The original version of this article first appeared in The Tablet in May, 2004, announcing the transit as an upcoming event; we ran a version here on the blog in June, 2015.
“There’s a little black spot on the Sun today...” In the Police song “King of Pain” these words evoke an alienating sense of remoteness. But on the morning of June 8, 2004, a much larger spot was visible crossing the Sun, an event that occurs but twice a century; when it happened in the eighteenth century, it changed human history.
A “transit” occurs when we see one astronomical object appear to move in front of another. Since Venus orbits between us and the Sun, you might expect it to transit the Sun rather frequently. But the Sun is small, as seen from Earth, and the orbit of Venus is tilted slightly compared to ours, so Venus usually appears to pass above or below the Sun. It’s only when our orbits are precisely lined up that the black spot of Venus’ nighttime side stands out against the Sun’s brilliant disk. This happens in pairs, 8 years apart, about every 130 years. The last pair of transits were in 1874 and 1882.
The Venus transit was merely an astronomical curiosity when first observed, by the English cleric Jeremiah Horrocks in 1639. But in 1716, Edmund Halley (of comet fame) pointed out that the transits of Venus predicted for 1761 and 1769 provided a unique opportunity to make a fundamental measure of the universe.
By the 18th century, the observations of planets and Kepler’s laws describing their motions merely allowed astronomers to compute the relative distances between planets. Only if you could actually count the number of miles between any two planets, could the distances to all the other planets be worked out. But how do you make that one definitive measure?
Halley realized that a Venus transit let you to do just that. It’s a matter of parallax. If two people observe the same transit from two different vantage points, they’ll see Venus crossing the Sun in two slightly different paths. The distance between those paths, if you know how many miles apart the observers are, can then be translated into how many miles away Venus is from us and from the Sun.
Thus, to measure the parallax of Venus you have to have at least two observers in well-mapped positions, as far as possible from each other. Getting to distant locations and measuring their positions accurately was in itself was a challenge in the 18th century. The more people observing, the better you could average out these uncertainties. By the middle of the century, an international group of astronomers were preparing the observations.
Unfortunately, they didn’t count on the vagaries of international politics. By the 1761 transit, France and Britain were engaged in the Seven Years War, raging from India to North America. When the Astronomer Royal’s assistant, Charles Mason, left for India he never got farther than the English Channel before being attacked by the French fleet. (His ship escaped back to England, and eventually he sailed to South Africa.) Likewise, the French astronomer Le Gentil got to India only to find that his goal, the French colony at Pondicherry, had fallen to the English; on the day of the transit, his boat was still out at sea, for fear of capture.
With all these difficulties, and the challenge of observing a very dark spot against a very bright Sun, the results of the first set of observations were less than satisfactory.
It was another eight years before a second set of observations could be made. Mason and his surveyor assistant, Jeremiah Dixon, came home by way of the North America colonies, where they took the time to survey the boundary between the northern and southern (slave-holding) American colonies, known to this day as the Mason-Dixon line. Le Gentil stayed in India to wait out the next event. And, after the end of the war, the Royal Astronomer decided to lease a ship, the Endeavour, from the Royal Navy for the next expedition to the South Seas.
The 1769 event was observed at 77 different locations around the world. Le Gentil, in India, saw nothing but clouds; having missed both events, he returned to France only to find that he’d been declared dead and his property distributed among his heirs. But other observers (including Jesuits in China and an arctic expedition lead by Fr. Maximillian Hell of Vienna) had greater success. The results were surprising: the solar system turned out to be some ten times bigger than most astronomers had expected.
The astronomical significance of this measurement did not stop at the solar system. Knowing how far the Earth travels as it goes around the Sun allows you to use the same parallax trick; the positions of nearby stars appear to move ever so slightly compared to more distant stars when observed from one side of the Earth’s orbit to the other. In this way, distances to stars could be measured, and the scale of the galaxy determined. This was the first step in calculating the distance to other galaxies, and clusters of galaxies, a measurement that forms an active part of astronomy even today. It’s a big, empty universe out there.
The success of the 1769 observations had other ramifications. The young Navy lieutenant assigned to keep an eye on the Endeavour -- James Cook -- started a tradition of combined naval and scientific exploration of distant seas, from Australia to Hawaii, which foreshadowed Darwin and the Beagle and indeed the military pilots who flew the Apollo missions to the Moon.
Today, spacecraft make these measurements far more accurately. But anyone equipped to look at the Sun can recreate those historical observations. (Use all the same care you'd use for a solar eclipse, as in 1999: proper filters, or pinhole projection. Don't look directly at the Sun, and don't look too long even with filters -- stop before it hurts!)
Take a moment on the morning of June 8 to appreciate this rare dance of the planets. There is a peculiarly human delight at predicting and seeing this conjunction, and knowing its historical and scientific significance. As Sting sang: there’s a little black spot on the Sun today; that’s my soul up there.
