You may have noticed a change here... what we used to call The Catholic Astronomer is now Sacred Space Astronomy. And along with a change in layout and title, we're expanding the way you can support our work.
Why the name change? OK, so I admit, I am the guy who came up with the original name. I meant it as a pun, in the sense that "catholic" means "universal" and of course astronomers look at the universe, while our interests on this site cover pretty much the gamut from naked-eye stargazing to theoretical cosmology. All, of course, under the aegis of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.
Well, like most puns, nearly everyone missed it entirely. And since a number of our contributors are not actual Catholics (again, there is a gamut, from practicing Jews to Catholic priests to non-churchgoers) the face value of the title wasn't always appropriate.
Meanwhile, for those of you who contribute financially to keep the site (and the Foundation) running, one of the perqs of membership is that we enroll you in a program called Sacred Space, a ministry of the Jesuits in Ireland. So we borrowed that name for our on-line astronomy newsletter.
What's new about how you can support us? When you decide to support Sacred Space Astronomy, you are given the choice of three levels: Pleiades at $10 a month (or more), Hercules at $50 a month (or more), or Andromeda at $100 a month (or more):
Pleiades Membership: $10 per month, or $100 per year.
Pleiades Members receive the annual Sacred Space prayer book and full access to the Sacred Space Astronomy website.
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At the Hercules level, in addition to the above, members also receive their choice of any book from our current book store.
Andromeda Membership: $100 per month, or $1000 per year.
In addition to all of the above, Andromeda members may have an astronomer from the Vatican Observatory to connect for one hour via Skype to the school classroom or club of your choice.
All Sacred Space members will receive a copy of Sacred Space: The Prayer Book, a year-long prayer book for thoughtful Christians with busy lives. With daily scripture readings and meditations in the Ignatian tradition, this well-respected book is a popular, portable, and accessible, prayer book published by the Irish Jesuits.Click here to enroll in Sacred Space Giving
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The Vatican Observatory Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non profit corporation. Charitable donations are eligible for a tax deduction.
But several folks have asked if they could just switch this to an annual gift. We're happy to do that; the fewer times we have to charge your credit card, the less we have to pay in credit card fees (and deal with cards going out of date).
So we now offer these same levels at a rate of $100 per year for Pleiades, $500 per year for Hercules, or $1000 per year for Andromeda.
(One of these days, one of the mathematicians in our group will point out that it's a bargain to sign up for the annual giving. So quick sign up now, before they catch on!)
Big news: A Challenge! One of our large donors has issued a challenge: they will match whatever new gifts we bring in, up to a total of $50,000. So when you sign up for Sacred Space Astronomy, your donation will be doubled!
This column first appeared in The Tablet in April, 2006, and first published here in 2015.
It was April Fool’s Day at the Vatican’s telescope in southeastern Arizona, and we’d had three nights of cloudy weather. This night looked promising, however. Bill Romanishin, our colleague at the University of Oklahoma, had given us a list of Kuiper Belt Objects to observe, orbiting out beyond Neptune. Included were some Centaurs, objects that some day might become comets plunging close to the Sun.
At the telescope, I was with Steve Tegler from Northern Arizona University. Along with each object, we also observed bits of blank sky, so we could find and remove all the dust spots on the images; and fields of stars whose colours and brightnesses were already well known, so that we could calibrate our objects against these known standards. Around midnight, about halfway into a field of standard stars, Steve looked over his list again and remembered, “Oh, Bill wanted us to try 60558. It’s a Centaur that’s supposed to have a coma.”
A coma, a cloud of gas? Odd that this object, thirteen times the Earth’s distance from the Sun, would be warm enough to start vaporizing its ices into a nascent comet tail. So when we finished the standards, we pointed to 60558 and took a “test” image, a 30 second exposure to make sure we were pointed at the stars near the object. We didn’t expect to see the Centaur itself with such a short exposure; at 20th magnitude, it would be a million times fainter than the faintest star visible to the naked eye. But when the image was finally downloaded from the camera chip and displayed on our computer screen, a coma was visible even in the test image!
