This past September the journal Nature reported on how a long-lost letter of Galileo has been recently found by a science historian at the University of Bergamo, Salvatore Ricciardo. And Nature said Galileo lied. Lied? So what was the letter, and what was he lying about?
Before we get to the lying, let us consider the situation surrounding the letter (some of this will borrow material from an earlier post). The story gets started in about 1608, with the invention of the telescope. Copernicus’s book about his heliocentric theory (saying the Earth circles around the sun and revolves on its own axis), a book entitled De Revolutionibus, had been published in 1543; seven decades had passed with no great interest in that book from outside the world of science. But the telescope and the discoveries Galileo made using it—like the phases of Venus, which demonstrated that Venus must circle the sun, or the moons of Jupiter, which showed that celestial bodies could circle other celestial bodies—had made astronomy into something that was on the minds of people who probably would not have had astronomy on their minds otherwise.
Some such people were the powerful de’ Medici family of Tuscany. In December of 1613 Fr. Benedetto Castelli, a mathematics professor and one of Galileo’s friends and followers, had breakfast with the de’ Medicis. It was a Thursday, December 12 probably. Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici, the ruler of Tuscany, asked Castelli if he had a telescope. Castelli said that he did and that in fact the night before he had been observing Jupiter with its “Medicean planets” (the moons, so-named by Galileo). The mother of the Grand Duke, Her Most Serene Ladyship Christina of Lorraine, remarked, apparently to herself, that the “Medicean planets” had better be real and not an artefact of the telescope.
The Grand Duke asked another professor who was at the breakfast, Cosimo Boscaglia, about this. Boscaglia answered that the Jovian moons were real, as were all of Galileo’s astronomical discoveries. However, Boscaglia made the point to Her Ladyship that the Earth did not move, and that the Bible stood contrary to the idea of its motion.
After the breakfast, the de’ Medicis summoned Castelli back, and Her Most Serene Ladyship Christina ended up arguing against Castelli, citing the Bible against any motion of the Earth. Castelli, who felt that Her Ladyship was challenging him largely to hear what he had to say, stood his ground despite being seriously intimidated by debating among the rich and the powerful. The Grand Duke and his wife sided with Castelli—the younger de’ Medici generation against the older.
On December 14, a Saturday, Castelli wrote a letter to Galileo about all this (this letter still exists, which is how we know what happened at the breakfast). Galileo responded with a letter on December 21, the next Saturday, congratulating him. This December 21 letter is the letter Nature has discussed.
“What greater fortune can you wish,” wrote Galileo, “than to see their Highnesses themselves enjoying discussing with you, putting forth doubts, listening to your solutions, and finally remaining satisfied with your answers?” Just what all scientists want: to be listened to by rich and powerful people. No doubt he had in mind a grant! Then Galileo offered a rebuttal to Her Most Serene Ladyship’s Biblical objection to Earth’s motion. “Holy Scripture can never lie or err,” he wrote. Nevertheless, “its interpreters and expositors can sometimes err in various ways,” such as by limiting themselves to the literal meaning of its words. Then one would have to attribute to God things like regret, hate, and ignorance of future things (Galileo may have been thinking of passages such as Genesis 6:5-7, where God regrets making mankind, or Malachi 1:3, where God hates Esau and his descendants). Scripture is written to accommodate the understanding of common people, he said, so it would be imprudent “to oblige scriptural passages to have to maintain the truth of any physical conclusions whose contrary could ever be proved to us”.
The letter became popular among Galileo’s followers and was copied and circulated. By February of 1615 a Dominican friar named Nicolò Lorini filed a complaint with the Inquisition regarding the letter. Lorini, noting that the Dominicans were the “black and white hounds of the Holy Office”, complained about how the letter said that, when the question was about natural phenomena, Sacred Scripture had to take second position to philosophical or astronomical arguments. Galileo in fact said just this in the letter. Lorini also threw in some other hearsay complaints—how he heard it said that the Galileo gang spoke disrespectfully of the early church fathers, of St. Thomas Aquinas, and of Aristotle; and that “to appear clever they utter and spread a thousand impertinences around our whole city”, and so on. None of that is found in Galileo’s letter. Lorini said that he thought that Galileo’s posse were “men of goodwill and good Christians, but a little conceited and fixed in their opinions”.
But Lorini had accused Galileo of heresy before, in 1612, and had afterward written a note of apology. This new charge did not gain much traction, either. A consultant for the Inquisition found that, except for some bad-sounding choices of words, there was nothing questionable in the letter. Galileo’s name was cleared.
Now, before we talk about the lying and Galileo’s letter, we must talk about the science of the time, and what the letter was not about. The letter was not about telescopic discoveries. Remember Castelli and the de’ Medicis and Boscaglia? Boscaglia had said that the Jovian moons were real, as were all of Galileo’s astronomical discoveries. But he rejected Copernicus.
Boscaglia could do this because of the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. Brahe, who had died fifteen years earlier, had been the most prominent astronomer of the age. He had been lord of his own island, where he ran a huge astronomical research program with all the best instruments and all the best observers, all funded by the King of Denmark.
Brahe had been an anti-Copernican. Boscaglia could assert that all Galileo’s astronomical discoveries were real, and also assert that Earth did not move—he could have his cake and eat it too, so to speak—because Brahe, impressed with aspects of the Copernican system but rejecting the idea of Earth’s motion, had developed his own system. In Brahe’s geocentric system, the sun, moon, and stars circle the Earth. The planets circle the sun. The stars lie just beyond Saturn.
Brahe had calculated that, were the stars as distant as Copernicus had supposed—so that the Earth’s orbit would be nothing by comparison, producing no observable effects in the stars—then they would also have to be enormous in order to appear as large as they do in the sky (Brahe measured their apparent sizes). Every last star, even the smallest, would dwarf the sun. And that, Brahe said, was absurd.
By contrast, in Brahe’s system the stars were not so distant. In it, the sun, moon, and stars circled an immobile Earth while the planets circled the sun. The stars lay just beyond the planets, and, being not so distant, did not have to be so huge. In Brahe’s system, celestial bodies all fell into a consistent size range. To many astronomers, the monster stars required by the Copernican system were indeed absurd. Brahe’s system was, in their eyes, far more reasonable.
Galileo’s discoveries were all fully compatible with Brahe’s system. Anti-Copernicans like Boscaglia could accept Galileo’s discoveries like those phases of Venus that proved it to circle the sun, because in Brahe’s system Venus circled the sun, which then in turn circled an immobile Earth. In fact, some astronomers embraced the telescopic discoveries as providing proof that old ideas about how the universe works were right. For example, those illustrations of Venus and Jupiter seen earlier in this post were by Johann Georg Locher, who thought the telescope supported Tycho, and that it even supported the ancient epicycle theory of Ptolemy (Jupiter’s moons circling Jupiter proved the reality of epicycles, he said, and darned if that isn’t true in its own way). In Locher’s Jupiter illustration (above), note the sun circling Earth down in the lower right corner.
Locher was a fan of Galileo’s. He spoke highly of Galileo, a Copernican, while slamming on his fellow geocentrists, Brahe and Simon Marius (Marius is the astronomer who claimed to have independently discovered the Jovian moons, and who gave them the names we now use—Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto). Galileo would later repay Locher’s support by portraying Locher as a clod and Locher’s book as stupid. As discussed elsewhere in this blog, Galileo could do some strange things.
