This column first ran in The Tablet in August, 2009; we first ran it here in 2016
Galaxies whirled before us, their curled spiral arms lit up like Christmas trees with bright infrared dots where young stars were being formed from interstellar clouds of gas and dust. Meanwhile, in their central bulges, streams of similar gas and dust were feeding the maws of supermassive black holes, emitting high energy radiation in their death plunges. Looking at galaxies ever farther away in space, we could trace out ever further back in time the evolution of galactic clusters from filaments of matter shaped by energies we didn’t even know existed [twenty] years ago, which we must merely label as “dark”.
We saw the swirling convection of a collapsing stellar core as modeled by a computer that almost, but not quite, reproduced the explosion of a supernova bursting as bright as any one of those galaxies. Not quite reproduced; because our models aren’t quite right yet. We have not yet discovered, mathematically, the way that nature has found to make these explosions. It’s hard to blow up a star. But we see the explosions; and I see their embers in my meteorites.
At the other end of the size spectrum, cool red M-dwarf stars are being discovered that dim slightly, in a regular pattern, as planets move across their disks. Planets closer to those stars are easier to spot: we can see them crossing more often. But since these are stars cooler than our Sun, the closer regions are in fact where temperatures more amenable to life are to be found. Yet that close in, the stars can raise tides on the planets that may massage their interiors and produce endless volcanoes on their surfaces; surfaces far stranger than even my favorite science fiction stories have yet imagined.
These were among the review talks presented [in 2009 – ten years ago now!] at the 27th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union, a gathering in Rio de Janeiro of two thousand astronomers representing more than a hundred nations. Most of our business was business: approving budgets, defining the best values of natural constants, planning how to bring astronomy to the Third World. But we also spent the time to hear from each other about what we’d all been up to over the past three years.
And for some reason, after two weeks of listening to these talks, I suddenly experienced an Ignatian moment of apprehension [in more than one sense of the word!]. These galaxies, these supernovae, are real. Those planets are out there, right now. All this stuff was actually happening while I was dozing in the dark at the Rio Convention Center, and it keeps going on, even now, while I sit in my room pondering what’s for lunch and worrying if I’ll be able to get some sleep on the plane home tomorrow.
The universe is teeming, as lively as the streets of Rio in its daily samba about churches and street vendors. And yet it is also massively empty, like the ocean off Rio’s endless beaches or the jungle-covered mountains that separate the neighborhoods; tunnels through the mountains, like science fiction’s wormholes between the galaxies, are needed to carry the endless stream of taxicabs and adventurers.
The author of Genesis worshiped a God who had made mountains, trees, the oceans around them, and the moon and sun above. By itself that’s a pretty impressive God; no silicon valley inventor has been able to imitate that bit of creation, not yet. Yet astronomers have a bigger conception of the universe, whose Creator must be an even bigger God.
From the balcony of the Jesuit high school where we are staying in Rio for these two weeks, we can see the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer holding his arms to bless us all, sambas and supernovae. Above him, setting in the west, are the stars of the Southern Cross.
This column first ran in The Tablet in August, 2008; we first ran it here in 2016
A friend has a home on the western shore of Lake Huron, with a glorious view of the lake from her living room window. She tells how once she showed the sunrise over the lake through that window to her visiting four year old grandson. The boy took in the colorful display with rapt amazement. The next morning, she heard a shout from the living room. “Come quick, grandma!” cried the little boy. “It’s doing it again!”
The  discovery by the Phoenix spacecraft of ice in the Martian soil had all the inevitability of the sun rising yet again. But the scientists who found it were just as thrilled as that four year old boy.
For thirty [now going on 40!] years we’ve known there must have been water on Mars. The spacecraft that orbited the planet in the 1970s sent back images of dried up river beds. (But were we being fooled by mere appearances?) By the 1990s, drops of water had actually been extracted from meteorites we believe came from Mars. (But were those meteorites really from Mars?) In 1997, the first little rover, Pathfinder, showed us rocks that looked like they had been eroded by running water. (But could they have been eroded by wind?) And so it went. Every new bit of evidence added to the belief in water; but, at best, it was all circumstantial.
