This has been a great year for the Vatican Observatory Foundation, in a lot of ways. We’ve made major upgrades to the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope. We supported a fantastically successful Vatican Observatory Summer School, the 16th that we’ve run since the program began in 1986. The Jesuits and our adjunct astronomers have given hundreds of public talks and appeared in dozens of newspapers and media interviews. (I even got my picture on the front page of the New York Times!) Our Faith and Astronomy digital library is now up and running, at it has already attracted nearly 50,000 views. And the Catholic Astronomer website is now followed by more than 8,000 subscribers. In terms of supporting the scientific and educational work of the Vatican Observatory, we’ve never done more.
The one downside? We are running seriously short in fundraising.
How serious? Well… every year we make up a budget, and for 2018 we assumed that we’d be able to raise $600,000 in donations from foundations, major benefactors, and many individual donors. This goal was admittedly optimistic, but it wasn’t out of line with what we had done in previous years.
But of that $600,000, as of the end of November we had raised only… $180,000. Not even a third of our goal.
Granted, the biggest burst of giving comes at the end of the year, as people look to adjust their balance sheets for tax purposes and so forth. But still… to make up two-thirds of our budget in one month? That’s a steep hill to climb.
Maybe it was the tension of the political year. Maybe it was a change in tax laws. Maybe it was the stock market. Maybe people were just distracted by too many other things.
And, after all, in a world filled with immediate and serious issues, why should anyone pay for astronomy?
Well… precisely because we are always faced with immediate and serious issues; that’s why we also need to take time to lift our eyes to the sky and remember the greater things, the things that feed not just our bellies but our soul. We don’t live by bread alone. Genesis 1 tells us that while God spent six days laboring over creation, the climax and goal of the Week of Creation was the Sabbath – the time when we get the chance to sit back and appreciate what He hath wrought.
After all, consider Galileo. Everyone knows he got in trouble with the Pope; who remembers the name of the Pope? Who was King of England, the year that Herschel discovered Uranus? Who was the richest banker in Switzerland, when Einstein proposed his theory of Relativity? Who had the best selling song on the Hit Parade, the week that the Hubble Space Telescope was launched? The things that most occupy our attention, day to day, are often the things we most quickly forget.
Now here are three things I would like you to think about.
First… you know, each year the US government supports NASA to a tune of less than one percent of its annual budget. Likewise, the Vatican City State dedicates around one percent of its annual budget (a lot less than the US budget!) to support the Vatican Observatory in Rome. Consider your own giving this past year… to charities, to schools, to political candidates. All of that was certainly worthwhile. Might I suggest, though, that perhaps you could also find at least one percent of your total giving to support our astronomy?
My other two ideas won’t cost you a cent. The fact is, even better than getting another donation from you (much as we will appreciate it!) would be if you could let a friend or relative know about us and have them join in on our work. There’s a hundred million Catholics in America, and (in spite of our efforts) about 99,999,000 aren’t on our mailing list yet. Spread the word!
My last request? Well, let me speak from my experience as the Foundation’s president. At the beginning of this letter I bragged about all the wonderful things the Foundation is doing. But 90% of those things happened because people just showed up, out of the blue, offering exactly the skill or talent or ideas that we needed at just that moment. They were answers to prayers. So please, if nothing else, take a moment and say a prayer for us.
Together we can remind the world of the Glory that God has proclaimed in His Heavens!
Wishing you a blessed holiday season!
(We sent this letter to all the VOF supporters on our mailing list; if you want to join that list and get updates on things we are doing, stuff far more interesting that how fast we're going broke, subscribe by clicking here...)
This column first ran in The Tablet in December 2015
One hundred years ago, Albert Einstein published his theory of General Relativity and changed the way we understand our universe.
Newton had shown, 200 years earlier, that one could use mathematics (including his newly invented Calculus) to describe and even predict the way things in our physical universe move. But to do that, Newton had had to assume without definition the concepts of space, mass, and time. He had to assume that forces like gravity acted “at a distance”… Earth could pull on the Moon even if there’s nothing but this mystical “gravity” connecting them. Finally, he had to envision a playing field, the “inertial frame of reference”, where these forces could move those masses through space, over time.
The whole genius of physics is to describe motion and change; but change, relative to what? Newton’s unmoving frame of reference was his answer. But was the Earth’s surface such a frame? Not if the Earth spins, and moves around the Sun. Was the Sun? No; it too moves through the galaxy. And our galaxy itself is moving — relative to the other galaxies, at least. Worse, by the late 19th century our understanding of how light and electromagnetism behaved, Maxwell’s famous equations, did not fit into Newton’s framework.