And that brings us back to Galileo’s letter and to lying. Two versions of Galileo’s December 21 letter to Castelli exist in the historical record. That letter is not about science, but about Her Most Serene Ladyship’s Biblical objection to Earth’s motion and about interpreting the Bible. I have read the entire letter and I have seen the original Italian of both versions. The key differences between the two versions are shown below. The changes are both in sections where Galileo discusses why the Bible might not give a scientific description of natural phenomena. One version of the letter is more likely than the other to offend a reader who places a high value on the words of the Bible. Such a person is probably not going to like the description of the Bible ‘perverting’ its own dogmas, for example.
|Onde, sì come nella Scrittura si trovano molte proposizioni le quali, quanto al nudo senso delle parole, hanno aspetto diverso dal vero, ma son poste in cotal guisa per accomodarsi alI'incapacità del volgo....||So, since in Scripture there are many propositions which, based on the naked sense of the words, have a different aspect from the truth, but are placed in such a way to accommodate the incapacity of the commoners....|
|Onde, sicome nella Scrittura si trovono molte proposizioni false, quant' al nudo senso delle parole, ma porte in cotal guisa per accomodarsi all'incapacità del numerouso volgo....||So, in Scripture there are many false propositions, based on the naked sense of the words, but placed in such a way to accommodate the incapacity of the numerous commoners....|
|Anzi, se per questo solo rispetto, d'accomodarsi alla capacità de' popoli rozzi e indisciplinati, non s'è astenuta la Scrittura d'adombrare de' suoi principalissimi dogmi....||Indeed, if by this respect only, to accommodate the capacity of rough and undisciplined peoples, the Scripture did not abstain from overshadowing its principal dogmas....|
|Anzi, se per questo solo rispetto, d'accomodars'all'incapacità del popolo, non s' astenuta la Scrittura di pervertire de'suoi principalissimi dogmi….||Indeed, if by this respect only, to accommodating the incapacity of the peoples, the Scripture did not abstain from perverting its principal dogmas....|
Galileo always claimed that the original version of letter that he wrote was the more gently worded version—Version ‘1’ seen here—and that someone doctored a copy of the letter and sent it to the Inquisition to get him in trouble. In other words, Version ‘A’, according to Galileo, was a fake. He went through some trouble to convince people, and the Inquisition, of this. But now Nature has given us Version ‘A’ in Galileo’s own hand, with scratch-outs and such indicating changes to be made. Apparently, Galileo lied. In fact, he wrote Version ‘A’. To quote the editors of Nature,
Galileo, it now seems clear, doctored his original letter himself, to make the language less aggressive, as soon as he realized the trouble heading his way. This suggests that the editing was not the malign work of theologians trying to make a stronger case against him, as had been assumed by the nineteenth-century scholar Antonio Favaro...
—and, I would add, by people like me. For years I’ve been teaching my students about how poor Galileo was given the shaft by the dirty tricks crowd who altered his letter to get him into trouble. Now I have to change my textbook!
Let us note a few key points here.
First point: Galileo’s December 21, 1613 letter to Castelli was a letter about scripture, not science. The changes that Galileo made to the letter were in wording regarding scripture, not science.
Second: Galileo wrote the letter in response to the views of Her Most Serene Ladyship Christina of Lorraine, mother of Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici, the ruler of Tuscany. He did not write the letter in response to some aspect of the official church. This is counter to, for example, what the editors of Nature have written:
...the letter sets down for the first time the scientist’s gripes with the Vatican’s doctrine on astronomy...
The editors of Nature are incorrect here.
Last: the science of all this was far from settled at this time. Remember that Her Most Serene Ladyship’s wingman Boscaglia said all the telescopic discoveries were true—he just said they did not show the Earth orbited the sun. He could point to Brahe to support what he was saying. And recall the general confusion of the time—the geocentrist Locher, supporting the heliocentrist Galileo and attacking the geocentrist Brahe, for example.
One additional thing to recall is that Galileo did not get in trouble at this time. Even though the Inquisition looked at the “more offensive” version of his letter, they found that, except for some bad-sounding choices of words (exactly the items Galileo tried to change), there was nothing questionable in the letter. But, unfortunately, astronomy, and specifically the Copernican system, was now on the minds of yet some more people who probably would not have had astronomy on their minds otherwise: members of the Roman bureaucracy, who now felt the need to weigh in on astronomy.
Thus, by March 3, 1616 the Inquisition in Rome had ordered Galileo to stop promoting the heliocentric theory; minutes from their February 25 meeting show that they were prepared to threaten him with jail if he did not comply (that threat was not needed—minutes from March 3 show that Galileo had agreed to comply). By March 5 the Congregation of the Index had declared heliocentrism to be a “false” theory that was “altogether contrary to scripture”. The Congregation’s declaration does not provide their reasoning on this, but we can speculate that they thought it was safe to say heliocentrism was “false” because Brahe’s geocentrism made more sense, and of course it was contrary to scripture because of passages that describe the sun as moving:
The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises (Ecclesiastes 1:5, NRSV).
The Congregation moved to censor portions of De Revolutionibus. Galileo reported in a letter of March 6 that he was not mentioned in any declarations, that he would not have been involved at all had his enemies not dragged him into it, and that he handled the affair in a manner befitting a saint. In a letter of March 12 he reporting having a 45-minute audience with Pope Paul V, where he informed the pope about the “implacable malice” of his enemies, and in response the pope said to put his mind at ease and feel safe, because pope and others all held him in such regard that no one would be listening to slanderers.
Nevertheless, the “Galileo Affair” had been set in motion.
Let’s bet on that.
Is that not what science boils down to? Something that can be tested, proven? Like with a bet?
That ‘something’ might be: The sun will rise in the East tomorrow.
It might be more complex: The sun’s position at 8:45 A.M. tomorrow will be such that the sunlight passing through that window will fall upon this spot.
It might be quite a bit more complex: The sun’s light will be eclipsed by the moon on this date, starting at this time, and the eclipse will last this long.
But ultimately, you can make a bet on it: whether the sun will rise in the East, or whether its light shines on a certain spot, or whether the eclipse occurs as predicted. And the person who is foolish enough to bet against these things is going to be out some money. Early in each semester of my Astronomy 101 class at Jefferson Community & Technical College here in Louisville, Kentucky we inevitably talk about this, because at least some of my students have been taught that truth is relative—that we can have my truth and your truth:
No, we can’t, in fact, have that. If you say that your truth is that the sun will rise in the North tomorrow, and I say it will rise in the East (and we agree on the definition of North and East), then we can make a bet. And if we get up early and go to where we can see the sun rise, and take the rest of the class with us, then you will need to bring a lot of cash, because you will be buying everyone breakfast.
It takes very little time for the class to agree that there is not your truth and my truth regarding where the sun rises (and we can recognize that of course this does not apply across all human experience—for example, John might say the art of Vincent van Gogh is great, and Joe might truly believe John is wrong, and Jim might truly believe John is right). The class also quickly agrees that truth is not democratic: that even if we have a vote on where the sun rises, and 82% of the electorate votes that the sun indeed rises in the North—that does not mean the sun rises in the North. Of course, not everything in science is as sure a bet as where the sun will rise, but the fact that the class can get these issues out of the way so quickly, even despite cultural issues with the concepts of truth and science, shows that we are all scientists to some extent.