The transit in 2004 was observed from our rooftop in Castel Gandolfo with a group sponsored by Sky and Telescope. The 2012 transit was observed there by our Vatican Observatory Summer School
This column first ran in The Tablet in May 2017
The British fantasy writer Neil Gaiman tells the story of attending a gathering of great writers, scholars, and thinkers, and wondering if he really belonged in that group. Next to him, another attendee also named Neil voiced similar doubts. “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.” To which Gaiman replied, “Yes. But you were the first man on the Moon. I think that counts for something.”
In that spirit, in May 2017 I presented to Pope Francis the attendees of our workshop on Black Holes, Gravitational Waves, and Space-time Singularities. The scientists included 35 of the brightest in the field, including a Nobel laureate. Two of them gave the Pope a copy of their work announcing the discovery of gravitational waves. (I gave the Pope a book written by children at my old elementary school.)
A major theme of the workshop was the exchange of information. Would information survive passage into a black hole, or would every kind of ordering be erased in that space-time singularity? The question has implications also for the singularity at the beginning of the Big Bang. What sort of theory would allow one to even answer that question? Will we ever have a workable theory of quantum gravity, to combine the insights of Einstein’s General Relativity (which works fine at astronomical scales) with the quantum physics that seems to operate at the tiniest scales?
What was wonderful to me was seeing how the setting of this workshop at the Vatican provided just the opposite of a black hole: rather than destroying information, the feeling of “neutral ground” here fed discussions that went on long after the formal sessions had ended… into the meals the attendees shared together, the walk through the Papal Gardens, even on the bus ride to the Papal Audience.
Conversation, the transmission of information, is the heart of science. Things can also get mis-transmitted, of course. Most of the news coverage (including in The Tablet) called our meeting a “faith and science” workshop even though the only faith expressed at the meeting was faith in, or against, the standard models of cosmology. (“I really hope there’s a multiverse,” one attendee confessed to me.)
And we got the usual spate of emails and tweets from those who have grand ideas about cosmology, if only the rest of the world would listen. What makes the 35 folks at our workshop worth listening to on this topic more than all the helpful enthusiasts who email us? The experts and prize winners have paid their dues: a lifetime of learning the real meaning of the words “singularity” and “space-time” in a way that journalists (or columnists like me) can only hint at; a lifetime of not only talking, but also listening. (One attendee was notorious for talking over those who disagreed with him; the rest of the group eventually just ignored him.)
That’s one difference between the real scientists and the wanna-be’s. The email writers are sure they are right; we know we aren’t, completely, and never will be. And that’s what gives us courage to believe we’re not imposters. Science is not the truth, but the search for truth.
Pope Francis understands that. “I am deeply appreciative of your work,” he told us, “and I encourage you to persevere in your search for truth. For we ought never to fear truth, nor become trapped in our own preconceived ideas, but welcome new scientific discoveries with an attitude of humility.”
[The title I chose for this column comes from something I once heard my grad school buddy Cliff Stoll say: "Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom."]
This column for The Tablet first ran in May 2006; we first ran it here at The Catholic Astronomer in 2015. It has been one of the more popular postings...
“Believing that God created the universe in six days is a form of superstitious paganism,” proclaimed a Scottish newspaper earlier this month , citing as its authority no less than “the Vatican Astronomer, Guy Consolmagno.” I was as surprised as anyone; though I do worry that creationism can tend towards paganism, I don’t remember being so blunt. Well, he was careful not to put those words into quotation marks.
But even if it is an accurate statement of what I believe, does it qualify as news? I’m not a theologian, much less a spokesperson for the Vatican. I’m an astronomer who happens to be a Jesuit, who happens to work at the Vatican. Of course, I have my opinions on matters of theology, but are they any more newsworthy than the opinions of a punter at the pub about the prospects of his favorite football team?
I got the feeling, talking to the Scottish reporter, that my everyday Catholic approach to science and religion was a shock to his prejudices. Rather than accepting that his old preconceptions were wrong, he decided that what I was saying must be something new. And, judging from the response his article got, those prejudices (and shocks) must be rather widespread.
Those words made it into the “blogosphere,” that virtual world of the Internet where people pass around jokes, recipes, and outrages of the day. I received a dozen angry e-mails from creationists, upset that I had called them pagans; and another dozen from pagans, angry that I had called them creationists. So far, no one has spoken up for the superstitious.
But why would I think that there was a connection between the Genesis 1 description of creation, and paganism? Actually, for several reasons. For instance, Genesis 1 speaks of God forming the universe out of a pre-existing chaos; taken by itself, it implies that God only forms rather than creates. By contrast, the later book of Maccabees (2 Macc 7:28) speaks matter-of-factly about God truly creating, ex nihilo, out of nothing. The former vision is closer to a pagan one; the latter, Christianity. (The Genesis 1 description also ends up with a flat Earth covered by a dome, a point that most creationists appear to ignore.)
