The Beer and the Telescope
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During a bout of insomnia Thursday morning, around 2 am, my phone buzzed with an incoming email from the editor of L’Osservatore Romano asking if I could get them an article about the TRAPPIST-1 planets. By noon. Italian time. So I stayed up another hour — I wasn’t getting any sleep anyway — and shipped one off to them by 3 am Tucson time. It ran in the Feb 23 edition… click here for a link. Of course, they translated it into Italian. Here is the original English text that I sent them… they edited it slightly. Last year, a team of astronomers led by Michaël Gillon of the STAR Institute at the University of Liège in Belgium announced the discovery of three planets around a star observed by one of their telescopes, TRAPPIST South. This week they have published new results in the scientific journal Nature that expands the number of planets in this system to seven. Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ, director … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Science for the Masses
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This column first ran in The Tablet in July 2008 [In July 2008], the members of the Vatican Observatory spent a week contemplating our hopes and plans for the future while enjoying the views from an Italian retreat house in the Abruzzi. The highlight of the week was a visit from the then newly-elected Jesuit Father General,  Fr. Adolfo Nicholás. In preparation for the General Congregation that elected him, we had prepared a number of documents suggesting that the Jesuit order take more notice of science and technology, both to answer the kinds of science and religion questions we get asked all the time, and to better minister to the growing number of people (in places like India, never mind the industrialized West) who make their living with computers and other high-tech equipment. It turns out, Fr. Nicholás had read those documents. When he spoke to us, he suggested that a new Jesuit order of studies should be developed that incorporates … 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: Recognizing the Star
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This column was first published in The Tablet in December, 2009) In November and December of 2009, I was team-teaching a course called “Dynamic Evolution” at LeMoyne College, a small Jesuit university in Syracuse, New York. The biblical scholar from Leuven, Fr. Jan Lambrecht SJ, concentrated on the world-view of the New Testament in the first half of the course; my task was to bring the students forward through the cosmologies of the middle ages and the scientific revolution, to present day views on space and time: quantum theory and relativity. It’s been an exhausting journey. For many of the undergraduates, the shocking message has been how little we know for certain. After an academic path focused mostly on memorizing “facts” they must now come to the realization that everything they’ve been taught is, if not exactly wrong, then at least woefully incomplete. With everything we learn, we also learn how much more there is to know. Certainly, the world of certainties is an illusion. … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Clouds of Unknowing
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  (This column first appeared in the Tablet in November 2006) When she first knew me, I was a rabbi; Heidi played drums in the band. It was a production of Fiddler on the Roof at MIT, where I was a lecturer and she a student – in fact, she wound up taking a course from me. Six years later, I had entered the Jesuits and she, with a newly minted PhD, had a job at the Jet Propulsion Lab helping guide the Voyager spacecraft towards Neptune. Then Comet Shoemaker-Levy hit Jupiter, and she was the scientist in charge of the Hubble images of the event… This past week, Dr. Heidi Hammel was in my classroom again, but this time as a lecturer. This year [2006] finds me at Fordham University, in the Bronx, filling the Loyola Chair for visiting Jesuit scholars. It’s not far from where Dr. Hammel now lives and works. We’d run into each other at a meeting … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Asking the right questions
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This column first ran in The Tablet in October, 2007 My first scientific paper, more than thirty years ago, was a review of the icy moons of Jupiter. Knowing only the mass and volume of the moon Europa and the evidence of its bright surface, I calculated that Europa’s density matched a mixture of rock and ice, with enough rock (90%) that its natural trace radioactivity would, over the age of the solar system, melt the ice. Europa, I asserted, should have a shiny thin ice crust, a moon-like rocky center, and a liquid ocean water between the two. I even speculated about creatures swimming in that ocean. Then the Voyager and Galileo spacecraft arrived and mapped that moon, showing the kinds of cracks expected for ice overlaying an ocean. And Europa deflected Jupiter’s magnetic field just like a salty, electrically conductive ocean might do. Now I’ve been invited to co-author the lead chapter on a new book about Europa. … Continue reading