We took a three minute exposure; any longer, and the motion of the Centaur would have blurred its image. It showed an irregular cloud of light actually detached, off to the west of the little dot of light that marked the Centaur itself. Very strange. We ran through the colored filters, and then went on to other objects. But the longer we thought about it, the stranger it seemed. Was it real, or just an internal reflection of some bright star onto our camera chip? Would it be there the next night, after the Centaur had moved to a new field of stars?
The next night, our last at the telescope, started out cloudy again. Looking at the satellite weather maps, it looked like we’d have a hole in the clouds just as our object was rising. Fingers crossed... waiting impatiently for the object to rise... the clouds were especially thick in the southeast... the hole was beginning to close in the west... finally... success! The thin clouds cut a magnitude’s worth of light out, but the coma was bright enough that we could see it anyway. There it was again. It was real.
We sent Bill the images to analyze, and he found in our data an even larger, but fainter, cloud of light on the other side of the nucleus. Our first bright cloud, we estimated, must be half the size of Jupiter; the bigger cloud is a good fraction of the Sun’s diameter.
What causes these comae? We don’t know. We’ve never seen anything like them before. A splitting Centaur? The result of a collision, or a pocket of exotic frozen gases exposed to the sun? Is this a major breakthrough or a mere curiosity? We don’t know; only time and further observations will tell.
Usually discoveries are revealed to us gradually, understood only after a lot of “data reduction” has removed the false images of dust on our lenses and compared our faint signals to known standards of truth. But on wonderful rare occasions like this one the discovery blares at us, as obvious as the empty tomb.
In 2006, the object known as asteroid 60558 Echeclus was also given a cometary designation as 174P/Echeclus.
As of 2015, we still didn't know for sure the origin of this coma. It was tracked for several months and seen to be on an orbit that is slightly different from that of 60558; our best guess is that the source of the coma broke off the main body about a thousand years ago and the two objects have been chasing each other around the solar system since then.
By 2019, Echeclus had its own Wikipedia page, where one can read that “In 2016, carbon monoxide was detected in Echeclus in very small amounts, and the derived CO production rate was calculated to be sufficient to account for the observed coma. The calculated CO production rate from Echeclus is substantially lower than what is typically observed for 29P/Schwassmann–Wachmann, another distantly active comet often classified as a centaur.”
Travel news! I am in Tucson today; Here is where I have been, and where I will be going...
More Stats: Since April 2 we've added 60 more people signed up to get notifications of these posts either via Twitter, Facebook, or directly asking for email updates here. And we’ve added two more paid subscribers, now up to 124. Thanks, and welcome! If we could double the size of the readership, would we double the number of supporters? It's probably not that simple... but it would certainly help.
More travels: I finished out my month in Italy with a trip to Padua, where I got to visit the historic astronomy tower of the University of Padua and the telescopes at the Asiago Observatory. But then, following a wonderful night train from Padua to Paris and the a high speed train to Brussels, I got to attend the historic unveiling of the first image of a Black Hole and celebration of the 100th anniversary of the IAU. And therein, hangs a tale...
In order to read the rest of this post, you have to be a paid-up member of Sacred Space, and logged in as such!
Fourteen years ago this month, Pope John Paul II died and Pope Benedict XVI was elected. I wrote this column in reaction to those events; it appeared in the Tablet in April, 2005. We republished here in 2015, the tenth anniversary of the event.
For twelve years [as of 2005] I have been an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, one of a dozen Jesuits who are guests of the Pope at his summer home in Castel Gandolfo. And as an astronomer I observed John Paul II: occasionally in close encounters, more commonly from a distance... brief glances, an amplified voice resonating through the window of my room overlooking Wednesday audiences, Sunday Angelus prayers, and Mass for a thousand different groups of visitors.
