This column first appeared in The Tablet in October 2008; we first ran it here in 2016
Black Mesa, Oklahoma sounds like the setting for a Hollywood Western. It looks like one, too. Every year at the Okie-Tex Star Party, three hundred amateur astronomers camp out for a week with their telescopes there, in hopes of dark dry skies. Some of their “amateur” instruments are larger in aperture than the telescopes of the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo. The miracle of computerized fabrication and the modern Dobsonian mount (a way of holding a telescope in place that replaces complex hardware with simple Teflon pads) has brought the cost of quality optics to the point where the price of a large telescope can be less than that of a small automobile.
My GPS unit directed me as far as Boise City, two hours north of Amarillo, Texas; after that, I was following roads too small for most maps. I was there to give a series of talks during the afternoon and evening hours, entertainment insurance for the campers in case the skies did not cooperate. But that insurance was not needed; the three nights I spent there, the skies were spectacularly clear. Dark skies? That is in fact a misnomer. When there are no cities for hundreds of miles, the Milky Way alone shines so brightly that it actually casts a shadow. You can walk among the telescopes without bumping your neighbor or losing your way.
The enthusiasts sharing their telescopes with me were knowledgeable, if not professional. “Look, along the ecliptic, directly opposite the point where the Sun lies; around midnight, you can see sunlight reflected back to us from the dust of the asteroid belt,” one friend pointed out to me. “It’s called the googenshine!” Actually, that’s gegenschein; but I didn’t correct him. I had studied it in graduate school; I knew how to spell it, and what the German words mean. But unlike my friend, I had never actually seen it before.
A lot of professional astronomers never look at the night sky; some of them don’t even know how to find the most basic constellations. Even those of us who came to our professional calling from a teen-aged enthusiasm with small telescopes now spend most of our outdoor nights on high mountaintops: the thin atmosphere there can mean clearer images for our instruments, but it deprives our human eyes of the oxygen we need to see the stars in their full glory.
All sorts of analogies come to mind comparing the world of astronomy with religion. We know theologians whose inability to see the living God makes them seem oxygen deprived. We've met the simple believer who couldn’t spell hamartiology but who knows sin when they see it. And yet, the amateur astronomers were delighted to have a few professionals among them (I wasn’t the only speaker there) to enrich their enthusiasm. I suspect we were made more welcome, and listened to more closely, than most theologians visiting a parish would be.
My first night there, a bright flash lit up the sky and caused the observers to howl as their dark-adapted vision was momentarily destroyed. “Turn off the car headlines!” one of them shouted. It was, in fact, a bolide – a tumbling meteorite lighting up the sky as it burned away in the upper atmosphere. Such fireballs occur several times a month across the Earth. That same week, for the very first time, the fall of one such bolide was actually predicted. The professionals had discovered a meteoroid orbiting near Earth just a few days before it struck, and they successfully calculated its fall over the Sudan.
If pieces of either event actually survived to hit Earth as meteorites, it will probably be a posse of amateurs who will round them up. But it will be up to the professionals to judge the samples.
So, this week I was supposed to meet Buzz Aldrin. It didn't happen, but how it almost happened is a story. And it reminds me of all the other famous (and almost famous) that I met (or almost met)...
But first, our stats: As of today, we have 143 paid subscribers, an increase of 4 since last month. Every one of you is most welcome, and every one of you helps the cause! What's more, there are (as of this writing) 9203 people who get notified of new postings, a jump of about 150 compared to last month. We continue to grow... still, not nearly fast enough to keep us in business. We pay our writers (a pittance, but still it's something) and the web site and its support does not come for free. Please tell more people about our site.
And if you can, please subscribe at a rate of $10 a month (that's about two visits to Dunkin Donuts for me) or $100 per year. And tell your friends about the site. If we could double the size of the readership, would we double the number of supporters? I'd rather have a thousand people giving us $10 a month than relying on one person giving us ten thousand a month (though I wouldn't turn that down, either!) We want to give you the Sacred Space Site that you like, but how can we do that if we don't hear from you?
Now, on to the story telling, involving number of Nobel Prize Winners including one who taught at our Vatican Observatory Summer School not long ago (incidentally, there's still time to apply to the school, here ), some well known writers, and various Popes and Presidents, each of them with a story...
