This column first ran in The Tablet in February, 2009; we ran it here for the first time in 2016.
Under the dim light of a distant sun, a cold white ball smaller than our Moon orbits a huge gas planet, garishly striped with colored clouds. Galileo first saw this jovian moon – to be named “Europa” by his rival, Simon Marius – on January 7, 1610.
In 1805, Laplace had worked out Europa’s mass (using an elaborate theory of the moons’ orbits), and other 19th century astronomers timed the way the Jupiter moons shadowed each other to estimate their sizes. By the end of that century clever instruments allowed Pickering to estimate its brightness.
All the information was there. From these data, any schoolchild could have calculated that Europa was less dense than rock, more dense than ice, and brilliantly white. But no one actually put all that information together until 1908, when Pickering finally noted the low density and bright surface... and speculated that this Jupiter moon was a ball of white sand!
The first published description of it as an icy body came in the 1923. Jeffreys was arguing that the giant planets Jupiter and Saturn must be rich in ice, and noted in passing that this was supported by the obvious icy nature of their moons. Obvious; but no one had ever actually said so before.
That’s where Europan science stood in the mid 1970s, when I wrote a student thesis using a computer model to predict the evolution of these icy moons. The density suggested a mixture of rock and ice (indeed, for Europa, more rock than ice); rock contains radioactive elements that give of a tiny amount of heat as they decay, enough to melt the ice. Following the suggestion of my thesis advisor, my models showed that Europa should have a large rocky core, a thin icy crust, and a liquid ocean between the two. An ocean rich in dissolved minerals… and maybe…
My real passion then was not science, but science fiction. I imagined a world where intelligent tuna swam between a rocky floor and an icy ceiling, never knowing that there was a whole universe of planets and galaxies over their heads… until the day a colliding asteroid poked a hole through the crust and sent my dolphin hero flying out to discover: it was full of stars!
(And what opaque ceilings hide most of the universe from us?)
Indeed, similar moons (as yet undiscovered) around the giant planets already detected orbiting hundreds of nearby stars may have similar environments, similar havens for life.
A few years after my thesis was published, the first NASA spacecraft flew past Europa. Snapshots taken then, and during subsequent fast flybys, have shown that that surface of Europa is covered with fractured ice like the sheets over the arctic oceans, and Europa deflects Jupiter’s magnetic field the way you’d expect if it contained a salty, electrically conducting ocean. My thesis wasn’t completely crazy.
But is there life inside Europa? As of yet, we don’t even know for sure if the ocean is really there, or how thick the crust is between it (should it exist) and the surface. [Actually, the interaction of Europa with Jupiter's magnetic field is pretty strong evidence that there is salty liquid water below its crust. And some evidence of water appearing intermittently above Europa was also found in 2013. But we haven't seen the kinds of plumes that have been spotted over the surface of Enceladus.] We don’t know enough about Europa to know how to go about looking for life.
And so, [in February, 2009] NASA and ESA announced plans for a three billion dollar mission to orbit Europa. Its job is to find out what we need to know, to find out what we want to know.
Will my dream be confirmed? The proposed mission won’t launch until 2020, and won’t orbit Europa until 2028... more than 50 years after I wrote my thesis. Should I still be around, I’ll be 75 years old by then. Any follow up mission to drill through the crust and look for my dolphins, probably won’t happen before I reach 100. Meanwhile, I’ll just have to dream.
Where we are in 2019: The, ESA JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) mission announced in 2009 is now set for a 2022 launch for a 2030 arrival; as of the end of 2018 they were testing the engineering model. NASA is still on board with a particles and field experiment and the radar that they hope will peek below the surface. The NASA Europa Clipper mission will be launched later in the 2020's...
(ⓜ = members only!)
