Our goal is to collect the memories here of all who knew him, and to raise money — the outlandish amount of $100,000, for his 28 years as director of the Vatican Observatory — to continue the work he began with the Vatican Observatory Summer Schools, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, and so much more.
If we reach the $100,000 level we will prepare a book of George’s writings and include your comments in the book. If we reach our full goal, then everyone who contributed at least $25 will get a free copy of the book.
It’s impossible to describe George. We could list all his scientific work, his writings on faith and science, his honors and degrees, but he was so much more than that. He was a director to his fellow Jesuits at the Vatican Observatory; a pastor to other scientists; and a role model and friend to an entire generation of young astronomers. From him we learned astronomy, and the joy of learning, and the love of sharing what we’ve learned with each other.
There are three things that George would always tell us. First, his instructions to each of us upon arriving at the Observatory. Simply: “do good science.” The science itself was the goal. And he gave us the space to make it happen. But what made science itself a worthy goal?
He would say, “yes, we must feed the hungry and cure the blind; but if that is all we do, then we will all be hungry and we will all be blind.” Our goal in life can’t be just to avoid hunger. Rather, we feed the hungry so that they may be able to encounter joy and truth, the markers of God’s presence.
And George would say, “in us, the universe has become self-aware.” Indeed, as St. Paul reminds us, “creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” Creation could not be revealed until we were ready to receive that revelation. We become the children of God when we become aware of God’s creation and thus, in it, of God’s presence.
It is by being aware of the universe that we can become aware of the Creator. We, ourselves, creatures of that very same creator, become the consciousness of creation. And in that truth we find joy. That’s where we find God.
Fr. Coyne was born on January 19, 1933 in Baltimore, MD, the third of nine children. He attended Catholic elementary schools and received a full scholarship to Jesuit-run Loyola Blakefield High School in Towson, MD. Upon graduation in 1951 he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Wernersville, PA. During his first year of studies in Latin and Greek literature, he was instructed by a Jesuit priest who, in addition to having a Ph.D. in the classical languages, also had a M.S. in mathematics and an educated interest in astronomy; he noticed George’s interest in astronomy and encouraged him in the field. George earned a B.S. in Mathematics and licentiate in philosophy from Fordham University in 1958, a Ph.D. in astronomy in 1962 from Georgetown University, and finally the licentiate in sacred theology from Woodstock College in 1966, the year after his ordination.
For his doctorate in astronomy at Georgetown University, Coyne carried out a spectrophotometric study of the lunar surface. He spent the summer of 1963 doing research at Harvard University, the summer of 1964 as a National Science Foundation lecturer at the University of Scranton, and the summer of 1965 as visiting research professor at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.
Coyne’s main research interests was the study via polarimetry of a number of astronomical objects. These included the surfaces of the Moon and Mercury; the interstellar medium; stars with extended atmospheres; and Seyfert galaxies, which are a group of spiral galaxies with very small and unusually bright star-like centers. His final papers were on the polarization produced in cataclysmic variables, interacting binary star systems that give off sudden bursts of intense energy.
Coyne was visiting assistant professor at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) in 1966-67 and 1968-69, and visiting astronomer at the Vatican Observatory in 1967-68. He joined the Vatican Observatory as an astronomer in 1969 and became an assistant professor at the LPL in 1970. In 1976 he became a senior research fellow at the LPL and a lecturer in the University of Arizona Department of Astronomy. The following year he served as Director of the University of Arizona’s Catalina Observatory and as Associate Director of the LPL.
Coyne was appointed Director of the Vatican Observatory by Pope John Paul I in 1978, and in that same year he also became Associate Director of Steward Observatory. During 1979-80 he served as Acting Director and Head of Steward Observatory and the Astronomy Department, and thereafter he continued as an adjunct professor in the University of Arizona Astronomy Department.
Coyne was awarded honorary doctorate degrees by Boston College; the Jagellonian University in Krakow, Poland; Loyola University Chicago; Marquette University; St Peter’s College Jersey City; and the University of Padua, Italy. In 2008 Villanova University awarded Coyne the Mendel Medal, and in 2010 he was awarded the George Van Biesbroeck Prize by the American Astronomical Society. He was a member of the International Astronomical Union, the American Astronomical Society, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the American Physical Society, the Optical Society of America and the Pontifical Academy of Science.
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