The water in the meteorite gave us an important clue, however. Water, of course, is made of hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is the simplest atom in the universe: a proton surrounded by an electron. But there’s a variety of hydrogen atom, called deuterium, where the proton is joined to a neutron, a particle with the same mass as a proton, but no charge. Since it’s the charges that control the chemical behavior, these atoms can make water just like hydrogen can. The fact that the water from the meteorite was slightly heavier than Earth water was good evidence that the meteorite’s water came from someplace else.
How do you make heavy water on Mars? Water can escape from Mars’ atmosphere, since Mars has a weaker gravity. But the lighter water would go first, and leave the heavier water behind. Maybe that explained where the Mars water went.
In 2001, the Mars Odyssey orbiter was dispatched to look for evidence of hydrogen escaping from Mars’ atmosphere. They found it. In particular, though, they found that the atmosphere over different parts of the planet had more hydrogen flowing away. Thus the Phoenix lander was sent to one of those regions, to see if maybe the water was hiding as a layer of ice just below the red dust.
And, finally, that’s what they found. Digging two inches down, into a hard (and surprisingly sticky) layer, the lander fetched a sample of the soil and dumped it into a chemical analyzer. It was “the first time Martian water has been touched and tasted,” to quote a mission scientist. Like doubting Thomas, they knew that the more blessed person is the one who not only believes, but who can also see for themselves.
The importance of water as a substance that can sustain life is obvious. That life might be Martian; or it might be future colonists from Earth. A private company in the US is testing rockets that they hope will be able to send people to Mars, ten at a time, for a mere two million dollars a head. That’s for a one-way trip. When you get there, you’ll be expected to set up a new home. It’s nice to know you’ll be able to get a drink when you arrive.
And maybe, once we warm things up there, we’ll make lakes with some incredible sunrises.
This column was published in The Tablet in August, 2007, and first ran here in 2015
We believe in things we don’t see — like electrons, or black holes — because they let us make sense of things we do see. But sometimes we don’t believe, even when we see. The question of what we believe, and why we believe in it, struck me particularly at the  annual meeting of the Meteoritical Society.
A French mathematician has analyzed the dates meteorites have been seen to fall over the past 200 years and found clear trends, at the 90% confidence level: more meteorites than usual tend to fall every 3 years, every 10 years, and every 17 years. His analysis is standard, straightforward stuff; but I don’t believe it. Nor did anyone else in the audience. Two hundred years just doesn’t seem long enough to show such periodicities. And we’ve been burned before with theories that had only a 10% formal chance of being wrong. We know from experience that any random string of numbers will always appear to have “trends” that turn out to be ephemeral; just ask any broker using this system to predict the stock market.
Scientists from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston reported, again, on that meteorite from Mars they first proposed [now nearly 25 years ago!] had evidence of life. No one has yet been able to explain why its magnetite crystals are so pure (like those made inside terrestrial bacteria), or why it and other Mars meteorites harbour trace organic materials that on Earth are usually associated with life. No one says that life on Mars is absolutely impossible; but no one else really believes that these materials in these meteorites were formed by bacteria, even in the absence of a convincing counter-hypothesis.
Why is that, I wonder? What does it take to convince a room full of scientists to change their minds? It’s more than better data, though such data are always needed (and usually lacking; a friend jokes that “conclusive proof is always just beyond the limit of our detectors”). It’s also a social phenomenon, and it says something about the way we humans allow ourselves to be convinced about anything.
We always have a threshold of doubt. Before the “life on Mars” meteorite was announced in 1996, a minority opinion still held that maybe those meteorites really weren’t from Mars. Once our skepticism was transferred to whether or not they had life, no one has questioned their Martian origin (for which, indeed, the evidence is overwhelming).
Another example: we’ve long known that some meteorites are “primitive” unmelted collections of well-packed dust, while others have clearly been melted and re-crystallized. So theorists pondered, what melted some of the primitive stuff into basalts? But in the last couple of years, new precise techniques for measuring the ages of these rocks seem to indicate the once-molten rocks actually melted millions of years before the so-called primitive ones were formed!
We’ve been waiting for the experimenters to confess some error in the lab; but finally this year the modelers of meteorite origin have finally admitted that the data might be true. We can explain why the oldest solar system material might have melted; but how did anything survive to be formed into smaller, never-melted bodies millions of years later? Any why did our own primitive ideas about meteorites survive unaltered until this year?
