And then I wrote… in 2014, the magazine US Catholic solicited a couple of articles about science fiction from me. One of them ran in 2014 under the title “Get Lost In Space” and the other they included only on their web site. I reprint both of them here… along with the illustration they created for the first article.
How does fantasy teach us truth? Can science fiction help our faith grow?
When I was a college freshman, and still a liberal arts major at a certain Jesuit college in Boston, my creative writing instructor told us that the way to learn how to write stories was to read stories that were well written. He suggested the Narnia stories by C. S. Lewis.
I had never heard of them. But my best friend from high school, Mike, was studying physics at nearby at MIT, and he was a member of the MIT Science Fiction Society: the MITSFS. So one weekend we went looking for the Narnia books in the MITSFS library. When I set eyes on the world’s largest open shelf collection of science fiction, I immediately started plotting my transfer to MIT. I changed colleges, majors – and indeed, changed vocations – to learn about planets… not just as geological entities, but as places where heroes had adventures.
Oddly enough, I hadn’t cared much for fantasy when I was a kid. Mostly back then I only wanted books with “facts” – much, I am afraid, like what poor Eustace in the Narnia stories favored. Discovering Narnia for the first time at age 18, concentrating on the author’s technique more than his content, I was unprepared for an utterly unexpected effect the books had on me.
It wasn’t their overt Christianity that startled me; I already counted myself as a practicing Catholic even then. Nor was I particularly surprised to find myself caught up in the adventures; that, after all, was what kids’ books were supposed to do. But the confluence of those two threads did something world-shifting to me. They showed me that my Christian faith was itself an adventure as exciting as any fantasy story. And by that fact, they showed me that fantasy itself was real; for indeed, the reality I was living as a Christian was revealed as a fantastic adventure.
At its best, fantasy is truth. Indeed, there is more truth to be found in science fiction or fantasy than in many a tome of philosophy.
Scholars have long recognized the power of stories to teach us. After all, Jesus taught with parables. Our philosophy, our ethics, and ultimately our religion exist in a lived context. That means story; narrative. In her recent book Prophets of the Posthuman, Christina Bieber Lake argues that stories point us to the kinds of selves we can be and help us determine the ethical appropriateness of our actions.
For example, consider a current hot issue, the ethical implications of biotechnology. In the “Miles Vorkosigan” science fiction series by Lois McMaster Bujold we are shown a number of different effects, good and bad, that arise from “uterine replicators” that would allow an embryo to develop completely within an artificial womb – along with some startling implications of human cloning and the genetic “enhancement” of human embryos. (For a good entry point into this series, I recommend the omnibus edition Cordelia’s Honor.)
Now, the philosopher Christopher Kaczor’s recent book A Defense of Dignity discusses exactly those same topics with great erudition and clarity of writing. But while it is important to have such a scholarly perspective, these ideas do not come alive on his pages in the same way they do in Bujold’s books.
The science fiction novels give a context to those ideas. As story, they are centered around people that I can believe really would act the way we see, given the circumstances where they are found. And they’re fun to read.
To be sure, those Bujold books are space opera, not philosophy. They make no pretense to high literature. The covers are garish, and the plots are full of derring-do. They are, by design, first and foremost page-turners, following the adventures of a highly unusual hero and his equally unlikely sidekicks. Bujold piles disaster and indignity on her hero, which we the reader can endure only because we are sure that somehow it will all turn out right by the last page (which it always does). Indeed, part of the charm of the stories is seeing how the author lures you into believing one absurdity after another. And yet… she sneaks some pretty profound moral issues in between the pages.
Seeing an idea within the context of a story lets us test that idea by relating the events of the story to the things we are familiar with in our own daily lives. At the same time, observing deep issues at the remove of a story (especially one set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”) lets us drop the defensiveness and prejudice that blind us from seeing our own lives clearly.
But before any of that can take place, a story has to be… well, a story. What do I look for when I pick up a science fiction story? All I ask for are three things: One, make me turn the pages. Two, show me something I haven’t seen before. Three, be honest.
Easy, right? But these are precisely the three ways that science fiction brings me closer to God.
First, like the Narnia books, there must be an underlying sense of joy, even in tragedy: that’s what gets me to turn the pages. That sense of joy is (as Lewis himself noted) a touchstone of God’s presence. Likewise, novelty is essential; without it, there is no novel. But finding the unexpected hidden among the mundane is the pattern of how we experience God in the real world. And finally, we recognize God when the story is true. That truth is God’s presence; God is truth.
An honest story has believable characters and action that may be surprising but ultimately feels right: “Wow, I didn’t see that coming, but of course, that’s exactly what would happen.” It is not necessarily one full of choices I always agree with or people I like. Indeed, real life means people we love doing things that sometimes we wish they hadn’t done. (If we didn’t love them, we wouldn’t care what they do.) A story that shoves its characters around to fit some pre-conceived outcome is not honest. One that shows reasonable outcomes to understandable, if deplorable, decisions is one that lets me evaluate the implications of those decisions and the philosophical assumptions behind them. (And to learn to understand and love people in real life even when they make deplorable decisions.)
One popular modern subgenre is “urban fantasy,” where the fantastic elements exist side by side with our contemporary world, somehow ignored by most people most of the time but never fully absent. Two recent books do an exemplary job of looking at this interface between the fantastic and the mundane.
Paul Cornell’s London Falling blends the genre of an urban fantasy with that of a police procedural mystery novel. After all, who are as rational as a team of detectives investigating a murder? So what happens when they use the modern tools of crime-fighting to try and make sense of a supernatural source of evil?