Our orbits rarely intersected. At Castel Gandolfo, our living quarters and offices are under the same roof as the Pope’s, but in fact our paths (like our hallways) rarely intersect. He’d have the Jesuits over for Mass on July 31, the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola. He personally greeted our summer schools of young astronomers. On other rare occasions we might be invited to join a morning audience.
He made a point to thank everyone working at Castel Gandolfo in person at the end of each summer stay. During one such audience, at the end of September, 2001, I had my most memorable encounter with him. He had just returned from Kazakhstan, where he had traveled immediately after the September 11 attacks. I was perhaps one of the first Americans to speak with him after those tragedies, and I thanked him for his prayers and work for peace. He, in turn, reassured me of his love and care for my country. It was a moving, if brief, conjunction.
Even just shaking his hand a few times every summer and seeing him out my window, I did have a privileged view for nearly half of his papacy. The most striking observation was seeing how, the weaker he became physically, the stronger was the spiritual power he radiated. The last years of his life, his mere presence – fiery eyes set in a bent and withered frame – could melt even the most cynical heart in the crowds. Extrapolating this trend to his death, it is no surprise that just his corpse moved millions.
The events of this past month  have taken place at a time when my own orbit has pulled me far from Castel Gandolfo. In California, where I am taking part in a special period of Jesuit study and research, I have observed John Paul’s passing and the election of Pope Benedict XVI... a name that someday will not look so strange upon the page.
I find myself playing all the games of someone wondering what the new boss will be like. How will he affect my own life and work? Will his ascension mean changes in the leadership of my Jesuit order, or my community in Rome? Should I be brushing up my German?
As a Cardinal, Ratzinger-now-Benedict was a controversial figure. A super-Catholic friend of mine in Houston, Texas, who works in the meteorite lab at the Nasa Johnson Space Center, is such a fan of his that she's baked him cookies and mailed them to Rome. Has he ever gotten them? Or noticed who sent them? Will that translate into good will for my meteorite work at the Observatory? I wonder if he’ll be interested in coming downstairs to visit my lab... and if I should I have cookies ready, in case he does.
The utter silliness of these calculations is their best antidote. The Vatican Observatory has served nine Popes since its modern incarnation in 1892, and our tenth Pope is, like John Paul II and the others before him, an intellectual who can appreciate our work.
Beyond that, my real boss is The Holy Spirit. Neither the truths of science, nor of religion, depend on the person or personalities of their acolytes. The only thing that matters is how faithfully we serve those truths.
(added in 2015... our relationship with Pope Benedict was wonderful, and this has continued under Pope Francis. The major change that occurred under Pope Benedict was that we're no longer living in the old Papal residence; we were given magnificent new quarters in the gardens nearby. Pope Benedict opened them in person, and he did indeed come to visit my meteorite lab.
And Pope Francis no longer stays in the old Papal residence, either; it's a museum now. He visited us for lunch in 2013, though, and also visited the meteorites.)
This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2018
When the news agency of the Italian Bishops’ Conference asked me, as Vatican Observatory director, for a statement on the death of Stephen Hawking, I wrote: “Stephen Hawking… was a scientist of remarkable insight who even more remarkably gave a human face to the work of astronomical cosmology.”
The bishops translated my English into Italian, and issued a press release. That release was, in turn, picked up by American newspapers who turned their Italian back into English. Thus the Washington Post had me saying that Hawking was a “scientist of admirable intuition, who knew even more extraordinarily to give a human face to cosmology and to astronomy.”
It’s close; but it’s not quite what I said.
This story illustrates a fundamental difficulty we always must face when trying to put human language, be it Italian or English or mathematics, to the task of describing the universe. We will always be faced with miscommunications, mistranslations, or simple inadequacies.