Einstein’s 1905 Special Relativity theory, describing the special case of unaccelerated motion, solved that problem. Unlike Newton’s assumptions of constant space and constant time, Einstein found that the measure of both shifted with the observer’s frame of reference. Only the speed of light remained constant.
Furthermore, space and time make a continuum; what’s space and what’s time appear to shift as you change your viewing point. Relativity also showed that mass and energy could be swapped, the basis of nuclear energy and how stars shine. General Relativity completed the revolution by identifying mass itself as the warping of the space-time continuum. It’s the science behind the GPS unit that maps your position in your smart phone.
Newton’s universe is hard enough to envision — just ask any student trying to learn it. Einstein’s universe is so bizarre that even today very few physicists (not me!) have a gut, intuitive grasp of how it behaves. But for a hundred years it has overcome every attempt to disprove its basic points. The warping of space by the mass of the Sun was first measured in 1919 by Arthur Eddington, who compared the apparent positions of stars near the Sun, measured while the Sun was in eclipse, with their positions mapped when the Sun was not around. (Modern equipment can replicate this experiment to a much higher precision; hundreds of amateurs hope to repeat these observations during the solar eclipse across the US in 2017.) Ten years later, Eddington’s protege, Father Georges Lemaître, used Relativity to outline the cosmology we now call the Big Bang.
If Relativity is hard for the physicist to grasp, it’s even harder for the non-scientist who wants to use terms like “warped space” and “everything is relative” as metaphors for some new-age view of reality. Reality contains warps in space; but very few warped views of space are real. Relativity does not mean that there is no certainty, but rather that even in physics there is a truth the same everywhere: the speed of light.
I see a different analogy. What do we measure our lives against? Rather than the old rigid framework of The Law, Christianity (as St. Paul reminds us) has but one universal standard: Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. Two thousand years ago, a newborn lain in a manger, he changed the way we understand our universe.
(This column first ran in the Tablet in November, 2005, and reran in 2015... it refers to a column I published here on the blog last month.)
Waxing eloquent in a previous column, I referred to Lord Rosse’s giant 19-century telescope as “rightly called a leviathan, it boasted a mirror five feet in diameter set in a tube fifty feet long...” Except, of course, that I was wrong. It’s bigger: the mirror is 72 inches, or six feet, in diameter, and the tube is 54 feet long.
It’s not the first mistake I’ve made in print, nor will it be the last. A small group of helpful readers e-mail me regularly with my errata, providing me with a regular dose of humility. In past columns I’ve been sloppy in the way I have defined “heliacal risings” and premature in what definitions of a planet the IAU will consider.
My initial defensive reaction is to insist, “it doesn’t matter! Five feet or six, the point is, it’s big!” And, to some extent, that’s true. The actual size of the telescope, or other such details, has never invalidated the stories I was trying to tell. And I can take comfort that one of my literary heros, G. K. Chesterton, was just as sloppy in his details when he wrote his justly praised biographies of Francis of Assisi or Thomas Aquinas.
But my very defensiveness tells me that these criticisms do sting, precisely because they are justified. And they are the bane of my work: misspelled names, misquoted details. Sometimes they’re more substantial; I’ve given the wrong dates for upcoming lunar eclipses in a popular astronomy book.
A scientist is supposed to be careful. When I observe faint Kuiper Belt objects at our telescope, or measure meteorite densities in the lab, the whole value of my work depends on me getting the details of the observation, and how the data are reduced, exactly right. Sloppy work is a sin. But I know myself too well; I am a sinner.
The problem grows worse in an age when everything in print winds up, sooner or later, on the Internet. We all make mistakes; but rather than seeing most of those mistakes go out the door with the morning trash, they stick around forever, potentially misleading anyone else who happens to stumble upon a posting of error.
There is a salutary aspect to admitting one’s mistakes, of course, if it makes you more willing to accept others’ shortcomings. There’s an even better aspect, if it makes you triple-check your work! But human nature is lazy, and we’re prone to glory in one-upsmanship.
For my part, the only reliable way to rein in my inevitable slips is to work in a partnership with other scientists. It’s more than just trying to catch each other’s mistakes, though it is nice if one’s collaborator is the sort of picky perfectionist who can drive you mad at times. But I also find that I do tend to be more cautious when I know someone else’s reputation is also on the line with my contribution.
The most important lesson of all, however, is to expect error. Error analysis is an essential tool for the proper interpretation of data. We take lots of measurements, assume the truth is somewhere within in that cloud of data, and hope that we can explain away any of the bits that are far off the mark. But we know better than to be satisfied with only one data point. Scientists are people, and people make mistakes.