The book works both as a believable fantasy and as a crime thriller. Our heroes are a team of detectives investigating a gruesome murder that slowly is revealed to have supernatural origins. One of the brilliant touches in this world is that the heroes could easily escape the source of the evil, which turns out to be physically limited to metropolitan London; they could simply leave town. To stay and fight the evil demands a deliberate choice. And the effects of the evil are insidious, far beyond simple death or destruction (with a certain black humor aspect – the book succeeds in being both scary and funny). The result is a rich examination of the nature of good and evil, and of the reality that exists beyond those things that can be weighed or measured. It reflects Cornell’s own Christianity.
Jo Walton does something even more subtle in her award-winning novel, Among Others. Her main character, Mori, is a teenager raised in rural Wales who has suffered a tragedy and is sent off to an English boarding school. The nature of the tragedy is only slowly unveiled, as is her experience of the very otherworldly elves whom she has known since childhood. In a lovely twist, the way Mori learns to deal with being uprooted from the familiar environment of her elven childhood is through reading science fiction!
Although the point of view is that of a teenager, this book is not a “young adult” novel. The irony of many of the scenes depends on the reader having an adult’s understanding of the world. The main character is believably self-centered, and prone to make choices that are patently unwise even as they are completely in keeping with where she comes from and who she is.
The book is set in a very specific place and time, corresponding closely to Walton’s own adolescence; many of the more unlikely episodes are in fact autobiographical. If you absolutely refuse to believe in the fantasy elements, you can read the book as depicting the delusions of the narrator. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of magic as she presents it is its plausible deniability.
What startled me were the parallels of the hero’s fantasy experience to my religious life. God’s action in my life also always comes with plausible deniability. If I choose not to believe, God won’t force me. And we all have experienced the feeling that this world is not really our home. Walton captures this reality by the honesty of her writing. She claims no religious affiliation herself; but her truth is true. And the writing is beautiful.
Walton is a master of “incluing” (she invented the term!), the art of spreading hints throughout the narrative to inform the readers about the universe that the author has created. While some readers can be put off by not having these essential points put plainly before them, fans of science fiction savor incluing done well. It’s what makes the universe come alive in a believable way. The art of reading such novels is also, I suspect, a talent that is well developed among those of us who, like the main character of this book, feel alienated living in a culture “among others” whom we do not easily understand.
Bujold, Cornell, and Walton are just a few of the authors working in science fiction today that combine fun storytelling with provocative, sneaky-profound views of ourselves and our universe. The authors that Walton’s hero in Among Others reads – such as Hal Clement, Ursula Le Guin, and Robert Heinlein, just to name three wildly different writers – are a good guide to the classics in the field. Walton’s recent non-fiction work, What Makes This Book So Great, is a fun guide that also includes more recent authors; among the ones she discusses whom I particularly like are Verner Vinge and Connie Willis. Today a whole new generation of writers are making themselves heard in both traditional books and magazines and in on-line journals and ebooks. Among those whose stories I have enjoyed recently are Aliette de Bodard and E. Lily Yu. The annual Hugo and Nebula awards (chosen by, respectively, the fans and the writers themselves) are a good guide to what’s current.
The Hugo awards are presented at the annual “World Science Fiction Convention,” or “Worldcon.” Back in the 1930s, when SF stories were published in pulp magazines, those magazines also published fan letters – with the names and addresses of the fans. Soon the fans started writing to each other, forming clubs, and in 1939 they held their first Worldcon. Today these Worldcons are supplemented by hundreds of regional conventions. These conventions are not only places for fans to congregate, but also where the people who produce and publish science fiction gather to meet up, do deals, or just hone their trade. This overlap is natural because most professional writers and editors are fans as well. (These conventions are where I have come to know some of my favorite writers, including Bujold, Cornell, and Walton.)
An important element in most of these conventions are panels about the latest advances in science, and many scientists volunteer their time to explain their work to an appreciative audience… including other scientists. I learned how DNA sequencing works from hearing a biochemist speak at a science fiction convention in Chicago; at that same convention, I got to talk about hunting for meteorites in Antarctica. Just as the professional SF writers started as fans, so too did a lot of professional scientists (like me) first get the urge to study science from reading science fiction.
Once I entered the Jesuits, my status as scientist/religious has made me a popular choice as a convention speaker. For example, I sat on a recent Worldcon panel called “Living in Old Structures,” which brought in representatives of the church, military, academia, and government to describe how things actually work within the sorts of social settings that are often described in fantasy novels. It reminded me again that living and working at the Vatican has been an experience both novel and fantastic.
Science fiction has changed my life. It inspired me to an education, and then a career, in science. It showed me that being a scientist could be a great adventure. But it also showed me the romance of being Catholic. Good and evil portrayed in an honest fantasy can be identified with the good and evil we must face in our own lives; choosing good and fighting evil is exactly the struggle that makes characters into heroes. Meanwhile, seeing worlds that might be, teaches me to be more aware of the worlds that are.
In fantasy and science fiction I find truth. I find things I would never have seen before. And I am always reminded of how wonderful it is to keep turning the pages.
Sidebar: SF Books I Hate!
The prolific SF author Theodore Sturgeon is credited with formulating “Sturgeon’s Law”: confronted with the undeniable fact that there’s an awful lot of rubbish published as science fiction, he replied, “yes, 90% of all science fiction is crud; but then, 90% of anything is crud.”
