And then I wrote… part II of an article that dates from 2011 but I have no idea where it ever got published...
The Physical and the Spiritual: Even after the adoption of a cosmology based on a spherical earth, a common feature of most cosmologies was the belief that the physical universe mirrored the spiritual realm.
This often involved positing a “chain of creation” in which different levels or aspects of the physical universe were assigned to different elements, different gods, or different ranks of angels. Those different ranks were given names (thrones, dominions) and are what St. Paul was referring to in his letters, cited above. By the Middle Ages, it was assumed that the home of the saints and the biblical firmament were the outer spheres of the universe; below them were the spheres of each planet, moved by angels, and their perfect eternal circular motions stood in contrast to the irregular and finite movements of objects on earth. Earth stood not at the centre of the universe, but at the bottom of the chain of creation, only one level removed from the Inferno, or Hell, and (unlike the reset of the universe) subject to its own laws of corruption and death.
C. S. Lewis describes this cosmology in his book, The Discarded Image: “…the spheres are moved by the love of God… each sphere, or something resident in each sphere, is a conscious and intellectual being, moved by ‘intellectual love’ of God… the planetary Intelligences, however, make a very small part of the angelic population which inhabits… the vast aetherial region between the Moon and the Primum Mobile [thrones, dominions, etc.]… below the Moon is the [realm] of the arial beings, the daemons.” And, in fact, this is only the beginning of the census of all the different kinds of inhabitants of the universe as understood in the medieval cosmology, a complexity that is only faintly echoed in modern fantasies like the Lord of the Rings.
The Latin equivalent for the Greek word daemon was genius, and various genii were each associated with a different planetary intelligence. Each sphere’s genii were the source of gifts and abilities bestowed on human beings; one “genius” might bestow music, another the gift of speech.
The nature and strength of the genius, and thus the gift, for any given person depended on which planet had the strongest influence on that individual. In this way, astrology was given a firm basis in the cosmology. It is interesting to note that, even while the ancient Hebrews roundly condemned the use of astrology to predict future events because it denied the power of God (see, for example, Deuteronomy 4:19, or Isaiah 47:10-14, or the Book of Wisdom, chapters 7 and 13) they nonetheless accepted that it was a natural way to describe how the universe worked. One can find mosaics of zodiacal constellations in ancient synagogues. In fact, the familiar phrase mazel tov is actually a short-hand way of saying that “one lives under favorable stars.”
This cosmology was, in fact, a beautiful system that underlay not only the physics and astronomy of its day but also provided the framework for great literature and music. You can’t read Chaucer or Dante without knowing the cosmology they assumed, and which they assumed their readers would also know. Again to quote Lewis: “Few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree. It is possible that some readers have long been itching to remind me that it had a serious defect: it was not true.”
Where Does Jesus Fit In? It had another defect besides being untrue, however...
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Happy (American) Thanksgiving, everyone!
Along with a great day of feasting, and recalling the things we should be thankful for, it’s also the traditional beginning of the Christmas season. So of course I would be remiss not to remind you that it’s a great time to order Calendars (CLICK HERE!) which we can send to your friends and family (I always wondered about that phrase, “friends and family"; but maybe I am lucky that my family also count as my friends). They get a great calendar, with the proceeds going to support our wrk here at the Vatican Observatory.
Being thankful, and remembering friends and family, should also remind us of those who can’t be with family. For those who have been sent to prison, a calendar with the beauties to be seen overhead means a lot, when their night time views are limited to what they can see out a window. The quote in the photo caption came from one of a prisoner who had gotten one of our calendars.
When we first started producing these calendars, about twenty years ago, a Jesuit friend of ours who works in prison ministry, Fr. George Williams, asked if we could send some calendars to him to distribute. Since then a number of other prisons have joined in the program. I estimate that about half the calendars we print up, now go to prisoners. The need is especially great this year, since in-person ministry has been severely limited due to the pandemic.
Starting in 2017, we have dedicated anything we receive as part of our GivingTuesday drive (that’s Tuesday after Thanksgiving, or December 1 this year) to support the cost of those programs. You can take part in our GivingTuesday drive by clicking HERE.
(GivingTuesday is a global generosity movement unleashing the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world. It was created in 2012 as a simple idea: a day that encourages people to do good. Over the past seven years, this idea has grown into a global movement that inspires hundreds of millions of people to give, collaborate, and celebrate generosity. One of the best ways to get involved is in your own community. We've created a directory to help you find organizations, events, and ways to give back in your own community." - www.givingtuesday.org )
In other news, Br. Bob Macke will be our guest on Monday’s “Moonthly” Meet Up, November 30, at 10am Tucson Time/1pm EDT. A recent post, available only to our Sacred Space subscribers, includes a link to the meetup.