Likewise, insisting on a universe that needs a direct intervention of God to accomplish some things but not others (thus leaving telltale “thumbprints” of that intervention), reduces God to not much more than a functional equivalent of Jupiter, god of thunder, or Ceres, goddess of grain. The Christian belief of a supernatural God places Him normally outside of nature (that’s what makes the Incarnation so special), yet ultimately responsible for all of it. In essence, it’s all thumbprints.
The Old Testament talks about God’s creation in many places, not just Genesis 1. To understand where the truth lies, you need to account for all these different descriptions, to avoid misunderstandings due to word choices, translation errors, etc. And you need to recognize the settings in which they were written, to account for systematic biases as might arise from taking words intended for the ears of wise, if unscientific, pastoral peoples and reading them as if they were instructions from an engineering textbook.
One of the most important lessons a scientist learns is not to be too swayed by one data point. We know that every measurement is afflicted with both random and systematic errors. You take lots of data, and hope the random errors average out. You compare your results against known points of truth, to detect and account for any systematic tilt. And at the end of the day, you still recognize that your final result is, at most, only probably true.
This parallel with theology should not be surprising. Theology was the first science; it taught science the rules of reason.
This article first appeared in The Tablet in April, 2004; we first ran it here at the Catholic Astronomer in 2015
Astrobiology, so the joke goes, is like theology: an academic discipline where highly educated people argue for years about a subject no one can prove exists. It’s been around a long time under a variety of different names – exobiology, bioastronomy – but only when NASA decided a few years ago that the search for life was a winning strategy to get funding did the field start to get more than begrudging respect. And so, the last week of March , I joined more than 700 scientists gathering at the NASA Ames Research Center for the fourth Astrobiology Science Conference.
The setting was both inspiring and cautionary. NASA Ames is located at the old Moffett Field Naval Air Station in California’s Silicon Valley: our meeting was in a large tent in the shadow of the enormous hangers built in the 1930s to house dirigibles. One could not help but wonder just how similarly ephemeral the material at the meeting would look in seventy years’ time.
I helped organize a session on the ethics of exploration with Connie Bertka, the director of the program for the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The panelists included the historian of science Steven Dick; ecologist Margaret Race; NASA’s moon-rock curator, Carl Allen; philosopher Kelly Smith; theologian Richard Randolph; and astronomer Dave Grinspoon.
The sheer cost of doing the science to look for life is one issue with an ethical dimension raised by the panel. It’s not a choice of either/or, feed the poor or search for life on Mars; there’s good reasons to do both. But how do you choose how much to spend – time, money, human effort – on each? It’s not only a decision that governments must make; it is also one that each individual makes, constantly. Do I become an economist or an astronomer? Do I work on a scientific paper this morning, or write another column for the Tablet? Do you spend the time to read this column, or turn the page?
Exploration can be dangerous. The ships of the Renaissance not only brought spices from the east; they also brought the plague. In returning samples from Mars, do we expose Earth to alien life? But meteorites from Mars, and elsewhere, rain down on us all the time. To what degree must we sterilize samples returned from Mars? What if doing so destroys some of the very scientific data we went to the trouble of fetching the rock for? When is it ethical to kill Martian life?
Visiting other worlds creates another set of ethical problems. As one speaker noted, the human animal, full of e-coli and whatnot, is notoriously “leaky;” humans on Mars inevitably will release bacteria into its biosphere. And at what point – if ever – do human beings have the right to “terraform” another planet, to deliberately alter its environment? We’ve been doing that to planet Earth for years, with decidedly mixed results.
Along with the physical dangers, a more subtle danger comes with exploration: dangerous ideas. Few plagues can do as much damage as a half-baked philosophy in the wrong hands. Discovering life elsewhere will inevitably alter everyone’s world-views, to a greater or lesser extent. Short of closing our eyes, how do we prepare ourselves, and our culture, for the shift? Science fiction may be more important than we realize in defining the debate.
Indeed, the impact on Christianity of finding alien intelligent life was a question I got more than once at the meeting. How does our understanding of the salvation of Jesus Christ, God and man, change when we find a race of aliens, neither God nor human?
It’s a question I hesitate to answer simply because there are so many unknowns. (That, of course, doesn’t seem to have hampered anyone else; Paul Davies quotes many different answers in a recent Atlantic Monthly article.) Is there alien life? We don’t know. Are there alien intelligences? We don’t know. Would they be in need of salvation? We don’t know. Would we even be able to communicate with them? We can’t communicate with dolphins – or each other, at times – here on Earth.
I am confident there are no extra Persons hiding in the Trinity, a new one for each alien race. The Word, as John’s Gospel tells us, was there In The Beginning, the one spot in space-time common to all time lines. And this same Word was with God, and was God, the God of whom Psalm 85 says, “the heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours; the universe and all that is in it – You have founded them.”
Would that Word be spoken in different ways, to different alien cultures? The idea of multiple incarnations strikes some people as ludicrous, other people as inevitable. But after all, The Word becomes incarnate a million times a day, at every Mass.
