years ago; it’s taken that long to analyze the radar reflections and work out its remarkable shape and spin. It’s shaped … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Key to the Sea and Sky
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This column first ran in The Tablet in July 2007   In Alicante, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, a group of us planetary astronomers held a workshop on how asteroids respond to the massive collisions that can lead to their catastrophic disruption. Just north of us, in Valencia, sailors from Switzerland and New Zealand were vying for the America’s Cup. The connection between elegant million dollar yachts and exploding asteroids is the equations of fluid dynamics. I’ve loved sailing since my childhood; I spent my summers capsizing sailboards on Lake Huron and my winters reading too much Arthur Ransome. As a student in the early 1970s I competed on MIT’s sailing team (the Charles River was indeed “dirty water”), and attended lectures in their ocean engineering department on the challenges of designing the best shape for a hull that could slip through the water with a minimum of friction while still providing the resistance to leeward slip that lets a sailboat claw … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Techie Dreams
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in May, 2008, under the title “The Magic is Real” I have a friend who has found a new drug: it can keep him awake and programming at his computer for 36 hours straight, without too many bad side effects… or so he claims. I think he’s nuts; aside from the obvious dangers of self-prescribing anything, I happen myself to find sleeping to be a beautifully spiritual experience. (At least, that’s what I tell the homilist after Mass.) But I was struck mostly by the motivation behind my friend’s drug abuse. He is so passionately in love with being alive and doing his work that he resents having to waste eight hours sleeping every night. That passion is one of the great things about being a techie. It is illustrated wonderfully in the comic-book movie, Iron Man. There, the techie hero Tony Stark builds a mechanical suit that allows him to leap tall … Continue reading

Open Thread #2: The Messier Marathon
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Lisa Tobias, who also provided our first open thread, expands further on the Messier Marathon that she mentioned there. I know a lot of amateur astronomers and a few professional ones. When you ask, they almost always they’ll you how they have loved the stars since they were kids and how they were so excited when they opened their first telescope box (probably a Wal-Mart special with more power than Galileo ever hoped for). That wasn’t me. I always enjoyed looking at the stars, but that’s all I did. Walking in and out to the car or sitting by the fire at camp; that was enough. I just looked up and imagined. Maybe it was Halley’s Comet that ruined it for me. I was only about 9 when the comet came through, but my school (which was located in the country surrounded by horse farms and corn fields) made a big event to go out and observe the comet. I … Continue reading

Br Guy Diary: February 22, 2015
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This week has been a week of travel, with a bit of science and a lot of outreach. I experience a blizzard in Boston and warm, dry days in California; talked about Vesta and ET’s; and met some alpacas… I arrived in Boston for the Boskone SF convention just before the snow. I also got a morning’s work in, speaking with Cy Opeil at Boston College. He has a lab set up that we’re collaborating with to measure meteorite thermal and physical properties at temperatures down to near absolute zero. The convention was a whirlwind – and that was just the blizzard outside! I actually never left the hotel, given the weather, which meant I stayed warmer than I usually do at that convention. Monday my flight left on time, and so by Monday evening I was in Merced, California, where over the next three days I gave four presentations at the University of California Merced. Great students, great conversations. I’ve … Continue reading

Apollo 8 Earthrise
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In December of 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 became the first people to leave our home planet and travel to another body in space. But as crew members Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders all later recalled, the most important thing they discovered was Earth. Using photo mosaics and elevation data from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), this video commemorates the 45th anniversary of Apollo 8’s historic flight by recreating the moment when the crew first saw and photographed the Earth rising from behind the Moon. Narrator Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon, sets the scene for a three-minute visualization of the view from both inside and outside the spacecraft accompanied by the onboard audio of the astronauts. The visualization draws on numerous historical sources, including the actual cloud pattern on Earth from the ESSA-7 satellite and dozens of photographs taken by Apollo 8, and it reveals new, historically significant information about the Earthrise photographs. It … Continue reading

Saturn: Beauty in Sight and Sound
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Created by stitching together over 30,000 photographs taken by the robotic Cassini spacecraft – No 3D models, CGI or texture maps used! Set to “Adagio for Strings” performed by the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Dmitry Sitkovetsky. This excerpt from the IMAX movie “In Saturn’s Rings” never fails to bring tears to my eyes due to its sheer beauty. Watch closely as the razor-thin rings momentarily vanishes as orbiter crosses the plane of their orbit. The Cassini orbiter was launched in October 1997, and entered orbit around Saturn on June 30, 2004. Its mission has been extended twice, and is currently scheduled to continue through September of 2017. Cassini has discovered plumes of water vapor pouring from its icy moon Enceladus, and discovered a new type of “Dusty Plasma” near Enceladus. Cassini landed a probe on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and has imaged hydrocarbon oceans and river-like structures there. Cassini has witnessed tiny shepherd moons within Saturn’s rings, and … Continue reading