Of course plenty of people do not think of themselves as scientists. My wife used to tutor a logic class back in her graduate school days, and she met students who would say they could not do logic. But she would tell them that they could, and that in fact they did logic all the time:
You are here, after all. To come to a tutoring session requires logic, and measuring and other things that make science. To cross a street requires inference from past experience—a collection of data and calculations of a sort that let us estimate how wide the street is, how fast the cars are moving, our own acceleration and speed, and so forth.
Thus we are all scientists, to some extent. Only people who are delusional in the strong sense—who cannot recognize the sun rising in the East, or the car coming down the street—are truly not scientists. Such folks are likely to have a bad encounter with that car.
Some people can be quite scientific, who may not think of themselves as scientists at all. In places that sell cloth and sewing supplies I am always struck by the measuring tools that are for sale. In the tools display we see units of measurement, angles, circles, lines, Cartesian coordinate systems. There is more mathematics and measurement in such places than you will see almost anywhere else people commonly visit—all between the Hello Kitty polar fleece and the material for making silk flower arrangements. And by golly, if you do not make those measurements correctly and do not make those cuts precisely, and if you do not have a good model or pattern to base your work on in the first place, then that shirt you are working on will come out looking like a shapeless blob. You can bet money on that.
Sewing is not rocket science. It is not brain surgery. It is not nuclear engineering. But it is science to some extent. Crossing the street is not sewing, but it is also science to some extent.
This post is part of a collection of posts on the subject of who can do science (click here for the whole series). And the point of these posts is that science is an inclusive activity. Whether we sew, or build, or take care of sick people, or study the stars—and whether we praise God, or work as slaves, or are strangers in a strange land—we all do science, and we all understand what it is, and we all understand where the sun will rise tomorrow. Sometimes we get the impression that science is the business of The Scientists—you know, guys who look and think like this fellow at right. Sometimes the scientific world is not very inclusive, and reinforces that impression. But that impression is wrong. Science is the business of us all.
It is now the Epiphany (almost). In my last post (click here for it), just before Christmas, I discussed how the Star of Bethlehem as described in the second chapter of Matthew was no big, blazing beacon like is seen on Christmas cards. Rather, it was something only astro-nerds—that is, magi—would notice. The question next is, what was The Star?
In the Vatican Observatory Faith and Science pages you will find an entry for The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi, an interesting 1999 book written by Michael R. Molnar of Rutgers University, and published by Rutgers University Press (click here). Molnar presents an interesting argument for the Star of Bethlehem being the planet Jupiter.
Molnar studied the astrology of the Greco-Roman world during the time of the Caesars. He argues that a particular celestial event—namely Jupiter being eclipsed by the moon while in the constellation of Aries the Ram, with the sun just to the east of Jupiter nearby and high in the sky as seen from Jerusalem—would have been seen by astrologers as a great portent relating to a king in the region of Herod’s kingdom. Molnar’s idea is no a simple thing to envision. Indeed, Molnar notes, in response to a passage of astrological material from Ptolemy regarding planets and regal births:
Such opaque and arcane writing could very well be a reason that people have advocated much simpler explanations for the Star of Bethlehem.
Interestingly, this “Star of Bethlehem” event could not be seen, because it occurred against a noonday sky as seen from Jerusalem. But astrologers would have known that the event was occurring, thanks to their calculations of the motions of the celestial bodies. Molnar argues that we have to think of the sky the way astrologers—magi—at the time would have thought of it. And those magi would have been excited about Jupiter rising out of the eastern sun, in a constellation connected with the region around Jerusalem, attended by moon, sun, and in fact all the other planets—even if none of it could be seen by a human observer.
Molnar also argues that Jupiter fits the language of the second chapter of Matthew:
After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
Jupiter, like all planets, moves among the other stars. Thanks to the motion of both Earth and Jupiter around the sun, we can see Jupiter move one way through the stars, then another. It can “go behind”, and can “go ahead”, of the other stars; it can “stop” among them.
Thus Molnar puts the date of the Star of Bethlehem at April 17, 6 B.C., when Jupiter was eclipsed by the moon in Aries, a constellation that astrologers associated with the region around Jerusalem, on the day when Jupiter was first rising out of the eastern sun. Thus the magi saw the star “in the east” or “at its rising”. By the time the magi had found Herod, Molnar supposes, Jupiter was visible in the evening sky. If we imagine that Jupiter was at one of its stopping points among the stars on the Epiphany, and if we imagine the magi leaving Jerusalem for Bethlehem in the evening (if travel around Jerusalem at night was safe, which seems questionable) then we can imagine the magi seeing Jupiter, stopped among the stars, gleaming in the southern sky, working its way toward Bethlehem (which is south of Jerusalem, but a little to the west) just as they were working their way toward Bethlehem, so that by the time they approached the town it was “stopped” and over the place, as seen from the Jerusalem road. That puts the Epiphany in late December of 6 B.C.
Dear Reader of The Catholic Astronomer: do not consider Molnar’s discussion, or any of what I have written here, as being in any way the definitive word on the Star of Bethlehem and the Epiphany. Molnar has proposed an interesting and plausible hypothesis that can be made to generally fit what is found in the Bible, that is all. No one is going to know if he “found The Star”. And other, better, ideas may yet be found. But, Molnar has shown that it is possible to identify, in a cool-headed, scientifically plausible manner that has generally been well received by scholars, an astronomical phenomenon that fits the description of the Star provided by Matthew. That’s a pretty fun thing, even if only from a cool-headed, scientifically detached point of view.
This is a "re-run" of a post that originally ran on December 24, 2016.
We will return to the subject of the Star of Bethlehem
in two weeks, right on time for Epiphany.
Merry Christmas to all! To mark my first Christmas [in 2016] as a blogger for the Vatican Observatory I must of course write on The Star of Bethlehem. Consider these verses, from the second chapter of Matthew, that discuss The Star:
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.” After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
Now consider the depiction shown below of The Star, from a window in the cathedral in Covington, Kentucky (a spectacular building that is worth a visit if you are in the area; regardless of what churches you have already seen, you will not be disappointed). Something is wrong with the Covington cathedral’s depiction of The Star. Indeed, something is wrong with pretty much all depictions of The Star, be they depictions in beautiful church windows or depictions in tacky plastic illuminated front yard crèche sets.
Let us consider one line from Matthew:
Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.
Note that Matthew describes Herod as having to ask the magi when The Star appeared. The Star that Matthew is telling us about is not an obvious, bright celestial beacon. Herod would not have to ask when an obvious, bright object appeared in the sky—everyone would know; it would be the talk of Jerusalem. No, Matthew is telling us about something with which apparently no one among Herod’s people had any familiarity, but yet something that Herod and others could actually see (or Herod would have dismissed the magi as loons).
Of course astro-nerds are all too familiar with things in the sky that we see but no one else does, until we point those things out.
“Oh, there’s Saturn,” we say. “Saturn?” comes the reply, “How do you know that? It just looks like a star. I would have never even noticed it.”
“Look at the difference in color between Arcturus, Vega, and Antares,” we remark. “I never noticed that stars had colors,” we hear back, “and which one is Vega?”
Astro-nerds notice certain things that most people (normal people) do not. Matthew is telling us about a thing that only the astro-nerds noticed. The magi were astro-nerds!
Thus what is wrong with depictions of The Star is that those depictions always show it as an obvious, bright celestial beacon.