And we look to the results that other people have gotten under similar circumstances, to be sure that our answers are consistent with theirs. Science is a social activity. The lone genius is a Hollywood fiction. We work as teams, we must, because our work can only be seen as reliable, much less meaningful, in the context of what other scientists around us are doing. In real life, no scientist could find the truth on his or her own.
It’s as unreliable as trying to find Jesus on your own.
’Oumuamua is not the only odd thing in the outer solar system... this column dates from November, 2004, in the Tablet, and was first published here in 2015.
The latest news from out where Pluto orbits has brought to my mind that ‘60s satire of TV science shows, “Everything You Know Is Wrong.”
Readers of this column may remember how surprised we were last spring  to find an object, since named Sedna, orbiting nearly twice as far from the Sun as any previously discovered solar system body. That far away, it must be pretty big to reflect even the meager bit of sunlight that we see glancing off its surface; perhaps as big as Pluto itself?
How big? That depends on how bright its surface is.
We know from their motions how far away from the Sun (and us) Sedna and the other Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) lie. And we can measure how much light from them reaches our telescopes. For a given brightness, that amount of light could mean they were very big, if their surfaces were relatively dark; or not nearly as big, if their surfaces were bright white; or any combination of size and brightness in between.
So how do you tell how intrinsically bright an object like that is? The simplest way is to make an educated guess. Our “education” in this case is noting that one object we’ve seen close up, face to face, coming from that distant TNO region of space was the nucleus of Comet Halley. We (or at least, the Giotto spacecraft) visited that nucleus in 1986, and discovered that it was quite dark. The nucleus (as opposed to the big, bright, gaseous tail) reflected only 4% of the light hitting it; the rest was absorbed into its jet-black surface.
If Halley reflects 4% of the light it gets, then our first guess is maybe that’s how much light gets reflected from the other TNO objects, like Sedna. Very dark. Hence, very large.
But what happens to the other 96% of the light that hits the surface of Halley’s Comet? It gets turned into heat. That’s the heat that penetrates to the ices below the surface, causing them to boil away through cracks and vents to make the glorious comet tail. Out where Sedna orbits, even jet black objects won’t get that hot. But they’ll still get hotter than bright white objects.
Now look with a telescope and detector that sees the infrared light emitted by all heated objects; such an infrared spectrum can tell us the temperature of the object. Unfortunately, the infrared colors of an object in deep cold space, at say 30 degrees above absolute zero (i.e., at minus 240 Celsius), are at wavelengths that cannot pass through the Earth’s atmosphere. To see them, you have to go out into space.
And we’ve now done that. Nasa’s Spitzer Space Telescope, launched a year ago, has been sending back its first data on the infrared colors of a few select TNOs. And the numbers are a surprise. They’re colder than we thought.
So if they are colder, they must be less dark; more like 10% to 20% of sunlight gets reflected, three or four times as much as we had thought. If they are brighter, they must be smaller. Four times as bright, means one fourth the surface area; half the diameter; one eighth the volume and mass. Sedna no longer rivals Pluto after all.
And indeed, this new dose of “education” raises the brightness, and shrinks the sizes, of all our educated guesses for these distant TNOs. All the other educated guesses we had made about the TNO region – how much stuff there is out there, how often that stuff runs into each other, how its motions have affected the motions and positions of the giant gas planets throughout the history of the solar system, and on and on – all of these guesses are now up for re-evaluation.
Everything we thought we knew, is wrong.
Well, that’s an exaggeration, of course. It’s only one number that’s changed. All the other observations that we’d taken of the TNOs, their colors and positions and relative brightnesses, are all still true. But with one new number, all those other numbers paint a picture of the outer solar system that looks more than a little different than it used to look.
We’ve got lots more to learn, many more such numbers to collect and improve, to better describe the outer solar system. Our knowledge is still in its infancy. And being relative children, we think like a child, act like a child; only with new knowledge do we start to put aside childish things. St. Paul knew well how it works, to grow in knowledge.
Everything the nuns taught us about God when we were children is still true; but in the light of our adult experiences it has depth and meaning we could never have imagined then. Our knowledge of the the solar system is no different. Seeing how it can change so fundamentally with one new bit of insight should likewise cause us to reflect how insecure all our understanding, or God or Nature, will always be… until the time comes when we can see both, face to face.
[Current measurements put the diameter of Sedna have revised it downward even further; best estimates now peg it at less than 1600 km, compared to Pluto's 2372 as measured by New Horizons.]
I got an email recently from someone who’d read an interview of mine...