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This column ran in The Tablet in October, 2007; we first ran it here in 2015
My first scientific paper, more than thirty [forty!] years ago, was a review of the icy moons of Jupiter. Knowing only the mass and volume of the moon Europa and the evidence of its bright surface, I calculated that Europa’s density matched a mixture of rock and ice, with enough rock (90%) that its natural trace radioactivity would, over the age of the solar system, melt the ice. Europa, I asserted, should have a shiny thin ice crust, a moon-like rocky center, and a liquid ocean water between the two. I even speculated about creatures swimming in that ocean.
Then the Voyager and Galileo spacecraft arrived and mapped that moon, showing the kinds of cracks expected for ice overlaying an ocean. And Europa deflected Jupiter’s magnetic field just like a salty, electrically conductive ocean might do. Now I’ve been invited to co-author the lead chapter on a new book about Europa. Because of my scientific expertise? No; those spacecraft also revealed how naive my models were. My chapter is a historical overview.
When did people first speculate about Europa’s interior? My models were based on data that had been around for a long time before my 1975 thesis; was I really the first to fish for life in its interior? From my perch on the scrap heap of history, I’ve been inspired to paw through the Vatican Observatory’s library, looking up references back to the early 19th century.
Europa’s mass was calculated by Laplace in 1805, a brilliant analysis of how Jupiter’s moons tweak each others’ orbits. But he didn’t actually determine how many kilograms of stuff could be found inside Europa; he only reported the ratio of its mass to Jupiter’s. Did he know the mass of Jupiter? He should have; it can be computed from the satellites' orbits (which he had just analyzed), the distance to Jupiter (derived from transits of Venus, observed in the 1760s), and an estimate of the Universal Gravitational Constant (reported by Cavendish in 1798).
Yet he never made that calculation.
Europa’s size was measured in several different ways during the 19th century. Angelo Secchi, the Italian Jesuit who first spied the dark canali of Mars and classified stars by their spectra, published a booklet about the solar system in 1859 with the masses and volumes of Europa and the other moons.
But he, too, never bothered to calculate a density from those numbers.
In 1879, Edward Pickering measured the relative brightnesses of Jupiter’s moons. Europa had the brightness of ice but the density of rock, whereas Ganymede and Callisto were as dark as rocks, with the density of ice. But he didn’t make the connection between brightness and density. My melting models (heat from the rocks melted Europa, producing a clean icy surface; icy Callisto didn’t melt) solved a puzzle that he never noticed.
Laplace, Secchi, and Pickering were giants. Why didn’t they do what I did, a hundred years later? It never occurred to them to ask the right question. (In my case, the “right question” came from my thesis advisor, John Lewis.) They saw Europa as a spot of light in a telescope. It takes imagination to realize that it’s also a whole world, with its own history and geology.
Indeed, the questions are often more important than any simple answer, once they change the way you look at the universe. What did they think the moons were? The question could have been as shattering as the one Peter heard Jesus ask: Who do you say that I am?
Of course, even with the right question, you can still get the wrong answer. In 1908, Pickering finally noticed the low densities and bright surfaces of these bodies. His conclusion? Not ice-covered rocks, but piles of white sand!
This column first ran in The Tablet in October 2018
Re-reading an old science fiction book, I came across reference to the “Russell Diagram”, the relation between a star’s intrinsic brightness and its spectral class. It’s the foundation of modern astrophysics, known to every student of astronomy. Except, we all know it as the “Hertzsprung-Russell” diagram. Was the author just saving words? No, he’d learned his astronomy in the 1920s, when the law was named only for Henry Norris Russell. In the 1930s a meeting of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) decided to also honor Ejnar Hertzsprung; he had created such a diagram in 1911 for stellar clusters, while Russell used more general assumptions in his 1913 version. The two astronomers were lifelong friends and often joked about how each one’s work would parallel and confirm the other’s.
That bit of history came up at [the 2018] IAU meeting, held in Vienna, because a similar change is in the making. For years we have honored Edwin Hubble for his law relating the distance of a cluster of galaxies and how fast it is receding (from our point of view). It’s the foundation of modern cosmology, evidence of an expanding universe. But, though Hubble published his diagram in 1929, the law had been theorized by Georges Lemaître (the Belgian priest-astrophysicist) two years earlier. Should it be the Hubble-Lemaître Law? A straw ballot in Vienna showed strong support for the change. But, having learned from the Pluto controversy, the IAU has now invited all its members to vote electronically. The results should be in by the end of October. [It passed overwhelmingly.]
