This column first appeared in The Tablet in October, 2004; it ran here at The Catholic Astronomer in 2015
Typhoon 23 and I arrived in Japan on the same day. My mission (I can’t speak for the typhoon) was to attend an international workshop on sample returns from asteroids. Our hosts were the scientists and engineers of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency who are eagerly awaiting the arrival next summer of their spacecraft, Hayabusa, at asteroid Itokawa. (The remarkable challenges and eventually successes of Hayabusa can are described nicely at its Wikipedia site.)
Astronomers usually have to be content with observing their objects from afar. But nothing beats actually going to a place to see what it’s really like.
Itokawa is a potato-shaped lump of rock less than half a kilometer in diameter that apparently drifted into our neighborhood from the asteroid belt; though it looks like a typical asteroid, its orbit is not out beyond Mars but rather much closer to home, crossing the Earth’s orbit nearly once a year. (It’s one of those asteroids we keep an eye on for fear that some day it could collide with us; no such collision is in the cards for the immediate future, however.) Through a telescope, we have reason to believe that its composition is probably not all that different from the meteorites in our collection that we classify as “type LL ordinary chondrites”. But observing from a distance can be deceiving.
An alien orbiting Earth would recognize few obvious differences between Japan and Britain. Both are heavily industrialized island nations whose cities fill the nighttime sky with artificial light. Indeed, the view from my hotel window would only confirm this guess: the cars drive on the left, and the neon signs advertise McDonald’s, Tower Records, and Starbucks. It’s only walking the streets, buying a burger from the remarkably polite salespeople, that you can finally see how different the countries really are.
In the same way, Hayabusa will get very close indeed to its asteroid. Not only will it sit a mere 10 km away, taking multicolored images as it matches Itokawa’s orbit around the Sun; after three months it will actually come to touch the surface. A small pod will be dropped on the surface to bounce around the asteroid, protected by its small gravity, taking pictures and temperature measurements and sending them back to Earth, And then, from the main spacecraft itself, a projectile will be shot into the surface, splashing dust and rock fragments into a collecting horn. After two such visits, the spacecraft will leave Itokawa and bring its souvenirs back home to Earth. It’s slated to land its sample pod in the Australian desert in 2007. (In fact, it didn't get its sample back until 2010. Turns out, it really was LL chondrite material!)
It’s a beautifully conceived and elegantly built mission. And it’s all the more impressive for being the product of a nation much smaller than the US, or Russia, or the consortium of countries making up the European Space Agency. This workshop is both an invitation to the rest of the world to share our asteroid expertise with the Japanese, and to give them a well-deserved opportunity to brag a bit.
Indeed, bragging rights are the main benefit that the Japanese government will get for its investment of money and human resources. That’s a very practical benefit for a nation whose economy is based on the export of high-tech consumer products; the prestige of a successful space mission will maintain the high technical reputation of all its products. (If you think about it, that’s not all that different from why the Church publicizes its saints.)
That justifies the money. The justification for the individual human effort is another matter. All of these Japanese scientists and engineers would make a lot more money working for Panasonic. Obviously that’s not what motivates them.
Francis Spufford, in his recent book Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin, describes the world of the research scientist as an example of a gift economy: one’s status is not based on how much you have accumulated for yourself, but by how much you have given — in scientific papers, in the opportunity to satisfy (if not sate) our human curiosity — to the rest of the community. The Japanese understand the role of gifts. This mission, this meeting, is their way of increasing their status in the scientific world.
But even underlying that sense of status is a deeper humility in the face of creation. The gift is only as useful as it is considered valuable. And to the scientists at this meeting, from cultures all over the world, the value comes in getting to actually taste a piece of the world bigger than ourselves. The data from this mission will confirm, or destroy, some of our favorite theories about how asteroids are put together. In the process it will inevitably inspire new questions; we’ll want to go back.
We also want to leave a bit of ourselves. As part of the project to publicize the mission, the Japanese space agency invited people to list their names in microscopic print on a thin plate to be left on the asteroid. Nearly 900,000 names were collected.
Dr. Kawaguchi, the Hayabusa project manager, told us that his team would make “every effort to bring out spacecraft safely to the asteroid and back. I only hope you will be just as successful getting back to your hotels tonight.” Outside, the rain and wind is increasing; the typhoon is approaching. For all our status and technical ability, nature is still much larger than we are.
(After submitting this column, I stayed on in Japan for another few days... long enough to experience the Chuetsu earthquake on October 23. At magnitude 6.8, it resulted in 39 deaths, 3,000 injured, and the first-ever derailment of a bullet train due to earthquakes. I felt the quake while sitting in the chapel of the Jesuit residence at Sophia University in Tokyo... a building made of wood that had survived the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923 by being flexible to shake. A lot. As I experienced.)
This column first ran in The Tablet in October 2017
Studying the universe forces us to see ourselves in a new and often disorienting context. It’s not always easy. Talking with astronauts aboard the International Space Station on October 26 , Pope Francis asked them, “traveling in space, thinking about things we take for granted here on Earth like the concept of “up” or “down”… tell us, is there something in particular that has surprised you, living in the Space Station?” The American astronaut Mark VandeHei replied, “in this environment, where we really don’t need the concept of up and down, to get my bearings I still have to decide which direction to perceive as up.”