Speaking of subscribers… as I mentioned last month, this is when we removed subscribers from our list who have decided not to renew (or whose credit cards expired). We hope they come back soon! But that means our numbers dropped from 217 to 198. But we have added more than a hundred new folkswho get notified of new postings, up to 10.591… welcome to all of you. Tell more people about our site! And if you can, please join the Sacred Space gang at a rate of $10 a month (hey, no more political donations… for a while!) or $100 per year.
Featuring Br. Bob Macke, and the latest news of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope!
Just for our paying members: on the next Full Moon, November 30, a week from when we are posting this, we’ll be holding our regular on-line meetup where we get to know and chat with each other, and with astronomers from the Vatican Observatory.
This month will feature Br. Bob Macke, dialing in from Castel Gandolfo. Bob is the curator of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory, and perhaps the greatest living expert in measuring meteorite physical properties. Beginning with his thesis work more than ten years ago he has traveled the world, measuring samples from every major public collection and a number of private collections; he’s probably handled more different meteorites than anyone else alive today. Included in his measurements are a number of Apollo lunar samples held at the Johnson Space Center. Because of his expertise, he has been selected to be one of the mission scientists on NASA's upcoming LUCY mission to encounter Trojan asteroids. Oh, and he has his own asteroid, too.
What date? Monday, November 30: this is Full Moon in Tucson, which occurs during the morning, Tucson time.
What time? As before, these meetups will happen around lunch time in North America: in particular, 10 am Tucson time, which is 12 noon Eastern Standard Time.
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And then I wrote… So, this is an odd article; not in that it’s unusual, itself — it is typical of the stuff I have written about faith and astronomy. In fact, it’s a nice summary of my ideas.
What is odd is that, though I find three or four different versions of this in my files for “stuff I wrote in 2011” and I can see that it was edited (by someone named “Mike”) I have no record of where it was actually published. If anyone reading this can find it in print anywhere, that would be great! I don’t always remember to update my CV with non-science publications. Anyway, what I do see it that it originally was written in the fall of 2011… and the version I am publishing here is actually more or less my original draft, which I think is the freshest if not the most polished version.
As with earlier articles that I have published here, this whole article is about 5000 words long so I have split it into three parts.
How do we come to know God? It is a question at the heart of all religious experience; and ultimately, of all human experience. And it is – and must be – the question behind our scientific experience of the universe.
The role of the human senses: This insight was directly stated by St. Paul in the first chapter of his Letter to the Romans: "since the beginning of time, God has revealed himself in the things he has made," namely in this physical universe. This is illustrated throughout the Bible, our record of the times and ways that God has made himself manifest: from the breath of activity over the chaos described in the opening of Genesis, to the burning bush seen by Moses, to the still soft voice heard by the prophet Elijah as described in the first Book of Kings.
If God expresses himself in creation, then our experience of God is mediated through our created human senses. The way our senses experience God’s creation is at least one way that we come to know God. This is why we do science; if our ultimate longing is for Truth, then the search for truth is the search for God. Indeed, “how do we come to know God?” is ultimately the question that shapes the choices we make of what science we do, and the standard against which we judge the success of our work.
But science is more than merely experiencing the universe. Science is understanding what we have experienced. Our reflections about this experience, the way we come to know its meaning, is also mediated through our own mind’s processing of what it senses.
In spite of these innate human limitations, we do nonetheless grow in our knowledge of God by experiencing what God reveals in the universe. That this is possible, is a tribute to the power of God and the nature of the gifts of understanding that God has given us.
Insight and Image: One of those gifts is reason. But even in science, reason does not operate alone, in a vacuum. Science itself also is dependent upon the tools of insight and image. Insight is what guides us; it directs our hunches of where to look, and it suggests how to apply our reason to understand what we see when we look there. Image allows us to shape our newly won understanding so that we can communicate that it, both to others and to ourselves, and remember what we have understood, after the flash of insight has passed.
No image is perfect. Any attempt to treat an image as perfect turns it into an idol. But so long as we recognize an image for what it is, it can allow us to become emotionally familiar with the way we understand God, and thus incorporate our insights into the way we live and interact with God in this physical universe.
What are cosmologies? When a common image underlies all of our understanding of the universe and how it works, we call that image a cosmology. It is impossible to think of the universe without resorting to some sort of cosmology. Our choice of cosmology not only allows us to understand what we see, it also suggests new places to look and the necessity for a new understanding of those things we learn that do not easily fit into our given cosmology. And, like any image, our cosmologies are always imperfect and incomplete, and if taken too seriously can turn themselves into idols that get in our way of understanding the reality of God.