Names are, in one sense, merely functional. They give us a short-hand way to refer to a law, or a crater, or a human. But of course they are so much more. A person’s name can reveal the history of a family or a nation. And the namer is presumed to have authority over the named — see Adam naming the animals in Genesis 2:19.
I serve on the IAU’s Working Group on Planetary System Nomenclature. We usually work via email, but in September  we met face to face in Flagstaff, Arizona, near the US Geological Survey offices where planets are mapped. One of our tasks in Flagstaff was to come up with names honoring the famous “Earthrise” photo, taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts as they passed behind the Moon and finally saw our planet reappear, fifty years ago this Christmas. It showed humanity our home in all its beauty and fragility. Now two small craters in that photo bear the names “Ander’s Earthrise” and “8 Homeward.” The astronauts helped choose the names; all three — Ed Anders, Frank Borman, and James Lovell — were present at the banquet where this was announced on October 5.
Though names are meant to be functional, they do also serve to remind us of people and events that we do not wish to forget. Some people look for a sort of “immortality” in having things (or people) bear their names. Of course, nothing is truly immortal this way. And there’s always the risk that you’ll be named for a law that turns out to be wrong, or the comet that ends all life on Earth!
Ironically, Hubble never accepted the implications of his own law for an expanding universe. And Lemaître cared so little for credit that when he translated his original paper on the expanding universe from French into English, he dropped the bit predicting galaxy motions; he felt Hubble’s observations had already superseded his predictions.
This column first ran in The Tablet in September, 2008; we published it here in 2016.
A correspondent in Britain has sent to me an article from the Times about Jonny Wilkinson, a famous rugby player, who has found the meaning of life in a combination of “esoteric science and Buddhism.” He is quoted saying, “I read about Schrödinger’s Cat and it had a huge effect on me... It was all about the idea that an observer can change the world just by looking at something; the idea that mind and reality are somehow interconnected. It is difficult to put into words, but it hit me like a steam train.”
I know little of rugby and nothing at all of Mr. Wilkinson. As for Buddhism and quantum physics, I did study both while doing philosophy as a young Jesuit: one semester of each. Mostly, I learned that one semester’s study was not nearly enough to qualify me as an expert on either.
But it was enough to convince me that the connection between the two is tenuous at best. For instance, consider Schrödinger’s Cat: a cat is in a box with a device that randomly may or may not kill the cat, but we don’t know if the cat is alive or not until we open the box and look. To conclude that our looking is what kills the cat, is certainly one way to interpret the result, I suppose...
The Buddhism/physics connection has been a popular meme of journalists and pop science writers for more than thirty years. Martin Gardner, who wrote for many years in Scientific American, once compared the words of one such author to Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”: “As Alice remarked,” he said, “they seem to mean something, but it’s hard to pin down just what.” (Gardner was also the author of The Annotated Alice.)
I found reading philosophers during my Jesuit studies to be very, very difficult. At first blush their works also reminded me of Jabberwocky. With some patient teachers, however, I was able eventually to get a glimmer of the wisdom behind their verbiage. Unlike physicists, philosophers can’t fall back on equations to get their point across; and so often they write not to much to be understood, but rather to guarantee that they will not be misunderstood – that the only possible meaning one can extract from their words is in fact the meaning they intended. This does tend to result, however, in challenging sentence structures.
Truth in science does not necessarily lead to truth in theology. But at least it can help you recognize truth by showing you what truth tends to look like. In both my science and my religion, I am used to finding important truths poorly understood. My master’s thesis tried to describe the moons of Jupiter with computer models that I now know were fatally flawed; but the subsequent Voyagers to Jupiter found pretty much what I predicted there. Our theology of original sin has serious difficulties, but anyone who denies the reality of original sin hasn’t been reading the news lately. In both cases, we know ahead of time what the answer ought to look like; the role of the theorist, in science and theology, is to try to explain what we already are pretty sure is true. And we never get it entirely right.
Just because something is very hard to grasp, doesn’t mean it’s nonsense. But it also doesn’t mean it’s true. Before I commit to studying an advanced philosopher (or physicist) I need a certain faith that the effort will be worth the struggle. I can only have that faith by having teachers I trust. That’s why I spent so many years studying at MIT, rather than trying to pick up physics on my own out of a book. That’s why I belong to a Church.
This column first appeared in The Tablet in September, 2007. We first ran it here in 2015.