Every day in my meteorite lab I work with rocks that have passed through the sky (“meteorite” comes from the Greek word for sky), tangible evidence that the clouds are not an impenetrable barrier between us and rest of the solar system. We can touch pieces of other planets; they can touch us. Having astronauts in orbit only reinforces that realization.
This month, a new visitor has pushed our sense of connection to the universe even further. On October 19 , a researcher at the Pan-STAARS survey telescope in Hawaii, Rob Weryk, found a comet (albeit one without a tail) first designated as A/2017 U1. Then, after tracing its position on earlier Hawaii images and comparing results with his colleague Marco Micheli at the ESA telescope on Tenerife, they were able to calculate its orbit…
Now, ever since Johannes Kepler we’ve known that objects in our solar system don’t orbit the Sun in perfect circles, but rather in ellipses. A circle is simply an ellipse with zero eccentricity; values of eccentricity greater than zero indicate orbits that are like ovals, more and more stretched out as eccentricity grows, until the ultimate case of eccentricity equal to one gives you just a straight line. Obviously that no longer describes an orbit around the Sun, but an object falling straight into it.
Tracing the path of A/2017 U1, however, an eccentricity of 1.2 has emerged from the calculations. Eccentricity greater than one? What does that mean? It means, this object is not from anywhere around here. It is a visitor from another solar system… the first such we have ever detected.
Could it have started out in our own cloud of comets, far beyond Pluto? No; to reach its speed — topping out at nearly 90 kilometers per second — would require it to have been perturbed by something moving faster than any solar system object out there could move.
Is it going to hit the Earth? No; in fact, it had already passed us before we noticed it. It made its closest approach to the Sun, inside Mercury’s orbit, back on September 9, and passed by Earth’s orbit on October 14. We could only see it after it passed us, with the Sun now behind us as we looked.
Do we really know if it is a comet? No; it just might be a lump of rock. We’re rushing to observe it now as best we can, but it is small (about a quarter mile in diameter) and faint… getting fainter every day as it exits our solar system.
Still, our hope is that detailed spectra might tell us if it is covered in exotic chemicals from its time in interstellar space, or just the same minerals we find on Earth. Of course, “normal” or “exotic” has as much meaning in the greater universe as “up” and “down.” We can only compare against what seems ordinary to us.
Incidentally, some call a comet without a tail, a “Manx” comet.
[The latest word on this visitor, now designated I1 2017/U1 and named ‘Oumuamua... looking at archived images from the ESA Gaia space telescope mapper has revealed the location of this body before it was discovered; with this extra information, a team of astronomers led by Coryn Bailer-Jones at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy has suggested a small number of possible stars that it may have come from... or at least, passed near before it entered our system.]
This column was first published in The Tablet in September 2005, and republished here at The Catholic Astronomer in 2015. Of course, as we all know, the discussions talked about here finally came to their climax in August 2006 with the definition of a "Dwarf Planet" as I described here.
During the Council of Nicaea, so the story goes, tempers ran so high over the question of defining Jesus’ human and divine natures that fist fights broke out in the streets. Our councils this past month were much smaller, but no less heated. In Brazil, Norway, and Britain, various subsets of an International Astronomical Union (IAU) Working Group met in August and September  to finally try to define a planet.
Although our working group has been around for more than a year (I wrote about it here in April, 2004) the situation reached a crisis this summer with the announcement of the particulars for a body temporarily designated 2003 UB313. It’s ten billion miles from the Sun, in an orbit is even more eccentric than Pluto’s, and tilted 45 degrees from the rest of the planets. In fact, UB313 was actually found near its farthest point from the Sun. But faint as it is, for us to see it at its present brightness even now, it almost certainly must be larger than Pluto.
[Actually, it turns out to be 50 km smaller than Pluto...]
So, is this a tenth planet? Or, along with Sedna and Quaoar and half a dozen other thousand-kilometer-sized objects out beyond Neptune, is it really just the largest – so far – of a completely new class of object?
The answer to this question matters to lots of people for lots of different reasons. On the one hand millions of children, alive to the power of pigeon-holing their universe, are waiting to memorize the names of the planets. How many names will that be, this week? On the other hand, the IAU needs to know which of its committees on nomenclature actually will name this object. And as an astronomer who tries to observe these bodies with the Vatican’s telescope in southern Arizona, I’d like to know where to find the coordinates of their positions. The Minor Planet Center website carries such information about asteroids and comets; planets are recorded elsewhere.
The sticking point really isn’t UB313, or other similar objects yet to be found; it is Pluto itself. When discovered in 1930, astronomers had reason to believe that Pluto was bigger than Earth. Today we know it is actually much smaller than even the Moon. So, is it a planet or not? If it is a planet, then UB313 and possibly dozens of other objects also deserve that designation. If it is not, the world is going to want to know why.