A star, a star,
dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
But of course things that only astro-nerds would ever notice do not make for good art, or good songs.
Because I write for The Catholic Astronomer, I keep an eye out for representations of astronomy in things that are not intended to be “science stuff”—for astronomy in art and architecture (click here for all posts on the “Astronomy in Art & Architecture” theme). Thus the carving seen at right caught my eye. Its representation of stars as dots of differing apparent sizes, and its coloring of the sky, all framing a towering smokestack, spoke of an artist who indeed has spent time looking at the night sky, and seeing it brighten as dawn approaches.
The night sky scene is carved into one of the posts that hold up the roof of a picnic shelter in a park in the little town of Gay, Michigan. Gay is located on Lake Superior on the Keweenaw Peninsula, a place that was once a major center of copper mining and processing, and home to many who came to work in the copper industry. A plaque in the park tells the town’s story:
Historic Town of Gay
Gay was established in 1901, when the Mohawk and Wolverine mining companies each built a stamp mill here to process copper ore from their mines. The area, once known for quarrying, lumbering, and fishing, developed into a booming mill town named for Joseph E. Gay, a mine official. By 1902, the mining companies had platted streets, strung telephone lines, and built over 100 houses and a school. They laid railroad tracks, built a dock, provided a fire pump, and constructed numerous mill buildings. In 1909, the town boasted having several stores, and a post office, recreation hall, playground, park, and doctor’s office. Parishioners formed and constructed a Catholic church in 1914. By 1922, the 1,500 residents enjoyed modern comforts of water, sewer, and electrical service. Social life included bands, school clubs, baseball teams, and fraternal organizations. In 1927, the town raised a 10-grade schoolhouse for 250 students. Then, in 1932, falling copper prices caused both mills to shut down. Although lumbering resumed, Gay’s prosperity quickly declined. Dwindling population led to the school closing in 1961, train service ending in 1964, and the post office leaving in 1988. Today, remaining houses, township buildings, schoolhouse, and a 236-foot smokestack are visible symbols of Gay’s important past.
Gay is now just a small village, but it has a nice park that attracted a vanload of my friends and family this past August, and the park has a very nice picnic shelter. The shelter boasts a number of carvings, identified as “chainsaw sculptures by Rich Pethtel”. The smokestack seen in the carving and mentioned in the History stands close to the park. It is the only part of the mills that still stands. The rest is in ruin.
When we were at the park, the weather was gloomy, with the sky being about the same color as the stack, and not a thing that led to imagining views of the stack surrounded by stars. The sky cleared shortly after we left Gay and drove up along Lake Superior. Suddenly it became much easier to imagine how an artist might be struck by the stack standing against the starry dawn. Back in 1927, however, when Gay was booming and the mills were providing jobs and the stack was in its heyday, the stack probably put out enough smoke to prevent anyone from seeing the scene that Pethtel so ably portrayed. Now trees grow up through the ruins of the mill, and the remaining inhabitants of Gay can see stars surrounding its stack.
Would you consider a group of nineteenth-century Belgian immigrant stonemasons, building Catholic churches and other structures in a sparsely populated area of Indiana, to be scientists? (This post is part of a collection of posts on the subject of who can do science—click here for the whole series.) I say you might. This post-of-many-pictures is about them and the remarkable legacy that they created. Those stonemasons created that legacy because they did science—they had the inclination to study and test nature to see how things work, and to determine what was true, and from that they produced things that were an enduring and valuable benefit for their community. People who do this (even if they are not in the kinds of situations where they are likely to be part of the formal scientific community, or to work in a laboratory or an observatory, or to write papers and attend scientific meetings) will have an impact on their community. Their science results in their communities having healthier children, more productive hunting or farms or industries (obviously I mean here science done with a sense of love and service—of course one can imagine the local evil scientist who uses science to build his or her own situation at the expense of the community). Or, as the case may be, it results in their communities having better structures.
Structures will catch your attention should you ever explore the Anderson River Valley region of southern Indiana. The Anderson River is more like a substantial creek than a river, but it has at least one claim to U.S. history fame: in the 1820’s a young Abraham Lincoln worked for a ferry boat operation at Troy, Indiana, at the mouth of the Anderson, where it empties into the vastly larger Ohio River. The realm of the Anderson is home to a remarkable number of Catholic churches, and even a monastery and an archabbey—all the more remarkable considering there are no large towns in the area. And, it is home to a remarkable number of very cool stone buildings (many of which are themselves Catholic churches).
A clue as to why there is so much stonework in the region can be found at the Jacob Rickenbaugh house, located well up one of the Anderson’s branches, and now part of the Hoosier National forest. You might happen upon the Rickenbaugh house because you decided to do some hiking or fishing at Celina Lake within the Forest. And when you see the Rickenbaugh place, you might think to yourself, “wow, that is one sturdy, well-built house!”, because it is, in fact, one sturdy, well-built house. Interpretive panels at the house discuss how its “sandstone block walls are 20 inches think, covered with lath and plaster to make the interior walls”, and that “all the windows and doors are exactly 1 meter in width”. What is more, according to those panels, the house was abandoned in the early 1950’s, and sat vacant and was the target of vandals for four decades. Not until the mid 1990’s did efforts begin to bring the old house back to life. The house was so well-constructed that despite the long decline it its fortunes, it stood, and endured, and remained a valuable resource that could be and was eventually returned to useful life. The people who constructed the Rickenbaugh house understood what makes an enduring structure. They had studied and tested nature to see what works, and to determine what was true, and they put that knowledge to work to produce the house.
Who were the people who constructed the Rickenbaugh house? Two stonemasons who had recently immigrated to the region from Belgium: Frank J. and John P. George (also spelled ‘Georges’). According to the interpretive panels, the landowner at the time, Jacob Rickenbaugh, a farmer and tanner who had himself moved to the area only in the 1850’s and who had experienced some prosperity, hired the Georges in 1871 to build the place. They cut the sandstone blocks to build the home from outcrops near the house and moved the blocks into place with oxen. Additional information on the interpretive panels notes that these brothers had come to the U.S. with their father, Peter George, in 1864, and that they had settled in Leopold, Indiana, about seven miles south of the Rickenbaugh house—and also that they built the abbey in St. Meinrad, overlooking the Anderson River valley a few miles to the west. Additional material about the house provided by the National Forest for educators says that the George family had built a stone church in Leopold, and that work had impressed Rickenbaugh. It seems these immigrant stonemasons might be one reason for all this Southern Indiana stonework!
Further research into the stonemasons and their work—in the public library in Tell City, Indiana near Troy, in the library of St. Meinrad Archabbey, and in the Perry County, Indiana museum in Cannelton, just up the Ohio River from Tell City—turns up an interesting story that generally fits the picture laid out by the National Forest’s interpretive panels. In the mid-nineteenth century immigrants were building communities in this area. The 1885 History of Warrick, Spencer, and Perry Counties, Indiana discusses how Tell City was founded in the 1850’s by the “Swiss Colonization Society” and was named for William Tell, and how “the records of the town were kept in the German language”.