This week... a trip to Boston, with my immediate schedule, and a sneak peek of a coming big deal, for members only... I am on the train from Boston to Philadelphia as I write this. On Monday afternoon I am speaking at Bodek Lounge, Houston Hall, University of Pennsylvania (free admission but register online), then Tuesday I head back to Boston for talks at Harvard on Wednesday and Thursday. Friday finds me at the great Boston science fiction convention, Boskone:
My Schedule for Boskone 56:
My Favorite World15 Feb 2019, Friday 18:00 - 18:50, Burroughs (Westin) What fictional (or nonfictional) world would you most like to visit? Or inhabit? What makes it particularly attractive to you? Our panelists join in a lively, fun discussion of what it takes to become a preferred planet — and whether or not we need an escape plan to get back. Why do/don't all our choices measure up? (Past, future, or alternate Earths gratefully accepted, too.) Mr. Walter H. Hunt, Br Guy Consolmagno SJ, Leigh Perry, John Chu, Steven Popkes
Small-Group Dynamics in Fiction15 Feb 2019, Friday 19:00 - 19:50, Marina 3 (Westin) The social dynamics of small groups include tensions that make fine fodder for fiction. Researchers in Antarctica, members of religious communities, Martian settlers, haunted house inhabitants, starship crews — what special challenges do isolated groups face? Which stories have excelled at showing how people pick leaders, form bonds, avoid interpersonal traps, and cooperate to get stuff done? Or, of course, come apart in escalating orgies of violence? Dr. Stephen P. Kelner Jr., Br Guy Consolmagno SJ , Gerald L. Coleman, Bracken MacLeod, Vincent O'Neil
Asteroids, Meteorites, and Comets, Oh My!16 Feb 2019, Saturday 13:00 - 13:50, Marina 1 (Westin) What are they? How are they different? Which ones have hit Earth; how, when, and where; and what happened? What's big in the story of this small(er) stuff? And when will a Big One come for us again? Br Guy Consolmagno SJ
The Year in Astronomy and Physics16 Feb 2019, Saturday 17:00 - 17:49, Marina 1 (Westin) An annual roundup of the latest research and discoveries in two sciences that matter. Our experts will share what’s new and interesting, cutting-edge and speculative. From planets to particles, and beyond! Mark Olson, Br Guy Consolmagno SJ, Jeff Hecht, Rajnar Vajra
Kaffeeklatsch: Br Guy Consolmagno SJ17 Feb 2019, Sunday 12:00 - 12:50, Galleria - Kaffeeklatsch 2 (Westin)
This column first ran in The Tablet in February 2018
January 31  marked the sixtieth anniversary of the launch of Explorer 1, the first American spacecraft to orbit the Earth. I was five years old; it affected my dreams and aspirations, not to mention my education in science, over the next twenty years.
As the story goes, the American rocket and satellite was thrown together in 90 days to answer the launch of Russia’s Sputnik satellite the previous October… and the disaster of our Vanguard rocket, which had blown up on the launch pad. It most notable achievement was the discovery of the Van Allen Belts.
Twenty years later, Dr. James Van Allen spoke at my graduate class in space sciences. I recall him describing how he chose to put a Geiger counter into the Explorer satellite because it was cheap, off the shelf, and provided data that was easy to radio back to Earth. They hoped to detect ionized gas when the Explorer’s orbit dipped down into the upper atmosphere. Instead, at the high point of its orbit the geiger counter went wild.
Van Allen told us that a student of his, knowing how geiger counters famously detect the ions made by the decay of radioactive elements, ignored the fact that there are essentially no atoms at all in space, just a vacuum, and deduced that this signal somehow meant that “space itself is radioactive!” That got a good laugh from us. (Van Allen recognized those detected ions as a belt of high energy cosmic particles trapped by the Earth’s magnetic field; they protect life on Earth from cosmic radiation, and make the auroras we call the Northern Lights.)
Years later I heard a Russian scientist claim that the second Sputnik satellite (the one with the Laika the dog) also had a Geiger counter, and it should have found the belts first. But he said it malfunctioned before launch and they dared not delay the launch to fix it because Khrushchev wanted to brag about Sputnik 2 during the 40th anniversary celebrations of the October Revolution.