For those demanding a Biblical answer to whether Jesus will speak to alien races, I quote John 10:16, in the famous Good Shepherd passage: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
I admit, my reading of that passage is tongue-in-cheek. (Traditionally, the “other sheep” are the Gentiles, not ETs.) And yet, by asking these questions, we are already forcing ourselves to confront the very nature of the salvation of Christ; who He is, and what it means to us. And to admit that, here too, we don’t know it all. It’s one more example of how a scientist works every day, proceeding on nothing more than the hunch that there’s something there to study; something to believe in.
This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2017
We believe in things we cannot see – God, say, or Black Holes – because we observe their effects on the things that we can see. Still, there is a little bit of Doubting Thomas in all of us. It would certainly be nice to have a direct image of what a black hole actually looks like!
The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) is designed to do just that. It isn’t one instrument, but a collection of radio telescopes spread around world, observing the same object at the same time. Using a technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), which compares the very tiny differences between different telescopes’ signals, a high resolution picture emerges. The farther apart the telescopes are, the better the image’s resolution; the EHT telescopes span the width of Earth itself.
After nearly 25 years assembling the team of telescopes and refining the technique, this month the EHT began its first concerted observations of the black hole at the center of our galaxy. We can’t see the black hole itself, of course; light can’t escape from its massive gravity. But a black hole’s size and shape can be measured by the shadow it casts against the radiation emitted when material falls into the hole.
Chair of the science council for the EHT is Heino Falke, an astronomer at Radboud University (where I spoke in December, 2016, at his invitation). I first met Heino in 1993 when we were students together at the Vatican Observatory’s Summer School (VOSS). This week I sent him an email to ask about the EHT.
“I first developed the idea in 1993, while I was at the VOSS,” he wrote me. His thesis advisor, Peter Biermann, was a VOSS lecturer; they eventually worked out how one could use VLBI to detect the shadow of a black hole. Subsequent visits to Arizona, including using the Sub Millimeter Telescope (next door to the Vatican’s telescope on Mt. Graham), ultimately led him to the EHT project.
Sub-millimeter radio waves are just right to resolve the shape of the black hole’s shadow. There is plenty of radiation emitted in these wavelengths from the “Event Horizon,” the last point where light can escape the black hole’s gravity. The black hole’s shadow should be visible against the scattering of these radio waves. And Earth is just big enough that comparing signals from opposite hemispheres can resolve the magnified shadow. (It helps that the shadow is magnified by the black hole’s gravity itself.) Heino pointed out, “those three effects are completely unrelated. So, that is truly fine tuning of the universe… Thank God!”
The goal of the experiment is to test if the shadow’s size and shape matches what General Relativity predicts: between 45 (if it is rotating rapidly) and 52 (non-rotating) micro-arc-seconds (about the size a DVD on the Moon would look to us on Earth). The shape of the shadow should tell us how fast it is spinning.
A parallel project hopes to measure pulsars in the Galactic Center. “That would help us to get even better combined constraints of the nature of space-time, like the quadrupole moment, which in General Relativity is uniquely determined by mass and spin,” Heino explained. Black holes don’t show these higher order details; as Heino puts it, “black holes are the simplest objects in the universe.” So far, only one observable pulsar has been found, but he remains hopeful.
Want to know more? “Ah, ja, also Ray Jayawardhana wrote this nice article in The Atlantic recently about the EHT and my work,” Heino told me. “We were at the same VOSS, of course.”
Guy Consolmagno SJ is the director of the Vatican Observatory.
Sometimes I write columns and then decide not to submit them to The Tablet. This was my alternate column for April 2016; this is the first time it's been published. Comments?
The Vatican Observatory exists to show the world how the Church supports astronomy, and so a large part of my work is traveling the world to talk about our work. Two recent  stops have been particular eye-openers to me.
Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, just outside Salt Lake City, is the premier center of learning for the Mormon Church. For reasons that still puzzle me, I was invited to be the first non-Mormon scientist to give their annual Summerhays Lecture on Science and Religion.
They went remarkably out of their way to make me feel at home. Indeed, the university guest house even caters to its gentile guests by having a coffee machine — the only coffee allowed on campus. (Stimulants like caffeine are forbidden to Mormons, though they’ve decided that cola-based sodas are exempt.) A planetary scientist colleague of mine there, herself an active Mormon, invited me to her class and organized a seminar for me to talk about my research. I was even taken up to the famous Sundance Ski Resort for an afternoon of snowshoeing. (They’d offered to show me the historical and religious sites of Salt Lake City. I pointed out that, as I live in Rome, hiking their glorious mountains would be more of a treat.)
Meanwhile, a retired chemistry professor (a Catholic married to a Mormon), was my local guide to the oddities of Mormon theology. I had devised a talk that I thought would be non-controversial, examining how we “people of The Book” — Christians, Jews, and Muslims — are free to study nature with science because we reject nature gods: our God is supernatural. But the more I learned of Mormon beliefs, the less clear it was such an assumption about how they view God actually fits their unusual theology.