To take one example, recall that one of the most powerful of images we have to help us come to know God is that of “Father.” In recent times, as we struggle to understand the role of the sexes in the contemporary setting (where our expectation of traditional gender roles has changed significantly in the past 50 years) we have come to appreciate some of the limitations of this image. In addition, our personal history – for example, the nature of our relationship with our own father – can strongly color this image in each one of us, in ways that are as different as every family is for every individual. (As Tolstoy famously put it, “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”) Thus, those who had a bad relationship with their own father can often have a hard time relating to God as Father.
Now consider the prime attribute given to God the Father in our Creed: “Creator of heaven and earth.” In the days when that phrase was devised, just as the word “father” carried a different connotation than it might today, so too the terms “heaven” and “earth” envisioned a cosmology very different from what we currently believe. (And, of course, future developments in understanding our cosmologies will probably move them beyond anything we could imagine today.) Thus, inevitably, just as there is a personal effect in attributing to God characteristics that are particular to our experiences of our own father, there will likewise arise a tension between the ancient cosmology assumed by the authors of the Creed, and what can survive of that image as our picture of the universe changes...
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And then I wrote… as I mentioned the last two weeks, this article is adapted from a piece published in Italian in Civiltà Cattolica, which they ran in 2012. But I wrote it in English andI’m not sure the original English ever ran anywhere… because it runs to nearly 6,000 words, I have split it into three parts. The first two parst ran the last two weeks; here’s the finale, Part III, and I’ve decided not to hide it behind a firewall this time..
In order to do science, you must believe that science is worth doing. Which goes to the heart of the question: why do we do it? Do we study the stars to gain power or money or security by predicting the future, the way the astrologers try to do? To improve the timing of growing crops, the way the calendar-makers of the ancient world did? But our calendars don’t need constant revision; and our science has shown that astrology doesn’t work, just as our scriptures have insisted it was an abuse, a denial of free will and the power of God. So why do we do astronomy?
The original work of astronomers for the Vatican had a very practical bent. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII organized a commission to reform the calendar, and had the Jesuit mathematician Christoph Clavius explain it to the public. But, with that work done, Jesuit astronomers continued charting the heavens, observing planets and comets and building the first reflecting telescope.
A Pontifical Observatory at the Roman College was formally established in 1774; it had the task of keeping track of the weather, recording earthquakes, and marking the passage of the Sun across the meridian every day: they’d drop a ball; at that signal, a cannon would fire from a nearby fort, signalling noontime for all Rome. But they did more than that. Pope Pius VII observed a near-total solar eclipse at the Observatory in 1804. Fr. Etienne Dumouchel SJ and Francesco de Vico SJ were the first to recover Comet Halley in 1835. Fr. Angelo Secchi SJ in the 1860s developed a classification scheme for the spectra of stars, eventually classifying more than 4000 stars into different populations by their spectral features.
When Pope Leo XIII in 1891 established the modern version of the Vatican Observatory, it was to show the world how the Church supported science; but he was also building on centuries of astronomical research done for nothing more than the joy of glorying in God’s creation.
All astronomers, even the few of us who make a living at it, are amateurs… which, as we all know, means that we do it for love. And that is a radical assertion. Not every religion would see studying the physical universe as worthy of love. After all, if your goal in life is to reach Nirvana through meditation, then studying this merely physical universe, this corrupt reality, is a trap and delusion and a sin. For most of human history, the mathematics, the ethics, the poetry of the Eastern cultures has far surpassed anything in the West. But where were their James Watts or Thomas Edisons, their Mayo Clinics and MIT’s?
It’s only if you believe that the universe was made, in an orderly way, by a beneficent God who looked at it and said it was good; even more, if you believe in a God who so loved the world that He sent it His only Son — not, loved humanity, or goodness, or spiritual things, but loved the world — then you’ll believe that studying this world is a good thing, because it’s a way of becoming intimate with its Maker.
In On the Incarnation, written in 300 AD, St. Athanasius explicitly stated that creation is Good, and that it is a path to lead us to God:
“If a man looks up to heaven, he sees there His ordering... again, if a man has been immersed in the element of water and thinks that it is God — as indeed the Egyptians do worship water — he may see its very nature changed by Him and learn that the Lord is Creator of all. And if a man has gone down even to Hades, still he may see the fact of Christ’s resurrection. For the Lord touched all parts of creation, and freed and undeceived them all from every deceit. Thus Man, enclosed on every side by the works of creation, everywhere — in heaven, in Hades, in men and on the earth — beholds the unfolded Godhead of the Word.”