I can’t confirm the first story; I heard it more than 40 years ago, and Dr. Van Allen died in 2006. The second story, alas, has its problems. Wikipedia tells me that Sputnik 2 was indeed launched to celebrate the October Revolution, and it did indeed carry a Geiger counter. But apparently the Geiger counter worked fine; the problem was that it encountered the radiation belts only when the satellite was on the other side of the Earth from Russia, out of range of their radio receivers.
Do I really remember Explorer 1? Or do I only remember saying I remembered it? Our history of events that occurred within our memories often involves remembering not the events themselves but the stories we tell about those events.
We have our own memories. We also recall on the memories of others who were also there, on our memories of the stories they tell; and we rely on what was written of those stories, perhaps much later than the events. It’s no surprise that details may vary from one Gospel to another. But the essential points do survive (the Russians had a geiger counter and could have found Van Allen’s belts first) even as the details of the circumstances drift from telling to telling.
One story I will swear to, however. After Van Allen’s talk, my fellow grad student Cliff Stoll asked Van Allen for his belt: the one holding up his trousers. For many years, it could be found in the library of Lunar Lab at the University of Arizona, strapped around a big Earth globe.
(ⓜ = members only!)
This week... a trip to Oral Roberts University, an interview in our chapel, and a surprise treat for our annual board dinner...
I get to travel to a lot of places that you wouldn't expect a Vatican official to go. Among them have been Goshen College (run by the Mennonites), Brigham Young University (the Mormons, of course), and this month, Oral Roberts University. We really do...
First published in The Tablet in January, 2007; we first ran it here in 2015.
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 [and occasional blogger here at The Catholic Astronomer!], 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 run a cable car, and watch the solar system tumbling below us.”
Another participant, Karl Schroeder, is a science fiction writer raised in a Mennonite community in southern Manitoba. He suggested visiting a colony of floating cities in the clouds of Venus. Though the surface of Venus is immensely hot and dense, he pointed out that the conditions in its upper clouds are actually not much different than Earth; and a balloon of Earth-atmosphere, nitrogen and oxygen, could float happily in Venus’ carbon-dioxide air.
I talked about the “centaur with a coma” we’d found last year: a ball of tenuous gas, like a comet coma but as big as Jupiter, traveling alongside the centaur Echeclus, a hundred-kilometer ball of ice in a comet-like orbit out beyond Saturn. We think now that the ball of gas comes from a comet that split off Echeclus during its last pass by the Sun, now traveling on an independent orbit alongside its parent. Imagine what it would look like to anyone (wearing a space suit, of course, with a good heater) actually standing on Echeclus: that ball of gas, just a faint smudge in our telescope image, would fill a third of the sky overhead!
And we went further... in our minds we explored the caverns inside an asteroid; we hiked the rugged terrain of Miranda, the puzzling moon of Uranus; and we watched rainbows play along the hundred-kilometer high fountains of water spurting from the south pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
Astronomy provides us the bare facts of the solar system: the sizes and locations of bodies, their compositions, the rate they spin. Science fiction turns those facts into places where we can have adventures. It’s an game that I learned reading Isaac Asimov, but one that has served me in good stead as a scientist: daydreaming about the convecting mantle of an icy moon, I’d take note of each imaginary detail – rocks falling through the molten slurry, crystals growing at the roof of the world – and turn it into another equation in a computer program to kept track of the energy budget of that moon.
And it’s a style of prayer that St. Ignatius features prominently in his Spiritual Exercises. Using a series of carefully chosen settings, he has us insert ourselves into the Gospel stories, picturing what it would have been like to be present when Jesus cured the blind man or calmed the Sea of Galilee. By imagining these events as vividly as we can, we bring alive a history that is not imaginary at all, but real, just as our planetary dreaming makes tangible this solar system.
We call it science fiction; but that comet beyond Saturn, the fountains of Enceladus, the dancing moons of Pluto are all as real as the man who walked the shores of Galilee two thousand years ago.
(ⓜ = members only!)
This week... some site statistics, a brief overview of the Faith and Astronomy Workshop, and how I met Bob Trembley...
In order to read the rest of this post, you have to be a paid-up member of Sacred Space, and logged in as such!