A month later, I was at a small school set in the rolling hills of my home state of Michigan, a liberal arts university where a third of the students are active Catholics. Hillsdale College is famous for proudly refusing to accept any government money. The sticking point, according to a document that they included in their welcome packet, is how the Government (specifically naming “the Obama Administration”) demands to know the racial makeup of their student population. This is insulting to a college like Hillsdale, which since its founding before the American Civil War has proudly proclaimed that it accepts students of any race or creed. Indeed, Hillsdale sent a record number of graduates to fight for the Union in that war; those veterans are commemorated in a prominent statue on campus. More recent statues honor Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine that any black student ever encounters prejudice at Hillsdale; in my two days there, I never saw a single black student — or teacher. (I am told they have a few scholarship students from Africa.) When I asked if they had any Jewish faculty, I was told, “he’s retired.” At least they did serve coffee.
I feel churlish commenting about these places. In both schools, the hospitality was genuine and the students were wonderful. Both schools have active astronomers doing first-class work. But in both places, I felt uncomfortably out of place. I realize now that it’s probably how my non-Catholic friends must feel when they visit me at the Vatican Observatory.
The glorious thing, however, is that even though our politics or theology may be very different, we are all nonetheless united by our love of astronomy.
We all live under the same stars. The heavens proclaim the glory of God to everyone.
This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2016; this has been slightly edited.
Planet Nine, whose possible existence was first broached in January 2016, has become a hot topic of speculation. By April of that year, one tabloid announced that comets perturbed by Planet Nine would soon lead to the demise of life on Earth! (Astronomer Phil Plait ran an amusing rebuttal in The New Scientist.) But, is there actually a Planet Nine?
Recall, an Astronomical Unit (AU) is the distance from Earth to the sun. From the sun to Neptune, the farthest known planet, is 30 AU. Pluto is but one of a thousand balls of ice orbiting between 30 to 50 AU.
But in 2003, Mike Brown and his team at Cal Tech found a body they named Sedna whose orbit comes no closer to the Sun than 76 AU, and which actually arcs out to nearly 1000 AU. It’s hard to imagine how it could have been formed out there; more likely it was pushed there by the gravity of some other planetoid.
Now, there are two ironclad rules of celestial mechanics that apply here. First, any two bodies perturb each other with equal force, with the bigger change occurring to the smaller body; so the perturbing body has to be a lot bigger than Sedna to cause its wild orbit. And these two bodies must pass close to each other for their gravities to have an effect. If Sedna was perturbed by a bigger body, then that bigger body must also be out there orbiting where Sedna orbits.
That much was known in 2003. But by early this year, Brown had found five other bodies in huge orbits just like Sedna’s. Konstantin Batygin, a celestial mechanics whiz with a fast computer who works with Brown at CalTech, calculated that one and the same large body (they guess about ten times the mass of Earth) orbiting from 200 AU to more than 500 AU from the sun could be responsible for all of those wildly perturbed orbits.
If there is such a body, why haven’t we seen it? It must be faint and far away. It could well be orbiting now in a part of the sky we’ve never searched. Indeed, it might be sitting right in front (from our point of view) of the densest part of the Milky Way, its faint light hidden among a million other equally faint dots.
When I was a student, the idea of something ten times bigger than Earth orbiting out so far from our sun would have been laughed at. No rocky planet could be so big, or so distant. But now we’ve discovered systems of planets orbiting other stars, and from them we have learned that ten-times-Earth is a pretty typical size for planets. Furthermore, we’ve seen that such planets can indeed change their orbits by such great amounts, early in the histories of their solar systems.
In fact, we now think that Uranus and Neptune themselves were actually formed close to Saturn and then flung out to their current locations during the early history of our own solar system… maybe at the same time that smaller chunks rained inwards, peppering the Moon with its craters and covering the Earth with water and carbon-bearing ices. There’s plenty of room in our theories for another planet, say a big chunk of rock and ice, to be sent out to where Planet Nine is proposed to exist.
And notice a sweet theological echo to this proposal. We can’t see Planet Nine; not yet. But still, some believe it exists; because they can see the things that it has done, to the things that we all can see.
Note added in 2018: This hypothesized planet is still controversial... and not yet found. See a recent article about it here in the Atlantic...
Horst Rademacher, a seismologist at U C Berkeley, wrote to friends of mine there last weekend, asking about the date of Easter:
Tomorrow (Apr 1) is Easter. According to the classic definition Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. That makes sense, because today is full moon, which is the first full moon after the beginning of spring. And tomorrow is Sunday, hence Easter.
However, today's full moon occurred at 5:37 am PDT. Let's assume, the full moon would have occurred at 5:37 pm PDT. Applying the definition above from a purely California perspective, tomorrow would still be Easter. However, if we were in the Netherlands, in Germany or in the Vatican for that matter, this assumed full moon would occur the next day at 2:37 CEDT. But because the next day (tomorrow) is a Sunday, it could not be be Easter, because Easter always falls on the first Sunday AFTER the first full moon. Hence Easter would fall on the next Sunday......