Good question, actually. Here's how I answered him:
Great to hear from you! And good on you, to call my bluff about me saying what “somebody else” should be doing! So here are some thoughts off the top of my head…
- the CCD classes
- the Knights of Columbus
- your local parish Mens’ club if one exists
Once you know them and they know you, volunteer to give a talk about how your faith and your science work together.
What I find works best for me (your mileage may vary) is to have a very short (10-15) summary of who you are and what you do, followed by questions and answers. You can find resources that might be useful at the above we sites or on our YouTube channel.
This column first ran in The Tablet in November 2017
In the month after its discovery we were able to train some of the largest telescopes in the world on the new visitor to our solar system (that I wrote about here), a small body whose orbit indicates that it is had come to us from outside our own solar system.
“We’ve been expecting for twenty years to find some body on an orbit like this,” explained Brett Gladman to me. He’s an astronomer at the University of British Columbia who specializes in the faint distant objects of our solar system. (I was visiting Vancouver in November 2017.)
He wasn’t surprised that its path was almost perpendicular to the plane where our sun’s planets orbit. There’s no reason why it couldn’t come from any direction, since it is not tied to our system. He wasn’t surprised that it was small, barely visible to our biggest telescopes. “In space, collisions mean that big things break into small things, so there will be more small things than big things. You’d expect the first bit we would see would be the smallest bit we could possibly see.” As our telescopes get better, we can expect to see more such small fragments.
“But I was certain it was going to be a comet,” Brett confessed to me. We know that, compared to rocky asteroids, there are about a hundred times more small bodies in the cold outer reaches of a star system that rich in ices, and the nearby passage of some giant planet in that system could well pull such a little guy into an orbit sent our way.
“So what I expected was that when this body got to about one AU” — the distance that Earth is from the Sun — “it would be heated up enough to evaporate all that ice, and we would see it suddenly grow a five times brighter.” Instead, this body emitted no visible gases at all, even as it fell to within a quarter of Earth’s distance to the Sun… closer even than the orbit of Mercury.
“Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you’d expect a comet. That’s a ‘three-sigma’ result,” he said. The term “sigma” comes from probability theory to indicates how likely a particular event might be. Brett concluded, “I guess that shows that, to three sigma, I don’t know what I am talking about!”
But its gas-free composition was only the beginning of the surprises. Two teams of astronomers, led by Karen Meech (from Hawaii, but using telescopes in Chile) and Michelle Bannister (at Armagh, but using telescopes in Hawaii) managed to track how the brightness of the object changes in time. If the body is irregular in shape, like you would expect for a shard of a broken asteroid, then its rhythm of bright and dim tells you how fast it is spinning and (assuming it’s constant in colour) even its shape, turning brightest when we see it broadside and dimmest when we look down its ends. This result was completely unexpected: the change in brightness is so great, and it turns so dim so suddenly, that it must be shaped like a pencil: ten times longer than it is wide.
How big is it? We know how much light it reflects back to us, but not how dark its surface is. It could be big and dark, or small but shiny. If its surface is like bodies in our own solar system, it’s probably half a kilometer long and maybe 50 meters thick.
It does finally have a name. The discoverers have designated it ‘Oumuamua, Hawaiian for the first scout of a new land.
'Oumuamua was the subject of an entire session at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences in October, 2018. In order to fit its orbit, it turns out that there needs to be some non-gravitational forces acting on it such as would be expected from comet outgassing; so perhaps it really is a comet. On the other hand, as another researcher put it, it doesn't really exactly match anything that we have in our own solar system.
Sometimes I write columns for Across the Universe that, for various reasons, I decide not to submit. Here is one that I prepared in 2016 while attending the 2016 General Congregation. I decided to go with last week's column instead... in part because with the topic below I would either have run short (as here, well below the typical 600 words) or I would have gone way too long...
I have been participating in the 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, which finally closed on November 12 . It was an odd experience… half, six-week-long retreat; half, six-week-long faculty meeting. As you can imagine, I didn’t get a whole lot of science done during that time.
But that’s not to say that I wasn’t thinking about science. It wasn’t particular projects waiting for me back at the office that held my attention, though, but rather the the whole enterprise of being a scientist.
The fact is, for all the endless hours in our meeting hall discussing minutiae of Jesuit governance, the congregation really was a profound religious experience. God was there; God moved in the things we do; God’s presence changed minds, and changed outcomes. How do I fit that into my cosmology of the scientist who expects the world to follow simple predictable patterns of cause and effect?
Oh, sure, I can blithely speak of quantum effects where at the tiniest level it’s chance, not causality, that holds sway. But I know the math, I know that by the time you get to the scale of airplanes the odds always are good enough to be reliably predictable, enough for me to get on that plane and fly across an ocean.