Fashions in belief are familiar to anyone in religious life. What’s “obvious” to one generation is dismissed by the next, while the point behind historical controversies just puzzles us. Only time, and patience, can let us recognize the truth. Collecting facts, whether it is scientific data or the historical events on which our religion is based, is the kind of mechanical action that a robot can do. Choosing how we make sense of those facts is an act of the human will.
Twelve years later, most of these questions are still open...
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In July I had a couple of fun trips, first to Minneapolis for the Convergence science fiction convention (where I was a guest of honor) and then to the SciFoo techie “camp” hosted by Google, Nature, and O’Reilly the tech publishers. Old friends, new friends, fun talks, good food! Now I am back in Rome, and next Monday I’ll be off to Ireland, first for a vacation and then for the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin.
Now, on to the title of this entry: who was the man who the spotted the origin of atheism? He was a prominent Jesuit theologian whom I got to know when he directed a reading course in theology for me, and the source of a number of fun stories, only some of which are apocryphal!
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This column from The Tablet first ran in 2018.
The pull of a magnet on a refrigerator is strong enough to hold up a child’s drawing; but move it just a fraction of an inch away and suddenly the tug between the fridge and the magnet is almost nothing. Planets have magnetic fields, too; Earth’s magnetic field points compass needles and gives us the auroras, or “northern lights”. But the strengths of planetary fields, too, drop quickly as you move away from the planet. Earth’s magnetic field doesn’t even reach to its own Moon.
The Sun, however, has a magnetic field whose effect can be felt even at the Earth, and indeed out beyond the orbits of the outer planets. Magnetic storms on the Sun can affect our auroras, and occasionally interfere with cell phone and radio transmissions. How is that possible? It’s all connected to a phenomenon called the “solar wind”.
The Sun is made mostly of hydrogen gas; but when the hydrogen atoms get especially hot, they break into their constituent protons and electrons. This ionized gas, or “plasma”, makes up the corona of the Sun — the part you see glowing around the Sun during a solar eclipse.
Some coronal electrons and protons are so hot that they can move fast enough to escape the Sun’s gravity. As they move farther away from the Sun, the pull of the Sun’s gravity gets weaker, and so these particles are free to move out ever faster. The result is a constant flow of plasma blowing off the Sun: the solar wind.
But electrically charged particles are tied to magnetic fields. A strong magnetic field can move a plasma around; magnets in an old fashioned television tube would steer a stream of electrons back and forth across the TV screen, painting a picture there 25 or 30 times a second. If a strong magnetic field can direct a thin plasma, what happens to a weak field in a strong plasma? The plasma wins. As the solar wind flows away from the Sun it drags the Sun’s magnetic field along with it, filling the space between the planets with both plasma and magnetic field.
This solar wind model was first proposed by Eugene Parker in the 1950’s, to explain why the ionized tails of comets always appear to be pushed in the direction aimed away from the Sun. Magnetic field detectors on many spacecraft since then have vindicated Parker’s original model.
I remember as a kid reading several science fiction stories inspired by the idea of a solar wind, with spaceships using giant “solar sails” like futuristic windjammers to travel among the planets. (Ten years later I’d be writing my PhD thesis on space plasmas under a professor who had studied with Parker.) Indeed, several real space probes have used the power of the solar wind to propel and steer themselves.
Parker’s ideas, mind you, were developed before any spacecraft. He pictured the Sun’s magnetic field as a set of tangled lines, embedded like spaghetti in a thick ragu sauce. He knew the model was over-simplified; but it was good enough to let him picture what was going on… much as simple images as “father” or “king” can nonetheless begin to give us an idea of God.
The one place that spacecraft haven’t yet reached is Sun’s corona itself, where the solar wind begins. That’s why, on August 12 , NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe to orbit just 6 million kilometers above the Sun’s surface. Witnessing the launch in Florida was the then 91-year-old Eugene Parker.
This column first ran in The Tablet in July 2007; we first ran it here in 2015.
In Alicante, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, a group of us planetary astronomers held a workshop [in 2007] on how asteroids respond to the massive collisions that can lead to their catastrophic disruption. Just north of us, in Valencia, sailors from Switzerland and New Zealand were vying for the America’s Cup.
The connection between elegant million dollar yachts and exploding asteroids. is the equations of fluid dynamics.