So here is the question: Do you know in which time zone the full moon is measured in order to define Easter? If you don't know, does your friend, the astronomer in the Vatican know?
Sorry to bother you with something that esoteric...
The short answer is this: in the Gregorian calendar, Easter is no longer defined as the first Sunday after the first full Moon of spring. Instead, it is determined by a totally arbitrary formula that approximates this definition, getting it right for most but not all of the years in the 19 year Metonic lunar cycle.
Originally published in The Tablet in March, 2008, and again here in 2015. Slightly edited.
A few years ago while I was showing friends around the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo, we bumped into a couple of visiting astronomers from Poland. After making the appropriate introductions, I mentioned that Jozef Zycinski also happened to be the archbishop of Lublin. My friends were suitably impressed; an astronomer/archbishop is something most people don’t see every day. But his companion in the hallway, Michael Heller; how could I describe him? As of 2008 I could also say, “he’s the winner of the 2008 Templeton Prize.”
I first met Michael Heller in the early 1990s. Chatting over breakfast in a Tucson diner, I innocently asked him what sort of astronomy he did. He explained that he was interested in finding a mathematical framework that could unite quantum theory with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Then he launched into the details of “a noncommutative algebra from which a differential geometry can be constructed...” Even though I was fresh from postgraduate courses in cosmology at the University of Chicago, I was lost. Those courses had been just enough to let me recognize that I was way out of my league.
It turns out that his theology and philosophy are at an equally high level, and equally difficult for the layperson to understand. I asked Bill Stoeger, the resident cosmologist and theologian among my fellow Jesuits at the Observatory, if he could give me a short summary of Heller’s “big ideas.” In a word: no. Indeed, a few years ago his fellow philosopher Stanislaw Wszolek wrote a paper on Heller’s work that ultimately summarized it by merely saying it rejects “the popular simplifications and divisions which appear abundantly in philosophical course-books and popular science books.” The short answer is that there is no short answer.
Instead of all that scholarship, I have a more familiar picture of Michael Heller. Stories at the Vatican Observatory describe how in the 1980’s he would escape to Castel Gandolfo, staying with us while he visited with his fellow Polish academic and close friend in whose summer home we lived. (Heller contributed significantly to Pope John Paul II’s documents supporting science in the Church.) When Michael came, our rector knew to stock up on bananas: rare delicacies in Poland during those last dark days of Communism.
And I remember my own visit to Cracow at Michael’s invitation in 2000, where he did an impromptu simultaneous translation into Polish of my talk. Half the audience got my jokes in English, the other half laughed at his Polish versions; he must have done them justice.
But can justice be done to a scholar like Michael Heller? Can the rest of us ever appreciate Heller’s contribution to the interface of science, mathematics, theology, and philosophy… especially when most of the popular attention nowadays gets focused on those whose expertise in one field is paired with an embarrassing naïvety in all the others? Indeed, his enormous talents are at such a high level, can they ever really connect to the rest of us?
It’s an issue that haunts every academic working in a rarefied field.
At the end of the day our life’s work is nothing but a pile of equations and words, mere wind, whose ultimate value (if any) we may never live to see. And, like St. Aquinas, we can recognize that a sudden insight into the face of God can make all our work look like straw best suited for the fire. Yet, like St. Aquinas, our poor writings can change the course of human thought, even to inspiring some future Michael Heller.
In the meanwhile, we find our encouragement in the joy of the work itself, which reflects the joy of the Creator… supplemented, of course, by the affirmation of the occasional million dollar prize.
Originally published in The Tablet in March, 2007, and again here in 2015... this version is slightly edited.
The late Stephen Jay Gould, Harvard biologist and popular science writer, once described the roles of science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria” – they should not be in conflict because they never come in contact. I could see his point; as cases from Galileo to Dawkins have shown, authority in one field rarely translates into authority in the other.
But as those same cases also demonstrate, science and religion do overlap all the time in at least one locus: in the human being, who chooses how to live in a world that has both science and religion. Indeed, the same is true of all the worlds each of us live in: our politics, school, favorite music, social background, sports teams, family. We all have our homes in each of those fields.
I felt caught up in such a web back in 2007 when a friend of mine (an Indian, from India) at the University of Wisconsin invited me to an Indian (Native American) reservation in northern Wisconsin, to join with other invited space scientists and Native Elders in presenting science and creation stories.
The whole concept of mingling “science” with “storytelling” would have had an earlier generation of scientists foaming with rage. Once, philosophers of science insisted that our work had a truth value superior to any other form of human knowledge because it was based on the pure reason of mathematics. They called themselves “logical positivists.” But ultimately their greatest accomplishment was to show that science itself was illogical: just because the light comes on when you flip the switch a hundred times in a row, doesn’t prove that it will work the hundred and first time. Science has to assume, without justification, that a repeated pattern is evidence of a deeper law, not just a string of coincidences. But sometimes it’s wrong.