In some ways, SF fans glory in the really awful. Most of us secretly want to try our hand and writing science fiction ourselves, and reading dreadful stuff that’s managed to get published gives us hope. The online SF newsletter Ansible (http://news.ansible.co.uk) has a regular feature called “Thog’s Masterclass” featuring especially ludicrous examples of bad writing. (For example: “A swirling lava lamp of colors boiled on the screen like a hallucination that the cat had dragged in.” – from Alexander Besher, Rim, 1994)
But what I want to mention here are widely-praised books that I personally dislike. The reasons why I hate them may be instructive. And in any event, their reputation will easily survive my criticism!
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell: Everyone asks me about this novel of a Jesuit astronaut facing the philosophical challenge of an alien race that may or may not be “fallen”. Beyond the fact that the idea is old (see A Case of Conscience, by James Blish) and the theological speculations presented here are naïve, the real crime of this novel is that the Jesuit characters take themselves far too seriously. Our real reaction to soul-shattering events is, more often than not, to laugh at ourselves and our predicament. Usually with puns. Bad puns.
A Case of Conscience, by James Blish: Speaking of which… Jo Walton sums up the problem with this book perfectly: “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel to point out all the things that are wrong with this book, from errors of theology and science to question begging and jumping to conclusions. But it’s also very good.” Its goodness is that it’s a page-turner… if the things that are wrong with it don’t stop you from turning the pages. The trouble for me is that he gets both the theology wrong and the Jesuit spirituality exactly backwards. The author’s idea of what the Church teaches about evolution had already been contradicted by Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis, some ten years before the book came out. And the world-hating spirituality of the main character is not Jesuit but Jansenist: the Jansenists historically were the biggest opponents of the Jesuits. The book is popular because the author tells a good story, but these howlers stop me in my tracks.
Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson: A modern classic, set on Mars, by a brilliant author who went to great lengths to get the setting right. What’s not to like? And yet, I hated it. I only managed to finish it by skipping every third chapter, where the characters drone on incessantly about how they will set up their ideal society on Mars… something that Alexander Bogdanov first did in 1908, in a book called Red Star. His religious characters are one-dimensional hypocrites. (At least he could have made them three-dimensional hypocrites!) And after he irritated me enough with these human howlers, I no longer was so tolerant of his science howlers… such as his gizmos for heating up the Martian atmosphere that violate conservation of energy. (They run on solar energy; but Mars is cold precisely because the input of energy from the sun there is so weak!)
The basic theme of all these criticisms? I can’t enjoy a book if it gets too many things wrong that the author should have been able to get right. I don’t mind if their speculated future turns out to be impossible – it’s astonishing how many writers in 1964 thought that 2014 would see colonies on the Moon where all the engineers are men who still use slide rules! But when they get their philosophy or history or science wrong out of laziness, prejudice, or ignorance, then I don’t trust anything else the author might want to tell me. In science fiction, I am willing to suspend my disbelief of one or another scientific principle. But I can’t suspend my belief of how human beings actually behave.
And then I wrote… in 2014, the national Catholic newspaper Our Sunday Visitor invited me to submit a few words about science and faith… as anyone who reads these pages knows, it’s hard to shut me up on the topic! This covers familiar ground; but it does it in a way that I hope was very accessible to a popular audience...
“What do I do, if science tells me one thing but religion tells me another thing? Which do I believe?”
There’s a false assumption at the center of that question – because neither science nor religion are about in “believing” in “things”.
Our religious belief is not in a “thing,” but in a Person – indeed, Three Persons. Our faith is in the Father, Son, and Spirit as described and identified in the Creed, and in the Church that leads us to those Persons.
The words of the Creed are important precisely because they identify one very specific God: the Father outside of time and space (already present in the beginning) who deliberately chose to create time and space, and who loves this universe; Jesus who was incarnate in this universe by the Holy Spirit, born of Mary, who lived at a particular time, died in a particular way, was resurrected at a particular moment; and that same Holy Spirit now sent to us as our advocate, present in this universe in our Church.
When the Creed was written, there were plenty of other gods that some people wanted to believe in. But we Christians specifically reject the pagan nature gods. We no more believe in them than we would worship some other guy named Jesus who lived at a different time and place and had a different history than the Jesus we call Lord.
It’s tempting to turn our worship of the Creator into worshiping a nature god, one who fiddles with how things work in the natural world, like a force alongside electricity and gravity. It’s the same temptation as worshiping a version of “Jesus” who was just a nice guy that came to an unfortunate end, or a version of “Jesus” who was merely deity dressed up in a man-suit. Both the nature god and the simplified “Jesus” are easy to grasp and understand; but they are false. They’re not what Christians believe.
Just as it’s tricky to understand Jesus as both true God and true man, it’s tricky to understand how the Creator relates to Creation. That’s where science comes in.
Science is our best way of describing how the universe behaves. You might say, where faith tells us that God created the universe, science tells us how He did it. Science is important precisely because...
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And then I wrote... in 2013 I was invited to give a talk at the Jesuit parish in central London, and then the British online site Thinking Faith invited me to adapt it for one of their postings. They wanted a shorter version to fit their format; here is the original text, about twice as long, divided into two bits for this week and next. Here is Part 2, which starts with a riff that I wound up reusing a lot in later things I wrote...
What I’ve come to see, especially given those philosophy courses that the Jesuits made me take as a part of my formation, is that belief itself plays a fundamental role in doing science.