Athanasius argues against those who assume creation is evil. And he brings forth the insight that by participating personally in His creation through the Incarnation, God has elevated the status of nature, while still being separate from nature. We find God in the element of water, for instance, not because water is God but because it is a creation, and thus an expression, of God.
By implication, Athanasius suggests that the honor and duty of one who knows and loves God is to know and love His creation. In other words, God calls us to be scientists.
And that is why the Vatican supports an astronomical observatory. But why do we individual Jesuits become astronomers?
Let’s become observers ourselves, observers of ourselves. If you were to observe the observers, what would you see going on, day by day, at this Vatican Observatory?
You’d see is a week spent in near silence, awake all night on a cold lonely mountaintop under a starlit sky, quietly moving a telescope from star field to star field, typing a few commands into a computer, waiting for the starlight to be gathered into a frozen chip of silicon.
You’d see a noisy meeting room in a convention hotel filled with a thousand other scientists, old colleagues known from graduate school days and new grad students meeting each other for the first time. Amid the noise you hear friends chatting about new discoveries... worried about their next grant, their next job… overflowing with news of marriages, births, divorces since the last meeting… terrified because they’re about to try to jam a year’s worth of work into a ten minute presentation before 500 ultra-critical colleagues. And then one of them asks if he can talk to you, in private, for just a few minutes.
You’d see someone standing in an auditorium before two hundred high school students, their minds scattered in two hundred different directions, and slowly enticing them with the glorious colors of galaxies and nebulae into a deeper contemplation of Self and Creation and Creator.
You’d see a computer screen displaying not beautiful color images, but stars as random dots of black and white amidst every flaw on the detector chip, every speck of dust on the filter, the shadow of the moth that happened to fly into the telescope while you were taking the image. From this you must extract the brightness of one particular dot by counting the number of times a photon knocked an electron from your detector chip; and you know the relentless mathematical law that says the value you arrive at will be no better, statistically, than the square root of that number of hits. You hope that your count doesn’t also include the light from some faint distant galaxy nearby. And then you realize that the faint, anonymous, distant galaxy that’s getting in the way of your data is a collection of a hundred billion stars; each star likely surrounded by planets; and even if life is a one in a million chance, that would still mean a hundred thousand places in that little smudge where there could be alien astronomers looking back at you, muttering about that distant smudge of the Milky Way getting in the way of their observations.
You’d see twenty five brilliant young graduate students from around the world, meeting in the Pope’s summer home south of Rome for a month to learn more about astronomy… and to make those friendships that will be renewed at scientific meetings for the rest of their lives.
You’d see someone looking through a microscope at a thin slice of a meteorite and wondering what part of the asteroid belt could have provided those shocks, melted those minerals.
You’d see someone explaining once again to the hundredth reporter this year, why the Church supports an observatory; why there is nothing new to say about aliens or the Star of Bethlehem or the DaVinci Code; why the Galileo story is a whole lot more complicated than the story everybody knows – and yet, the truth about Galileo is no less embarrassing for the Church... an embarrassment that you feel personally because you love both your science and your Church.
You’d see another long trip through Roman traffic from Castel Gandolfo into the Vatican, past busy nuns and suited functionaries and saluting Swiss Guards, to speak to an official (in a language neither of you calls his mother tongue) about a visa, a project, an accounting issue.
You’d see someone stepping outside his room late at night, to just look up at the stars.
Even before Galileo ground his first lens, Jesuits were working in astronomy. Fr. Christoph Clavius SJ helped Pope Gregory XIII reform the calendar in 1582, and then wrote the book to explain that reform to the rest of the world. He also wrote a letter of recommendation for a young Galileo, when he was looking for a teaching job; and late in his life he got to look through Galileo’s telescope and see the moons of Jupiter for himself. Other Jesuits, at the Roman College and elsewhere, devised the first reflecting telescopes; mapped the Moon; convinced the Vatican to remove Copernicus from the Index; observed the transits of Venus that let astronomers finally measure the scale of the solar system. From the roof of St. Ignatius Church in Rome, Fr. Angelo Secchi discovered dark markings on Mars that he called canali (which were real, and quite different from the illusional “canals” that later astronomers thought they saw) and he first sorted the stars by their spectral colors.
All of these forebears did their work too in meetings and classrooms and alone at the telescope. They had moments of private spiritual conversation; Fr. Johann Hagen, director of the Vatican Observatory in the early 1900s, was the spiritual director of Blessed Elizabeth Haesselblad, the Swedish/American convert who founded the Swedish Brigittine order. They attended at weddings and baptisms and funerals for their colleagues, including many who might otherwise have felt uncomfortable around clergy.