There was no shortage of opinions within this working group, and even more from those who were not members. “Planet” is a culturally loaded term. And there is absolutely no consensus among astronomers about how to define that term scientifically. More than one e-mail equivalent of a fist fight threatened to break out.
But definition really is not what we are about. What we finally settled on instead was a description of how astronomers today actually sort out these objects. We call bodies with spherical shapes, evolved atmospheres, geological activity, and so forth “planetary objects”; this includes bodies like the Moon or large asteroids not traditionally called planets. We see planetary objects sorted into groups like “gas-giant” or “terrestrial” planets, “free-floating” or “extra-solar” planets, “classical” or “historical nine” planets. These groups can overlap. In this scheme Pluto is the first, and UB 313 the largest so far, of a new class: Trans-Neptunian Planets. (A statement along these lines awaits approval from the IAU Executive Committee [which never came, as we know. They devised a different definition, which also fell by the wayside...].)
And after all, that kind of description is what the members of an Ecumenical Council do. The bishops at Nicaea did not invent new things about Jesus; rather, they found a formula of words (“true God and true Man”) that described well what they had always believed. And their formula worked: the resulting Nicene Creed has served for 1700 years... longer than I expect our formula for planets to survive.
Of course, no one’s discovered any new members of the Trinity.
... to apply for the Faith and Astronomy Workshop!
Here's some eye-candy to draw your attention...
We've had an excellent response so far, and it will be a challenge to select 25 participants from the more-than-25 who have already applied. But there's still plenty of time to make our decision even more challenging! It only takes a minute or two to apply, and frankly, when it comes to the selection process, the more the merrier!
Just click on the box on this web site to be directed to the application form.
Find out more about the workshop here:
I've recently returned from this year's World Science Fiction Convention, held this year in San Jose, California. This version of the column, published in the Tablet in September of 2004, was first published here at The Catholic Astronomer in 2015. It describes my reaction following the 2004 Worldcon, held the first weekend of September in Boston.
Stories, myths, and tales make ideas a part of popular culture. Jesus taught with parables; fables and fairy tales are the way we teach children about life. Even the ancient Greek myths, it’s been argued, might have been deliberate devices for organizing and transmitting information about the natural world to nonscientific people. Once an idea gets turned into a story, people pay attention long enough to listen. And they’ll remember it. The images from Dante are far more vivid than the arguments of Aquinas.
All fiction makes assumptions about science and religion. A good mystery, for instance, can depend on the physical possibility of certain events and the ethics of the characters involved. Fantasy and science fiction is special, however, in that these assumptions are often overt, central to the story – and not necessarily what we assume in our everyday lives.
Larry Lebofsky, who teaches astronomy at the University of Arizona, suggested on one panel that the best stories for teaching science are in fact the ones where the science is visibly out of date. Why? Because they show that scientific ideas do change with time – a particularly challenging concept to students who equate science with memorizing facts for an exam.
More subtly, by contemplating something that is patently not true, we are made more aware of the way things actually are.
Science isn’t the only subject that can be taught this way. Religion plays a lot of roles in our own popular culture, roles that are mirrored in fantasy and science fiction stories postulating other possible worlds. It’s the activity that deals with Ultimate Questions, it’s the arbiter of right and wrong, it’s the conscience of society. And priests are the people who officiate over the important moments of our life: birth, marriage, death.
But the best SF stories that deal with religion are the ones that are centered on what religion is really about: not ultimate questions, or ethical behavior, or marriages and funerals. But God.
Not surprisingly, some of the most prominent fantasy and science fiction authors today write from a viewpoint based on their own religious faiths. These included some of the most highly honored writers in the field, like Connie Willis (Episcopalian) and Gene Wolfe (Catholic).
Orson Scott Card, an active Mormon with a theology degree from Notre Dame, is another. Some of his stories deal with religion in its many roles; some are taken from his Mormon tradition. One of my favorites gets right to the heart of things.
It’s called The Memory of Earth. We’re on a world called Harmony, twenty million years in the future. It was settled by refugees fleeing a war-ravaged Earth, who have engineered themselves and their descendants to respond to a computer in an orbiting satellite called the Oversoul; a computer that lets them remember how to make medicines and refrigerators, and allows them commit to small crimes but which keeps them from building planes, guns, or other instruments of war. Without being able to remember war, it’s hoped, a peaceful society would eventually grow. Well, it hasn’t worked out quite that way, and after twenty million years even computers wear out eventually...
The Oversoul is a machine, not God. Everyone knows that. (But it talks to our hero in ways that sound an awful lot like prayer.) It’s a little bit less than God.
So, what would it be like to live in a universe where God were only a human invention, a little bit less than He really is? It’s not what Orson Scott Card believes to be essentially true. It’s a speculation based on an extrapolation of a philosophical possibility. But by contemplating it, we learn to appreciate more what the real God is all about.