A later generation of philosophers have pointed out how strongly science has been shaped by accidents of history and the personalities of who was doing the science. It really is a story, one that can be told around a campfire… or over a beer at a conference, late into the evening after the sessions are over.
Even the mathematics we use is a form of poetry: Newton’s equation for gravity provides a beautiful metaphor for the path of a falling rock. Like good poetry, it allows our human minds to see things in a new and deeper way. And it is judged by its elegance of form as well as its content of truth.
We choose the stories we tell for the truth we need to convey, and adapt those stories to the audience we’re speaking to. It’s the same truth, the same story teller, but a new story every time we tell it. That’s why we never tire of seeing Shakespeare performed; indeed, every performance, even of the same production by the same cast, is a new experience.
Thus we have the details of the solar nebula, the cloud of gas and dust from which the planets formed, described in very different ways by astrophysicists observing distant nebulae, and meteoriticists looking at rocks from the nebula that made our solar system.Thus we have two creation stories in Genesis in Chapters 1 and 2, which differ in the sorts of details that would drive literalists nuts if they actually were paying attention. Thus we have creation stories from other, non-European cultures, that still have a power to help us place ourselves in the universe. Someday we may even be able to trade creation stories with ETs.
To travel to this storytelling with Native American elders, I’ll be flying to a remote wilderness area in northern Wisconsin, far from the paths where I normally work. Oddly enough, though, a forty-five minute drive from there will bring me to my brother's house in Michigan. Some locations are closer to home than you might think.
Originally published in The Tablet in March, 2006, and republished here in 2015. This version is slightly edited.
The 2006 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, held outside the Johnson Space Center in Houston, was unusually rich. We saw fiery dust from an ice-rich comet; startling images from Mars; a new type of lunar rock… and that was just on Monday morning. By Friday afternoon, I was exhausted.
I had already heard the Stardust results (see Across the Universe) at the Sunday welcome cocktail party when one of the mission scientists whispered to me, “We’ve found CAIs!” (Another friend on the team described Stardust Principle Scientist Don Brownlee’s first comment when they finally got the samples: “I can’t believe it actually worked!”)
These high-temperature grains of Calcium and Aluminum oxides that appear as Inclusions in certain meteorites are thought to represent the first solid materials to crystallize out from the hot gases that made the sun and planets. How did they wind up wrapped in comet ices, stored in the farthest reaches of our solar system? In fact, a controversial theory of the early Sun had predicted a powerful wind of plasma and magnetic fields that could have blown just such crystals outward, in streams above and below the disk of the planets. Suddenly this theory doesn’t look so unlikely.
On Wednesday, the team of the Cassini spacecraft mission to Saturn showed their images of its moon Enceladus spewing geysers of liquid water out of its south pole. Does this water represent a global ocean under the Enceladus crust? Should we be looking there for signs of life?
That afternoon, the Deep Impact team had their turn. Recall (Across the Universe) that the previous July they’d flung a copper canister at nearly 40,000 km/hr into the nucleus of Comet Tempel 1. Their high speed movie showed a “puff” of superheated rock droplets at the instant of impact, followed by a cloud of dust and ice. Spectrometers on board recorded the chemical composition of the cloud; and watching it fall back to the comet let them measure the comet’s weak gravity. It is so low that the comet nucleus must be quite fluffy, more than half empty space.
Friday morning, the Japanese Hayabusa mission (Across the Universe) presented their results. Their target asteroid, Itokawa, also appears to be a rubble pile, 40% empty space, covered with boulders and gravel. Their lander picked up samples, but trouble with the spacecraft means they may not get them back to Earth until 2010, three years later than planned.
Perhaps giddy with these delightful results, several scientists presented some more adventurous speculations. Jonathan Lunine (then at University of Arizona, now at Cornell), in a special prize lecture, suggested that we should send blimps to Titan (Across the Universe) to cruise its atmosphere, with occasional forays to the surface to look for life in its methane lakes.
Brett Gladmann (University of British Columbia) presented calculations showing that microbe-bearing meteorites launched by impacts from Earth could actually reach Titan. Would that provide the seeds of life for Jonathan’s blimps to find? “Don’t ask me,” Brett replied. “I’m just the pizza delivery boy.”
Not all was sunshine and fun. At a sober session Monday evening, the scientists heard the bad news that NASA is cutting their science budget by 15%, with Astrobiology (Across the Universe) chopped in half. Cost overruns with NASA’s shuttle, and the general dire state of the US budget, are to blame.
Indeed, the week before the meeting I had visited New Orleans, a city whose devastation was indescribable. There are no shortages of places that need our resources, both financial and human. But for one week, a thousand planetary scientists remembered that this universe of storms and human tragedy is also a place of surprise and delight; that the joy of discovery can give us the strength to face tragedy. It is evidence of God’s presence across the Universe.