And so our work continues, both at the telescope and in our new offices in the Papal gardens outside of Rome; and the Church continues to actively support our science.
The Vatican supports an Observatory, and asks the Jesuits to staff it with astronomers, in order to show the world in a visible way that it does not fear science but rather embraces it. This follows the long tradition of seeing knowledge of the created world as a path to the Creator.
And the reasons why we are astronomers are as old as the stars themselves, expressed in poetry since poets first wrote. The prophet Baruch spoke of “the stars at their posts [who] shine and rejoice. When He calls them, they answer, “Here we are!” shining with joy for their Maker.” Dante ended his Divine Comedy by referring to the “Love that moves the heavens and the other stars.” Ignatius wrote that “his greatest consolation came from the contemplation of the heavens and the stars, which he would gaze at long and often, because from them there was born in him the strongest impulse to serve Our Saviour.”
Call it consolation; call it joy; call it love. It is in season in every year. It is the study of the universe, the “all things” where one finds God. It is the work of the Vatican Observatory. It is the work of every observatory. We call it astronomy.
And then I wrote… as I mentioned last week, this article is adapted from a piece published in Italian in Civiltà Cattolica, which they ran in 2012. But I wrote it in English andI’m not sure the original English ever ran anywhere… because it runs to nearly 6,000 words, I have split it into three parts. The first part ran here last week; here’s Part II.
In order to do science, you must accept the three virtues described in St. Paul: faith, hope, and love. And these are quite frankly religious in nature. Indeed, one can argue (as Stanley Jaki has done) that they are specifically Christian. Certainly, they are articles that not all religions necessarily believe.
We start with faith. St. Anselm famously described theology as “faith seeking understanding.” But what is faith, really? And how does it relate to science?
Well, if theology means faith is seeking understanding, then clearly faith is something that is not yet understood, at least not in and of itself. And yet it is something important enough that we try to understand it. In science, that “something” is the experience – experience, again – the experience of Truth: raw, simple, direct. We know something is happening… but we don’t know what it is, do we? I am not speaking here of the truth we come to accept after a long labor; it is the truth we start with, axiomatically, the truth of the experience on which we construct the way we understand everything else we experience. In that sense, faith is an essential element of science.
If nothing else, you must have faith that there is an objective reality, and one that we can know. The world is not just illusion; I am not just a butterfly dreaming that I am a scientist. The philosophy of solipsism – that all reality is merely a projection of my own imagination – is incompatible with most science. (Maybe you can do quantum physics… as much as anyone can do quantum physics. But even if you did, if you are a solipsist, to whom would you present your results? I am reminded of the old story about the woman who came up to George Bernard Shaw after one of his lectures and insisted, “I am a solipsist; and so are most of my friends.”)
Science accepts on faith that the universe operates according to laws, laws that human reason is capable of grasping at least in part. Nowadays we accept the reality of a rational universe quite easily, because we’ve seen from experience that it works; using those laws we can predict eclipses, cure diseases, make jet planes and iPods. But where did that faith come from a thousand years ago, before we had those successes, before we knew it was going to work? Many historians of science, such as Pierre Duhem and Stanley Jaki, have argued that it came then from a belief in the God of Genesis, the one who created in an orderly way. They argue that’s why such a scientific worldview flourished precisely in the cultures formed by the religions, Judaism and Christianity and Islam, that accepted the God of Genesis. So it is worth looking at how those religions reconcile the existence of the laws of physics with the existence of a creator God. (Fr. Bill Stoeger, also at the Specola Vaticana, has written extensively on this topic.)
A principle common to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic philosophical traditions is the idea that God created the universe “from nothing”—creatio ex nihilo, as the philosophers put it. There is a great difference between the “nothing” that the philosophers are talking about here, and the physicists’ idea of a vacuum. Even where there is no material substance present, as you might find in deep space far from any galaxy, this space still has “space” and “time” and the laws of physics that allow physics to operate in these places. By contrast, the philosophers are referring not to empty space, but to the very reason that space and time itself exist.
None of the laws of nature in themselves provide the ultimate source of either order or existence. Physics is incapable of doing that. It always has to start with something – a field potential, energy – and well-defined states of that “something.” These must possess some dynamical regularities or order; and then physics can describe how you get from one state of such a system to subsequent states, or what had to precede a given state – presupposing the existence of time.
Thus, physics and the other natural sciences are simply, in principle, not capable of providing the level of ultimate grounding and explanation that Creation does. What the natural sciences investigate are the “secondary causes” (everything that happens besides this creative action of the Creator); it is through these secondary causes that the universe unfolds in all its richness. The fact that existence continues to exist from moment to moment is tied up in the same mystery. And so theologians speak not only of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing), but also creatio continua: the fact that at every instant, the continued existence of the universe itself is deliberately willed by God, who in this way is continually causing the universe to remain created.