Hawking himself famously fell victim to such a mistranslation when he claimed his theory, that the Big Bang was triggered by a quantum fluctuation of the primordial space-time continuum, solved the age old question: “why is there something instead of nothing?” But the “nothing” of the primordial vacuum is not the same thing as the philosophers’ nihil. Even a vacuum contains the primordial space-time continuum—and the laws of quantum mechanics.
Though I never knew Hawking personally, the Vatican Observatory’s noted cosmologist Fr. Bill Stoeger studied with him at Cambridge in the 1970s and they remained good friends all their lives. Ironically, though they were the same age, Hawking outlived Fr. Stoeger by four years. Of course I was aware of the public persona, including his conscious decision as his disease progressed to market himself as a “genius” to the general public. The success of his books (which it seems everyone bought and no one read) insured that he could support himself as his disease progressed, and gave him a sense of value. But it also fed the mania of the media to deify celebrity science.
Hawking was a good physicist. But he was not Newton or Einstein. His one memorable insight was seeing how black holes could “evaporate” via the quantum uncertainty that would allow an occasional bit to find itself outside the “Schwarzschild radius” and thus free to escape the black hole’s gravity. But Einstein’s Relativity predicted black holes, John Wheeler named them, and Karl Schwarzschild determined their radius. And while Hawking’s theory is convincing, it is still beyond our abilities to test.
Hawking was an inspiration to others with disabilities. Writing on our blog site The Catholic Astronomer, Dr. Brenda Frye recalls a lecture he gave at Berkeley: “dozens of disabled individuals found their way to this auditorium. I recall that Professor Hawking… said, not for everyone to see him as a role model and study mathematics, but rather for each person to find out what one does best and then do that one thing.”
And yet Hawking could also be a very difficult person. He was a sinner. So are we all.
The death of Stephen Hawking [on March 14, 2018] filled the news with plaudits for his science and his remarkable life. He was certainly the most famous scientist of his generation. But most of the eulogies missed that essential part of his story, one that he both suppressed and yet, I suspect, he longed for. He was after all an ordinary human being.
I really wanted to post more often here, but life got in the way...
Some Stats: Here’s our latest monthly summary of statistics. As of this writing we have 8,405 people signed up to get notifications of these posts either via Twitter, Facebook, or directly asking for email updates here. As of a bit later in the month, last month, we had 8,336. And back then we had 120 paying members; we’ve added two more, and it nows stands at 122. Thanks, and welcome!
If we could double the size of the readership, would we double the number of supporters? It's probably not that simple... but it would certainly help.
And what's new: My travels first brought me to Rome for a month, where I immediately got on a train to a little village of Sarno, in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, where I got an award and gave a talk supporting the Specola's work in Faith and Science. I was waiting to get a picture of the award, it's quite spectacular, but it hasn't arrived here yet. Meanwhile, here are some photos of the village, which was also spectacular:
And even more amazing was this item that I saw on the wall of the mayor's office...
In order to read the rest of this post, you have to be a paid-up member of Sacred Space, and logged in as such!
This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2009, and first posted here in 2016
“Astronomers Are Just As Dumb As Economists” cried the headline on the “Business Insider” website. The author, Eric Falkenstein, who writes a blog on hedge funds and other mysteries of the universe, was reacting to an earlier editorial on the site which had complained of government officials who, they asserted, seemed to think that the current economic recession was “like a giant asteroid, something completely unrelated to our own doing that just happened to hit us.”
But Mr. Falkenstein noted, “an asteroid hit it” is in fact a favorite explanation of planetary scientists for nearly every anomaly in the solar system. Mercury has an unusually iron core? An asteroid hit it, blasting off much of its rocky mantle. Venus spins far slower, and in the opposite sense, compared to the other planets? Blame an asteroid strike. A giant impact is the current favorite theory for the formation of Earth’s Moon; for the reason Mars lost most of its atmosphere; for the origin of Saturn’s rings; for the odd tilt of Uranus’ axis.