A group working in the interface of science and theology at a Jesuit university in the American midwest invited me to give a talk at a workshop on “Cosmology Breakthroughs and the God Question.” When I agreed, I thought I’d be in North America already. Instead, I flew 5000 miles from Rome to make the talk.
I’m not a cosmologist, and God isn’t a question; not to me, anyway. I study planets. What’s the connection between planets and God? Well, in the opening words of the Creed we claim to believe in a God who created heaven and earth. And certainly my field has redefined the meaning of “heaven and earth.”
When you talk about God creating the “earth” we all instinctively look around and see this flat disk of dirt and streams and lakes we call “here,” the earth; and a sky overhead that makes a dome over this disk, the “heavens.” And so the first chapter of Genesis describes God creating such a sky, “a dome in the midst of the waters” that separates the “waters” above and below the land on which plants, animals, and people are eventually placed. The planets above move in their spheres of heaven, ordered into ranks like the angels are.
But then Isaac Newton found natural laws that acted the same both on celestial bodies and objects as humble as an apple falling from a tree. The Earth and everything on it was no longer at the bottom of a chain of creation, but raised to a status equal to that of the other planets. Newton’s physics showed that “Earth” was not in a unique place in the universe, favored or disfavored in contrast to the heavens. It completed what Copernicus had started: the death of the concept that the physical universe could be thought of as a parallel to the spiritual universe.
And this, in turn, freed up science to look more carefully at the concept of “other worlds.” The possibility of other planets has been understood, intellectually, since the enlightenment; indeed, we’ve had stories speculating about life on other planets since Roman times. But it was only when we’ve actually been able to see the real planets in our solar system, close up, that this reality has come home to us at a gut, emotional level. (Think of those spectacular images that the rovers have sent back from Mars: pictures that make you understand you’re looking at a real place where someday people will have adventures.)
Then there’s all those planets we’re discovering around other stars. Certainly they pose the ever increasing possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence. How does this affect the assumptions underlying the traditional explanations of original sin and Christ's salvation?
The most important aspects of this challenge is how it reveals the unrecognized assumptions we have made in our previous understanding of heaven and earth—and the assumptions we have made in our understanding of God as its creator. It is both new, and familiar. What we once thought was the physical universe, earth, turns out to be only one tiny bit of it. What we once thought of as heaven, the stars and planets, turns out to be just a bigger part of “earth.” What we now think of as heaven is not a location accessible to our telescopes; but whatever, wherever, whenever it is, it too is a creation of the same creator God we say we believe in at the very beginning of our credo.
We have to stretch our minds farther than we ever expected to. The universe, and its Creator, are a lot bigger than we could have imagined three millenia ago, before we learned the true nature of the planets. By contrast, the 5000 miles from Rome to St. Louis is a mere weekend’s jaunt.
My columns for The Tablet often act as a diary of sorts, recording important events in science or in my own life. Such is this column, which first ran in September, 2006. We first ran it here in 2015.
Ten years ago last month [as of 2006 – now 23 years ago!], Dave McKay and his colleagues at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston announced that a meteorite, believed to have come from Mars, showed evidence of microbial life. Their interpretations are still widely disputed by the meteoritics community. But, oddly, their announcement resulted in one major change of attitudes. Before, there were still skeptics who were not sure that those rocks came from Mars; now, as the skeptics argue about the putative biogenic grains found in it, no one doubts the Martian origin anymore! Some of us can only be skeptical of one thing at a time, I guess.
Still, what you call the meteorite doesn’t really change its nature. Either it is, or it is not, from Mars. Either it is, or it is not, full of grains that were produced by bacteria. The words we use do not change the reality. Like the small child’s response to a bully’s taunt, “Saying doesn’t make it so.”
But in the world of science, that’s only half true. The words we use to frame our questions can shape the answers we find.
One of the lessons we have learned after years of arguing about those Martian rocks is that we are less sure than we thought about what the word “life” actually means. What does it mean to look for “life” from another planet if we can’t draw a clean line between “complicated chemical processes” and “life”?
For that matter, how do we know that other place is really a “planet”? Those who bemoan Pluto’s loss of status as a planet insist that the IAU’s decision is mere words; in their hearts they know better. But all the petitions in the world won’t change the fact that Pluto will always be an insignificant lump of ice, roughly a tenth the mass of our Moon and a thousand times smaller than Earth, in an irregular orbit among a crowd of other similar bodies.
