Across the Universe: Reaching out
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This column first ran in The Tablet in September 2015 Eighty years ago, on September 29, 1935, Pope Pius XI dedicated new quarters and telescopes of the Vatican Observatory in his summer palace in Castel Gandolfo. To celebrate the anniversary,in September 2015 we held a symposium in Castel Gandolfo, including a visit to the old domes that Pius XI had dedicated. The party ended in a private audience in Rome with Pope Francis (less than 24 hours before he left for Cuba and the US). After giving us a short address, the Pope looked up and caught my eye. He smiled, and said, “Ah! The New Director!” It’s true. As of that day, I became the new director of the Vatican Observatory. (I actually didn’t completely believe it until I heard him say it.) Would I continue to write articles like these (for the Tablet)? Yes, as long as there’s a place for me. It’s not only because I love being … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Ice dreams
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This is a slightly edited version of a column that first ran in The Tablet in August 2014 ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft arrived at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on August 6, 2014. Launched more than ten years earlier, upon arrival it took up an orbit around the sun that parallels the comet’s path, to keep the comet in its cameras from a distance of only a few tens of kilometers. The next two months saw intense preparation for the final stage of the mission: in mid November, 2014, a lander was sent to the comet’s dark surface with instruments to measure its composition in close up detail. (The original plan was for it to drill about 20 cm into the comet itself, to pierce the dusty crust and reach the icy material beneath. Alas, it landed into a shadowed region and was not able to get enough power to do its job or communicate with the orbiter… its fate is described here, on … Continue reading

Across the Universe: The Year (2011) in Astronomy
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This column first ran in The Tablet in August 2011 Vacation season is also meeting season, and August 2011 found me at two very different kinds of conferences: the annual Meteoritical Society Meeting, in Greenwich, and the World Science Fiction Convention, in Reno, Nevada. The order of these meetings was particularly useful this year: I had been invited on a panel in Reno to tell science fiction fans about “the year in physics and astronomy” and so I could pass on the hottest news from Greenwich while it was still fresh in mind. The latest results from the Dawn spacecraft orbiting Vesta showed a surface completely covered with craters. So far, that’s consistent with our idea of a small planetoid that melted once soon after it was formed, and then has done nothing more than suffer continuous collisions with space debris for the past four and a half billion years. [But in the years since 2011 our understanding of Vesta changed … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Genre and Truth
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This column first ran in The Tablet in February, 2012 “When modern scientists begin to discuss religion, I often wish that some kindly soul had thought of sending them to Sunday School…” That sums up the science-and-religion talk I often give, pointing out the naive misconceptions of so many of my skeptical colleagues. But this comment dates from 1950: Dorothy L. Sayers, replying on the BBC to a program from the astronomer Fred Hoyle. I heard this recording last week at the Marion Wade Center at Wheaton College, Illinois, while in Chicago attending a science fiction convention and speaking at nearby Benedictine University. When Dr. Chris Fletcher, a Sayers scholar and professor at Benedictine, offered to take me to the Wade Center I jumped at the chance. (She was eager to show me a collection of humorous verses on heresies that Sayers had written for the Jesuit philosopher Martin D’Arcy. Among them, most appropriate for my own work: “That everything … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Defamiliarization
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This column first ran in The Tablet in February, 2010. I am back at the Vatican Observatory in Tucson, my official American residence, a place I only see a few times a year. Every time I return, I have to reorient myself to the rhythms of the community, and remind myself where to find the coffee in the morning. Doing my wash, I stumbled over a white plastic clothes basket and suddenly realized that it was mine; I’d left it in the laundry room several months ago, during my last visit. My speaking schedule [of 2010] has been intense… including Ardingly College and Cambridge University, then across to a colleague’s lab in Boston College, followed by talks at John Carroll University (Cleveland), The Scripps Research Institute (San Diego), the University of California at Merced, a science fiction convention in Chicago, lectures at Emory University and Agnes Scott College (Atlanta), and ending up at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Stories of Another World
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I’ve just returned from this year’s World Science Fiction Convention, held this year in Spokane, Washington. This column, published in the Tablet in September of 2004, described my reaction following that year’s Worldcon, held the first weekend of September in Boston.  Stories, myths, and tales make ideas a part of popular culture. Jesus taught with parables; fables and fairy tales are the way we teach children about life. Even the ancient Greek myths, it’s been argued, might have been deliberate devices for organizing and transmitting information about the natural world to nonscientific people. Once an idea gets turned into a story, people pay attention long enough to listen. And they’ll remember it. The images from Dante are far more vivid than the arguments of Aquinas. All fiction makes assumptions about science and religion. A good mystery, for instance, can depend on the physical possibility of certain events and the ethics of the characters involved. Fantasy and science fiction is special, however, … Continue reading