First published in The Tablet in January, 2006; we ran it here in 2015.
Thirty [now more than 40!] years ago, when I was a doctoral student at the University of Arizona, our campus in Tucson lay beneath the landing path of the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and every few minutes our planetary science classes would be interrupted by the roar of a jet fighter. But an occasional plane would cross overhead with a different sound... an odd, almost quiet whine. Looking up you’d see the large black cruciform, long straight wings and a thin fuselage, of a U-2 spy plane. For twenty years they’d flown photography missions over Soviet Russia and other cold war hotspots.
But one U-2 was different. Rather than spooky black, it was painted pure white. And instead of air force emblems, it flew NASA insignia.
A visitor to our Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, Don Brownlee from the University of Washington, explained those flights to us. With boyish enthusiasm – he looked like a teenager, though in fact he was ten years older than me and already an established scientist – he described how the U-2 carried thin metal plates covered in oil, designed to collect dust from the upper stratosphere. Much of that dust was terrestrial pollution. But with careful discernment, you could pick out bits of meteoritic iron, or small rock grains rich in carbon, water, and nitrogen: dust from comets and asteroids. The stuff of shooting stars.
Dust astronomy got its real start in the 1970s. Before then, people had worked out how dust in space could affect the light gathered by our telescopes, and on very dark nights you could observe faint glows – the “zodiacal light” and the “gegenschein” – reflected off the dust in the plane of the planets. But along with observing light as it passed by the dust, why not learn things from the dust itself? Unlike photons of light, you can take bits of dust into the lab, measure their chemical composition, count the very isotopes made in stars and supernovae. Eberhard Grün, in Germany, proposed what he called “dust telescopes”: devices in space that would gather and analyze the dust passing through the solar system. And Don Brownlee worked out how to collect the dust hitting Earth itself.
The only trouble is that, unlike light, you can’t tell where the dust actually comes from. As I showed in my doctoral thesis at Arizona, any number of forces from solar magnetic fields to the pressure of sunlight itself is enough to scramble the directions that the dust travels. A long-standing argument has raged over Brownlee’s dust: does it come from comets, or asteroids? The only way to settle it, is to go to the source itself.
Last fall, the Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft (described in my October 2004 column) grabbed dust from the surface of an asteroid; if all goes well, it might get its sample back to Earth in a year. And [in 2005], a sampler of dust from a comet returned safely to the Utah desert. On the BBC I watched a still boyish-looking Don Brownlee, now in his 60s, describe with joy the culmination of his seven year spacecraft mission and his forty year research career.
Like whispers from heaven, these tiny flecks of stuff a thousandth of an inch across can contain chemical messages that tell us about their histories... formed in the furnaces of stars, blasted by supernovae shock waves to our nascent solar nebula, re-formed into grains that stuck together to make the fabric of a comet... in the case of Don Brownlee’s spacecraft, Comet Wild 2. (Named for a Swiss comet-hunter, it’s pronounced “vildt.”)
To read those messages will take years of further work, of delicate analyses in laboratories around the world. But like those other whispers from heaven, the urges and inspirations and temptations that flash across our consciousness like shooting stars, their true meaning and significance only becomes clear when you know for sure where they come from.
Added in 2015: The results of the Stardust mission have been quite impressive… and years later we're still recovering new bits and learning new things. Perhaps it's time to update this column?
First published in The Tablet in January, 2005, just after the Huygens probe landed on Saturn's moon Titan. We ran it again here on January, 2015. This text is based on what I submitted, which was edited for length when it was printed.
The most remarkable thing about the images from Saturn’s moon, Titan, which ESA’s Huygens probe has just sent us, is how “familiar” they look. They remind me of Nadar’s 19th century Collodion “wet plate” photographs taken from a balloon above Paris. Black and white, a bit fuzzy, these patterns of light and darkness can be grasped and processed by imagination and memory until we impose meaning on them. I picture myself floating through the clouds, gazing across at an intricate pattern of riverbeds cutting through rough light-colored mountains, flowing down to a flat, wine-dark sea.