Call it a planet or not, it is clear that Pluto itself hasn’t gone away, and its nature has not changed regardless of the label we hang on it. But those labels can change the context in which we look at scientific evidence. Seeing Pluto, the newly-named Enis (the dwarf planet [once thought to be] larger than Pluto, formerly known as 2003 UB313), and the other icy dwarfs as bodies different from either planets or asteroids should encourage us to develop new tools for exploring their natures. And we are less likely to insist on a general theory for the origin of “planets” that has to make both Plutos and Neptunes in the same region of space.
The power of words to change reality is clearer in a human context. Some words, like “I love you” or “I’m sorry,” only have power if they are sincerely believed and acted upon. But other words have a real effect no matter whether or not the listener believes them — “we’re pleased to accept you to our University” or “You’re fired!” Among the latter group are some of the most beautiful words in the Church’s language: “I absolve thee...” and “This is my body.”
Scientists like to pride themselves on their adherence to the hard facts and the cold equations, but the heat generated around the status of Pluto is a classic example of how science is also strongly influenced by human words. And that’s only to be expected. Science is a human activity, motivated by love and awe and joy, the emotions that science is capable of inspiring in the human soul.
And on a certain Saturday in September, another set of words produced a change, real and human, in my own life. With a few dozen words, my orbit and status was redefined, when I took my final vows as Jesuit brother.
[It's hard to believe that the Mars Meteorite craziness is now almost 25 years past. Even harder to accept that I have been a Jesuit for 30 years, and that final vows happened in 2006, more than ten years ago...]
The Irish blues singer Rory Gallagher... the last Star Wars movie... the discovery of pulsars... the Dean of York Cathedral... and Pope Francis. That pretty much summarizes my diary for August. Oh, you want to hear more, you say?
But first, our stats: As of today, we have 139 paid subscribers... that's only one more than last month. On the other hand, there are 9051 people who get notified of new postings, a jump of nearly 200 compared to last month. We continue to grow, but not nearly fast enough to keep us in business. We pay our writers (a pittance, but still it's something) and the web site and its support does not come for free.
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 Subway for me) or $100 per year. And tell your friends about the site. If we could double the size of the readership, would we double the number of supporters? I'd rather have a thousand people giving us $10 a month than relying on one person giving us ten thousand a month (though I wouldn't turn that down, either!) We want to give you the Sacred Space Site that you like, but how can we do that if we don't hear from you?
Now, on to the story telling. Most of August I was in Ireland...
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It's back to school time in the northern hemisphere, and at the Vatican Observatory we're both celebrating our summer schools past and letting the world know about our Summer School, Future!
First, some information about the upcoming summer school. It's called the VOSS (for Vatican Observatory Summer School.) It runs for four weeks. It is open to students from around the world who are in the last years of their undergraduate or opening years of graduate studies in astronomy or astrophysics; it is held at our headquarters in Castel Gandolfo; it features a world class teaching staff (more about them, below); and it's free. (If you can afford it, we ask you to pay some part of the cost of travel and housing; if you can't, we cover it.)
There are two restrictions on who gets to attend. First, we only want students who intend to continue in a career in astronomy. This is not for anyone who already has a job or a PhD, nor for advanced amateurs, nor for kids no matter how bright they are. And we will only take two students from any given country.
Pass the word to any students you know who might be interested in applying. How do you apply? Click here!
So, what happens at a typical summer school? You travel to Rome and meet another two dozen students who are just as smart as you are (some, more so!). You spend a few hours in the morning attending lectures on astronomy, from some of the top scientists in the field of whatever subject the school covers. (The 2020 school is on galactic centers, or "centres" – since the head of the school works in the UK. Other schools have been about cosmology, stellar spectra, asteroids and comets, exobiology...) You have coffee, and talk about astronomy. You have lunch (free lunch! Italian food!) and talk about astronomy. You work in teams on projects about astronomy that might lead to a publication or two. You tour historical sites in Rome. You go to the beach. You spend a weekend in Florence seeing the places where Galileo lived and worked. You hang out with two dozen new friends who are just as much fun to be with as you are (some, more so!) and talk about astronomy.
To drop some names... past schools have been taught by people like Vera Rubin, Peter Biermann, Jonathan Lunine. Previous schools have had students like Fernando Comerón, Ray Jayawardhana, Heino Falke, Mercedes Richards.