I’ve loved sailing since my childhood. I spent my summers capsizing sailboards on Lake Huron and my winters reading too much Arthur Ransome. As a student in the early 1970s I competed on MIT’s sailing team (the Charles River was indeed “dirty water” especially back then), and attended lectures in their ocean engineering department on the challenges of designing the best shape for a hull that could slip through the water with a minimum of friction while still providing the resistance to leeward slip that lets a sailboat claw its way into the wind. The America’s Cup has long been powered by design advances, and intrigue, as teams compete to keep their own secrets while spying out the advances of their opponents.
There are rivalries in the planetary science community as well, but our field has been more cooperative than competitive sailors. The [July 2007] workshop centered around comparing different computer codes for modeling what happens when two asteroids, perhaps a hundred kilometers across, collide at speeds approaching a hundred thousand kilometers per hour. No experiment can reproduce such conditions, but at least in the lab we can begin to measure things like the mechanical properties of rock, and try to estimate at what point the force of gravity is more important than the strength of the rock in holding the asteroid together in the face of such collisions. At that point, the rock flows like a fluid and computer hydrocodes can be invoked that solve the same equations used by sailboat designers – but under very different conditions.
Two fascinating new results from this workshop have given us reason to question our results to date. A classic assumption has been that collisions need to reach a certain minimum energy before asteroids will break apart; but lab experiments now suggest that rock can accumulate damage over many impacts, so that (for example) after nine previous collisions, each with a tenth of the disruptive energy, an asteroid can be set up to fall apart with the tenth such impact. One could draw a moral analogy, perhaps: though a thousand venial sins don’t add up to one mortal sin, they certainly weaken your moral fibre enough to make you more susceptible to catastrophic failure when a stronger challenge comes along!
Another disquieting result for the computer modelers was the confession from a long-standing guru that his code, solving the motions of a hundred thousand points inside a model asteroid, turns out not to be nearly detailed enough. He suspects now that tens of millions of points need to be followed, which requires a degree of computing power that no lab has – yet.
The challenge comes from the nature of fluid flow. We know the equations; but we can’t solve them directly. Computers can only approximate them, and a slight error in our starting guesses can change the outcome completely. It’s what makes the weather so hard to predict. It’s what keeps us puzzling over the formation, and disruption, of planets. And it’s one reason, of course, why we actually need to build the boats and race them.
Of course, that’s the least of the reasons. There are other intellectual puzzles, and faster ways to move through water. But the urge to know about the formation of the planets, like the urge to sail, comes ultimately from the human heart. Success in both comes from human judgments as much as from clever calculations. And the race is won by whoever best approachs the pattern of the One who gave us sea and sky.
I don't get to do much sailing nowadays...
This column first ran in The Tablet in July 2009. We first ran it here in 2016.
As everyone has been told, countless times this month, July 20 – the 21st, in Rome – marks the 50th anniversary of the landing of the Apollo 11 astronauts to the Moon. Here are a few lunar topics probably not covered by most folks remembering that event...I saw a photo of Pope Paul VI looking at the Apollo 11 Moon landing through a telescope. Why didn’t he watch it on TV like everyone else? For the Moon landings, world leaders were invited to address the astronauts on a world-wide television link-up, and the Pope read his greetings (in front of a TV) from the Vatican Observatory dome in Castel Gandolfo (in the gardens near the Pope's summer palace). In fact, the system of geosynchronous satellites to send TV pictures live around the world was still pretty new; those of us of a certain age can remember the Beatles introducing All You Need is Love on one of the first Europe/North America TV link-ups, in 1967.
Afterwards, the Pope looked at the Moon through the small finder scope attached to that telescope; that’s the picture all the papers ran. The big telescope itself was actually a camera designed to photograph the sky, with no eyepiece to look through. The Pope’s view of the Moon through the finder scope was delightful, no doubt, but there was no way that even the biggest telescope on Earth could have seen the astronauts themselves. Interestingly, NASA has an orbiter around the Moon now that has imaged the Apollo sites; the landers are still there!
(Here's a link from RAI Italian television, reviewing his visit to the telescope domes; most of it is in Italian, but his address to the astronauts, in English, begins at 4:19)
Is there religion on the Moon? Theological discussions of God’s imminence and transcendence aside, the Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin did bring with him the communion species from his Presbyterian church near the NASA center in Houston.