There are three religious beliefs that you have to accept on faith before you can be a scientist. You may not think of them as religious, but I can name religions that don’t have these beliefs.
The first thing you must believe is that this universe actually exists. This may seem obvious; but if you believe, as some religions do, that “everything is illusion,” then what is there for a scientist to study? If you are a solipsist, then being a scientist is just wasting your time studying a figment of your imagination.
The second thing is that the universe operates by regular laws. How can you go searching for the physical laws of the universe if you don’t believe there are physical laws to be found? Today we have a thousand years of finding those laws and seeing how we can use them to make telephones work; but who was the first person a thousand years ago to think that such laws exist, and that they could be discovered? Where did he or she get the faith to believe that there might be laws to be found?
If you were a pagan Roman and you saw lightning strike, your explanation was that the god of lightning threw it; if you saw crops grow, you attributed that to the goddess of crops. Things that happen in the universe, they believed, happen because deities in the universe made them happen. And if you believe that everything that occurs in the universe are the result of the whims of demons and deities, there’s no point to look for scientific laws.
Christians in Roman times were accused of being atheists because they refused to believe in these pagan gods. And rightly so; there are many gods I do not believe in. Indeed, even Richard Dawkins only believes in one fewer God than I do!
And the God I believe in is not of the universe, but existed before the universe began; not a part of nature, but super-natural. If you believe in that kind of God, then there’s room to ask how the rest of the world works, and room to wonder if it works by regular laws. We know from scripture that God is responsible for the universe, in a step by step manner. Genesis outlines a creation story that is fundamentally different from the Babylonian story in that rather than the physical universe being an accident, Genesis tells us that God deliberately willed it to exist.
And here’s the third thing you have to believe as a scientist: you have to believe that the universe is Good. We get that, again, from Genesis. If you think the universe is a morass of temptations, then you’ll be afraid to be too involved in it; you’ll want to meditate yourself to a higher level, perhaps. If you believe that, you’re not going to want to be a scientist. But instead we believe in a God who so loved the universe that He sent His only Son.
So why do people think that there’s a conflict between science and religion? Too often the assumption is that science and religion are systems of epistemology, ways of knowing facts. Science gives me one set of facts, religion gives me another set of facts, and so surely there’s going to be a time when the two systems conflict.
But that’s not what science is at all, and not where religion is at all.
We all learn science in school, where it’s taught as a big book of facts; and you’d better use this year’s book, because last year’s book of facts is out of date. But that should immediately tell you that science is not just facts. Science continues even as the facts change. What we do in science is learn how to have a conversation about those facts… how we can talk about understanding how the universe we’ve observed seems to work, and how we can use that understanding to guess the next place to look. It’s not about the facts, it’s about the conversation.
In the same way, faith is not about a bunch of things I must accept, blindly, closing my eyes to the truth. To the contrary, remember what Moses says to his people after giving the the Tablets of the Law: “do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.” (Deut. 4, v. 9) It’s not, “close your eyes” but rather, “pay attention to what you have seen.”
Faith is not accepting a bunch of things in the absence of evidence. It is making choices in the absence of all the facts… whether it’s your choice of school, or job, who you will marry, where you will live. When you made those choices, there was no way you could know how it would turn out. That’s life, making choices in the absence of sufficient data. But you make these choices in the expectation that things will turn out well. That’s faith. Sometimes that expectation is going to be shattered, but you go ahead anyway; what else can you do?
These expectations based on faith occur in science all the time. When I choose what field of science to enter, I’m assuming that it’s going to be interesting down the line; if I knew what I was going to discover, I wouldn’t have to do the science. When I see an interesting problem to chew on, I have to guess what approach is going to be the most fruitful. How do I make that decision? Of all the different approaches that are possible I only have time to try one or two; how do I choose? It’s a blind step into the unknown.
Science is not a big book of facts. Science is not about “proving” anything. Science describes, but the descriptions are incomplete; we keep hoping that they get better. For that very reason you can’t use science prove the existence of God (or no-God). But can science encourage us in our belief?
One trait of God I find is that He always gives us “plausible deniability.” Every time you see His action in the universe, you can always come up with some way to explain it away if you want. It could just be coincidence, or an illusion. You can never know for sure; that, of course, is why we need faith.
But the universe has...
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And then I wrote... in 2013 I was invited to give a talk at the Jesuit parish in central London, and then the British online site Thinking Faith invited me to adapt it for one of their postings. They wanted a shorter version to fit their format; here is the original text, about twice as long, divided into two bits for this week and next. I wound up reusing a lot of this stuff in later things I wrote...
I once caused a stir in a church in Hawaii by announcing that I was “an observer from the Vatican.” But it’s true; I was in Hawaii to use the telescopes there, just as I also observe with the Vatican’s own telescope in Arizona. That’s my job with the Vatican Observatory.
People often think that after the Galileo trial, all science ended the Catholic Europe. But that is a rather foolish thing to say, if you’ve ever heard of “volts”, named for the 18th-century Italian scientist Alessandro Volta; or the Cassini mission to Saturn, named for the late 17th-century Italian, Giovanni Domenico Cassini; not to mention hundreds of other Catholic scientists of that era. In fact, the map of the Moon we use today was devised by a couple of Jesuits, Giovanni Batiista Riccioli and Francesco Grimaldi, who published it in Italy only twenty years after the Galileo trial. Their nomenclature is still in use today; and they named the most prominent crater on the moon “Copernicus”.
(They also put their own names on the craters, and the names of 35 other Jesuits. It’s handy to have friends in high places.)