And yet, I continued to see God act at the congregation. How does that work?
About twenty years ago a group of theologians and scientists held a series of workshops at the Vatican Observatory, producing a dozen hefty books exploring the subject of God’s action in the universe. I mostly skipped those meetings; it was enough for me to accept that both science and God were true, and not worry too much about the details.
One model would say that our science just describes a limited subset of reality; it can describe the pigments of the Mona Lisa but not her smile. A different model suggests that God is actually behind every quantum choice, expressing at that unpredictable level effects that eventually show up in our observable universe… God, rigging the playing dice that controls the universe.
The trouble with both models is that they assume that our science itself has got it right, and we need to warp our vision of God to fit our vision of science. But as anyone who has studied the history of human thought is well aware, science itself is a moving target, constantly changing.
If anything, it is our understanding of God that has managed somehow to remain constant even as the physical cosmologies we use to understand the universe have advanced from the domed sky of Genesis, to the spheres moved by medieval angels, to those almost-measurable entities called dark matter and dark energy.
Guy Consolmagno SJ is the director of the Vatican Observatory.
This column first ran in The Tablet in November 2016
When I first arrived at the Vatican Observatory, more than 20 years ago, I decided to take advantage of its extensive meteorite collection by doing a systematic measurement of meteorite densities. Why? Mostly because no one else had done it before; no one had ever had both the access to such a collection, and the time to make such a survey. (It’s taken more than twenty years, and the work continues.)
Soon after I started publishing my first results, spacecraft began visiting the asteroids that were the source of these meteorites, measuring their densities as well. The first surprise was that the asteroids were far less dense than the meteorites derived from them… showing that the asteroids were not solid rocks but rather, loose piles of meteoritic rubble. Our meteorite data allows us to make specific, quantitative estimates of the actual rock and metal content to be found within a given asteroid.
Still, both their detailed spectral colors and the actual samples returned by the Japanese Hayabusa probe confirm that these asteroids are made of the same material as the meteorites in our lab. Now NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission is already en route to bring back larger samples from a dark, water-rich asteroid while the Japanese and Europeans have other sample return missions in various states of development. A more ambitious NASA project, the Asteroid Redirect Mission, hopes to actually capture a small asteroid and move it into a more convenient orbit around Earth, to be exploited at our leisure.
My interest in studying asteroids in such detail has been purely scientific; asteroids are, after all, the leftover bits from the era when planets like our Earth were formed. Of course, this information could help us to characterize potential “killer” asteroids whose path may sometime intersect Earth’s, with a destructive impact. The bright fireball over Chelyabinsk back in February, 2013, whose sonic boom sent more than a thousand people to hospital, shows that such concerns are not just the fodder for Hollywood movies.
But there’s another use that our data are being put to nowadays. Private corporate ventures – Planetary Resources Incorporated, Deep Space Industries, Kepler Energy and Space Engineering, Asteroid Mining Corporation – are lining up to commercially exploit resources from those asteroids that pass near to the Earth (see my column from April, 2012). Some are concentrating on extracting water from these asteroids, to be used for rocket fuel in space itself. Others look to derive platinum and other rare and valuable metals from these asteroids to be sent back to Earth. Given the non-stop solar energy available in space, one could eventually see these asteroids serve as sites not only for mineral extraction but for manufacturing as well.
This prospect was the topic of a paper I presented to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences meeting on sustainable resources [in November 2016... you can see the video of my presentation here!]
It would certainly be good to move the messy business of mining and manufacturing off the surface of our fragile planet. But the economy of developing nations depends on exporting minerals. And, unlike the jobs provided by mining on Earth, space mining will probably employ at most a small number of clever programmers and robot operators. Of course, the lives of miners in the third world is harsh; and their minerals are also the source of endless armed conflicts.
This all speaks to the urgent need to rethink the ethics of our current economic system. (I don’t claim to have the answers!) But whether asteroid mining occurs in 10 years or 100, it is inevitable… with an impact as widespread as any killer asteroid.
This column first ran in The Tablet in October, 2006. We first ran it here at The Catholic Astronomer in 2015
Doing science has often been compared to reading a mystery novel; the hunger to know “whodunit” keeps us turning the pages. But what stops us from just skipping to the last page, and moving on to the next book? Perhaps a better metaphor is a spice cake. The real pleasure of the process lies in the spicy experience of wondering. Actually finding out is just the icing on the cake.
At the annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society, held earlier this month  in Pasadena, California near the famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), dozens of little slivers of spice cake were on offer.