In the theological tradition, we know that the character of our description of divine creative action, and indeed of our language about God, can only be seen as a poetic analogy for the reality. God, as the reason for why everything exists, is not just another entity alongside the entities of reality – not just another law of physics. And along with this, it is essential to remember that God’s action is radically different from other actions and causes. It enables and empowers and gives existence to the rest of the actions of the universe, but it does not substitute or intervene among them. Nor does it bring about change; rather, it is what makes change possible.
And so we understand that both science and religion are concerned with creation, with the nature of reality and the origin of things, and both are involved with issues of truth. To hold them separate, in watertight boxes, is a sterile solution that smacks of dishonesty.
And yet, in a fundamental way, science and religion are very different.
And then I wrote… in 2011 I wrote a lengthy piece for the Jesuit journal Civiltà Cattolica, which they ran in 2012, in Italian, as "Studio delle stelle e virtù teologali. L’esperienza di un astronomo." An abbreviated version ran in L’Osservatore Romano on July 28 of that year. But I don’t think it ever appeared in its full form in English. In fact I wrote it in English and they did the translations… because it runs to nearly 6,000 words, I have split it into three parts and we’ll run it here over the next three weeks. Here’s Part I.
As a Jesuit brother at the Specola Vaticana, the astronomical observatory supported by the Vatican, I live in community with fellow Jesuits united by our common vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience… and by our work as astronomers.
The world of astronomy is a microcosm that reflects how we human beings motivate ourselves to do things that bring no obvious benefit, in terms of money or power or the other things that the world judges as benefits. (Consider the vows we all have taken.) There is no obvious profit in understanding, say, the spectra of stellar clusters. How, then, do we astronomers motivate ourselves to work together on things that none of us could do on our own? What sustains us astronomers, moment to moment, in our pursuit of knowledge? What are the underlying qualities that not only determine whether or not we are good scientists, but that make us want to be scientists in the first place?
In its essence, this question is where science meets religion. It is commonplace to talk about the “endless war between science and religion,” and one commonplace way to resolve this “war” is to say that science and religion each have their own realm of applicability: as Steven Jay Gould once put it, their own “non-overlapping magisteria.” I do science during the week, I do religion on Sunday. I don’t worry about how they mix; I don’t let them mix.
Yet those who would put up a watertight barrier between science and religion miss one very important point. Science and religion do intersect without doubt in at least one place...
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And then I wrote… as I mentioned last week, back in 2011 I had started to write a column for the Tor.com site but after a few weeks the press of other matters caused me to abandon the project. I said before that I had had three columns, but actually there were only two that were finished and published. A shame that I didn’t have time to do more, since it’s a great site and I was proud to be a part of it. It’s because this article was originally written for an audience of Science Fiction Fans that I used the comparison of our meeting with the annual world gathering of SF Fandom, the Worldcon.
This week’s entry is particularly appropriate now, since as it happens the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences (or “The DPS” as we call it) starts – online, of course, this year – on Monday. The column that follows describes what I saw at the DPS meeting nine years ago, which was held jointly with the European Planetary Science Conference. They join forces this way every four or five years; last year was one such year, and the meeting was held in Switzerland.
Nantes is of course famous as the home of Jules Verne. It is also the location of the incredible Gallery of the Machines, a must-see for any steampunk fan. (The meeting banquet began at the museum, with the large mechanical elephant in a rare nighttime walk leading the way.)
News from the meeting is not something I can give in a balanced way; I mostly attended the sessions that were important to my own field of meteorites and small bodies. Instead, consult the wonderful blogs and tweets from Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society. (One bit of news: that year, 2011, she won the DPS’s annual Jonathan Eberhart prize for planetary science journalism. )
Instead, I want to talk about one of the most exciting new ideas of the past decade about how planetary systems form and evolve, and how the development of that idea reflects how our field itself has evolved over the last thirty years.
First — congratulations to the OSIRIS REx Team for their successful “tag” of asteroid Bennu! As you may know, this asteroid mission is headquartered here in Tucson at the University of Arizona. Several members of the mission have worked closely with us; some have been scientific collaborations with Fr. Kikwaya and myself, they have given our Faith and Astronomy Workshop participants tours of the headquarters, and their spokesperson Dolores Hill was the keynote speaker at our annual seminar in February. The mission was the brainchild of the late Dr. Mike Drake, and I was Mike’s first graduate student, a (cough) few years back. After Mike’s sad death, Dr. Dante Lauretta took over the mission; his PhD director was my friend Bruce Fegley, whom I knew when we were undergraduates together at MIT.