The modern Vatican Observatory dates from 1891. Pope Leo XIII wanted a national observatory in order to demonstrate that the Vatican was still an independent nation, following the unification of Italy. But the end of the 19th century is also when the myth first arose that somehow science and religion were eternally opposed. It’s a Victorian-era notion, not something that goes back to Galileo, and certainly not something that you can find in the history of science. If you look through the Transactions of the Philosophical Society of London, the world’s first scientific journal (which we just happen to have a complete set of in our library – it’s nice to work at the Vatican) you find that the people doing science in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were either noblemen, medical doctors, or clergymen. After all, who else in those days had the education and free time to do science?
And, actually, what is most of science? It’s gathering data, gathering notes. It’s collecting leaves of every sort, sorting them, filing them, classifying them, seeing if you can find a pattern among them. It’s the kind of work we use computer spreadsheets for nowadays, but back then you might have used little 3 x 5 cards; it’s what we call clerical work. And why is it called “clerical”? Because it was done by clerics.
The origins of science are found with the monks of the middle ages at the universities of the middle ages. The “father of geology” is Albert the Great, the Dominican who also taught religion to Thomas Aquinas, and the “father of chemistry” is the Franciscan, Roger Bacon. Even in more modern times, the father of genetics is the Augustinian, Gregor Mendel, and the Big Bang theory was devised by a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître – and criticized by atheist cosmologists for being “too religious”, this idea that there was a beginning to the universe.
My own personal history of doing astronomy, however, reflects the other question that comes up even when one knows the history of astronomy and the Church: why should the Church even care about astronomy? Aren’t there more important things to do than look at the stars? More than once I’ve been asked, what possible good comes out of our work? I am reminded of the story when Michael Faraday was working on electricity in his laboratory here in London, and Disraeli came to visit. Disraeli asked him, “Of what possible use is electricity?” And Faraday is said to have answered, “some day, Mr. Prime Minister, you’ll be able to put a tax on it.”
I didn’t have that kind of answer. I was thirty years old, five years a postdoctoral fellow at MIT and Harvard. I was in the big leagues of science; but I was only a utility player. I didn’t have a permanent job. I was beginning to despair if I would ever get a permanent job. (This was long before I was a Jesuit, you understand.) And worse, I would lie in bed at three am, wondering, “why am I wasting my time worrying about the moons of Jupiter when there are people starving in the world?”
I had no answer.
And so I quit my job, I quit science...
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Happy 80th birthday, Roger Angel!
The story we tell is that our Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope mirror, the Pope’s scope, was made by an Angel in a synagogue. The synagogue was the old home of the Jewish community on the campus of the University of Arizona, which had become available when Hillel moved into new quarters. The mirror was the first to be made with the technique of melting glass in a spinning oven, allowing it to flow into a perfect parabola while flowing over a set of ceramic blocks to give it a thin but strong honeycomb structure underneath the reflective surface. And the angel, of course, was Roger Angel.
The story I’ve heard is that back in the 1980s, Peter Strittmatter, then director of Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, Roger Angel, and George Coyne, then director of the Vatican Observatory, used to go out to lunch all the time. (Remember going out to lunch?) So it may have been during one of those informal gatherings that the idea was broached… Roger had demonstrated, successfully, that his technique could make a good mirror. But what to do with the mirror? How about if the Vatican Observatory built a telescope around the mirror?
After a go-ahead from the Vatican (the Pope and Roger met when His Holiness visited Phoenix in 1987) to raise money under his name, and generous donations from donors to the new Vatican Observatory Foundation, notably major grants from Fred Lennon and Thomas Bannan, the telescope was built. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today we celebrate Roger Angel, whose gift to astronomy was… miraculous? Heavenly? If nothing else, it reflects well...
And then I wrote… this article was submitted to a magazine called Retreat, published once a year for retreat houses in the UK. I wrote it in 2012, for its 2014 issue
There’s more to Ignatian spirituality than “finding God in all things”; it also means finding God in those places where we find our passion. For me, to organize or lead a retreat means to bring people to where my passion is: the stars.
I have been interested in astronomy all my life… just as I have been aware of God, all my life. Sputnik orbited the Earth the year I started school, people walked on the Moon during my last year of high school, so astronomy was literally “in the air” when I was growing up. And with an Italian father and Irish mother, my religion was also something I just grew up with. There really wasn’t any sense of one coming before the other. In fact, one of the hardest things for me to do is to try to explain my faith, or my enthusiasm for astronomy, to people without that faith or that enthusiasm. It is like trying to explain music to someone who is tone-deaf. Usually I don’t even try.
Why do I believe in God? For the same reason that I believe the universe exists and is not just a figment of my imagination. I have experienced God.
Certainly the most visible place I experience God...
And then I wrote… This article was submitted to US Catholic in 2012, but didn’t appear there until the February 2014 issue. (Vol. 79, No. 2, pages 34-39).
“The heavens proclaim the glory of God,” writes the psalmist. As an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, I get to enjoy those proclamations on a daily basis. But you don’t have to be a professional astronomer to appreciate the beauty that our instruments have shown us.
There are hundreds of websites online where startling astronomical images can be found. Perhaps the most accessible is the Astronomy Picture of the Day website and app, which, as its name implies, posts a different astronomy image every day, along with a short description to let you know what you are looking at. Lots of those images come from spacecraft, but just as many come from Earth-based observatories. Indeed, nowadays some of the best astronomical postcards come from the telescopes of advanced amateurs.