If these are riverbeds – and they certainly look like textbook examples of the many-branched “dendritic channels” made by rainfall flowing down hills on Earth – the fluid in them can’t have been water. The temperature at the surface of Titan is several hundred degrees below zero. The only common substance that flows at that temperature is methane: liquified natural gas. And indeed, there is no guarantee that the flat regions are seas. As we have learned, the flat dark areas on Earth’s Moon once named “maria” are dry as dust.
The image taken from the surface, once the probe had landed, shows a field strewn with well rounded pebbles and boulders just like the rocky shore of a mountain lake. The rough edges have been worn off the stones, presumably when they were tumbled about while carried downstream by flowing liquids. But Titan's pebbles are made not of stone, but water ice; and at these temperatures, ice is as hard as steel. It must have taken a lot of rubbing to work these pebbles smooth.
The mission scientists have done their best to try to describe what they and their instruments have seen. “Titan may be typical of arid regions of Earth like Arizona, where riverbeds are dry most of the time,” said Marty Tomasko, quoted in the New Scientist last week. “Perhaps there’s a wet season once a year. We just don’t know.” He knows about Arizona and its river beds and rainy seasons; Dr. Tomasko teaches planetary sciences at the University of Arizona, where I was one of his students nearly thirty years ago.
Dry riverbeds are outside the experience of most of the European researchers. A few years ago, one of the Dutch members of the Huygens science team gave a talk at Arizona describing his results modeling the atmosphere of Titan. He described with amazement how, under the right circumstances, droplets of methane could rain out of the clouds but completely evaporate before they hit the ground. He was astonished at the concept; his Arizona audience smirked at his astonishment. Unlike in the Netherlands, that happens in the Arizona desert (it’s called verga) all the time.
On the other hand, a researcher working with John Zarnecki’s team at the Open University, which built a probe on Huygens to measure the strength of Titan’s surface, reported that the surface had the consistency of “creme brûlée.” That is a substance not commonly known in Tucson, Arizona.
We describe the unknown in terms of the things we know. That’s the only way we can describe it. All description is metaphor. Remember the dendritic channels mentioned above? “Dendritic” comes from the word for “tree,” an apt metaphor for many-branched mountain streams. Thus dark patterns on Titan are analogized with river beds on Earth, themselves described by analogy with the shape of a tree.
Even a scientific equation is a metaphor. The laws of gravity and hydrodynamics that described the Huygens probe’s descent through Titan’s thick atmosphere are not literally true, just very good approximations. The path of that space probe was very much like the solutions to those equations. But the descent was a unique event, distinct from those general solutions. The equations describe; they do not replace.
Those who demand that the Bible (or the Law, or any other description) must be read literally, can’t literally mean what they say. God is bigger than any human words; only poetry can do him justice. The same is true for God’s creation.
Alas, the ability to understand and appreciate poetry is something too often lacking in a technical education. Without the ability to see how metaphor conveys truth (often better than more literal descriptions) one loses the chance to learn from the metaphors that life gives us. More seriously, without understanding how metaphor works, we are liable to be misled by analogies that are pushed too far, especially if we fail to realize that they are indeed analogies. The poetry of creme brûlée is a delicious metaphor for Titan’s gooey surface with its thin hard crust, but the next visitor to Titan will be very disappointed if he brings a spoon and an appetite.
But the final lesson to be realized is that, when our experience is limited, our store of analogies is also limited, which makes it that much harder to comprehend anything new. Tamasko’s experience of dry river beds let him see patterns in the images of Titan that a rain-drenched European might have missed; but his analogy doesn’t convey the sponge-like surface layers so dear to creme brûlée aficionados. We read into a scene (be it on a planet’s surface, or in life) the things we expect to see, which is to say the things we’ve seen before. The more we see, the more we are prepared to see.
For that reason alone, the human race grows when we lift our eyes beyond our terrestrial horizons.
We've been wondering how to get more Sacred Space members, and more members logging in... and one suggestion was to have "subscribers-only" posts available. But what to put in those posts? Over the next couple of months we'll try out various kinds of content, to see which ones are most popular with our members.
