And then I wrote... This one dates from the International Year of Astronomy. It was published in the Times (of London) Higher Education Supplement on June 25, 2009.
One of the odd side-effects of being an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory is that we often get elected to various positions in professional astronomical societies. It may be the special respect that our fellow scientists have for the Vatican; or, more likely, the fact that we don’t have to spend a large part of our days writing grant proposals (in competition with everyone else) to fund our research means that, unlike most astronomers, we have the free time to spend on these important but time-consuming offices.
Whatever the reason, it has meant that for the past few years I have been watching the buildup to the IYA – the International Year of Astronomy – from the vantage point as a past president of Commission 16 (Moons and Planets) of the International Astronomical Union, and as chair of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society. Dedicating a year to promoting astronomy seemed like a sort of “motherhood” proposition; who could possibly be against it? (Plus, it made a nice break from all those arguments about Pluto.) My organizations both happily endorsed it.
But for that same reason, it also felt like a sort of pointless task. Everyone already likes astronomy; why do we need a special year to promote it? What’s more, astronomy is perhaps already too accessible to the general public. While you need a clever lecturer to fool you into thinking that you can understand, say, the Theory of Evolution, anyone can download for themselves all those glorious astronomical images. No need to leave your couch and go to your local science museum.
In Britain, at least, some of those concerns are probably well founded. Here the astronomers have been in competition with the Darwin Centennial; and compared to Darwin, the astronomers have neither the “hook” of celebrating a local hero nor the cachet of controversy to draw people to our events. One museum director recently bemoaned to me the fact that Darwin lectures at his institution have drawn loud crowds, while astronomy talks are a much harder sell.
Galileo, whose telescope is being celebrated by the IYA, is of course a much bigger hero in Italy. Perhaps ironically, it’s the Vatican that has most forcefully celebrated him as a local celebrity: a great thinker and good Catholic, who didn’t let the opposition of certain of his contemporaries tarnish either his science or his faith. His two daughters, after all, were both nuns; and he wrote and published some of his greatest scientific work after his infamous trial.)
The real impact of the IYA, however, first struck me at the opening ceremonies last January. At the Paris headquarters of UNESCO, representatives of astronomy from every nation in the UN – scientists and museum directors and students – were gathered to celebrate the Year with talks and seminars and social events. I was one of the Vatican’s official representatives, wandering the hallways for several days in my formal suit and clerical collar.
Now, contrary to the popular cliché, the usual working attire of a Jesuit brother and scientist is neither a clerical shirt nor a white lab coat. As an American of a certain generation, I chose science as a career in no small part because it allowed me to go to work in jeans and a tee-shirt. Wearing a suit, never mind a clerical collar, made me feel like a child dressed up for Halloween.
It’s not that I am ashamed of my religious life; quite the contrary. I am equally proud to be a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and equally uncomfortable wearing my “Brass Rat”, the bulky MIT class ring. But, yes, I’ll admit I did have a fear that people who didn’t know me might see simply the uniform and not the person wearing it.
My fellow astronomers are perfectly comfortable with me having a religious life. It turns out...
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