The images can speak for themselves. But to have an idea of the message behind the images makes them even richer. Here are a handful of some of my favorite recent astronomical images, both from space and from closer to home.
As a scientist, I know that what I am looking at in the image that heads this article is a wonderful example of an interstellar cloud in the Trifid Nebula (M20) compressed by the shock of a nearby supernova. At the tip of a spire of cloud in the upper left corner, gas is being squeezed into a tighter cloud that will eventually form a disk. Out of that disk a system of stars and planets will be born. (The longer corkscrew streak to its left is a gas jet emitted from the cloud.)
But I’m also a human being, and indeed a fan of fantasy stories. So there’s a part of me that can’t help but anthropomorphize images like these, looking to put “faces” in the clouds—in this case, the outline of a unicorn. This sort of game has a long and honored history; our constellations, and indeed many of the nebulae shown here, have “popular” names (like the “Trifid Nebula”) that help us tell them apart, as they remind us what they look like. It’s fun to enjoy the two together, to think that I’m seeing a solar system being born in the tip of a unicorn’s ear.
One final thrill: On a good night, my little backyard three-inch telescope can make out the Trifid Nebula quite nicely. On a really dark summer night in June or July, I can spot it with my naked eye as a tiny patch of light, just off the Milky Way in the constellation of Sagittarius, the Archer. Obviously I won’t see the detail shown here; but the fact is, wonderful sights in the sky are visible to anyone who knows where to look.
That’s something I really appreciate about astronomy. It is open to anyone. You don’t have to be an expert to appreciate the wonders of the night sky. Of course, once you get a taste of the thrill it can bring, you will be tempted into learning more, and becoming more of an expert—at your own pace, in your own way. It’s an example of how the Creator speaks to us where we are, but then invites us to come closer, and know deeper.
Speaking of unicorns, there actually is a constellation called Monoceros, the Unicorn. It sits just to the east of the more famous constellation of Orion, the Hunter. A star in Monoceros V838 is a “supergiant” that exploded in 2002, briefly becoming the brightest star in the Milky Way. (Intrinsically brightest, that is, not the brightest in our own skies; it was never quite visible to the naked eye here on Earth, because it is so far away.)
When the Hubble Space Telescope took this image, the star had already faded, but the light from its explosion could still be seen echoing off the gas and dust surrounding the star. As we look at different times, we see different rings of gas illuminated by this light. On the Internet you can find many Hubble images of V838, each different in a subtle way, as we watch the light cross the field of gas. The fact that there is so much gas and dust nearby tells us that this isn’t the first time this star has had a large “burp.” Eventually this star will die completely; its gas and dust will eventually find its way into a larger cloud, like the one in the previous picture, out of which new stars will be formed.
This image touches me on many levels—starting with the fact that it reveals “many levels” in the cloud of gas and dust. It reminds me, in fact, of the large brass sculpture, Sfera con Sfera, (“Sphere within a Sphere”) by Arnaldo Pomodoro, situated at the Vatican in the Garden of the Pine Cone, well known to visitors as a part of the Vatican Museum. The Italian sculptor deliberately designed his work to lead the viewer into contemplating deeper and deeper into the heart of things, reminding us of both the complexity and fragility of our universe.
Here in space, we have a divine artist with a similar message!
And speaking of exploding stars, the brightest such explosion ever recorded occurred in the Carina Nebula, located in the southern hemisphere constellation of Carina. Between 1820 and 1843, a star in this nebula, Eta Carinae, underwent its “great eruption.” For a few years it was actually the second brightest star visible in our skies, before fading back to relative obscurity. Theorists are still arguing what caused the eruption; it wasn’t quite a supernova, but it was certainly stronger than anything that ordinary stellar evolution theory would predict.
The Carina Nebula itself, like M20, is visible to the naked eye—at least if you’re in the southern hemisphere. From Australia it is utterly charming in a small telescope. But the nebula is a part of a much larger star formation region, including this mountain of gas and dust imaged by Hubble in 2010. As with the Trifid Nebula, the gas and dust seen here come from exploding stars. Then a nearby supernova compressed that gas and dust into pillars and columns. At the end of each column the material is compressed into a region from which new stars are formed. In a few million years this cloud will be a cluster of young stars.
What strikes me in images of nebulae like these is that, while the frame is dominated by the mass of the nebula, all the really important “action”—the collapse of the gas into stars and disks that eventually will form planets—is occurring at the edges, in the thin wispy bits that you have to look at carefully in order to see. The wisps wouldn’t exist without the gas cloud. But the gas cloud would be sterile and inert without those wisps.
Another thing also delights me about it, however. I can understand the physics that describes how these clouds balance the pressure of their gas with the gravity of their mass on a knife-edge, so that star formation can be triggered with just the nudge from a nearby supernova. That’s all quite rational, and it’s possible to write down formulae that describe how all this works. What’s unexpected, however, is how beautiful it all looks when we actually see it occurring. Mathematicians like to call this blend of reason and beauty “elegance.” It seems to be a hallmark of the Creator.
And sometimes, I swear, God’s just having fun! This wild curlicue of light is a ghostly stream of stars surrounding the spiral galaxy NGC 5907. This object is not something in our own Milky Way Galaxy of stars, but it is itself an entirely separate collection of many billions of stars located some 50 million light-years away from our home galaxy. The stream of stars seen here was ripped from a smaller dwarf galaxy that NGC 5907 encountered some 4 billion years ago.