And those friendships stay with you for the rest of your career. For the rest of your life. Proof of that? Every five or ten years we have a reunion, called a super-VOSS... and there's a superVOSS happening right now, this week!
This column from The Tablet first ran there in September 2018... I have altered it slightly to bring it up to date.
The famous American cynic H. L. Mencken once asserted that every question had an answer that was “neat, plausible, and wrong.” Science is no different. Our meteorite collections have reddish “ordinary” meteorites and black “carbonaceous” ones; meanwhile, in space we see some asteroids with reddish surfaces, while others are pitch black. The connection between the meteorites and the asteroids is thus neat and plausible. But is it right?
The holy grail in asteroids is finding the ones with water and carbon. If we are going to be a space-faring species, we’ll need those chemicals to feed us and power our spacecraft. The cost to bring them up to space with us from Earth makes these materials far more valuable than platinum or gold.
We know that some carbonaceous meteorites have carbon and water; and they are distinctively black. But not all black meteorites are carbonaceous. In fact, most of the meteorites so labeled nowadays actually don’t have much carbon; the name is just a hold-over from a nomenclature system once based on broad features like color, where today we use trace element abundances. And the blackest meteorites in our collections aren’t even part of this grouping. Rather, they are chemically the same as the reddish rocks, but their minerals have been so shattered by strong shocks (as happens when asteroids collide) that they’ve been turned pitch black.
Two spacecraft missions are now studying a pair of these dark asteroids. The Japanese Hayabusa 2 mission has been orbiting its target, Ryugu, since June, 2018; the American mission Osiris-Rex began to orbit its target, Bennu, in December of that year. One remarkable feature of both missions is that they intend not only to study these bodies close up; they will actually touch the surfaces and scoop up a bit of material to return to Earth. [Indeed, Hayabusa 2 has already succeeded in getting its sample, and will head back to Earth in December, due to deliver its capsule of samples in late 2020.] Finally we’ll have asteroid bits to compare with our meteorites.
Ryugu has already given us pause. This thousand-meter pile of rocks turns out to be covered with boulders as big as the spacecraft that is supposed to touch its surface. Still, the Japanese found a spot smooth enough to sample. The American mission invested a lot of time before it was launched studying potential asteroids via radar; they picked Bennu in the hopes that it will not have this problem. [Alas, it too is covered with boulders and finding a sampling site is turning out to be harder than first anticipated.]
One final challenge is to care for these samples once we have them back on Earth. The curation of extraterrestrial materials is no simple task. This was the topic of a workshop organized a year ago at the Vatican Observatory headquarters in Castel Gandolfo by my colleague (and replacement as meteorite curator), Brother Bob Macke SJ. Three dozen curators from around the world gathered to discuss topics ranging from how these samples are kept and classified, to how and when they are made available for outside researchers. Among them were Tora Yada (of the Japanese space agency Jaxa) and Francis McCubbin (from NASA); they are the ones responsible for curating spacecraft samples from the asteroid belt.
Much of science is sorting and classifying, recording and reporting. The skills and techniques for keeping track of the constituents of our collections are no different from how, for millenia, parishes have kept track of their members’ baptisms and burials. Scientific work is clerical work; it was originally done by clerics.
Likewise, our relics from space are like religious relics. Both remind us that the things we study no matter how distant or dark (or poorly understood) are nonetheless tangible and real.
[Check the links to go to the mission websites with some fantastic images. And if you get to Rome, check out the repositories of relics...]
So, last week Pope Francis met in a private audience with the sixteen members of the Vatican Observatory. We presented the Pope with the published proceedings of a recent workshop we’d held on Gravitation and Black Holes — how we understand the fabric of space and time warped together in the deepest regions of space. That meeting had included Nobel Prize winners and other notables from the field; the Pope had met them, too.
But another gift that we gave the Pope tells a deeper story. We also offered him a copy of our 2020 astronomical calendar.
Every year, the Vatican Observatory Foundation publishes a calendar full of glorious astronomical images and marking significant dates in the history of our science. It’s a way of raising money to help support our telescope and our outreach efforts. But hundreds of these calendars are also given away, for free, to inmates in San Quentin and other prisons. All the prisoners have to do is write to us and ask.
The letters we get from them are quite moving. One death row inmate at San Quentin wrote us, “…getting this calendar, I am able to see sights I haven’t seen in 17 years… I am able to look in wonder on such vast creation and just ponder all that is.”