From the Tablet: Tales of Earthlings
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Along with my regular Tablet columns I am asked on occasion to write other articles for them. This one was run in August, 2005, just before the annual World Science Fiction Convention that was held that year in Glasgow. This year, the Worldcon will be held August 19-23 in Spokane, Washington. I’ll be there, too. When I was an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) I belonged to the Science Fiction Society, the “MITSFS”. We had a motto: “We’re not Fans, we just read the stuff.” There was an element of self-parody, of course; if we weren’t fans, why would we pay our dues to belong to a club of “misfits”? (Because the club had a room full of books – some 30,000 SF novels and related material – and comfy chairs, a welcome hideaway on campus.) But the motto also recognized an uncomfortable truth. Even at MIT, science fiction and its Fans had an unsavory reputation: pimply teenagers who … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Tom Swift and his Helium Pycnometer
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  This column first ran in The Tablet in July, 2004… Looking over my shoulder at the computer screen, Bob Macke starts telling me about a cartoon he’d seen on an office door at MIT. ‘The first panel,’ he says, ‘was a guy labeled “cartoon scientist,” surrounded by boiling test-tubes and sparking electrical equipment, shouting that he’s discovered the Elixir of Life. The second panel, labeled “real scientists,” was just a bunch of people looking at a computer screen, and one says to the other, “I think our data point should be plotted in red.”’ I give him a dirty look. Two keystrokes later, and our data points are now plotted in red. It’s two weeks before I leave for the annual meeting of the Meteoritical Society, and I’m busy trying to prepare three papers. One is a collaboration with a colleague in Pennsylvania. I’ve posted a rough draft of our paper on a web page for him to download … Continue reading

Across the Universe: The Ethics of Extraterrestrials
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This article first appeared in The Tablet in April, 2004 Astrobiology, so the joke goes, is like theology: an academic discipline where highly educated people argue for years about a subject no one can prove exists. It’s been around a long time under a variety of different names – exobiology, bioastronomy – but only when NASA decided a few years ago that the search for life was a winning strategy to get funding did the field start to get more than begrudging respect. And so, the last week of March [2004], I joined more than 700 scientists gathering at the NASA Ames Research Center for the fourth Astrobiology Science Conference. The setting was both inspiring and cautionary. NASA Ames is located at the old Moffett Field Naval Air Station in California’s Silicon Valley: our meeting was in a large tent in the shadow of the enormous hangers built in the 1930s to house dirigibles. One could not help but wonder just how … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Limits to Understanding
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First published in The Tablet in February, 2008 The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a prestigious umbrella group of American scientists, convened this past weekend in Boston. At the same time, in a hotel on the other side of town, a few hundred science fiction fans were gathered to meet their friends and talk about their favorite writers. I sat on science-and-religion panels at both conventions. The AAAS panel was concerned about “Communicating Science in a Religious America.” In spite of several legal victories by the scientific community defending the teaching of evolution in public schools, the “Intelligent Design” movement in America is still winning the public relations wars. Barely half of polled adults there say they believe in evolution, the lowest numbers of any industrialized nation. Though no one on the panel put it so crudely, the general tenor of the comments could be summarized as: “why are they so stupid, and how can we pound … Continue reading

Across the Universe: The best way to travel
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First published in The Tablet in January, 2007   Dark and dreary, January is a time to take off to new and exotic climes; or at least, to daydream about such trips. My own January voyage was a visit to my old hometown, snow-dusted Detroit, to attend a science fiction convention. But a panel discussion at that meeting, “Travel Destinations of the Solar System,” challenged us to imagine really exotic localities. Where among the planets would we love to go? And what it would be like to be standing there, in person? Panelist Bill Higgins, a radiation physicist at Fermi Lab in Chicago, regularly presents spaceflight results as a Nasa “Solar System Ambassador” at events like this. He described how Pluto and its moon Charon orbit each other while locked in a spin state that keeps each body always facing the other. “What if we could stretch a “beanstalk” across the 17,000 km gap between them?” he asked. “We could … Continue reading

Br. Guy’s Diary: January 9, 2015
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My plan is to post regular updates, about once a week I hope, on my current work and the doings at the Vatican Observatory. This might give the members of our Sacred Space an idea of what our day to day life is like. Let me know if you enjoy these entries! This week: revising Vesta (again), talking lots of stuff, and a return for Brother Tom. Science: The Vesta paper was revised, sent to my co-authors, revised by them, fixed by me, sent back to them… and there is one more set of fixes to make. But I fully intend to submit it to the journal tomorrow morning. Really. Meanwhile, Rich has spent this week at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle, where he gave a paper. I picked him up at the airport this afternoon; with him is a colleague from Lithuania. They’ll be heading up to the VATT (our telescope) tomorrow. Talks: Along with sending some more material for … Continue reading