The same History notes that Leopold “was founded by Rev. Augustus Bessonies” in the 1840’s, and that “what made Leopold especially famous was the large number of French who located there, making almost a foreign community of the town and vicinity”. The History also notes that in the late 1840’s construction began on an enormous stone cotton mill in Cannelton, and how there were “over 200 men working in the quarry and on the building”, and how “on September 7, 1849, the stone above the entrance, bearing the inscription ‘Erected 1849,’ was put in place by the architect”. But while the History tells us about who held shares in the mill and who the architect was and who were city leaders and prominent businessmen who financed the mill, it does not focus on people like stonemasons. Neither do other histories of the area. Neither do histories of the St. Meinrad Archabbey or of the churches in the area; these tend to focus on abbots and priests who provided the impetus to build churches. Thus it is unclear whether skilled people like the Georges came to the area because construction projects in stone, such as the mill, drew them, or whether the mill was built in stone because there were skilled people like the Georges in the area.
What is clear is that Fr. Bessonies founded Leopold with the intent to “promote both the temporal and spiritual welfare of the French people coming from Europe”, and that Leopold became a magnet for French and Belgian immigrants. And it is clear that the Georges, at least, were attracted to Leopold in part for the stone. Frank George, in a letter that he wrote in 1900 describing his family’s perilous journey to the U.S., notes that his oldest brother had been the first to immigrate, and had located in Leopold. He continues—
Being a stonemason by trade, the rocks of Perry County seemed to him a California or a Klondike. Knowing that our dear father would be pleased to dwell in a land where stone is plentiful, he invited us to come to Southern Indiana.
This attraction of good stone, an attraction Frank George compares to the draw of gold in California or the Klondike, brings to my mind Gimli, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—
‘This is more to my liking,’ said [Gimli], stamping on the stones. ‘Ever my heart rises as we draw near the mountains. There is good rock here. This country has tough bones. I felt them in my feet as we came up....’
According to Frank George’s letter, one of the first things the George family did upon arriving in Leopold was to build a stone house for themselves, after which, Frank writes, “we were now perfectly happy”.
Clearly the Georges did not build all the stone structures seen in the Anderson River region of Southern Indiana; people much like the Georges did. I say that these people who viewed stone in the way that others viewed gold were scientists. Their understanding of how the natural world functions meant that their work stood the test of time and provided enduring value to their community: people have benefited from sturdy homes, churches, and businesses—structures that have remained standing, even through hard times, when lesser works rotted and crumbled.
To draw a point of contrast to make my point about enduring value explicit, consider two places that have fallen on hard times and that have ended up on the 2018 Indiana Landmarks “10 Most Endangered” list—“a list of historic places on the brink of extinction and too important to lose”. On one hand Cannelton is itself on that list. Cannelton has known hard times for decades; the big stone mill closed in the 1950’s. Cannelton’s stone Catholic church, St. Michael’s, stands in the middle of the town, providing shelter, an admirable place of worship, and a source of pride for people, despite scarce resources—just as the other stone buildings in Cannelton stand and remain useful, awaiting the day when fortunes change for the town.
On the other hand, North Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana is on the list. It was completed in 1964, at which time the Cannelton mill had been closed and the Rickenbaugh house abandoned for a decade. The church, designed by Eero Saarinen, is acclaimed as an architectural gem. It is located in a comfortable neighborhood off of a bypass road in a town with a strong economic base. Yet like Cannelton, it is listed as endangered. Indiana Landmarks states that the church needs repairs that its congregation cannot afford, and that it “faces a steep decline.” Were the church located in a place like Cannelton, where resources to repair it simply are not to be found even beyond its congregation, it would be doomed to become a useless eyesore. As it is, it will be an expense for its broader community. Apparently it was not built scientifically—not built based on nature, and on how things work, and on what was true and would endure—and not built by the likes of the Georges.
Science is not an exclusive activity. It is not just the province of people who look like and think like the people we think of when we think of scientists (Charles Darwin, for example). It is an inclusive activity, performed by many people—including by newly arrived immigrants who think stone is cool and who keep their town records in their native language or whose enclave is viewed as almost a foreign community. Where science is done, it yields benefits to people. I believe this is true anywhere, but in the Anderson River Valley region, those benefits are visible in a particularly obvious way, because they are set in stone.
A poem about St. Michael’s Church in Cannelton pays tribute to those benefits. The poem, by Stella Miller (1878-1940) is published in a 1986 book by Michael F. Rutherford, St. Michael’s On The Hill & St. Patrick’s Church:
St. Michael’s on the Hill
The early settlers built the church
Upon the steep hillside,
And at its feet the little flock
Did peacefully abide.
The golden rays of the setting sun
Linger about it still
And gild the face of the old town clock
On St. Michael’s on the hill.
A haven of rest to weary souls
Who trail along the road,
And cast themselves at Jesus’s feet
And there lay down their load.
The Angelus rings out sweet and clear
On the silent evening air;
And all who hear the sacred tones
Bow down in fervent prayer.
The dear old folks have gone the road
That winds around the hill,
And the echoes of the church bells fall
Upon their graves still.
The hopes and dreams are realized;
They have left their sacred place,
A monument of faith and love
Which time cannot efface.
Their children’s children tread the aisle
And kneel in the hollowed spot.
On them the prophet’s mantel falls,
The trust that’s not forgot.
The years they spent in sacrifice
And toiling with a will,
Has left us with this grand old place:
ST. MICHAEL’S ON THE HILL
*Indicates information obtained from material in the Perry County Museum in Cannelton, Indiana.
I am happy to introduce to readers of The Catholic Astronomer to yet another guest blogger. Fernando Comerón is an astronomer with the European Southern Observatory. A while back he sent me an e-mail in response to my post about Lunar Eavesdropping. In his e-mail he described use of an 8.2 m telescope! “Back in 2009, just a few days after the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, I was granted observing time at Unit 4 of ESO’s 8.2m Very Large Telescope in Chile to obtain a series of infrared images of Tranquility Base at the time of sunset using NACO, an adaptive optics-assisted camera, using a nearby illuminated peak as the wavefront sensing reference to obtain a high Strehl ratio. As a result of the observations I got a large number of extremely detailed images of the area—probably the sharpest images of the area ever obtained from the ground.” When he contributed to The Catholic Astronomer some remarks regarding the ESO and the confirmation of TESS exoplanet candidates, I invited him to do a guest post. I figured that plenty of readers would enjoy hearing from someone who has commanded some of the largest telescopes in the world. He graciously agreed to my request, and here we are! Enjoy the read. For most of us, the closest we will come to using an 8.2 meter telescope is to read his post!
Fernando Comerón, 2 Oct 2018
You probably know the story. Two workers in the Middle Age were laying bricks on a wall when somebody passing by asked them what they were doing. One of them answered,“I am laying bricks on this wall”. And the other one said, “I am building a cathedral”. Although I have just laid a few bricks on its walls, I feel privileged for helping to build a sort of modern-time astronomical cathedral by being a staff astronomer at ESO, the European Southern Observatory. Those of you who have been reading this blog for some years might remember the posts by Brother Guy and Katie Steinke back in 2015 describing the Vatican Observatory Foundation tour of Chilean observatories, in which ESO’s sites featured prominently. Those sites host some of the most advanced telescopes and astronomical instrumentation in the world nowadays, and there is more to come in the future.