“Exploring the Big Questions of the Universe…”
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Last spring, Now You Know Media released a set of lectures by me about Galileo. Well, the’ve done it again! The newest set of lectures are titled “Exploring the Big Questions of the Cosmos with a Vatican Scientist”… and my friends at Now You Know tell me that it’s already become the best new seller of their catalog for the last 12 months. (Which means, I guess, that it’s now outselling my Galileo series; how dare I outsell myself!) I recorded these lectures in June, at a time that was particularly hectic for me: I was speaking in Canada, attending my province’s Congregation in Baltimore, and doing who knows what else. As a result, I have no memory of what I actually said in any of these talks. Who knows what odd comments and bad puns I came up with? In any event, here’s a table of contents: Does Science Need God? Scripture or Science? Is the Big Bang Compatible with a Creator … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Help My Unbelief
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This column was published in The Tablet in August, 2007 We believe in things we don’t see — like electrons, or black holes — because they let us make sense of things we do see. But sometimes we don’t believe, even when we see. The question of what we believe, and why we believe in it, struck me particularly this past week [2007] at the annual meeting of the Meteoritical Society. A French mathematician has analyzed the dates meteorites have been seen to fall over the past 200 years and found clear trends, at the 90% confidence level: more meteorites than usual tend to fall every 3 years, every 10 years, and every 17 years. His analysis is standard, straightforward stuff; but I don’t believe it. Nor did anyone else in the audience. Two hundred years just doesn’t seem long enough to show such periodicities. And we’ve been burned before with theories that had only a 10% formal chance of … Continue reading

Fan Mail Poetry
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I get fan mail now and then; but this one included a poem, which I thought I would share, just for the fun of it! Dr. Will Buckingham is a reader in Writing and Creativity at De Montfort University, in Leicester, England, adjacent to the River Soar. He’s the author of a number of books, both academic and fiction, including children’s books. He included this note: “I was rummaging through some old boxes prior to moving house, and I stumbled across a bunch of notebooks from something like ten years back. Leafing through, I found a short poem that I’d written having seen you talk at the science museum in Birmingham. A few days after the talk, if I remember rightly, I was teaching a writing class, and I was encouraging my students to write sonnets, so I weighed in and produced the attached poem. The title is ‘The Pope’s Astronomer’’. I’m more of a fiction/philosophy writer than a poet, but it … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Seeing the Light
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in April, 2007 The e-mail came from the Fordham student who’s been working in the lab with me this term. “Some of the physics students have asked me to pass this on to you: they don’t want to admit it, but they’re totally lost.” There’s only a couple of weeks left of my sabbatical year at Fordham. I had asked the physics department if I could teach the class on electricity and magnetism; when I learned this material myself as an undergraduate, it had changed my life. I wanted the opportunity to pass the joy on to some of the brightest kids I’ve ever taught. They are totally lost? That’s no surprise; when I was a student, at this point I was lost too. The mathematics of electromagnetic fields has mystified science undergraduates even before Maxwell first summarized them with his famous equations. And the dizziness my students are feeling is nothing compared … Continue reading

Was St. Paul Converted by a Meteorite Fall?
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A friend of mine and an excellent planetary scientist, Bill Hartmann, is of an age where he’s not afraid to publish way-out-there ideas, and his most recent one suggests that the bright flash and loud noise that accompanied St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was in fact a meteorite fall! It’s delightfully goofy. Of course, it’s also trivial to refute. This paper was first presented at the Meteoritical Society meeting in Edmonton and rather thoroughly refuted in the discussion there; I am surprised that the author has decided to submit it for publication in any event. Hartmann’s idea is that the events described in the New Testament book of Acts as occurring to St. Paul during his conversion experience can be explained as the result of a bolide coinciding with his famous trip to Damascus. The difficulty is that this proposal is a classic case of the logical fallacy of the “undistributed middle” and that, in fact, there … 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