There are lots of interesting religious questions that come up when you leave Earth and travel to another planet. The Jewish and Islamic calendars are based in part on where the Moon is in the sky; what do you do when it’s not in the sky, but under your feet? It’s easier for Christians; one principle of Pope Gregory XIII’s reform of the calendar in 1582 was to set the date of Easter and other religious holidays not by the position of the Moon but by a mathematical formula anyone can use, anywhere in the world (or off it). It only roughly approximates the “first Sunday after the first full Moon of Spring.”
The Jesuit who helped explain this formula, Christopher Clavius, has a crater named for him on the Moon. So do 35 other Jesuits. How did that happen? The men who made the telescopic map defining the nomenclature we use today were themselves Jesuits. (And they named the Moon’s most prominent crater for Copernicus – this, in Rome, less than 20 years after the Galileo trial.)
Did we really go to the Moon, or was it all faked? I have touched the rocks. I have looked at them through petrographic microscopes, and measured their properties in my lab. They are distinctly different from any Earth rocks, different enough to insure that they are not from this planet. And, for all our work over the last 40 years, we still can’t quite agree about how they were made. If they were faked, whoever did it was cleverer than any of the geologists who have worked on them ever since.
That puts me in a privileged position, I know. I believe in the Moon landings because I have seen; most people have to be blessed with believing even though they haven’t seen the direct evidence like I have.
Perhaps St. Thomas (the one who doubted) was the first scientist… not because he refused to believe without evidence – a lot of people are quick to doubt – but because when he finally did touch the evidence for himself, he was able to alter his understanding.
The photos below show three views taken over a period of seven minutes from the hermitage at the Desert House of Prayer north of Tucson where I did my annual eight day retreat the end of last month. Can you see what’s changing in the sky? I’ll explain it… but you’ll have to be a subscriber to find out what it’s all about!
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Now, about those photos… Most of our day to day life, we live in a flat world where we are at the center and the most important question is what's for lunch. But both religion and astronomy are in the business of reminding us that we in fact live in a much more interesting universe. That's why I am an astronomer, and also someone who takes time out to pray (as at retreat houses). In this case, the two were combined...
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This column ran in The Tablet in July, 2006; we first ran it here in 2015.
“No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” The phrase, immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s book (and the movie) The Right Stuff about the birth of the American human space program, has ever since encapsulated the problem facing everyone who works in a field as gloriously useless as astronomy. Telescopes and space probes cost money. So does the light and heat and toilet paper in our modest offices, even if we use nothing more elaborate than pencil and paper to do our work.
This past month  I’ve been facing money issues on many levels. The American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences is holding its annual meeting in October, and I’m on a committee to pass out small travel grants to graduate students. NASA, the source for most of the funding in my field, is going through its annual cycle of evaluating research proposed by academics; to review the proposals and try to decide who best deserves the limited funding available, I’ll be meeting on another committee later this month. Even my own observatory is in the midst of fundraising to support and upgrade our telescope. (Anyone out there have a spare million?)
NASA funding is always tight, as the agency tries to fulfill all the different tasks that the US congress and president have placed on it: keep the space shuttle flying, send people back to the Moon and eventually Mars, support cutting-edge research into the design of tomorrow’s aircraft, and, oh yes, support about a thousand scientists and graduate students whose entire livelihood is up for review on a yearly basis. Space science – the mundane paper and pencil models, the nights at the telescope – makes up only a small part of NASA’s budget, but it’s one without powerful corporate lobbyists or flashy public relations triumphs. It’s the seed corn, we keep saying, that tells us where to send the flashy probes and human missions. It’s also the easiest pot to raid when the need arises.
Naturally, I think it deserve more funding. Naturally, a lot of people in my field agree, and look jealously at the billions spent on the Shuttle and the International Space Station, not to mention the plans just beginning to send people back to the Moon. For a fraction of that cost, we could send a robot, you know... and I just happen to have the plans for one...
I sympathize. But I also see the other side of the story. After all, astronomy really is gloriously useless. It will be a few years before anyone makes money mining asteroids or running a resort hotel in orbit. So why do we do it? Why should NASA (or the Vatican) give us a cent, much less the millions that we complain are so inadequate?