ESO is in a sense a beautiful materialization of the power of astronomy to bring people together. In this case, the visionary people who first got together to develop the idea of ESO were some European astronomers, in the post-war Europe of the early 1950s, who saw the need and the value of pooling efforts to build a major observatory giving European astronomers the capabilities to do first-class research in observational astronomy and promote international cooperation in this way. In other words, ESO’s goal was to do together what individual countries could not do separately. This is how ESO came to be, with its first five member states—Germany, France, Netherlands, Sweden, and Belgium. Interestingly, on the very same day when the ESO convention was signed, Friday 5th October 1962, the first James Bond movie (“Dr. No”) premiered in UK cinemas, and The Beatles released their first record (“Love me do”). A day for history!
ESO has grown in these past five decades, more countries have joined, and just one week ago we celebrated the official accession of Ireland, our sixteenth member state. ESO’s goal of building and operating world-class observing facilities remains its main purpose, but its meaning has evolved to keep pace with technological evolution. ESO was founded in 1962 with the goal of building a 3.6 meter telescope, which was among the largest in the Southern hemisphere when it came into operation in 1976. Now, ESO operates the VLT (Very Large Telescope), an array of 8.2 meter telescopes, each of them among the best in the world, and is fully engaged in the construction of the ELT (Extremely Large Telescope), which will become the largest in the world when it finishes construction toward the middle of the next decade. ESO is also one of the three partners that built and operate ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter and submillimeter Array of radiotelescopes. All those facilities are located under the superb skies of the Atacama desert in Chile, where, by the way, the 3.6 meter telescope continues in healthy operations, over forty years after seeing first light.
Those are exciting developments that I have been able to witness, and honored to contribute to, even if just a little, in my over twenty years at ESO, most of the time involved in support to observatory operations from the central headquarters near Munich, Germany. On the night when the first unit of the VLT saw first light I happened to be in Chile, albeit on the “wrong” mountain—I was observing at La Silla, the observatory home to the veteran 3.6 m telescope, while the action was going on at Paranal, where the VLT is located, some 700 km further North. But some months later, at the time when commissioning of the VLT was well advanced, I spent many nights on Paranal, sometimes being the only astronomer on the mountain. Having perhaps the best telescope in the world under my command was a pure dream situation for any astronomer, but also a very frustrating one because, out of fair play to the rest of the world astronomical community that would not have access to that wonderful machine until the commissioning was completed, I was allowed to do only observations of technical value, and nothing that would yield scientific results. In the end it didn’t matter much, as soon afterward I joined the rest of the astronomers who regularly used the VLT for their own research, which I continue to do to this day.
My most recent highlight has been the end of my five-year term as ESO representative in Chile, which has provided me the curious combination, I guess that not very common among active scientists, of being at the same time a member of the diplomatic corps in that country as a representative of an International Organization—such things can happen only at places like ESO.
What a privilege to see the cathedral growing from inside. I keep laying my bricks!
On Cemetery Hill in Springfield, Kentucky, in the “Holy Land” of Kentucky, stands a monument “dedicated to those who lost their lives in the Cholera epidemics of 1833 and 1854, and to Louis Sansbury, a black man who cared for and buried the victims in these approximately 106 unmarked graves”.
The “Holy Land” in central Kentucky is home to much U.S. Catholic history. Here is where Catholicism first took root away from the coasts as the United States expanded westward. The first diocese in the U.S. was established in Baltimore, Maryland in 1789, but in 1808 four new dioceses were established in the U.S.: the diocese of Boston, the diocese of New York, the diocese of Philadelphia, and the diocese of Bardstown, Kentucky (which later became the Archdiocese of Louisville). Thus Bardstown is home to St. Joseph’s proto-cathedral. The “Holy Land” is also home to numerous churches, many dating back into the late eighteenth century, including the oldest Dominican church in the United States, St. Rose (just outside Springfield). And the “Holy Land” is home to the motherhouses of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, the Sisters of Loretto, and the Dominican Sisters of Peace; and to the Trappist Monastery at Gethsemane. A local web site, kyholyland.org notes that—
It is where the first priest to have been ordained in America, Stephen Badin, came in 1795 and set up residence at what is today the Sisters of Loretto, followed by Charles Nerinckx and the Dominican friars in 1805, and Benedict Joseph Flaget in 1811. Flaget, the “First Bishop of the West,” came to shepherd the newly designated Diocese of Bardstown—the first inland diocese in the United States
The Bardstown diocese existed because many Catholics had migrated west from Maryland to Central Kentucky, starting in the late eighteenth century. The Catholic population of this area included many African-American Catholics. These Catholics were for the most part enslaved by their fellow Catholics, including by people associated with the above-mentioned religious orders. One of the founders of the above-mentioned Dominican Sisters was Maria Sansbury (later Mother Angela, the first prioress). Louis Sansbury is buried in an unmarked grave within the St. Rose cemetery.
Mimi O’Malley writes in her book, It Happened in Kentucky, that Asiatic cholera came to Springfield in 1833 via people fleeing Ohio River towns such as Louisville and Maysville where the disease had appeared (possibly having come up the river from New Orleans). On June 2 three people died in Springfield from the disease. Fifteen more died in the next two days. O’Malley writes
Springfield residents began to vacate the town, abandoning construction sites and closing businesses. The rapid spread of the disease prompted George Sansbury, a Springfield hotel owner, to hand over the keys to his hotel to Louis Sansbury, his twenty-seven-year-old slave, advising him to take care of the business while he was gone.
A 1903 newspaper article about the cholera epidemic in Springfield notes that other business owners handed over their businesses to Louis, so that he was “the custodian of nearly every store in the town”. According to O’Malley—
Sansbury [and Matilda Sims, a cook] fed and treated cholera victims, both black and white. When someone died, Sansbury and Sims prepared the body, wrapping it in sheets and burying the dead in graves he dug besides the road to the Springfield Cemetery. Why Sansbury and Sims failed to become cholera victims themselves remains a mystery. By the end of the 1833 epidemic, more than eighty deaths were recorded in Springfield [whose population prior to people leaving town was just over 600] alone.... It is not known whether this total includes the number of slave deaths.
Nor it is known why Louis Sansbury stayed in Springfield to do his owner’s bidding during the cholera panic. He could have easily fled, taking this opportunity to find his freedom in the north. It is also not known what kind of medical care he gave to cholera victims.
O’Malley adds that it is doubtful that Sansbury used the accepted treatments applied by doctors of the time to people with cholera: opium, bleeding by lancet as much as a quart of blood, and a mercury compound called calomel. (She notes that it is impossible to know how many people in cholera epidemics died of cholera itself, and how many died from the medical treatments.) We cannot know what Sansbury and Sims did that allowed them to treat others while not themselves getting sick from this highly contagious disease, but we can make some educated guesses.
There are clues that Louis Sansbury was a very capable individual. George Sansbury and pretty much the rest of the town left him in charge of their businesses, and apparently Louis—who, being enslaved, was illiterate—used some sort of self-created written code to keep track of from what businesses he and Sims had taken materials in order for to care for the sick and the dying, and to keep track of things in general in these businesses while George and the others were off keeping safe. Moreover, when George died in 1845 (leaving his slaves to be divided among his children, much like the family china), the town of Springfield purchased for Louis both his freedom and a means by which he could make an independent living: a blacksmith shop. When another cholera epidemic struck in 1854, Louis again cared for the sick and the dying, and again did not get sick himself (he passed away on April 12 of 1861, just as the war that would lead to the end slavery in the United States was commencing at Ft. Sumter).