All of us are, in our own ways, prisoners. We’re prisoners of the gravity field that keeps us pinned to planet Earth (at least most of us, most of the time). We’re prisoners of the laws of physics that, so far as we understand them, make travel to the stars just a science fiction dream. We’re also prisoners of our own prejudices and fears, which limit what we allow ourselves to see. Astronomy is a window into a world bigger than our immediate world of sorrows and worries, where we can see a universe that tells us God is mighty and God is good… where we can soar with our imaginations and our souls.
The Pope was delighted to receive our calendar and hear about our outreach to the prisoners. It fit well with the Jesuit apostolic priority, “to walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice.”
He also pointed out another significance to our calendars... noting the months and the space images, he told me, “Here you have, together, a combination of space and time!”
This column first ran in The Tablet in August 2010; we first ran it here in 2016.
Saturday, seventeen hours from California, my friend Dan and I land in Australia. We’re looking forward to a week of observing southern stars, researching our latest book, a guide for amateur astronomers.
Brother Ian meets us at the airport and leads us to the Jesuit winery and retreat house at Sevenhill, two hours north of Adelaide. Even jet-lag and a partly cloudy sky can’t stop us from pulling out our telescopes that night and peeking at Rigel Kentaurus, our Sun’s nearest neighbor, and Acrux, the brightest star of the Southern Cross. Both are double stars, first split by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century. After half an hour, the sky clouds over completely. But not to worry, we have the whole week before us.
(A heat wave across North America threatens the lives of the poor and elderly.)
Sunday, Ian shows us around the vineyards and the tells us the history of the 19th century Jesuit mission. We see photos of the Austrian Jesuits who came with dreams of a seminary and university that never materialized (soon after they arrived, most of the locals left for the gold fields further east); photos of the stern bishop under whom they worked; and the place where [then] soon-to-be-canonized Mother Mary MacKillop stayed when she came through, about the time that said bishop excommunicated her. Cloudy. We watch a DVD of Little Miss Sunshine.
Monday we go shopping for chocolate and Coca Cola in the little village of Clare. Sunset reveals a brilliant clear sky, and out come the telescopes. I get to see the glorious nebula around Eta Carina slowly fade from sight as the clouds roll back in. However, the forecast promises clearing on Wednesday.
(Massive floods hit Pakistan.)
Tuesday, Ian gives us a tour of the surrounding countryside. Amid odd trees and strange birds we look across the Clare valley and south over the rich agricultural region towards Adelaide. A signpost at one of the lookouts has an arrow indicating “New York, 19,000 km”. Dan, a New Yorker, sighs. “You could go in the opposite direction for 21,000 km,” I helpfully point out. Cloudy night. The forecast now: clear skies will arrive on Thursday, then storms on Saturday.
Wednesday is pouring rain. I start reading a thick and dreadful fantasy novel I bought in Clare. Dan and I take turns getting up during the night, hoping for a clearing that never comes.
Thursday. Cloudy. See four kangaroos. We stay up hoping for a break in the clouds, and watch the directors’ commentary track of Little Miss Sunshine. We give up at 4:30 am. Three days left. How could God be so cruel as to let me come all this way, just to be frustrated? Why does He hate me?
(Bad weather in China leads to devastating landslides.)
Friday morning, the blue skies so long forecast are finally here. Local farmers tell us the clouds lifted at 5 am. It stays sunny, until evening. The internet cloud-cover map says that Sevenhill is perfectly clear; our eyes say, perfectly awful. Around 10 pm, we spot stars through a hole in the muck. It lasts just long enough for me to find and split a faint double star in Centaurus before the inevitable clouds return.
Saturday, the weatherman is finally vindicated: as predicted, it storms. That evening the 150 year old church, hand crafted by Jesuit brothers and still not finished, is filled with the local farmers and their families. In the pew behind us is a family of twelve, including four pairs of twins. Among the parish announcements at the end of Mass, Father Pippin comments: “We’ve been blessed this past week with the rain we so desperately need. You can thank the two American astronomers among us...”
[We eventually got back to Australia in December and had one good night of observing, enough to complete the Southern sections for our book, Turn Left at Orion. In fact, the fifth edition of this book was released earlier this year.
And at the end of August 2016, I returned to Sevenhill for my annual retreat. There’s a telescope at the retreat house we left behind after our last visit...]