Ultimately, it is because exploration is one of those things, like art or music or prayer, that makes us human. And it is human exploration that we desire, at the deepest level. The unspoken rationale for each mission to Mars is to prepare us for the day when people will go there. We wouldn’t have the money to do any of our science, if that promise were not implicit in everything we do. No Buck Rogers, no bucks.
We won’t all of us be going to Mars. Indeed, most of today’s taxpayers may not even be alive by the time that mission finally comes. But it’s enough to have faith that someone will be going. And that faith is at least partially confirmed in knowing that shuttles (dangerous, indeed) are flying again; that, right now, people are in orbit around the Earth.
There is something familiar about it all. Through Neil Armstrong we all walked on the Moon. That small step, perhaps, can help us understand how all humanity can fall by a single individual.
And by a single individual, be redeemed.
[Now as the director of the Vatican Observatory and president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation I face more immediate money issues. This month is when we put together our budget to the Vatican, which supports our astronomers in Rome. However, our work in the US including outreach like this blog is supported entirely by readers like you. We've been running at a deficit for a while, and this can't go on. If you can, please click the "subscribe" button to the right and see how you might help out. It'll be money better spent than anything going to a political campaign or a fancy coffee shop!]
This column first appeared in The Tablet in June, 2008; we first ran it here in 2016
The Mars Phoenix mission landed successfully near the north pole of Mars [in 2008]. Even though I don’t study Mars myself, I feel a special connection because the mission is being run out of my old department at the University of Arizona. I know those guys on the TV, explaining how they’ll be digging for ice in the Martian soil.
Mars wasn’t the only tourist attraction that summer. The scientists of the Cassini/Huygens Saturn probes held a team meeting in Rome in June, 2008, and two dozen of them came out to visit me at Castel Gandolfo. I showed them our telescopes and libraries and meteorite collection. Friends of mine on the team arranged the visit.
Why do I have so many friends in high places? It’s just the nature of my field. There are only a few thousand professional planetary astronomers in the world. We go to the same annual meetings, we see each other on grant proposal panels and telescope runs. I don’t know everyone in the field, but those I don’t, are probably friends of my friends.
Becoming incorporated into this community is a process that starts in graduate school. When you’re an astronomy undergraduate and someone asks you about black holes, you might say, “they don’t really understand them yet.” Once you’re a graduate student, you get to say, “we don’t really understand them yet.”
Living in Rome creates another community of friends; the Italian culture, of course, thrives on knowing who-knows-who. A fellow I met a few years ago, when he taught at the Rome Center of the University of Dallas, came by earlier this month with a group of engineering students from the University of Colorado, where he teaches now. They too got the grand tour of the Observatory. Telescopes. Libraries. Meteorites. I’ve given this tour a few times now…
But for all I grumble about my time spent giving tours, the fact is that I’m happy to show the place around to friends, and to friends of friends. That’s my role in this network of connections. The reason the Church supports an Observatory is precisely so that people know the Church embraces science. Tours help get the word out. (Sorry, these tours are not generally available to the public. I only have so many hours in my day!)
Being a scientist as well as a Jesuit means that I can talk to other scientists about religious questions. Just such a conversation came up over pizza after my tour for the Colorado engineering students. Earlier that week they’d seen the sights of Rome, and they were puzzled — indeed, scandalized — by all the ornate churches full of paintings and statues of popes and saints. To their midwestern American sensibilities, it looked like all too much Popish Idolatry.
“It’s part of the Mediterranean culture,” I tried to explain. “Think of The Godfather. Instead of writing a letter to the Boss, you go to someone who knows someone who has an ‘in’ at the top.” My midwestern Protestants were not convinced.
Part of this clash of cultures is that, for Americans, saints are mythical figures of history: characters in books from times and places far, far away. It’s still a shock for me to realize that St. Bonaventure used to be the local bishop here in Albano; that St. Luigi Gonazaga’s novitiate is that building I walk past every time I visit Rome… on the same streets where Peter and Paul once walked.
Writing a letter to the boss implies a confrontation between two separate, conflicting entities: us vs. them. Going through a network of friends suggests, on the other hand, that we’re all part of the same community, the same communion. What was them, has become us.