Leaving the Convention hall, I spent an afternoon wandering through my old neighborhood in Boston’s South End. Walking down the street in the late afternoon, the 19th-century row houses highlighted by the late afternoon fall sunlight, I recalled a painting by the American impressionist. Childe Hassam, “Rainy Day Boston.” Depicting the very street where I once lived, the artist had included in the distance a famous colonial-era church. I looked up the street; there was the church. I’d never noticed it before. The artist had trained me to appreciate my surroundings with new eyes.
That’s what good fantasy, good science fiction, ultimately does. Put me on another planet, and I see that I’m already on a planet, Planet Earth, that really is situated somewhere in outer space. Move me to another time, and I see my own time in a new light, as just one now in an inevitable progression of nows. Place me in a fantasy where good must overcome incredible odds to defeat evil, and suddenly the Evening News makes a lot more sense.
By contrast, best sellers and modern highbrow literature describe people and places I do not recognize. It’s science fiction and fantasy that show me the real universe.
This column was first published in The Tablet in September 2017
Last July  I visited my sister, a retired schoolteacher who’d moved to Florida to be close to our aged parents. From there I continued on to the North American Science Fiction Convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Two months later came the hurricane season.
First, Hurricane Harvey dumped meters of water on Houston. My colleagues near the Johnson Space Center survived without much damage, but a nearby neighborhood where friends once lived was inundated; it may never be rebuilt. Then Hurricane Irma struck Florida. Again, my parents' and sister’s houses suffered little damage, although my parents (along with more than half the state, millions of people) lost power for a week… not a trivial thing for retirees in a climate that demands air conditioning.
Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, amazingly, dwarfed even those other mega-storms. During my July visit I’d met up with a student who’d observed with the Vatican telescope, now about to get her doctorate at the Arecibo radio telescope; we’d had dinner by the sea with her mom, her advisor (from Finland), and a couple of other colleagues. Luisa and the others are safe, according to a mutual friend who’s been in touch via ham radio; with the power out, emails are not getting through. I have yet to hear from the Colegio San Antonio de Padua, a Catholic high school in San Juan whose rooftop observatory I had visited then.
The Arecibo telescope is being used as a relief staging area; one hospital in the area is closed and the other seriously damaged. The telescope itself lost a large antenna which normally dangles over the 1000 meter dish built into a crater in the jungle; its fall apparently smashed through part of that dish. Meanwhile, the entire relief effort for all of Puerto Rico is being run from the Convention Center where we’d held our science fiction convention.
I recall from my own experience with Hurricane Sandy a few years back that the storm itself will pass in a day; it’s the days afterwards that are the hardest. Many have already died; though most of my family and friends are safe, the stress after the hurricane sent my mom to the hospital.
Evil is the absence of a good that ought to be there. Our lives depend on a functioning infrastructure, whether is it a spacecraft instrument in Houston waiting for liquid nitrogen or people in Puerto Rico waiting on a working dialysis machine. In some cases the disruption can be fatal. In others, like my colleagues with no email who can’t submit next year’s grant proposals to pay for their research, the effects sound trivial in comparison until you realize that this is their livelihood… and their research could have important implications for our future understanding of how planetary weather systems work.
And these storms occurred in a month that also saw flooding in Bangladesh, a major earthquake in Mexico, and warnings of a volcanic eruption in Bali.
In biblical days, earthquakes and floods were seen as God’s judgement on sinful people. We know that this is a terribly naive understanding of both God and nature — we were taught this by Jesus himself (see John 9:3). But as Pope Francis reminded us in Laudato Si’, our communal sinfulness contributes to both the strength and number of hurricanes, and our ability to prepare for them or recover from them.
Meanwhile, the Cassini mission has just ended twenty years at Saturn, and the Osiris Rex mission has just imaged Earth during a flyby en route to asteroid Bennu. Working together, we human beings can accomplish amazing good.
[new edit: As I write this, 2018, hurricane Florence is battering the southeast...]
The most recent count of deaths in Puerto Rico due to the hurricane is 2,975, far greater even than Katrina's terrible toll. Parts of the island were without power for nearly a year. On a more personal note, the week without power that my parents endured, I am convinced, led to a sharp decline in their health. My mom never came home from the hospital; she died in December, at age 96. My father hung on until his 100th birthday in April; he died in June.
This column first ran in The Tablet in October 2016
The SETI Institute in California’s Silicon Valley is famously using an array of radio telescopes to look for signals from intelligent extraterrestrials. Meeting as part of their Science Advisory Board [in 2016], I heard founder Jill Tarter insist that their work was based on rational science, not “faith.” I disagreed. “You can’t prove yet that alien life exists,” I explained. “But you must have faith that it’s there, despite the lack of evidence; that’s why you keep looking.”
Extraterrestrial life is an example of something we believe ought to exist, given how we think the universe works, even without prior evidence. We’ve recently had success looking for such things – the Higgs Boson, Gravitational Waves. Those searches required fabulously complex and expensive detectors and huge teams of scientists to find things we really weren’t sure were actually there.
More often in astronomy, though, we believe in the things we cannot see because they affect things we can see. Indeed, almost all of the nearly 100 scientists at the SETI Institute actually work on these more tangible questions, such as finding planets around other stars and understanding how they might sustain life. We now know thousands of stars with systems of planets not too different from our own solar system. Recently, the star nearest to our Sun, Proxima Centauri, has been added to the much shorter list of stars with a planet comparable to Earth.