Such “collisions” of galaxies are apparently quite common in the history of the universe. As it happens, the stars themselves in the colliding galaxies never actually touch. What happens instead is that once two galaxies come close enough, the gravity of the one can pull noticeably on the stars of the other, so that the larger galaxy will incorporate the smaller one. Eventually they merge together to make a newer, larger, and more complex structure of stars, gas, and dust.
I am a planetary astronomer, but I have deliberately limited myself to only this one planetary image. There are so many wonderful spacecraft images that it is hard to choose from them; but worse, I can’t see an image of a planet or asteroid without thinking of all the science behind it, stuff that fascinates me because I know the backstory, but which often is of interest only to the specialist.
This image of Saturn, the planet with a “halo,” clearly has both things going for it: incredible beauty and fascinating science behind it. Taken by the NASA/ESA Cassini spacecraft that has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, this image has a unique view of the ringed planet. The spacecraft was on the side of Saturn opposite the sun, and so instead of seeing sunlight reflected off Saturn’s clouds and the large chunks of ice in its rings, we’re seeing that light passing through the faint dust that fills those rings between the chunks and surrounds the planet. Just like the way dust in a room shows up in a beam of sunlight pouring through a window, this “forward-scattered” light shows us the parts of the rings that are particularly dusty, including some remarkable individual streams of dust that may be spalling off small moonlets orbiting Saturn outside the rings.
The big outer dusty ring visible here is especially interesting. It sits at the orbit of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and it appears to be made up of water vapor pouring out of a series of active volcanoes on the southern pole of that moon. It was long theorized that icy moons might be molten inside—my thesis at MIT in 1975 was on that very topic—but these volcanoes, and this ring, are the first proof that the idea was actually correct.
One other tiny dot of light in this image is the final capper. Inside the Enceladus ring is a thinner dusty ring; look just inside it, at about 10 o’clock, for a tiny dot of light. That’s us: That is planet Earth, as seen from Saturn.
Indeed, one of the reasons that we study other planets, other places in space, is for the chance to then look back upon ourselves. Who are we? How do we fit into this immense universe? It’s tempting to think that we must be insignificant, just a tiny dot easily lost in the billions of stars and galaxies. One might despair, how could God ever notice me?
But we can turn that same contemplation around, and rejoice in the immensity of a God who, even given the vastness of creation, nonetheless has the time and ability to turn his attention individually on each of us.
I am ending this series with one of my personal favorites: an image I took myself. For this picture I used a microscope, not a telescope. This is looking at a thin (1/100 of a millimeter thin) sliver of a meteorite.
Meteorites are rocks from space, usually from the asteroid belt, which hit the Earth on a regular basis. They provide us with free samples of the material that the rest of the planets are made from. This particular meteorite hit near the town of Knyahinya, Ukraine in 1866.
The light shining through this thin section was polarized in one direction, and then after it passed through the sample it was polarized in the opposite direction. Only certain colors of light have their polarization twisted by the rock just enough to pass both filters; the result is the marvelous collection of colors seen here.
Notice the round bit at the upper left. This is a “chondrule,” a small bead less than a millimeter across, a droplet of rock molten and frozen in zero gravity as the planets were being formed 4.5 billion years ago. The other colored bits are themselves probably pieces of other broken chondrules.
Once again, the human imagination can play wonderful tricks with this image. With the round bit next to the straight bits I see an infant in a manger. In fact, we used this image one year at the Vatican Observatory for our Christmas cards!
But even leaving such flights of fancy behind, an image like this enriches both my knowledge and my heart. As a scientist, I can tell the chemical composition of the rock (mostly iron and magnesium oxides) from the colors of the minerals, and from the cracks I can work out its history of collisions and shock. From the very fact that these samples are in our lab—for us to hold and touch and measure—I am reminded that the sky is not some barrier between us and “outer space,” but in fact the cosmos comes and touches us on a regular basis. And from the beauty of what I see here, I am reminded why I do this work: for that sense of joy and awe I find in creation, the autograph of the Creator.
Back in November, we ran a “Giving Tuesday” campaign to support our prison outreach, where we send calendars to inmates in prison. A few days ago I asked our development coordinator, Fr. Justin Whittington, for a summary of how that went. He replied:
So far we have sent out 244 calendars to inmates. 100 have been sent to chaplains at US prisons to be distributed. Thirty went to Fr. Gabriele Gionti for distribution at a Roman prison. So far 114 have been sent to individuals at 14 different institutions.
Our 2020 Giving Tuesday campaign brought in $1150.00 through 17 donations. We have also received 44 Forever stamps (worth $24.20) as donations from inmates who were requesting Calendars.
Since then, I know we have sent out more calendars. It’s an important part of our outreach; I know that Pope Francis was interested to hear about it. Your donations came to about $10 per calendar, which is a pretty good return. It goes a long way to covering our costs for the program. Thanks!
(And of course, even though it is now a month into 2021 you can still support us and get a beautiful calendar by clicking here!)
In other news, I remind you again that Dr. Michelle Francl will be our guest on Thursday’s “Moonthly” Meet Up, January 28, at 10am Tucson Time/noon EDT. We’ve sent out a link to our Sacred Space subscribers; if you sign up for Sacred Space now you can join us as well, and find the information about how to join here.