[The University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Lab is now running the OSIRIS-ReX mission to asteroid Bennu; the lead scientist for this mission was Mike Drake until his death in 2011. I was Mike's first graduate student. The current lead scientist is Dante Lauretta, who was the PhD student of Bruce Fegley; Bruce was a classmate of mine at MIT. It is an exceedingly small world. There are probably more professional football players in the world than there are professional planetary scientists.]
First published in The Tablet in June, 2007; we published it here in 2015
In early 2007, a team lead by Stéphane Udry of the Geneva Observatory announced the discovery around the red dwarf star Gliese 581 of a planet that is only eight times the mass of Earth and about 50 per cent bigger in radius. Orbiting close to its sun, its year is less than two weeks long; but because that star is so small and dim compared to ours, temperatures on the planet should range between zero and 40 degrees Celsius (about 30 to 100 Fahrenheit). Room temperature. Water should be liquid there, perhaps covering its surface with oceans ripe for life.
At least, I hope it’s covered in oceans. Swimming would be easier than walking on a planet where the gravity is three and a half times that of Earth. The star is only 20 light years away from us; robot spaceships in the next 100 years or so could reach such a place and send back data that, travelling at the speed of light, might reach us before our grants run out.
At the Vatican Observatory that summer, we were hosting a school of 26 university students and postgraduates in astronomy, gathered from 22 countries, to spend four weeks studying the search for extraterrestrial planets. It was our eleventh summer school since 1986. As they learn about the search for new worlds, I am reminded myself of the new world we find ourselves in since that first school 21 years ago.
Back then, we had nine planets in our solar system and none elsewhere; the first number has dropped to eight, as the second had grown to more than 230. [As of 2015 we had confirmed nearly two thousand exoplanets; by 2019. the count has grown to over 4000.] Back then, the school was staffed by Americans at an observatory run by Americans; today our observatory director is from Argentina, and this year’s school is directed by a professor from Chile, himself a student of that first school.
And of course, the 2007 students were barely born when that first school was held. We had fewer students from “developing” nations at this school, in part because nations that were “developing” 20 years ago are well developed today. Reflecting the trend in universities everywhere, the majority of our students are now women. And the majority have arrived with their own laptops.
Twenty years ago we taught that a fundamental point to be explained in any theory of planet formation was that rocky planets were found close to the sun, with gas giants further away. But most of the planets discovered to date are “hot Jupiters”, gas giants orbiting quite near their stars. Yes, they’re the easiest to find; but that they exist at all is a shock to our old theories. And we’re finding them at a rate of one out of every 15 stars we’ve looked at.
Does this mean that our old theories were completely wrong? If science keeps changing its mind, why do we bother teaching it? Is what we’re teaching these new sets of students just as likely to be in error? Why should they have faith in our reasoning?
Actually, our old theories were perfectly fine. We merely needed to add one more element to them – in this case, the ability of planets to “migrate” from their original orbits. (That process explains both the hot Jupiters around other stars, and how Neptune kept Pluto from growing into a planet.) Indeed, science works precisely because it’s not afraid to admit it was incomplete and to add new elements to its re- ceived wisdom.
By 2007 we had a new Pope as well. Welcoming these science students in a private audience during the first week of the school, he quoted to us, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” It’s from John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio; Pope Benedict, too, was not afraid to build something new on the wisdom of the past.
(Our next summer school will be held in June, 2020, with the topic of Centres of Galaxies. Applications are open now, and close in October; applicants must be students at the end of undergraduate or beginning graduate studies who show evidence that they intend to pursue a career in astronomy.)
It's no joke, alas; I am under doctor's orders to stay home, and go to bed when I am tired (which is most of the time), after having cancelled half of my events scheduled for June. That, under the orders of several friends who are doctors and several other friends who are genuine and certified Jewish Mothers!
First, the business: I did a brief update in May showing 129 subscribers and on April 16 we had a reach of 8465 readers. Well, as of today, we have 131 paid subscribers and 8701 people who get notified of new postings. We continue to grow, but not nearly fast enough to keep us in business. Please tell more people about our site; and if you can, please subscribe at a rate of $10 a month (that's two visits to Dunkin Donuts for me) or $100 per year.
That's also no joke. As for the exhaustion... read on!
Let's just outline what I'll be talking about below the fold:
- Some links to great interviews that some excellent media folks did for me in New Zealand
- A description of my train travels in the eastern US... including my commencement address to Gonzaga College High School!
So... come along and see!
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