A wonderful little asteroid system, called 1999 KW4, passed within half a million kilometers of the Earth about five years ago; it’s taken that long to analyze the radar reflections and work out its remarkable shape and spin. It’s shaped like a top, with a ridge about its equator that looks like a mountain range. But in fact it is spinning so quickly that dust on its surface slides “uphill” to the top of these mountains, where it is only just balanced by the asteroid’s gravity against being flung out into space. The icing, the bit that proves the hypothesis? This little asteroid has a moonlet, as you’d expect for material spun off its parent.
Outside Saturn’s more famous rings, earlier spacecraft had discovered a fainter ring where the moon Enceladus orbits. Where did the material in this ring come from? The subject has tantalized theorists for twenty years. Now the Cassini spacecraft has found fountains of liquid water pouring out from Enceladus’ south pole.
Previous images of Ceres, the largest asteroid, showed a shape that suggested it was a differentiated body with a rocky core, icy mantle, and dark rock crust. Is Ceres actually another geologically active dwarf planet, like Pluto? The icing: new Hubble infrared images now indicate a surface covered with suggestive looking features. (And of course, we now know ever so much more about Ceres... with ever so many more questions!)
We got a bit of icing on our own spicy puzzle, described in my column here about a cloud of gas we’d observed moving away from a Centaur, orbiting in from beyond Neptune en route towards the Sun. Our colleagues at JPL now suggest that we were watching a separate comet, one that almost shares an orbit with the Centaur, and the two just happened to be passing near each other when we observed them last spring. They encounter each other only occur once every 1600 years; we were just lucky.
Like spice cake, each one of these explanations leaves us hungry for more. What makes the asteroid spin so fast? Why does only Enceladus have fountains? Are those features on Ceres geology, or just impact craters? And, just as nerve-wracking: how will the upcoming US Congressional elections affect the NASA research budget to find out these answers?
We don’t know the answers to any of those questions. But the suspense, the spice, is made bearable by the faith that the answers will come... with luck, on a time scale not too painfully distant.
That faith is what keeps us going through all the uncertainties of daily life, including the biggest questions of all — the ones we won’t solve until our lives here have ceased. But just as each newly solved science puzzle generates ever more bits of spice, it seems to be a pattern of the universe that even “the end” will be no end at all, just the introduction to a newer tantalizing experience.
Indeed, it was only by solving previous mysteries that these delicious news ones have come to light. A scientific answer that doesn’t suggest new problems is as cloying as icing without cake. In life, as in science, you can only have your cake by eating it.
This column was first published in The Tablet in October, 2005; we first ran it here at The Catholic Astronomer in 2015
Standing in the lee of The Leviathan, a handful of amateur astronomers and their cool white telescopes huddled against the night Irish wind, praying for the skies to clear. We were attending the 20th Whirlpool Amateur Astronomy conference, held every autumn at the castle of Lord Rosse in Birr. Here in the 1840’s the Third Earl had built the world’s largest telescope: rightly called a leviathan, it boasted a mirror five feet in diameter set in a tube fifty feet long. With this giant he’d discovered the spiral arm structure in that galaxy off the handle of the Plough called The Whirlpool. (Actually it's six feet in diameter, as I will discuss in a later post!)
The third Earl was a classic example of an amateur astronomer: one who did his work only for the love of the subject. He had no advanced degrees, and he did not earn his income from his astronomical labors (spending a good portion of his wife’s inheritance on his telescopes). But his work was groundbreaking, at the forefront of 19th century astronomical research.
What would you call the present generation of amateurs, represented at this year’s Whirlpool meeting? Nik Szymanek will happily sell you his book on how to photograph the nighttime sky. The images he showed that weekend, made with relatively inexpensive commercial cameras and amateur telescopes, rivals the best professional images of even ten years ago. But he has a day job back in London, driving a train on the District Line.
Later I met the Lincolnshire astronomer Paul Money, who derives part of his living by giving over 100 astronomy talks every year. He has a day job, too, selling retail for Marks and Spenser. On the other hand, at the Whirlpool I gave a presentation on my own book for amateurs, Turn Left at Orion; as a Jesuit I derive no personal income from my book, yet my day job is research at the Vatican Observatory. Which of us are the professionals, and which the amateurs?
Is the difference the amount of money we make, or our academic degrees, or the importance of our research? Sir Patrick Moore has produced little in the way of professional research, but his “amateur” books stoked the youthful ambitions of nearly every professional astronomer I know. Meanwhile, much of my research into asteroid structure is based on an analysis of asteroid shapes and spin rates; often as not, the data I use were originally taken by active amateurs working with the International Occultation Timing Association, or undergraduates at small universities making careful records of asteroid light curves.