He concludes, “You can only use the ‘hit by an asteroid’ explanation so many times, before it starts sounding like a filler for ‘we have no good theory’.”
Actually, we do have a good theory. All those bodies were hit by asteroids.
When I was a student we lacked that theory; we didn’t even know we needed it. Serious scientists were still arguing against the idea that craters on the Moon (and Earth) were caused by asteroid impacts. And back then we didn’t know enough to even realize that Mercury’s density was anomalous, or how fast Venus was spinning under its clouds, or that Mars’ atmosphere was once much thicker. And we had a perfectly good theory for the origin of the Moon; several of them, in fact. (Between the data from the Apollo moon rocks, and the ability to do more detailed theoretical modeling with ever-faster computers, it soon became obvious that none of those old theories worked.)
Giant impacts smacked of “catastrophism.” The great argument in the 19th century among geologists had pitted those looking in the geological record for catastrophes like the Biblical flood, versus the “uniformitarians” who insisted that the Earth evolved slowly, over millions of years, via processes we can still see operating today. For a hundred years, it looked like the uniformitarians had won. “The present is the key to the past,” we were all taught.
But then planetary probes revealed that every planet’s surface was covered with impact craters. Even more shockingly it showed that many bodies – most dramatically, the icy moons of Saturn imaged by the Voyager spacecraft in 1980 – had suffered impacts so huge they had almost been completely destroyed. Surprisingly, enough of some bodies demolished in such catastrophic collisions still survived to tell the tale: the moon Miranda orbiting Uranus, as an example, was obviously re-accreted in a hodgepodge way from the broken shards of a shattered body.
Impacts have been the rule, not the exception, over the age of the solar system. Catastrophes do happen; uniformly. Both sides of the 19th century debate turned out to be right.
The key to it all was admitting that our well-established dichotomies were inadequate, and that we weren’t as smart as we thought we were. Maybe that’s the problem the economists are facing. They haven’t come to the point where they can admit that some events occur beyond their control. Their either/or dogmas are inadequate; they have been advocating, in the words of T. S. Eliot, “systems so perfect that one will need to be good.”
And so, like Mr. Falkenstein, they propound with misplaced confidence (be it promoting hedge funds or mocking astronomers) when they would be better off holding their tongues. But that’s what happens when you confuse being dumb, with being stupid.
First published in The Tablet in February, 2008; we ran it here in 2015. I've moved it to March this time around, to fit the Lenten theme at the end.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a prestigious umbrella group of American scientists, convened this past weekend  in Boston. At the same time, in a hotel on the other side of town, a few hundred science fiction fans were gathered to meet their friends and talk about their favorite writers. I sat on science-and-religion panels at both conventions.
The AAAS panel was concerned about “Communicating Science in a Religious America.” In spite of several legal victories by the scientific community defending the teaching of evolution in public schools, the “Intelligent Design” movement in America is still winning the public relations wars. Barely half of polled adults there say they believe in evolution, the lowest numbers of any industrialized nation. Though no one on the panel put it so crudely, the general tenor of the comments could be summarized as: “why are they so stupid, and how can we pound the truth into their heads?”
The panelists agreed that assuming “if only they knew what I know, they would agree with me,” is a failing strategy. And we also agreed that the militant evangelical atheists, Dawkins and his ilk, are only making the situation worse. But most of the discussion revolved around tactics of framing the issue, as if science could win the argument by choosing the right soundbites. Should we try to recover a sense of hope or a sense of design (if not intelligent) in nature? Does revealing ones’ own religious stance helped or hurt the discussion? Only one person suggested that we scientists might actually learn something from listening as well as talking; and that wise sage (me) didn’t do a particularly good job of getting his point across.
By contrast, the discussion at the science fiction convention was both more limited, and more revealing. Michael Flynn’s recent novel Eifelheim explored what might have happened if the first contact between humans and aliens had actually occurred during the high middle ages. In the process of writing it, he wound up researching the actual relationships between science and religion during that time. At the SF convention, he was joined John Farrell (author of a new book about Fr. George Lemaitre, the inventor of the Big Bang theory) and me on a panel about the rise of science in the middle ages.
