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 University, near Detroit.
Chicago and Cleveland and Detroit are all cities on the Great Lakes. That’s where I grew up, back when Detroit put fins on its cars, Chicago built its oddly-shaped skyscrapers, and Cleveland first broadcast a kind of music called rock and roll. Going back to this region of North America was another case of stumbling on all sorts of things I had forgotten I’d left behind. The once-familiar brands of grocery stores and soda (“pop” in the vernacular) combined with the look of the churches and the brick facades of the tract houses, also products of the post-war 1950s style, made me feel not so much as if I had traveled home, but as if I had returned back in time.
Preparing for the science fiction convention in Chicago and several panels on religion in science fiction, I read Alison Milbank’s book Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians. In it she speaks of defamiliarization, presenting the familiar from an unusual angle, making it look exotic so that we can finally see what had always been there. Science fiction and fantasy highlight the important truths of good and evil by placing them in exotic locales. Likewise, living at the Vatican and traveling throughout the UK and US giving talks has finally let me see the peculiar and delicious strangeness of the place where I grew up...
And that, of course, is one motivation for why we do planetary sciences. We had to see craters on the Moon before we could recognize them on Earth. We had to understand the greenhouse on Venus before we could recognize its role in our atmosphere. But more exciting has been discovering that things we had taken for granted on our planetary system were, in fact, unique. Of the 300 systems found around other stars, none have the simple pattern of rocky bodies in inner orbits, gas giants in outer orbits, that we once thought would be the rule for all planetary systems. [We've now found several thousand systems; this statement remains true!] Only our system’s well-removed, nearly circular gas giant orbits allows the inner rocky planets to stay in orbits stable enough for life to survive.
In this way we recognize traits, and separate the essential from the accidental ones. Midwesterners are as sturdy, as unpretentious, and as lonely as their small detached brick homes. The moral world of Tolkien with its sinful, struggling heroes is clearly Catholic, though no one there worries about ordained hierarchies or meat-on-Friday. Gas giant planets are commonly formed around stars; but stable, circular orbits like Jupiter’s and Saturn’s are rare.
Certainly, the vistas imaged by the Mars rovers carry with them an undeniable beauty in their starkness. They also make me appreciate all the more the rivers and plains of my native planet. The barrenness of other worlds teaches me to savor the richness of Earth… just as, now that Lent has begun, I will appreciate anew the joys of chocolate come Easter morning!
My travel schedule in 2016 is just as crazy, as you can see in our Calendar here...