One genre which I will have here are "Diary" posts – "inside baseball" accounts of what's happening at the Specola. This is my first attempt at such a post.
In order to read the rest of this post, you have to be a paid-up member of Sacred Space, and logged in as such!
This column first ran in The Tablet in January 2018
“What do you see when you look at the stars? Science, heaven, God?” the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire asked me in 2018. Does the sky look any different to a professional astronomer who is also a person of faith?
The first thing I see when I look up at night is the beauty of the stars… just like anyone who can see the night sky.
But I do see more. My father, a US Army Air Corps navigator who once guided a wing of American bombers across the Atlantic to England in 1942, taught me the brighter navigation stars when I was a child. I’d also been given a wonderful book by the children’s writer H. A. Rey (better known for Curious George) that taught the constellations by turning the stars into connect-the-dot puzzles. Even today, whenever I see the stars I immediately start to identify old friends by name.
I remember once during my grad school days when my fellow student Bob Howell (now an astronomy professor in Wyoming) rushed into our apartment all excited because he had seen a bright star next to Deneb that should not have been there. “I nearly fell off my bike!” I rushed out to see what is now known as Nova Cygni 1975, the brightest nova of the past 75 years. (Novas occur when evolving stars flare up for a few days.) I didn’t have to ask why he was looking up at the sky while riding his bike at night on Tucson city streets. I did that, too!
Looking deeper into the sky, I also think about the science behind what I see. Unusual events, like that nova, immediately connect up with what we are learning about how stars behave. But even more ordinary sights, such as stars with colors like Betelgeuse, or small clusters of stars like the Pleiades, also make me think of the science we learn from studying star colors and star clusters. This adds an extra depth of richness from knowing what I am looking at… to be able to identify that dot of light, with the science I’m sweating over back in my office.
It’s only then that I fully grasp the glory of God in the heavens. Not only did He make the stars; He made us so that we could see them. Even more, He made them, and us, in such a way that we could even understand them. In doing so, He invited us to share in the joy and love that He revealed in His creation… as St. Paul says in the first chapter of the Letter to the Romans.
Sadly, there is one other thing I see when I look at the night sky nowadays: how many stars have been hidden from our sight by all those ugly and useless city lights. (Lights directed downward onto streets are one thing; but who drives in the sky?) As Pope Benedict once pointed out in a Holy Saturday homily, light pollution is a perfect analogy for how we try to blot out God and His glory by filling up our lives with our own absurd efforts.
Of course, I am not the only person to look into the sky and see more things there than the casual observer might notice. Two thousand years ago, certain wise men from the east were guided by the stars to the incarnation of the One who made those stars… even as Herod and his henchmen tried to blot out the innocents, those fainter stars of Bethlehem surrounding the One who had come to help us all navigate our lives.
This column was first published in The Tablet in December, 2009 and here on 2015)
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. Time and space itself may be an illusion, according to some authors we’ve looked at. (But we’ve also read Dorothy L. Sayer’s essay, “Strong Meat;” she insists, from the Christian perspective, that time and the human experience are very real indeed.) No wonder that C. S. Lewis could mourn in The Discarded Image for the orderly and beautiful medieval model of the universe that had but one serious flaw: it was not true.
But just because something is mistaken doesn’t mean it was a bad place to start. The 18th century astronomers Titius and Bode worked out a “law” for the positions of planets that predicted a planet between Mars and Jupiter; the law was wrong, but it led Father Piazzi to discover the first asteroid, Ceres, on New Year’s Day, 1801. By assuming that the “ether” was flexible, James Clerk Maxwell devised his famous equations for the behaviour of electricity and magnetism, which explained the nature of light and led to the invention of radio; eventually, his laws led Einstein to show that there was no such thing as an ether. Ten years ago, astronomers measured with great accuracy the receding velocity of distant galaxies to determine just how much the universe’s expansion has slowed down since the Big Bang; instead, they found that it’s actually accelerating, not slowing down, and thus “dark energy” was discovered.