The blurring of boundaries between amateur and professional is occurring more and more in different branches of science. Amateurs collect fossils and meteorites, volunteer at archaeological digs, track rare birds and butterflies. But the new availability of inexpensive detectors and computers has made this collaboration all the more striking in astronomy in recent years. Adding no small part is amount of self-education available on the internet, which also allows the easy ordering of highly specialized equipment and small-circulation books and magazines for the advanced amateur, and the free exchange of programs and data.
I see a parallel in the growth of lay organizations in the Church. Lay people in all fields are now organizing themselves, and speaking with confidence, on topics once deemed the realm of the clergy and theologians. And likewise, in some of these Church organizations, one hears echos of those individuals you find in every amateur astronomy club who are more passionate about UFOs and The Face on Mars than the details of stellar evolution. Self-acquired knowledge tends to be quirky, uneven, and prone to painful lacunae. Long-cherished misconceptions are hard to dislodge.
As the midnight skies above us in Ireland cleared, I did my bit to help some amateurs across a few gaps. Gently I steered their glorious home-built telescopes towards nebulae and galaxies new to their eyes. In the dark we each embraced these views of creation, gifts from the God Who is Love.
This column first appeared in The Tablet in October, 2004; it ran here at The Catholic Astronomer in 2015
Typhoon 23 and I arrived in Japan on the same day. My mission (I can’t speak for the typhoon) was to attend an international workshop on sample returns from asteroids. Our hosts were the scientists and engineers of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency who are eagerly awaiting the arrival next summer of their spacecraft, Hayabusa, at asteroid Itokawa. (The remarkable challenges and eventually successes of Hayabusa can are described nicely at its Wikipedia site.)
Astronomers usually have to be content with observing their objects from afar. But nothing beats actually going to a place to see what it’s really like.
Itokawa is a potato-shaped lump of rock less than half a kilometer in diameter that apparently drifted into our neighborhood from the asteroid belt; though it looks like a typical asteroid, its orbit is not out beyond Mars but rather much closer to home, crossing the Earth’s orbit nearly once a year. (It’s one of those asteroids we keep an eye on for fear that some day it could collide with us; no such collision is in the cards for the immediate future, however.) Through a telescope, we have reason to believe that its composition is probably not all that different from the meteorites in our collection that we classify as “type LL ordinary chondrites”. But observing from a distance can be deceiving.
An alien orbiting Earth would recognize few obvious differences between Japan and Britain. Both are heavily industrialized island nations whose cities fill the nighttime sky with artificial light. Indeed, the view from my hotel window would only confirm this guess: the cars drive on the left, and the neon signs advertise McDonald’s, Tower Records, and Starbucks. It’s only walking the streets, buying a burger from the remarkably polite salespeople, that you can finally see how different the countries really are.
In the same way, Hayabusa will get very close indeed to its asteroid. Not only will it sit a mere 10 km away, taking multicolored images as it matches Itokawa’s orbit around the Sun; after three months it will actually come to touch the surface. A small pod will be dropped on the surface to bounce around the asteroid, protected by its small gravity, taking pictures and temperature measurements and sending them back to Earth, And then, from the main spacecraft itself, a projectile will be shot into the surface, splashing dust and rock fragments into a collecting horn. After two such visits, the spacecraft will leave Itokawa and bring its souvenirs back home to Earth. It’s slated to land its sample pod in the Australian desert in 2007. (In fact, it didn't get its sample back until 2010. Turns out, it really was LL chondrite material!)
It’s a beautifully conceived and elegantly built mission. And it’s all the more impressive for being the product of a nation much smaller than the US, or Russia, or the consortium of countries making up the European Space Agency. This workshop is both an invitation to the rest of the world to share our asteroid expertise with the Japanese, and to give them a well-deserved opportunity to brag a bit.
Indeed, bragging rights are the main benefit that the Japanese government will get for its investment of money and human resources. That’s a very practical benefit for a nation whose economy is based on the export of high-tech consumer products; the prestige of a successful space mission will maintain the high technical reputation of all its products. (If you think about it, that’s not all that different from why the Church publicizes its saints.)
That justifies the money. The justification for the individual human effort is another matter. All of these Japanese scientists and engineers would make a lot more money working for Panasonic. Obviously that’s not what motivates them.
Francis Spufford, in his recent book Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin, describes the world of the research scientist as an example of a gift economy: one’s status is not based on how much you have accumulated for yourself, but by how much you have given — in scientific papers, in the opportunity to satisfy (if not sate) our human curiosity — to the rest of the community. The Japanese understand the role of gifts. This mission, this meeting, is their way of increasing their status in the scientific world.
