This column first ran in The Tablet in January 2017
A friend studying for his doctorate at Warwick University recently sent me a poster advertising a talk on campus, decrying “The Worst Censorship of Research Since the Catholic Church Banned the Telescope!”
It’s obviously not enough to point out that the Church never banned the telescope. I’ve also learned how hard it is to convince anyone that the Church’s mistakes with Galileo, very serious as they were, had nothing to do with it being against science. The science-versus-religion myth has been pushed, for political purposes, for more than a hundred years; a recent British popular science book can still insist that after Galileo went on trial, all science ceased in the Catholic world! (Except, apparently, for Descartes, Riccioli, Cassini, Galvani, Volta, Ampere, Boskovich, Mendel, Secchi…) The hardest students to teach are the ones who think they already know the answers.
I know nothing about the scientist giving that talk (except that he’s ignorant of history, bigoted against Catholics, and arrogant enough to compare himself to Galileo). I might very well agree with what he has to say. But it’s hard for me to listen when I hear a title like his; I too am hard to reach when my own prejudices are provoked. Needlessly alienating a portion of the public seems an odd way of winning a political debate; alas, too often the only goal of political discourse is to make the speaker look clever in front of his friends.
Telescopes are on feature in Arizona this month, where the Church (in the form of the Vatican Observatory Foundation) is sponsoring its annual workshop on Faith and Astronomy. Two dozen Catholic pastors and educators are getting a chance to become very familiar with telescopes, large and small. Every night we’re outdoors looking through good amateur ’scopes. In the dark Tucson skies, Orion’s nebula looks like an angel with pale green unfolded wings; the open clusters of Cassiopeia stand out like milky clouds in the Milky Way; we see Venus in half-phase, the view that convinced Galileo that it went around the Sun. We’ve also visited the University of Arizona’s mirror lab (where the Vatican’s own telescope mirror was made, thirty years ago) to see the 8.4 meter-wide mirrors for the next generation of giant telescopes being polished.
The first pair of these giant mirrors was installed about ten years ago at the Large Binocular Telescope, located next to the Vatican’s telescope on a mountaintop in southeastern Arizona. With two mirrors, this telescope can play a fascinating trick with light: aiming at a nearby star, the light gathered by one mirror can be subtracted (technically, added out of phase) from the light of the other mirror. Everything exactly in the center of the field of view disappears; but anything not exactly in the center is slightly different from one mirror to the other. When the mirrors’ images are combined this way, these differences suddenly become visible. Once the glare of the star has been removed, we can see the faint planets orbiting that star. Dozens of planetary systems have been imaged this way since the technique was first perfected, back in 2013; recently, the technique revealed a flash of light near a very young star that may signal the formation of a new planet.
Both science and religion can act like telescopes. They can be powerful mirrors that gather and focus the truth. But sometimes such a mirror produces nothing but glare. Like a provocative title, glare attracts; but it also blinds. That’s when it is useful to get your light from more than one mirror.