A person whose fellow men will put their places of business in his trust at age twenty-seven, who with no literacy training develops his own written accounting system, who does skilled, multifaceted work such as blacksmithing—that person seems to me to be one talented and capable human being. I am skeptical that it was by means of blind stumbling luck that Sansbury stayed alive through nursing the sick and burying the dead of two epidemics. Rather, I suspect that Louis Sansbury had, over time, observed the world and made his own notes mentally or in his own code, and had figured out something about how the world works, something that led he and Sims to minimize their risk of becoming victims of the disease which raged all around them. In other words, I suspect that Louis Sansbury was a scientist (this post is part of a collection of posts on the subject of who can do science—click here for the whole series).
Science is good at recognizing certain brilliant people—the Newtons, the Darwins, the Einsteins—but many more people than just “the greats” do science. And being recognized for scientific greatness is helped by being a brilliant person in the right place and time. It would have been difficult for anyone in Springfield, Kentucky in the first half of the nineteenth century to enter the ranks of the scientific elite, no matter how brilliant—and very difficult were that person a woman, and effectively impossible were that person enslaved. A person from that place and time would be much more likely to put to use within his or her community those talents of observation, synthesis of information, etc. that make for a good scientist. The result of this person’s scientific work would not be formal scientific discovery and publication, but rather it would be that his or her community featured bridges and homes better built, or crops better managed and irrigated, or animals better cared for, or better food and clothing, or healthier children in the community, or better care for the sick and the dying. Such a person would be unknown to the formal scientific community, but would still be doing important work with science.
Thus we might also make an educated guess as to why Louis Sansbury did not flee north when cholera provided the opportunity: because this man who cared for the sick and buried the dead, and who himself would be buried at St. Rose, had ties to Springfield—ties of faith, and family, and friendship—and he knew that he had something important to contribute to his community. Were he to leave, Springfield would be worse off.
Springfield now hosts an annual African American Heritage Week, centered on the summer picnic of Holy Rosary Church, a historically African-American parish founded in the 1920’s. O’Malley writes that Louis Sansbury’s heroism inspired Springfield to dedicate its first Heritage Week in 2004 to him. I believe that dedication, and the monument on Cemetery Hill, honor an unknown Kentucky scientist.
Admittedly Louis Sansbury as “unknown Kentucky scientist” is a product of a fair bit of speculation, based on only bits of information. However, someone in Springfield knew how to stay alive through cholera. Mother Angela Sansbury’s Dominican sisters also helped the cholera victims, and they survived the epidemic of 1833 with no deaths. Perhaps the Dominicans conveyed information to Louis, or he to them, or perhaps they worked together in some way to figure out how to care for the sick and the dead without ending up sick and dead themselves.
And even if Louis Sansbury is indeed the “unknown Kentucky scientist”, we should keep in mind that he may not be the only unknown scientist buried in an unmarked grave in the “Kentucky Holy Land”. Both the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the Sisters of Loretto have erected monuments to the people who were once their slaves. These religious orders were both involved in education, including science education.
It does not seem like too much of a reach to suppose that a person with a talent for observing the natural world, and for pulling together and using the ideas emerging from those observations—the sort of person who comes to know the night sky in detail; or who becomes an expert on the local flora and fauna; or who understands the flow of streams above and below ground in the limestone landscape; or who has a knack for making structures that last, or for helping sick people get better, or for working with metal in a way that seems to produce stronger and better implements—would be able to make a contribution to his or her community, even were he or she enslaved. This would seem all the more true when that community has a focus on education, and when money, people, and resources are not available in abundance. It seems to me that the whole world must be dotted with tombs of unknown scientists.
The planets are going away. As we head into winter, that glorious chain of planets that has been strung across the evening sky for months is disappearing into the sunset. Back in August you could just walk outside and see Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars (and often the moon) lined up from west to east across the zodiac constellations. Now we are down to just Mars and Saturn, and soon enough it will just be Mars, and then none.
Back in 1922 the planets were lined up in the summer sky much like they were this summer, and Pope Pius XI, who liked astronomy and was very involved with the Vatican Observatory, got a look at them through one of the V.O. telescopes. The V.O. telescopes were at that time on the grounds of the Vatican itself, mounted along one of the walls, right by St. Peter’s, as can been seen in this cool photo from that era.
According to records gathered by Fr. Sabino Maffeo, S.J. (an astronomer with the V.O.) and recorded in his 2001 book on the history of the V.O., In the Service of Nine Popes, on the evening of July 29, 1922 Pope Pius visited the V.O., and observed the Moon, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and a star cluster through one of the telescopes. By using some planetarium software such as Stellarium, we can get an idea of what the Pope saw when he was looking up at the sky, and when he was looking through that telescope. What he saw was something very much like these simulations of what the sky and the planets looked like on that evening:
In the 1930’s, with more and more electric lighting coming into use, Pope Pius XI oversaw the V.O. moving its telescopes to the pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo to get away from the lights of Rome. Then in the 1990’s the V.O. built a telescope on Mt. Graham in Arizona—a long, long way from the Vatican. But sometimes accessibility is just as important as dark skies. Astronomers are willing to travel to remote areas to use telescopes, but others, including leaders who do have interest in astronomy, might not be. Perhaps the V.O. should put a dome back on the walls of the Vatican, so the pope can just say “hey, I was looking up this evening, and was wondering if we could look at that through the telescope”.
This is the second “Kentucky Science Converstions” guest blog. As mentioned in last week’s post, Prof. Gerry Williger, an astronomer at the University of Louisville here in Kentucky, and Louisville’s Archbishop Joseph Kurtz set in motion a series of ongoing conversations about science. This conversation has included Williger, Kurtz, Tim Dowling, who studies planetary atmospheric dynamics at UofL, and Kate Bulinski, a geoscientist with the School of Environmental Studies at Bellarmine University in Louisville, and me. I of course had to encourage all of these folks to contribute posts to this blog.
Today we have a guest post from Professor Kate Bulinski, who is is an Associate Professor of Geosciences in the School of Environmental Studies at Bellarmine University. She received her B.S. in Geoscience from The Pennsylvania State University in 2002 and her Ph.D. in Geology from University of Cincinnati in 2008. In addition to teaching classes for undergraduate students each semester, she pursues paleontological research often involving her students. Her current research efforts are focused on the paleoecological relationships at the Devonian Falls of the Ohio coral fossil beds in Clarksville, Indiana. Most recently, she completed a sabbatical including two months of intensive field work there in the fall of 2017. She regularly conducts public outreach, particularly through paleontology education workshops for K-12 teachers and through Kentucky Interfaith Power and Light, an interfaith non-profit group that works with faith communities to respond to environmental concerns. As a product of these efforts she was awarded the Kentucky Academy of Science Excellence in Science Education and Outreach Award in the fall of 2017.
It may seem a little strange for a paleontologist to be contributing to an astronomy blog, but there is one factor that unites the two disciplines: the concept of deep time.
It is very difficult for humans to get a sense of the scope and scale of the age of the Earth and the universe. We have a tendency to think in terms of human time scales. To the average person, a few centuries is quite old, and in terms of the age of the Church, the time frame of a couple of millennia is ancient. For a paleontologist however, our time scales are framed by many millions if not billions of years of Earth history.
Taking this wide-angle view of the history of our planet gives me a very different perspective of humanity’s relationship to the Earth and, to borrow a phrase from Douglas Adams, makes me also think very differently about life, the universe, and everything.