To the general public, the history of the period from Rome to the Renaissance is as poorly known as the theory of evolution. But fantasy fans know plenty of the details, albeit in a muddled and unrealistic melange – “the middle ages the way they should have been,” to quote the motto of the medieval recreation society that quite candidly calls itself the Society for Creative Anachronism. Thus we had an audience already primed and eager to hear speculations based on real history. Could the Islamic world have had a Thomas Aquinas? What if the plague hadn’t delayed the scientific revolution, budding at the time of Oresme and Buriden, by 300 years?
The AAAS audience was undoubtedly more high-powered, and that panel more professional in their presentations. The SF panelists, by contrast, tended to ramble off topic; writers are not always the best public speakers. But on the whole, I found the science fiction convention to be a far more fulfilling experience: the participants more enthusiastic, the audience more engaged. By contrast, the AAAS panel and audience were afraid to admit that, fundamentally, we haven’t a clue about how to communicate science to religious America. We were afraid to confess our ignorance.
It’s not only more fruitful to recognize our shortcomings; it is also more fun. There’s a great relief in not pretending to be perfect. Accepting that one is a sinner can actually make Lent, paradoxically enough, the most joyful of seasons.
First published in The Tablet in February, 2007; we first ran it here in 2016. I've moved it to March, this year, to fit the Lenten season.
With my colleague Dan Britt from the University of Central Florida, for several years I’ve been measuring the densities and porosities of meteorites. The densities of different meteorite classes can be compared with their parent asteroids, to see how loosely packed they are; and the porosity of these rocks is an indication of how thoroughly their fabric has been cracked by the shock of the impacts that shattered those parent bodies.
We started with the collection I curate at the Vatican; but there are many meteorite types that are underrepresented there. When I came to New York [in 2007] for a year’s sabbatical at Fordham University, I had hoped to extend our data by looking at the nearby American Museum of Natural History’s extensive collection.
But things got off to a slow start. It took time to settle into Fordham; and Dan, who’d been storing our equipment in Florida, had new responsibilities too. Finally, in December, the equipment was shipped to New York. It arrived just in time for Christmas… and the holidays. Then I spent another week at my Jesuit province congregation. Finally, in mid-January, Dan himself came up to New York bringing the few last bits needed to get to work.
The key instrument we use is an Ultrachrome Pycnometer. It measures meteorite volumes on the same principle that had sent Archimedes running down the streets of Syracuse, naked from his bath, shouting “Eureka.” He’d realized that you could measure volumes by dipping a body into a pool of water and seeing how much water is spilled out of the pool. We don’t want to dip our fragile meteorites into water, however. We use inert helium gas.
Two chambers are pressurized with helium, one at a pressure higher than the other; we compare pressures beforehand, open a valve between them, and measure the final pressure. Then the meteorite is placed in the higher pressure chamber, and process repeated. The bigger the volume of the meteorite, the less room there is for the pressurized gas, and so the lower the final pressure. Comparing the final pressures of the two cases tells us the sample’s volume; this volume is divided into the meteorite’s mass to determine its density.
Helium, the gas with the tiniest molecules, will penetrate into the finest cracks and pores of the meteorite; this is good. It will also leak through the tiniest cracks in an experimental set-up; not so good. We could hear hissing from somewhere. Finally, pulling the pycnometer apart, we found a broken tube. Time to order a replacement from the manufacturer. Another month lost.
The next week, Dan returned to New York with the tube, and fixed that leak. But all that’s accomplished is to show up smaller leaks we hadn’t noticed before. The regulator that controls the pressure from the helium tank to the pycnometer is clearly not helium-tight; time to replace it. The outlet fitting is a quarter-inch, while the connecting pipe fitting is metric; another fix needed. Each patch we apply only reveals another leak further down the line. We’ve lost a quarter of our helium so far, without getting a single measurement. And I had less than three months left in New York.