And two thousand years ago, eastern astrologers with their flawed belief that the fortunes of men are told in the stars, followed their mistaken calculations to discover a king very different from what they were expecting.
The astonishing part of the story of the Wise Men is not that they would predict the birth of a king from the positions of the planets. That kind of calculation is merely mechanical, any fortune teller could have done that. Nor is it that they’d pull up roots and travel afar to find out if they were right; astronomers heading for distant telescopes do that all the time. Instead, it’s that they would be able to recognize, as the king they were seeking, the child they found in swaddling clothes in a manger.
The philosophers of science tell us that every experiment or observation is “theory-laden”; that we must have an idea ahead of time of what we’re looking for, in order to recognize it when we see it. This is necessary for science to work. It’s also obviously a danger, if we blind ourselves to seeing only what we were looking for.
Like children writing their Christmas letters to Santa, during Advent we pray to know and obtain our deepest desires. But we also need to pray that we’re able to recognize them when we find them. They won’t always be found where we were certain they would be. The best presents are not necessarily the ones under the tree.
Something I have come to understand, slowly but inevitably, is that astronomy is not about stars and planets; it is about people and how they (we) study those stars and planets.
After all, one cannot understand the science of Galileo without knowing Galileo the person. He only was able to recognize what he saw in his telescope (he wasn’t the first to look) because he had an interest and training in art; he was only able to communicate it to the point that it led to a change in how humanity understood the situation (he wasn’t the first to try) because he had a passion for the Italian language and literature. If he had been a different person, our science would have had a different history... perhaps asking different questions, and accepting different answers as satisfactory.
This blog has always been about people. And so I want to highlight someone here whose wonderful personality has been crucial to our success.
Katie Bannan Steinke retired this year as the Development Director for the Vatican Observatory Foundation, the institution that supports our telescope and outreach efforts (including this blog). Among her many achievements I note that she’s the one who did the enormous amount of negotiating and paperwork that led the Templeton Foundation to support the founding of this blog, as well as our Faith and Science resource site.
And, as it happens, today (December 22) is her birthday.
I put the word out among our friends for stories and photos of Katie...
Here’s one that Father Chris Corbally found, when she helped host Cardinal Lajolo from the Vatican. At the time the Cardinal was the head of the Vatican City State government... showing that Katie could be comfortable dealing with heads of state (albeit a very small state)!
Looking through my own photos, this is one of the best that I found, dating from our trip to Chile with the Foundation a few years ago:
Now, you might have noticed something in both photos... Katie is in the background, making sure that things are running smoothly. As Father Chris noted in his email to me, “The camera has always been pointed away from her.”
Katie’s own background made her ideal for our job. She came from a “Jesuit family” – many generations of Bannans have attended Santa Clara University (there’s even a building there named for them) and she had an uncle Lou who was a Jesuit, so she knew her way around Jesuit institutions. She studied abroad in Italy, became fluent in the language, and wound up living there for many years, raising a family and working at the Loyola University (Chicago) Felice Rome Center; it was while she was still living there that she first heard about the Vatican Observatory. Her experience dealing with undergraduate Americans in Rome gave her the patience to work as a travel agent when she returned to the US. And having grown up in thin air of Pasadena Catholic aristocracy, she knew personally many of the people to whom we could reach out, who have become our most faithful supporters.
She did all of this with a grace and humor that just made her fun to work with. As Dr. Faith Vilas, who served on the VOF board and accompanied us on our Chile trip, wrote to me about her, “Seems like she and I can talk for hours when we get together. Wish I could see her more...”
In our book, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? Paul Mueller and I wrote a chapter discussing the reclassification of Pluto where we pretended to be in Antarctica. That event, of course, was full of very human politics, in the best and the worst senses. At then end of the chapter, the “Guy character” (which might actually have been written by Paul, I've long forgotten who wrote what) ends up by saying, “Science is not data. Science is people living with, living in among, the data. And, yeah, we bring our own distinct human tang to everything we touch. It's not pure. But it’s what brings it alive.”
Katie was one of the people who brought our work here alive. We’re delighted to celebrate her retirement, and birthday, here among friends.