It’s a small world. But then, so’s Bennu.
The other big news for us at the Specola here in Tucson this month — besides the fact that I now need a sweater to go out for my morning walks, even though the temperature is still over 90 during the daytime — is that finally Fr. David Brown has been able to join us here from Rome.
Ever since he got his doctorate at Oxford, David has been working in Castel Gandolfo; but as his research projects have grown and evolved, it became clear that the time was ripe for him to move to Tucson, with access to both our telescope and to the other astronomers at Steward Observatory. He was supposed to be here this spring, but…
Want to know more about him? He’ll be the guest at our “Moonthly” Meet Up on Saturday, October 31, at 10am Tucson Time/1pm EDT. We’ll provide a link, a week ahead of time, to our Sacred Space subscribers.
Speaking of subscribers… our numbers grew to 217 over the past month, but now is the time of year when a lot of subscribers are cleared from the system so that drop off will be reflected in our count next month. Be sure that your credit card is current if you want to keep getting access to these posts, and the Moonthly Meetups. Thanks!
Meanwhile, we now have 10,486 people who get notified of new postings, net increase of about 50 new readers… welcome to all of you. Tell more people about our site! And if you can, please join the Sacred Space gang at a rate of $10 a month (if you’re like me, you’re trying to shed those Covid pounds by cutting back on at least that much in coffee and donuts every week!) or $100 per year.
Also, just a reminder, it’s always worth keeping an eye on the Coyne Memorial, as more memories are added all the time. And for those of you who like round numbers, I note that we are only $121 shy of reaching $70,000! When we hit $100,000 we’ll publish these reflections as a part of a book of George’s most notable popular articles and scientific papers.
These diaries are designed for our supporters, and so I like to include some “inside baseball” news about our doings here. This month, in honor of David Brown’s shifting home home base, I thought I would describe a bit about how we decide among the dozen astronomers at the Observatory who lives where. It’s one of the trickier jobs that I have as director. Obviously, some decisions are easy… Bob Macke is the curator of meteorites, the meteorites are in Castel Gandolfo, and so that’s where Bob is. But in other cases, it’s not quite so obvious. Yes, we have the telescope here in Tucson; but Tucson also has the advantage of having one of the largest populations of active astronomers in the world, with several hundred of them working at both the Lunar and Planetary Lab and the Steward Observatory of the University of Arizona, plus the non-profit Planetary Science Institute, just to name the major players. So why wouldn’t everyone want to join the gang here? The reasons can be personal, professional, and political… and historical…
And then I wrote… the year 2011 found me invited to contribute to a then-new feature of the website Tor.com, affiliated with the science fiction publisher Tor Books. (It helps to have friends in the field; editors at Tor, Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, have already gotten their picture in one of my posts, from the time they visited me in Castel Gandolfo.)
As it happens, I only wound up writing three posts for them before the press of other items got in the way. If you dig really hard you might still be able to find the posts there, but what the heck, here’s the first of them. In fact… this one was actually written by sometime Sacred Space author Bill Higgins, who let me tag on a few words and add my name to the author list. To be honest, I have no idea what, if anything, I contributed.
[And I swiped the opening joke from our friend Neil Rest; it’s all over the internet now so who knows who came up with it first!]
“We don’t serve faster-than-light particles here,” growled the bartender. A neutrino walks into a bar.
Last week [this blog post originally ran on October 4, 2011], scientists at the CNGS experiment (CERNS Neutrinos to Gran Sasso) reported the arrival in a lab in Gran Sasso, Italy, of neutrinos produced at the accelerator in CERN, on the Swiss-France border, at a rate that implied they were moving slightly faster than the speed of light. Soon, jokes (like the above) based on this possible violation of causality, with particles moving backwards in time, were the rage during coffee breaks in physics departments around the world.
Behind the science is an interesting social issue, however… how much can you believe of you read in the papers about science? Do news reports of major breakthroughs get it right?
The role of scientist as newsmaker has a long history, but perhaps a key moment occurred in 1919, when...
And then I wrote… in 2011, the planet Neptune had completed one full orbit around the Sun from the time when it was first discovered, and a small magazine called Argentus, edited by a friend of mine, Steve Silver, invited a number of astronomers to submit articles in its honor. You can see the resulting special issue here, on line. My contribution was to conduct an interview with Dr. Heidi Hammel, who is one of the world’s leading experts on the outer planets… and someone I have known since we were at MIT together, a… few... years ago.