But even underlying that sense of status is a deeper humility in the face of creation. The gift is only as useful as it is considered valuable. And to the scientists at this meeting, from cultures all over the world, the value comes in getting to actually taste a piece of the world bigger than ourselves. The data from this mission will confirm, or destroy, some of our favorite theories about how asteroids are put together. In the process it will inevitably inspire new questions; we’ll want to go back.
We also want to leave a bit of ourselves. As part of the project to publicize the mission, the Japanese space agency invited people to list their names in microscopic print on a thin plate to be left on the asteroid. Nearly 900,000 names were collected.
Dr. Kawaguchi, the Hayabusa project manager, told us that his team would make “every effort to bring out spacecraft safely to the asteroid and back. I only hope you will be just as successful getting back to your hotels tonight.” Outside, the rain and wind is increasing; the typhoon is approaching. For all our status and technical ability, nature is still much larger than we are.
(After submitting this column, I stayed on in Japan for another few days... long enough to experience the Chuetsu earthquake on October 23. At magnitude 6.8, it resulted in 39 deaths, 3,000 injured, and the first-ever derailment of a bullet train due to earthquakes. I felt the quake while sitting in the chapel of the Jesuit residence at Sophia University in Tokyo... a building made of wood that had survived the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923 by being flexible to shake. A lot. As I experienced.)
This column first ran in The Tablet in October 2017
Studying the universe forces us to see ourselves in a new and often disorienting context. It’s not always easy. Talking with astronauts aboard the International Space Station on October 26 , Pope Francis asked them, “traveling in space, thinking about things we take for granted here on Earth like the concept of “up” or “down”… tell us, is there something in particular that has surprised you, living in the Space Station?” The American astronaut Mark VandeHei replied, “in this environment, where we really don’t need the concept of up and down, to get my bearings I still have to decide which direction to perceive as up.”
Every day in my meteorite lab I work with rocks that have passed through the sky (“meteorite” comes from the Greek word for sky), tangible evidence that the clouds are not an impenetrable barrier between us and rest of the solar system. We can touch pieces of other planets; they can touch us. Having astronauts in orbit only reinforces that realization.
This month, a new visitor has pushed our sense of connection to the universe even further. On October 19 , a researcher at the Pan-STAARS survey telescope in Hawaii, Rob Weryk, found a comet (albeit one without a tail) first designated as A/2017 U1. Then, after tracing its position on earlier Hawaii images and comparing results with his colleague Marco Micheli at the ESA telescope on Tenerife, they were able to calculate its orbit…
Now, ever since Johannes Kepler we’ve known that objects in our solar system don’t orbit the Sun in perfect circles, but rather in ellipses. A circle is simply an ellipse with zero eccentricity; values of eccentricity greater than zero indicate orbits that are like ovals, more and more stretched out as eccentricity grows, until the ultimate case of eccentricity equal to one gives you just a straight line. Obviously that no longer describes an orbit around the Sun, but an object falling straight into it.
Tracing the path of A/2017 U1, however, an eccentricity of 1.2 has emerged from the calculations. Eccentricity greater than one? What does that mean? It means, this object is not from anywhere around here. It is a visitor from another solar system… the first such we have ever detected.
Could it have started out in our own cloud of comets, far beyond Pluto? No; to reach its speed — topping out at nearly 90 kilometers per second — would require it to have been perturbed by something moving faster than any solar system object out there could move.
Is it going to hit the Earth? No; in fact, it had already passed us before we noticed it. It made its closest approach to the Sun, inside Mercury’s orbit, back on September 9, and passed by Earth’s orbit on October 14. We could only see it after it passed us, with the Sun now behind us as we looked.
Do we really know if it is a comet? No; it just might be a lump of rock. We’re rushing to observe it now as best we can, but it is small (about a quarter mile in diameter) and faint… getting fainter every day as it exits our solar system.
Still, our hope is that detailed spectra might tell us if it is covered in exotic chemicals from its time in interstellar space, or just the same minerals we find on Earth. Of course, “normal” or “exotic” has as much meaning in the greater universe as “up” and “down.” We can only compare against what seems ordinary to us.
Incidentally, some call a comet without a tail, a “Manx” comet.
[The latest word on this visitor, now designated I1 2017/U1 and named ‘Oumuamua... looking at archived images from the ESA Gaia space telescope mapper has revealed the location of this body before it was discovered; with this extra information, a team of astronomers led by Coryn Bailer-Jones at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy has suggested a small number of possible stars that it may have come from... or at least, passed near before it entered our system.]