A handful of astronomers are currently looking within our own solar system for an as-yet-unseen “planet nine” far beyond Neptune and Pluto. As Scott Sheppard of Washington’s Carnegie Institute told Space.com, “there are a lot of strange things that seem to be going on that would be explained quite well with there being some kind of massive planet out there.”
Those strange things include half a dozen distant dwarf planets whose unusual orbits of all seem to have been nudged by such a body. In fact, recent work announced this month suggests there may be at least two such unseen planets. Even something as large as Mars would be hard to spot so far from us; but by analyzing the orbits of these dwarf planets, one can get a better idea of exactly where to look.
Are we likely to be able to send spacecraft to visit these worlds? The New Horizons spacecraft, traveling at speeds up to 84,000 km/hr, took almost ten years to get to Pluto. The unknown Planet Nine could be twice as far away. To reach Proxima Centauri (40 trillion kilometers away) at that speed would take 55,000 years. And yet, we can at least conceive of such a journey.
After our meeting at the SETI Institute I flew to Rome to attend the 36th General Congregation of the Jesuits. Here we are engaged in a different kind of search. At the age of 80, and in failing health, our current Father General Fr. Adolfo Nicholás has submitted his resignation. Now we’re looking to find the one among the 200 of us to serve as his successor. By Jesuit rules no one can put himself or anyone else forward as a candidate. Instead, we spend a week in prayer and quiet conversations, one on one.
While our method does not require complex or expensive equipment, I am struck by how similar it is to our scientific searches. Both require careful observations, looking for sometimes subtle shifts… movements this time not of planets, but of our interior dispositions. We have faith that in this way we’ll discover the one whom the Holy Spirit, whom we cannot see, nudges into our orbit.
Update as of 2018: Planet 9 is still undiscovered; so are any traces of intelligent extraterrestrials. However, at the General Congregation, we elected Fr. Arturo Sosa SJ as our new Father General. His previous job had been assistant to Father General in charge of international Jesuit houses like the Jesuit Community of the Vatican Observatory; as such, he'd visited us several times. In fact, we took him to see the Grand Canyon when he visited Tucson, where he got to see snow for the first time; and was caught in a blizzard.)
The annual Faith and Astronomy Workshop will be held next January 14 - 18, 2019, and applications are now open. What's the FAW? Well... read on...
What can modern astronomy tell us about creation – and its Creator? This four-day workshop, sponsored by the Vatican Observatory Foundation, is designed to bring those working in Catholic parishes an up-to-date overview of the universe: from the Big Bang, to the search for life in the universe, to our exploration of the planets... as seen through the eyes of the Jesuit priests and brothers who work at the Vatican’s own astronomical observatory.
Our next workshop will be held the week of January 14-18, 2019, at the Redemptorist Renewal Center outside of Tucson, Arizona. Participants should plan to arrive on the afternoon of Monday, January 14; the work of the workshop begins that evening. Days and evenings are scheduled through Thursday. The workshop will end with Mass and breakfast on Friday morning, January 18.
The workshop is designed for people working in education in Catholic parishes. This includes priests and deacons; science teachers in parochial schools; and educators in CCD and RCIA programs. Our hope is that the participants will not only experience astronomy in a Catholic setting, but also come away with materials and ideas to share in their parishes when they return home. We have space available for 25 participants.
The program will include lectures, lab exercises, and field trips to a number of astronomical sites in the area around Tucson, Arizona, home of the Vatican Observatory Research Group and the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope. Each morning will include talks, lab exercises, and an hour of prayer and reflection about the issues of astronomy and religion that the participants find are most of interest and concern to them and the people they work with. Each afternoon will have a “behind the scenes” field trip where participants can meet with scientists at the University of Arizona, the Planetary Science Institute, or the Kitt Peak National Observatory. The evenings, after Mass and dinner, will be given over to observing the skies with several small telescopes on site. (The Redemptorist Center is located in a beautiful dark desert setting well outside of city lights.)
The fee of $1000 per person covers four nights in a modest but comfortable en-suite room at the Redemptorist Renewal Center, including board from Monday evening through Friday morning; transportation and admission fees for the field trips; and assorted books and other materials that the participants can take back with them to their home parishes. Some or all of this fee can be waived for participants who request assistance.
Applications are open during the month of September, 2018; the final selection of participants will be announced in early October. Further details, including contact information, can be found at our web site: www.vofoundation.org
Click here to read what Fr. Jim wrote about our first workshop...
This column ran in The Tablet in July, 2005; we first ran it here in August, 2015
The pictures from NASA’s Deep Impact mission (see a previous column) were spectacular. When the space probe hit Comet Temple 1, the heat of its impact made a brilliant flash; even observers on Earth could see it, and then watch the comet’s coma grow bigger and brighter as the dust and ice blasted off the comet spread out away from its nucleus.
