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: Teaching new stars
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This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2012 It would be hard to credit a philosopher who had never read Plato, or an expert in literature who was unfamiliar with Sappho or Homer. Every mathematician has learned Euclid’s geometry at some time (usually very early) in their studies; every artist has, at some point, encountered Praxiteles. Yet a science course that spent a significant chunk of its curriculum on Aristotle’s physics would raise eyebrows, to say the least. Jettisoning the wisdom of antiquity is a characteristic trait that differentiates science from other fields. (And of course it’s one obvious illustration of how Scripture is never a science text.) But if everything we learn from astronomy will inevitably be superseded by later work, then why do we even bother learning the current stuff? I’ve had students ask me that; and I was wondering it myself, attending the biennial Vatican Observatory Summer School being held in 2012 at our headquarters in … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Clerical Work
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This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2011 The typical scientist spends more time in front of a keyboard, writing, than in a lab or a telescope dome. That’s certainly true in my case. This past month has seen me busy with many different sorts of paperwork. One task this month was serving as a referee for one of the journals in my field. When scientists want to publish a new idea or set of data, they write up an article in a quite rigid format, designed not to let the greatest number of people understand it, but rather such that the fewest possible might misunderstand it. They send it to the journal where they think it should be published; its editor then chooses other scientists in the field to referee the article, grading it with lots of red ink. This is all done anonymously, though the referees’ identities can often be deduced from their comments (“You neglected … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Friends in high places
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in June, 2008 The Mars Phoenix mission landed successfully near the north pole of Mars [in 2008]. Even though I don’t study Mars myself, I feel a special connection because the mission is being run out of my old department at the University of Arizona. I know those guys on the TV, explaining how they’ll be digging for ice in the Martian soil. Mars wasn’t the only tourist attraction that summer. The scientists of the Cassini/Huygens Saturn probes held a team meeting in Rome in June, 2008, and two dozen of them came out to visit me at Castel Gandolfo. I showed them our telescopes and libraries and meteorite collection. Friends of mine on the team arranged the visit. Why do I have so many friends in high places? It’s just the nature of my field. There are only a few thousand professional planetary astronomers in the world. We go to the same annual meetings, we … Continue reading

How I Found Florence’s Marvelous Cabinet of Physics
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I found something amazing in Florence. I had no idea it was there, until the moment I found it. Two years ago, I said goodbye to Brother Guy Consolmagno.  He’d accompanied me from Rome to Florence, Italy. We’d spent three days together touring the treasures of the legendary city, but now it was time for him to board a train back to Rome and return to the Vatican Observatory. I was left alone with my Firenzecard. A Firenzecard costs 72 Euros and it grants access to over seventy museums around Firenze, that is, Florence.  It confers other privileges, such as a very short line at the fabulous Uffizi Gallery (I liked to pretend I was a visiting Medici cousin, getting special treatment), and free WiFi access in certain locations (not even the wealthy Medicis enjoyed WiFi!). A Firenzecard expires 72 hours after it’s purchased. Mine had one day left to run.  Florence still had many more museums to offer. What … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Europa
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This column first ran in The Tablet in February, 2009 Under the dim light of a distant sun, a cold white ball smaller than our Moon orbits a huge gas planet, garishly striped with colored clouds. Galileo first saw this jovian moon – to be named “Europa” by his rival, Simon Marius – on January 7, 1610. In 1805, Laplace had worked out Europa’s mass (using an elaborate theory of the moons’ orbits), and other 19th century astronomers timed the way the Jupiter moons shadowed each other to estimate their sizes. By the end of that century clever instruments allowed Pickering to estimate its brightness. All the information was there. From these data, any schoolchild could have calculated that Europa was less dense than rock, more dense than ice, and brilliantly white. But no one actually put all that information together until 1908, when Pickering finally noted the low density and bright surface… and speculated that this Jupiter moon was a … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in December, 2006. The reporter from the BBC was surprised that I wasn’t shocked: Could the seeds of life have come to Earth from outer space? He was interviewing me about a new discovery published this past month [2006] in Science. In a meteorite retrieved from a frozen lake in northern Canada, researchers found chemical compounds that could be the precursors of life in small round voids that could have served as the templates for early cells. Meteorites are my business, and the scientists cited are colleagues and friends of mine, but even so I couldn’t understand why a BBC reporter in London was trying to interview me. The data are new and intriguing, yes, but it’s hardly a new idea. For more than 150 years, meteorites have been known to contain organic chemicals. “But doesn’t the stuff of life coming to us from off the Earth contradict the Church’s teaching that only … Continue reading

Happy Hundredth, Mildred!
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I got an email from my friend (and fellow planetary scientist) Rick Binzel: “I just learned that Mildred Shapley Matthews (the lovable taskmaster and technical editor who drove the Space Science Series forward for decades) recently celebrated her 100th birthday.” Funny thing was, I was just telling someone about Mildred earlier that day. She was the editor of the University of Arizona Space Science series of books for many years. In fact, she edited my very first paper – a chapter in the Jupiter book – and did a fantastic job, making my prose much better and clearer. She was also the very first person I ever met at the University of Arizona. I arrived late on a Saturday night for the Jupiter conference that was about to begin (this was May, 1975) and, seeing that there would be a walking trip up Sabino Canyon on Sunday morning, I managed to find the ride and met her on the trail. She … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Transit of Venus
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This article first appeared in The Tablet in May, 2004 “There’s a little black spot on the Sun today…” In the Police song “King of Pain” these words evoke an alienating sense of remoteness. But on the morning of June 8, 2004, a much larger spot was visible crossing the Sun, an event that occurs but twice a century; when it happened in the eighteenth century, it changed human history. A “transit” occurs when we see one astronomical object appear to move in front of another. Since Venus orbits between us and the Sun, you might expect it to transit the Sun rather frequently. But the Sun is small, as seen from Earth, and the orbit of Venus is tilted slightly compared to ours, so Venus usually appears to pass above or below the Sun. It’s only when our orbits are precisely lined up that the black spot of Venus’ nighttime side stands out against the Sun’s brilliant disk. This happens … Continue reading

“Setting aside all authority” – news from the history of astronomy
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One of the joys of my recent past has been getting to know Chris Graney, a historian of science who works at a little community college in Louisville, Kentucky, but who has been setting the world of the history of science on its ear with a series of remarkable articles about the anti-Copernican astronomers of the 17th century. You’ve probably heard it before… Galileo challenged the world and changed the face of science by insisting that one look at the evidence, rather than relying on authority the way that everyone else did in those days. Right? Except… what you probably know about “everyone else” is what you yourself heard, or read, from some other authority! Graney has actually read the books by “everyone else” and, surprise… reality turns out to be much more interesting than what “everybody knows.” He now has a book out, from Notre Dame Press, with details to be found here. Meanwhile, if you haven’t had enough … Continue reading