Here’s the interview:
Planet Neptune was discovered on September 23, 1846, by the Berlin Observatory astronomers Johann Galle and Heinrich D’Arrest. They had famously been informed by the French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier that calculations of the perturbations in the orbit of Uranus suggested a planet could be found in a particular spot of the sky; when Galle and D’Arrest pointed their telescope at that spot, they found the planet, first try out. (John Couch Adams in Cambridge had made similar calculations, but couldn’t find any observer to listen to him and take a look.)
Once Neptune was found, people started looking at earlier observations when it should have been visible and discovered that it had actually been seen, but not recognized as a planet, by Jérôme Lalande in 1795 and John Herschel (son of the discoverer of Uranus) in 1835. In fact, one observation of Jupiter and its moons made by Galileo in 1613 also includes a star that is now thought to be Neptune!
With all these observations, it was quite easy to trace out the orbit of Neptune and calculate its period to be 164.79 years, or 60,190 days. On July 12, 2011, exactly 60,190 days will have passed since Neptune was discovered. Thus on that night it celebrates its first Neptune-year since it was recognized by fellow dwellers in its solar system.
But what’s happening today with Neptune? Who better to ask than the world’s leading expert on the planet, Heidi Hammel.
Dr. Hammel achieved world-wide fame in 1994 as the lead scientist on the team using the Hubble Space Telescope to observe the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy into Jupiter. Her images not only were published in newspapers and television world-wide, her gracious presence and clear explanations to the reporters made her an instant media star… one that was recognized by the world’s largest association of planetary astronomers, the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, who awarded her the Sagan Medal in 2002 for her contributions to the public understanding and enthusiasm for planetary science. She even was the subject of a biography, Beyond Jupiter, by Fred Bortz, written to inspire school children (especially girls aged 9-12) to consider a career in science.
After graduating from MIT in 1982, she went to the University of Hawaii where she earned her PhD in physics and astronomy in 1988. After that she worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and MIT. In 2005 she joined the board of directors of The Planetary Society. Now a senior research scientist with the Space Science Institute, her work concentrates on observing and understanding the outer planets. She has been an author on more than 300 papers, going back to her undergraduate days at MIT.
It was at MIT when I first met Heidi, while she was a student and I was a research post-doctoral fellow. But it wasn’t in the planetary sciences department where we crossed paths… in fact, I was also trying out a future career by appearing in the MIT Musical Theatre Guild’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. While I was on stage as the Rabbi (blame my beard!) Heidi was in the orchestra pit, playing the drums.
We’ve stayed in touch over the years, meeting up at various scientific meetings around the world. This conversation occurred via Skype from my office in the Vatican Observatory south of Rome, and her home in Connecticut.
Were you aware that this is the first anniversary of the discovery of Neptune – in Neptune years?
If I had not been aware, then the number of calls from reporters would have alerted me, because you are not the only one to call me! Sometime this week I will also be talking to the BBC, and I have some other emails awaiting in my in-box.
I am happy that you have actually that you responded to me, then! This is what happens when you’re the world’s leading expert on a planet.
I guess so! [Laughs] One of them, anyway.What’s hot in Neptune? By that, I mean, not only what are the big mysteries, but it seems that in your most recent work you’ve doing a lot talking about hot spots in Neptune. What’s that all about?
We’re able to do thermal imaging of Neptune now, because we finally have big enough telescopes and big enough detectors that are arrays instead of single channel bolometers. Now we can do infrared imaging, and with the large telescopes we have enough spatial resolution to actually map out where some of the heat is coming from on the planet.
What are some of the telescopes that you are using?
Gemini [a pair of 8.1 meter telescopes in Hawaii and Chile], and the VLT [the Very Large Telescope array, a set of four 8.2 meter telescopes in Chile]. Glenn Orton is really the expert on this… he’s been doing the VLT work, and I have been doing some of the Gemini work.
What we see is that down on the south pole of Neptune is a very bright spot, and we really don’t know much about the details of that or why it’s there. But it’s quite evident in the imaging that there’s this tightly confined spot...
We first thought it was the pole itself. When we look in the near-infrared images from Keck – which are reflected light, not thermal emission – there is a very tiny confined spot at the south pole. So when we got our thermal images (which don’t have as much resolution) with a bright polar spot, we initially that maybe that was the pole itself. But in some of the images, the spot seems to shift around, as if it is something that is close to the pole but not quite at the pole. But we’re not really sure, we don’t have enough data.
So it’s a mystery. Why is there a bright polar spot there? What’s causing it and why should it be moving? It’s very hard to answer these questions with the limited data that we have.
Why does it matter?
The specific question of whether Neptune has a hot spot on its pole or not...