The Deep Impact astronomers (who, incidentally, insist they came up with that name before the Hollywood movie!) had planned for a network of observers, professional and amateur, to observe the comet before and after the impact. Here at the Vatican Observatory, we enlisted a dozen students from our  summer school to help out. For two weeks, young astronomers from South America, Australia, and Europe gathered in the domes of our vintage 1935 Zeiss telescopes, perched atop the Pope’s summer home here in Castel Gandolfo, hoping to record an image of the comet’s brightening.
Alas, they had no luck. Though the coma was in theory bright enough to be seen in even a small telescope, its light was lost amidst the ever-growing sky glow of Rome’s light pollution. Castel Gandolfo was once a country village, but Rome has grown out to meet us over the last thirty years. That’s why we’ve had to move our serious observing to a new telescope in southern Arizona.
City lights are the bane of all skywatchers, and especially irritating when so much of it is unnecessary. Street lights and billboards are bad enough, but it’s a rare public building now that isn’t bathed in a garish glow of “security” spotlights. In fact, the lights ruin any guard’s night vision, and create deep shadows where lurkers can hide.
They also blind us to the stars overhead.
A fundamental change has occurred in human culture. When nighttime can be banished by the flip of a switch, “darkness” no longer has the same meaning to us. This changes the way we understand the imagery of classical literature, philosophy, even the Bible. John Staudenmaier, a Jesuit at the University of Detroit Mercy who edits the journal Technology and Culture, suggests that when we no longer have an enforced period of inactivity every night, we also lose an important impetus to pause and reflect on our work, our lives, our families.
Summer is a time for vacations, for just such reflections. For many of us, it is also the only chance we have during the year to get out of the city. If your travels take you under dark skies this season, take a moment to look upwards.
The moon will be rising later and later over the next two weeks; catch it as it clears the horizon and enjoy just how big it appears when you see it next to familiar hills and trees. Keep an eye out for meteor showers – dust spalled off from comets, like the dust ejected by Deep Impact, hitting the Earth in a display of “shooting stars.” If you’re ambitious, learn to identify the major constellations. (Get a book! My favorite is The Stars, by H. A. Rey... well known as the author of the Curious George children’s books.) Take a pair of binoculars, lie down on a hillside, and just explore the Milky Way. Two places where a number of delicate star clusters can be seen are toward the southern horizon (Scorpius and Sagittarius), and northeast in the big “W” of Cassiopeia.
After an earthquake hit Los Angeles on an early January morning in 1994, hundreds of people called up the Griffith Planetarium, wondering why the the sky looked so frightening. It was the first time they’d ever been outdoors with all the power out. How often do most of us see God’s sky the way it really looks?
You can learn more about protecting dark skies here.
This column first ran in The Tablet in August 2017. Hard to believe it's been a year since the solar eclipse...
August 21, 2017, marked the first total solar eclipse visible in the continental US in a generation (since 1979). Everyone in America caught eclipse fever.
“A total eclipse is a spectacular event,” or so I was told. I’d never seen one myself. The last time I tried to observe an eclipse, the air turned so cold that a rain cloud formed overhead during totality. But even then I recall that the Moon’s shadow spooked the local birds into thinking it was nightfall; and I remember my surroundings looking ominously strange.
And so I accepted an invitation from Saints Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where the totality had its longest duration – two minutes, forty one seconds. A town of 30,000 souls, the residents there prepared for another 100,000 astro-tourists as if they were expecting a natural disaster. Leading up to eclipse day, bottled water was bought up, and lines formed at the local gas stations. Some farmers opened up their fields for campers… at fees ranging from free to $100 a day. Others surrounded themselves with barbed wire to keep the amateur astronomers off their crops. (Soybeans and tobacco.)
To a city boy like me, Hopkinsville felt odd even without the light of the eclipse. August in rural Kentucky is hot and humid. Breakfast includes something called grits. They say “eclipse” with three syllables –“ee-clay-ups”. But everyone was excited. “We’re getting special glasses at school on Friday!” enthused the teenager serving me burgers at the local fast food joint.
Friday before the event, I spoke at St. Peter and Paul’s grade school. Saturday I had interviews the local newspapers (and a reporter from Time Magazine). Sunday evening we had a press conference with TV stations as far away as Detroit, before my talk to a packed church.
In my talk I waxed poetic; or so I thought. “A eclipse reminds us of the immense beauty in the universe that occurs outside of our own petty set of concerns… ” I told them, you don’t need an astronomy degree (or a lecture from me) for an eclipse to pull you into the majesty of a greater universe. You don’t even have to have clear skies to see the odd colors, feel the coolness, hear the silence, enjoy being part of the whole experience. It’s available for everyone, regardless of regional accent or breakfast choices.
But all my words were just so much hot, humid air compared to the event itself.
Monday around noon, I joined a small group gathered at local parishioner’s farm, close to the point of maximum totality. For an hour the air got cooler and a little dimmer. Then, to the west, the fields started darkening like a storm approaching. Suddenly, the sky turned a deep twilight hue. The whole horizon glowed sunset-red. Overhead bright stars and planets appeared. And, amazingly, the sun itself was replaced by a jet-black spot ringed with fire and a crown of light.