These frustrations only remind me of my own spiritual state, this Lenten season. I’m not a terrible sinner; really, only one or two things need patching, right? But the only evidence I have that I’m making progress in my prayer life is my ability to constantly find faults that I hadn’t noticed before.
I know I will never eliminate all the leaks in my helium plumbing. My only hope is to get to a point where it’s good enough, where I can actually get something accomplished, some data collected, some good done in this world. With the grace of God, maybe I’ll get to that point by Easter.
It's an amazing morning; for the first time in about three weeks I don't have some deadline that has to be met by today, and I can actually catch my breath!
Some Stats: But first, my monthly (a bit late this month!) summary of statistics. As of this writing we have 8,336 people signed up to get notifications of these posts either via Twitter, Facebook, or directly asking for email updates here. That's not quite a hundred more than last month, when we had 8242. And we're up to 120 subscribers, an addition of 4 new members. Thanks, and welcome!
If we could double the size of the readership, would we double the number of supporters? It's probably not that simple... but it would certainly help.
And what's new: So what is it that has kept me so busy? Travel to Kentucky and Ohio (including in Wapakoneta, the home of Neil Armstrong); the Tucson Festival of Books; and talks to a group of seminarians from Wisconsin and alumni from Yale. One more review article out the door; that makes about a book's worth of writing I have done in the last 8 months. If only I had saved that all for a book of my own.
But what I really want to talk about here, behind closed doors, are two items of news from our annual Vatican Observatory Foundation Board meeting, of special interest to our paid-up members...
In order to read the rest of this post, you have to be a paid-up member of Sacred Space, and logged in as such!
This column ran in The Tablet for the new year's issue of 2008, when Easter occurred remarkably early, on March 23. It was relatively early in 2016, on March 27th, when we ran it here. This year, it's about as late as it can be! Early or late, the explanation is the same... and so probably worth running again.
Why is Ash Wednesday so late this year?
Contrary to popular conception, the Vatican Observatory doesn’t set the date of Easter. (We don’t cast horoscopes for the Pope, or evangelize UFOs, either.) But since Pope Gregory’s reform of the calendar in 1582 marked the beginning of the Vatican’s support for astronomy, we have a historical connection.
Our calendars have always been marked by a confusion of days, planets, and gods. Even today, our week begins with the Sun’s day, followed by the Moon’s day and ending with Saturn’s Day. The month (think, “moonth”) was originally based on the 29.5 day period of the Moon, while the year is fixed by the Sun’s apparent motion through the zodiac. If your culture is centered on animals — fishing, hunting, caring for flocks at night — moonlight and tides will control your life and your calendar will follow the Moon. If you grow crops, then seasons are more important, and a solar calendar makes more sense.
The Jewish calendar, including such festivals as Passover, is lunar; the civil calendar of Rome, set by Julius Caesar, is solar. The Church’s calendar is a holy marriage of both. Thus, most saints' days are fixed into the yearly calendar, like Christmas; but Easter was set by the Council of Nicaea as the first Sunday after Passover.
By medieval times, our astronomy had advanced to the point where it it should have been possible to calculate when those lunar holy days would occur. But in practice, such calculations turned out to be surprisingly difficult.
By the 16th century, with Christianity spreading across the globe, it became all the more urgent to find a simple, reliable way of letting everyone know well ahead of time when Easter and its associated feasts were to be celebrated. (In addition, Caesar’s trick of leap years every fourth year was proving to be not quite precise enough; after 1500 years, the first day of spring had slid by 10 days from its canonical position of March 21.)
Pope Gregory’s calendar committee, commissioned by the Council of Trent, settled on a simple and elegant solution first proposed by Aloysius Lillius. Instead of trying to determine with perfect accuracy the Moon’s position and the first day of spring, they devised a formula which closely, if not exactly, follows the “first Sunday after Passover” rubric. (In fact, they differ roughly 5% of the time.) The earliest that Easter can fall is March 22; this occurs roughly once every two centuries. A March 23 date, such as we had in 2008, is a once-a-century event; the next one is in 2160. Meanwhile, the latest Easter can occur is April 25, which will next happen in 2038; on that day, Ash Wednesday is on March 10.
What’s more significant, however, is the underlying principle behind this arbitrary formula. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath: our religious feasts are not controlled by the Moon. And so future colonists on Mars or beyond can set Easter for whatever date best suits them. That may turn out to be a very useful principle, once it comes time to evangelize those UFOs!
This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2011, soon after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan. We ran it here in 2015. This year we're swapping March columns with February columns...
I had wanted to follow up here on the results of the Hayabusa mission, which I have mentioned many times over the years in this column.
This was the probe the Japanese Space Agency had sent to asteroid Itokawa, which touched the surface of that asteroid in late 2005. After overcoming a number of technical crises, including the failure of the system they’d devised to get chunks of rock into a sample canister, the probe actually succeeded in sending its sample return capsule to the Australia desert during the summer of 2010.
Since the sampling system had failed, the most they could have hoped to recover were a few bits of dust inside the container. Their silence in the following months had led me to conclude that they had gotten nothing. But earlier this month, at the annual Lunar and Planetary Sciences meeting in Houston, scientists from the University of Tokyo presented wonderful results. With a special teflon spatula they had carefully scraped some 1500 flecks of dust, comparable in size to grains of flour, from the side of the canister. After getting them off the spatula (by tapping it with a screwdriver) they measured the chemical composition and physical state of these bits.
The result: they are definitely pieces of the asteroid, not just debris from the spacecraft. They look exactly like a particular well-known variety of ordinary chondrite meteorite, designated as type LL6.
This result is a tribute to the patience and skill of the Japanese scientists. It’s an important addition to our small inventory of samples that we’ve brought back from celestial bodies (the only others are the Moon rocks and dust from Comet Wild). It’s scientifically profound because it shows that asteroids and meteorites really are made out of the same stuff: not just similar, as I might have thought, but indistinguishable. Our collections of meteorites may indeed be a pretty reasonable sampling of the material that made up the planets.
And even more delightful is that astronomers, looking at nothing more than the average infrared colors of asteroid Itokawa, had previously suggested that their best guess for its composition was exactly the type of meteorite that the dust grains turn out to be made of. It’s always reassuring -- though, truth be told, we’re always secretly surprised -- to find out that this stuff actually works.
As I said, I wanted to write about this triumph of the Japanese Space Agency. But now, one cannot even say the name of that country without thinking of the massive earthquake hit the coast of Japan just a week after they presented these results.
Of course, there’s no connection at all between the science done outside Tokyo and a tsunami that hit the eastern coast hundreds of kilometers to the north. But in our very human emotional reactions, the one evokes the other.
(There’s also the practical fallout. This summer, the Japanese were to be hosting a triennial meeting on asteroids, comets, and meteors. Even though the host city is on the western coast, completely untouched by the tsunami, the reaction of the US government to cancel all unessential travel by government employees to Japan for now has meant that scientists from Nasa have had to turn in their plane reservations. The meeting was eventually rescheduled to May of the following year.)
In ancient times, calendars were numbered from events, like the accession of a king, that everyone could remember. In a similar way, today we connect places with some powerful (and usually unhappy image) in its history. “New Orleans” evokes hurricane Katrina, “Lockerbie” has come to mean an airplane terrorist attack. We can only look forward to the day when “Japan” means more than just the frightening sight of damaged nuclear plants.
We reached two more asteroids in late 2018 with spacecraft that should bring back more samples. And while the memory of the Japanese tsunami has faded from the world's consciousness the aftermath is still felt in Japan.