Speaking of subscribers… it’s been a couple of months since I last updated where our subscriptions figures are. As of the end of November we had 198 members of Sacred Space; now that has grown to 205. Welcome everyone! And we have added a whole bunch of new folks who get notified of new postings. How many? Hard to say. In November that number was 10,591; the current number is 17,655! Why the big jump? Well, most of it is artificial. We used to include all the people who subscribed to the Foundation’s Twitter feed, but we are phasing that feed out now — I’ve stopped posting new items there — in favor of the Twitter feed for the Vatican Observatory itself, @VaticanObserv… which today has 6,000 more subscribers than the Foundation feed. But even accounting for that difference, it’s still a growth of about 1,000 new followers. Welcome everybody!
Tell more people about our site! And if you can, please join the Sacred Space gang at a rate of $10 a month (about the cost of a burger and fries, and you don’t have to pay for home delivery) or $100 per year.
That shift from the Foundation Twitter account to the Observatory account is part of bigger changes that are coming soon, namely a complete revamping of our web presence! We have been working like mad...
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And then I wrote… this is the second half of the article I started last week, originally published in Italian in Civiltà Cattolica; this is the original English text. While much has developed since this article was written — see the links inserted here — I think the questions I raised then are still valid, and it’s also fun to see what we were thinking about Mars, almost ten years ago...
The confluence of this “Mars life” rock [in 1996] and the popular Pathfinder mission [in 1997] gave both a scientific and political motivation to begin a systematic search for life on Mars. Unlike the previous Viking missions, however, this new program would proceed in a series of smaller steps.
Viking’s major mistake had been that its design assumed too much about the sort of life it expected to find and the environment where it expected to find it. It was, in essence, a robot designed to find terrestrial life on Earth; it was not at all prepared to find life in the very different environment of Mars. It had landed at sites chosen to be easy to reach with a lander, not necessarily those where traces of life were likely to be found. It had assumed that life traces would be evident on the surface of Mars, rather than more deeply hidden and protected from the harsh solar ultraviolet light and cosmic rays. And it had assumed that Mars life would behave chemically in essentially the same way as terrestrial life did.
Instead, armed with the failure of the Viking search, the mission planners realized that one needed to know more about Mars before a proper search for life within Mars could be launched.
(Indeed, one needed to know more about life, as well. Thus, parallel to the Mars missions, an ambitious program in astrobiology was also begun. One of the primary threads of this research was to look for, and understand, “extremophiles”: microbes on Earth that lived in extreme environments such as hot springs, acid lakes, and regions of high radiation. As a result, we are now aware of lifeforms that thrive deep within the Earth itself, under conditions where life might also be able to exist on Mars.)
The program design had three stages. First, along with developing a more general understanding of Mars’ geological history, we’d look for the places on Mars where water was easy to find. Next, once the appropriate technology was developed to get a spacecraft to those regions, we’d land there and look for traces of chemicals that might be indicative of biological activity. And finally, once we knew what to look for, we’d figure out a way of taking an appropriate sample from such a region back to Earth, where we could study it at leisure with all the tools available to us here.
And then I wrote...
On January 12, 2021, the NASA Mars rover Curiosity marked 3000 Martian days on the surface of Mars.
In 2012 I was invited to write an article about the exploration of Mars; “Curiosity e l’esplorazione di Marte” appeared in the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica on November 17,2012. Here is the original English version that I submitted to them. As it is more than 5000 words long, I will publish it over two weeks.
One cannot make an observation of anything in nature without, in some way, altering the very object we are trying to observe. In quantum physics, we know that if we shine even the tiniest bit of light, a massless photon, onto a particle to determine its position or momentum, the impact of that photon will nudge the particle into a different position with a changed momentum. What we thought we were observing will have become changed by the very fact of us looking at it.
The landing of a spacecraft onto a planet also makes a tiny nudge on the planet’s path through space. Of course, for all intents and purposes that change is utterly negligible. But there are other ways that it can alter the place it is trying to observe.
The Curiosity Rover, which arrived on the surface of Mars on August 6, 2012 (Rome time), is a robotic chemistry lab on wheels about the size of a Fiat 500. It is capable of traveling across the Martian surface to reach and sample rocks from many different geologic strata, looking for organic chemicals that may give us clues as to the likelihood of life now, or in the past, on that planet. The design of the mission centered on probing Mars’ surface rocks for organic chemicals; thus it has taken great pains to reduce to a minimum how much it disturbs and changes the very chemicals it is looking for, and not introduce its own organic contaminants into the Martian ecosystem.
For example, consider the unusual way it came to land on the surface of Mars. When the spacecraft reached the top of the Martian atmosphere, it was traveling at nearly 6 kilometer per second, or more than 21,000 km/hr; the gravity of Mars would only increase this speed as the lander fell toward its surface. The challenge has always been to slow such a spacecraft down to come to a gentle landing on the surface that would damage neither the lander nor the surface on which it was landing. Previous landers have used a combination of parachutes, airbags, and rockets. (The thin Martian air means that, unlike landing on Earth, parachutes alone cannot slow down a Mars lander.) But the exhaust from rockets can contaminate the surface around the landing site.
Some landers have been encased in large inflated airbags, similar to those in your car, made of Kevlar (the stuff of body armor) that “bounced” on the surface, but Curiosity was much too large to use such a landing system. Instead, it used a parachute and rockets mounted on a separate stage; beneath it dangled the lander on a 7.5 meter tether. Once it sensed that the lander had touched down, the rocket stage detached itself and flew off to crash a few hundred meters away from the rover. By keeping the rockets well above the surface of the planet, contamination from the rockets was kept to a minimum.
Curiosity is but...