It was exactly like every eclipse photograph; and yet completely unexpected. Wide view pictures of the darkened countryside can’t capture the immediacy of the blotted sun. Close-up photos of the eclipsed sun lose the sense of a whole world, horizon to horizon, caught in a special aura. Using words to describe the experience of a total eclipse is like trying to capture God’s presence in prayer with a powerpoint.
God created a universe so rational that we can predict to the second when and where a total eclipse will occur… and so beautiful that everyone who experiences it is transported.
We shouted with joy.
Along with my regular Tablet columns I am asked on occasion to write other articles for them. This one was run in August, 2005, just before the annual World Science Fiction Convention that was held that year in Glasgow. It ran again here at The Catholic Astronomer in 2015. This year, the Worldcon will be held August 16-20 in San Jose. I'll be there, too.
When I was an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) I belonged to the Science Fiction Society, the “MITSFS”. We had a motto: “We’re not Fans, we just read the stuff.” There was an element of self-parody, of course; if we weren’t fans, why would we pay our dues to belong to a club of “misfits”? (Because the club had a room full of books – some 30,000 SF novels and related material – and comfy chairs, a welcome hideaway on campus.)
But the motto also recognized an uncomfortable truth. Even at MIT, science fiction and its Fans had an unsavory reputation: pimply teenagers who sought escape from their miserable lives into a world of impossible make-believe. The truth was bad enough. We were, indeed, teenagers; and worse, engineering/science geeks-in-training. Who wanted to be lumped with people who talked through their noses and wore pocket protectors, if not Vulcan ears?
Among the 4,000 attendees at the annual World Science Fiction Convention, [held in 2005 in Glasgow from 4 - 8 August, 2005] I am confident that one can find a full quota of squeaky voices and Vulcan ears... every one of them well documented by journalists come to mock the geeks. Is that all they’ll see?
Indeed, I am attending this convention in part as a journalist. I’m working on a Radio 4 program about extraterrestrial life; after interviewing a number of scientists, we’re now talking to science fiction fans and authors. Some might say that, since no life outside Earth has yet been found, astrobiology is itself nothing but science fiction. My suspicion is that, since they’ve been thinking about aliens for eighty years, the science fiction community has turned this speculation into a science.
I am also serving on half a dozen panels, ranging from “What’s New in Astronomy” (lots!) to “The Dead God in Science Fiction and Fantasy” (they never seem to stay dead...)
Science programming is a popular part of most SF conventions. A special guest [in 2005 was] David Southwood, the European Space Agency Science Director. Fans are a ready-made audience eager to hear about the latest discoveries in biology or space exploration. It helps that so many of the attendees are, like my fellow MITSFS members, themselves scientists and engineers inspired to their vocations by the science fiction they read as teenagers. Among the friends I’m seeing again at this convention are Dermot Dobson, an engineer whose latest gizmos help doctors and researchers see inside patients at the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals; and Barry Gehm, whose work on oxidants at Northwestern University showed the health benefits of tea and red wine.
My Jesuit and Vatican hats get worn at this convention, too. For fans (and writers) curious about comparing their fantasies with The Real Thing, one panel has put me alongside representatives from the military, the government, and academia to describe what it is actually like “Living in Old Structures.” (This life does feel, at times, like living inside a fantasy novel. Indeed, my home in Castel Gandolfo at the Vatican Observatory has been marvelously misconstrued in The DaVinci Code.)
In fact the heart of science fiction is found in this overlap between intellectual knowledge and real life. SF takes the world we live in, deliberately changes one or two key truths, and then explores that “what if” by following rigorously the storyteller’s logic to see how a protagonist’s life is defined as a result. By seeing what might be, we come to appreciate what is.
Ultimately, SF is not about spaceships or bug-eyed monsters; it is about human beings. What does it mean to be human? How better to explore that question than to ask: human, as compared to what? Thus our stories are populated with aliens, clones, cyborgs, sentient computers. From the simplest space-opera, to the indescribable complexity of stories like Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus or Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (aka the movie Bladerunner), these stories explore how almost-humans interact with human protagonists, and define the essence of both.
Most importantly of all, they are stories. Just as the ancients taught with myths, and Jesus taught in parables, storytelling makes ideas accessible, memorable, and testable. Flaws in philosophy (or science) can be subtle and hard to spot; but no storyteller can get away for long with a plot and characters that don’t ring true to our own experience.
And so one even – or especially – finds truth and hope in dystopias. The notoriously anti-technology, anti-religious Philip Pullman fantasy series His Dark Materials depicts a universe where no one is good, and God is corrupt and dying: a sly, sneering Narnia for atheists. But Pullman’s quality as a storyteller overcomes his philosophical agenda. Its hollow, unhappy ending is indeed the inevitable outcome of his world-view; any Hollywood resolution would ring false.