When you begin to think like a paleontologist, you start to realize how the fossil record reveals a magnificent history of our planet. From the smallest microbes pumping oxygen into our early Precambrian atmosphere several billion years ago, to the advent of shelled ocean-dwelling creatures more than 500 million years before the present, one thing is clear: the evolution of life on our planet was a time-intensive enterprise. It is in this vast expanse of time that life responded to shifting climates, the movement of tectonic plates and the changes in ocean chemistry that produced the environments where some organisms thrived while others did not. Incredible episodes of ecological crisis and mass extinction unfolded on our planet long before mammals, let alone humans beings, existed.
When you begin to recognize the scope of these time scales, it is impossible not to feel incredibly humbled by the seeming insignificance of the human species as an inhabitant on the 4.6 billion-year-old Earth. It was an incredible responsibility for humans to inherit the charge to care for creation, and it was also a responsibility that I do not think we initially had the wisdom to properly cultivate. I believe we as humans are just now awakening to the horror of what our species has done to our beautiful planet in a geological blink of an eye. As a person of faith, it is impossible for me not to feel devastated when I see how the modern human being has abused our world.
There is no doubt that our use of the Earth’s resources has improved the human condition. The mining of metals and other earth materials have allowed us to create all kinds of buildings, infrastructure and goods that created the cities and towns where more than 7.5 billion people now live. Fossil fuels created economic prosperity, led to the industrialization of agriculture, and reduced hunger and poverty around the globe, in just a few human lifetimes. However, in that short span of time we filled our oceans with plastic, polluted our air and water supplies, and altered the composition of our atmosphere. We created the conditions in which people and the rest of creation are now suffering from illnesses stemming from pollution and the effects of more severe and frequent natural disasters associated with a changing climate.
To me, there is no more important social justice concern to address because the call to care for our earth is also the call to care for all of humanity. Poverty, famine, illness and conflicts have all been documented to stem from the effects of environmental degradation, and therefore, if we wish to work to reduce human suffering, we need to work to solve environmental problems. It is in this spirit, of course, that Pope Francis wrote Laudato Si. He challenges us all to grapple with the extent to which humanity has altered the natural environment of the earth, and to examine what we can do to course-correct as a moral imperative. This is not an easy charge. Our modern world was built on the back of fossil fuels and mined materials. They literally infuse our lives, whether it is in the form of synthetic materials in our clothing, the pesticides and fertilizer used to grow our food, the incredible amount of disposable plastic packaging used with abandon in our consumer goods, the rare earth metals that are used to manufacture our cell phones or the way we generate electricity and power our transportation. We need to examine the entire system of how we manufacture, purchase, use and dispose of the materials in our life and ask ourselves if they are a reflection of what was meant when we were asked to care for creation.
As a thought experiment, I sometimes ask my students to contemplate what the fossil record of the 21st century would look like. Would we have layers of sediment embedded with plastic debris and electronic waste? Would we have strange isotopic signatures in the rocks as a result of the use of nuclear technology, the manufacturing of synthetic chemicals, and the burning of fossil fuels? What would future humans (or our evolutionary descendants!) have to say about this era of Earth history? And perhaps more importantly, what would God say about how we responded to the charge to care for creation and how we responded once we realized the mistakes we were making? These are all questions that I think are worthy to contemplate when we think about our place in time and in space. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the minutia of our daily lives but the world is so much bigger and older than all of that. We are a part of this great chain of being, and I hope beyond hope, God willing, that we can continue to be a part of that chain for many more millions of years to come.
I am happy to introduce to readers of The Catholic Astronomer a few guest bloggers. In September 2017, with astronomy “in the air” thanks to the August 2017 eclipse, my friend and colleague, Prof. Gerry Williger, an astronomer at the University of Louisville here in Kentucky, sent an invitation to Louisville’s Archbishop Joseph Kurtz to attend some of the talks that are part of the Public Astronomy Lecture Series hosted by UofL’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. Archbishop Kurtz got right back to Gerry, commenting on his own interest in astronomy, and suggesting that they get together to discuss their common interest. Gerry in turn suggested inviting me and Tim Dowling, who studies planetary atmospheric dynamics at UofL (and who has written a guest post for The Catholic Astronomer on the 2017 eclipse). Within a week or two the four of us were having our first meeting. Astronomy was the spark for this endeavor, but of course there is more to science than outer space, and so soon Archbishop Kurtz invited Kate Bulinski, a geoscientist with the School of Environmental Studies at Bellarmine University in Louisville to join us. The result of all this has been some delightfully nerdy conversations about science (and education, and people, and religion, and the new solar panel array on the archdiocesan offices, and more)! Of course, with such an interesting group, I had to encourage all of these folks to contribute posts to this blog.
Today we have the first of these new guest posts, a short post from Archbishop Kurtz. Pope Benedict XVI appointed Most Reverend Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D. as the fourth Archbishop and ninth bishop of the Archdiocese of Louisville on June 12, 2007. Before coming to Louisville, Archbishop Kurtz served as Bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee, from 1999 to 2007. If you are thinking that you know the name Kurtz, that may be because Archbishop Kurtz was Vice President of the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) from 2010 to 2013, President of the USCCB from 2013 to 2016, and currently serves as the chairman of the Committee for Religious Liberty, and in that capacity he serves on the administrative committee of the USCCB. And, most importantly of all, Archbishop Kurtz ranks among The Catholic Astronomer’s subscribers! Thus he gets the e-mails announcing the various posts (you can subscribe, too—no cost—see “Subscribe to this Blog” above). And so today he will have the odd experience of getting an e-mail announcing his own post.
What a joy it is to be on the regular emails of the Vatican Observatory Blog. I have had an interest in faith and science since I was a boy. In recent days, much of what is written on this topic assumes that faith and science are opposed to one another. Instead, Saint John Paul II points out so well in his 1998 encyclical on the topic, Fides et Ratio, that faith complements science—leading the inquirer to greater and greater wonder and curiosity at the magnificence of God’s creation.
I was delighted about a year ago to meet with three scientists teaching at local universities in Louisville. They reached out to me in the hope that we might discuss the relationship between their Catholic faith and their professions. We have met three times and even added some others to the dialogue. Thus far it has been greatly enriching for me. While our purpose has been to talk and not to plan programs or events, already fruitful results are emerging on the horizon beyond our small group. At our next meeting, we are inviting two high school teachers from a local Catholic high school—one a theology teacher and the other a teacher of science—who have been collaborating to bring together the richness of both of their concentrations. These developments remind me of the Latin definition of theology as fides quaerens intellectum or “faith seeking understanding.” The history of theology clearly reveals that a lively faith does not shun the secular sciences but both learns from them and enriches them.
St. Macrina the Younger has a fascinating fourth-century discourse on science and technology. Macrina, who lived from 330 to 379 A.D., was the sister of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nyssa, and the daughter of St. Emmelia, and the granddaughter of St. Macrina the Elder (saints run thick in that family). Her discourse on science and technology was recorded by St. Gregory: it was part of their dialogue that became Gregory’s On the Soul and the Resurrection.
Macrina discusses how we know more than just what our eyes show us, because through our minds we take what our eyes see and we reason and we calculate; and we come to know, for example, that the sun is far larger than the Earth (science), and how to create machinery that can even imitate human actions (technology). Check out what St. Macrina the Younger has to say—her discourse is available on the Vatican Observatory Faith and Science pages: