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: 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

The Milky Way is Lost…
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The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano has published on Easter my article (in Italian) about light pollution, Rome, and the homily of Pope Benedict XVI on Easter of 2012. Here’s the English text I sent them: from Tucson, Arizona: The controversy over Rome’s new LED streetlights has made it into the American press, with articles in both the New York Times and the Smithsonian Online, the publication of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. It was even a topic of discussion among our fellow astronomers here in Tucson, a world center of astronomy and also the headquarters of the International Dark Sky Association.   Light pollution is the bane of all astronomers. When city lights shine up into the skies, it becomes impossible to observe faint galaxies and nebulae. The Specola Vaticana located its modern telescope in Arizona as a direct result of the increasing light pollution around Castel Gandolfo, which by 1980 had made observations from our telescopes there unworkable. And … Continue reading

Naked Eye Orion sketched from Ireland
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Recently I have spent some time in the west of Ireland . It’s been stormy , with icy rain and sideways on hailstones battering the landscape. The winds have been epic in this wild place where the ancient potato drills shout evidence of our ancestors ribs bursting the Earth , still hungry after all these years. Most evenings I have stepped outside to look up at the night sky while listening to the Atlantic roar its salty roar at stars too far away to listen. Occasionally the clarity of the sky has been impressive but short-lived. However on the evening of March 23rd on opening the door I was met with what I can only describe as a crisis sky. Every familiar constellation was buried in the galaxy. It is sometimes said that there are more stars in the night sky than grains of sand on all the worlds beaches, that sky was the epiphany of that statement. I sat … 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: Heavenly peace?
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This column ran in The Tablet in July, 2005 The pictures from Nasa’s Deep Impact mission (see last month’s column) were spectacular. When the space probe hit Comet Temple 1, the heat of its impact made a brilliant flash; even observers on Earth could see it, and then watch the comet’s coma grow bigger and brighter as the dust and ice blasted off the comet spread out away from its nucleus. The Deep Impact astronomers (who, incidentally, insist they came up with that name before the Hollywood movie!) had planned for a network of observers, professional and amateur, to observe the comet before and after the impact. Here at the Vatican Observatory, we enlisted a dozen students from our [2005] summer school to help out. For two weeks, young astronomers from South America, Australia, and Europe gathered in the domes of our vintage 1935 Zeiss telescopes, perched atop the Pope’s summer home here in Castel Gandolfo, hoping to record an … Continue reading