Indeed, the best Catholic science fiction and fantasy writers (like Wolfe, or J. R. R. Tolkein) rarely express their Catholicism overtly. One of Wolfe’s main heros is a pagan priest; and Tolkein’s exhaustively constructed Hobbit universe has, curiously, no religion. But both authors build their works on the essential Catholic theme of redemption from sin. Likewise, Orson Scott Card has used the mythos of his Mormon religion subtly but to good effect in his constructed universes, and Christian themes can be seen not too far below the surface in many other prominent writers, from Cordwainer Smith (Paul Linebarger) to Connie Willis.
This is not to insist that all science fiction is profound, or that space opera is dead. “Ninety percent of all science fiction is crud,” noted the writer Theodore Sturgeon in the 1950s. “That’s because ninety percent of everything is crud.” And SF fans are the first to glory in the campy aspects of the field. The Star Trek parody Galaxy Quest was voted best science fiction film of the year in 2000, out-polling Star Wars I.
But even space opera today explores deeper issues than mere adventure. The rollicking tales of Lois McMaster Bujold are pure space opera; but they also involve serious what-if speculations on the social effects of possibilities ranging from corporate militarism to uterine replicators. Hers are musings, not diatribes; none of her opinions are so set in stone that she won’t illustrate an opposite point of view. And her stories are page-turners.
Indeed, for all its vaunted success in predicting technology, the most profound insights in science fiction may be its illustrating the social consequences of technology. Few descriptions of today’s multi-national corporations are as chilling, or accurate, as John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar – published in 1968. Contemporary issues of privacy, identity, and political revolution in a wired world were thoroughly explored in Poul Anderson’s Sam Hall – published in 1953. For a lesson on how not to confront terrorism, our politicians should read Eric Frank Russell’s short novel Wasp – published in 1957.
If science fiction fans have a reputation for brusk social manners, it may simply be born of their frustration with a world that’s decades behind them. At its best, science fiction leads to a deeper understanding of technology, society, and the fears and dreams of being human.
My biggest thrill at that convention was meeting Terry Pratchett, the best selling author of the Discworld series, who sadly died 2015. He showed up with a copy of one of my books, for me to autograph for him!
This column first appeared in The Tablet in August, 2005. It first ran at The Catholic Astronomer in August, 2015
[During a weekend in August, 2005] while over a million young people were gathered in Germany to celebrate World Youth Day with the Pope, a hundred and thirty kids from Detroit were taking part in a parallel camp-out organized by the Archdiocese on the grounds of a small farm in the Thumb of Michigan.
(The lower peninsula of my home state, Michigan, is shaped like a mitten, and I grew up on the peninsula jutting into Lake Huron that makes up the mitten’s thumb. Readers of a certain age may remember a British pop band who found a town at the Thumb’s base by sticking a pin into a map and thereby called themselves the Bay City Rollers.)
“Turn left onto a dirt road, and look for a pond and a red barn,” read my directions. Every barn in Michigan is red, and nearly every farm has a pond. But I really didn’t need the directions. I had lived and worked in this area thirty five years ago, during my summer breaks from MIT, while trying to choose between a career in journalism or one in science.
I came this evening expecting to give a little talk about the Star of Bethlehem and maybe point out a few constellations once the sun had set. When I arrived, I learned from the label on my name-tag that I was to be the Keynote Speaker. “You’ll be talking at nine o’clock,” I was told. That gave me 90 minutes to gather my thoughts.
The local astronomy clubs had come out in force, too, setting up a number of beautiful small telescopes designed to entice me, and distract my attention from the looming talk. While the teens were out in the woods, hearing talks about God and Nature, I chatted with the local organizers and admired the telescopes.
I had forgotten, in the intervening 35 years, how beautiful this part of the world looked. The low rolling hills, the swaying willow trees and pine woods, and the fading sunset on puffy cumulus filling the sky this warm, humid summer evening, brought me back to my youth.
What would today’s kids be wanting to hear from me?
As darkness fell, the last stragglers gathered in the light of a bonfire as I climbed onto a farm-trailer-turned-stage. I spoke a little about the Vatican Observatory, and our work studying a universe named Good by its Creator, made sacred by His Incarnation. I spoke about the Star of Bethlehem, and astrology, and how God finds us even in our foolishness. I spoke about how astronomy and religion both pull us out of our daily lives but stay present with us no matter where we find ourselves.
The kids, in their turn, had their questions: How big is the universe? Why didn’t the Jewish scholars notice the Star of Bethlehem? Where was the best place I ever saw the stars? Is that new-found object, bigger than Pluto, a new planet?
Simple, profound, and mostly unanswerable, they were the questions of minds full of life, of possibilities, of uncertainties. They were working out for themselves the same questions I had faced in this place: do I become an astronomer, or a writer? A religious, or a layperson? Head in the clouds (alas, growing thicker as the evening went on) or feet on the ground?
A scientific experiment or theory that’s never written up and published is worse than the tree in the forest that no one hears fall. We scientists must share what we do with our peers. More, we must share it with the folks back home who supported us when we were growing up nerdly, and who now pay the taxes that pay our bills. Scientist, journalist, Jesuit, layman? It is never either/or. It is all of the above.