[More than ten years later, our science has advanced but many things remain the same. New Orleans has recovered from its hurricane; Puerto Rico has not. Brett Gladmann is still saying witty things about asteroids. The NASA budget is, as ever, under attack. And the Lunar and Planetary Science meetings continue to be held every year in Houston though it is no longer held on the site of the Johnson Space Center. I went to my first one in 1976; it's been a while since I have had the chance to get back, lately, alas.]
Originally published in The Tablet in March, 2005, during the centennial year of Einstein, and the month when Pope John Paul II died. It also ran here on The Catholic Astronomer in 2015; it's slightly edited for 2018.
The intense but often erratic news coverage of the events in Rome following the death of Pope John Paul II could tempt one to despair at the state of journalism. With their talent for misstating the obvious, can we have any hope in entrusting to them the legacy of John Paul II, or the significance of his successor? Hope, however, can be found in an example from science, and how the popular press has served the reputation of another giant of the 20th century.
The year 2005 was the year of Einstein. In his honor, the UN declared 2005 to be the World Year of Physics. April 18, 2005, marked the 50th anniversary of his death; and it was exactly 100 years ago that year that in four famous papers he demonstrated the particulate nature of matter and light, and then revolutionized our sense of common sense by showing that time was equivalent to space, and energy equivalent to mass.
We have all grown up in a culture that has produced its own equivalence: the name “Einstein” equals genius, while genius implies shaggy white hair and a German accent. But how did that happen?
The biographies tell us when it happened. Einstein was a patent office clerk with a newly-minted PhD from Zurich when he submitted his famous four papers in 1905. Following their success, in 1908 he was a lecturer in Bern; a professor in Prague in 1911; and given a chair in Berlin in 1914. By 1915 he had worked out his General Theory of Relativity (a far more daunting, and revolutionary, result than the 1905 paper) and his scientific reputation was set.
But it was only when his theory’s prediction of the bending of starlight by the Sun was demonstrated during an eclipse in 1919 that he became a household name. “Revolution in science - New theory of the Universe - Newtonian ideas overthrown” ran the headlines in the Times on 7 November, 1919. And they were right. But how did they know?
And why did the rest of the world care? Visiting America in 1921 he lectured to an overflowing hall at Princeton and remarked, “I never realized that so many Americans were interested in tensor analysis.”
We’re familiar with the cult of celebrity today, and we’re used to seeing how reputations can be created and destroyed overnight on the whim of an anonymous reporter, editor, or blogger. Our worship of fame is balanced only by our cynicism about it. In the scientific world where I live, it’s almost accepted as an axiom that any scientist who gets on television is a fake. And yet I’ve also experienced that even scientists will be more likely to attend a talk by someone they’ve seen on TV.
But unlike the three-month half-life of today’s radioactive reputations, Einstein’s fame has survived for nearly 100 years. It has endured anti-Semitic outrages in Germany, anti-Communist hysteria in America, and the thirst of glory-seeking pop historians to topple every statue in sight. And, most remarkably of all, that reputation has proved to well-deserved.
There were no shortage of giants in the 20th century science – Curie, Bohr, Eddington, Lemaître, the list seems endless – and every year brings another new dozen winners of Nobel prizes. Indeed, many elements of Einstein’s theories had already been suggested by Planck, Lorentz, and others. But where they were suggesting tweaks on classical physical models, Einstein recognized in their tweaks a basis for a whole new way of looking at all of physics. He transformed the way we understood very nature of physics itself.
Galileo and Newton had shown how the action of everything could be reduced to mathematical laws in a relentless application of common sense that threatened (as Blake and the Romantics complained) to reduce all of life to mere mechanical cause and effect. Today we appreciate that such mechanisms are but approximations of a fundamentally unpredictable universe. But between Newton and the quantum revolution, Einstein did a far more surprising thing.
He showed that even the predictable could be unexpected; that even in a mechanistic universe, you can’t take anything for granted. The warped space-time of General Relativity has resisted the best attempts of a century of popularizers to explain in a way that doesn’t boggle the imagination; but nonetheless it remains the best theory to explain what we observe both in our measures of the cosmos and the workings of the atom.
Blandly applying the lessons of relativity to everyday life almost always gets it wrong. Relativity certainly does not say that “everything is relative”; indeed, it says they opposite, postulating an unchangeable entity – the speed of light – that remains constant and true in every frame of reference. Nor did it mean the downfall of Newton’s laws, which remain our best approximation for most ordinary circumstances.
The biggest jolt of relativity in fact is that it is a startling counter-example to Occam’s Razor. It is a case where the simplest explanation – the common sense of Newton and Galileo – turned out not to be correct.
And so maybe, in its way, Einstein’s fame is also an antidote to our cynicism. Sometimes, the newspapers get it right. Sometimes, the popular fascination is deserved. Sometimes, glory is more than a marketed commodity.