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Dispatches from the Vatican Observatory

Church Has Long History of Supporting Science


When friends and colleagues find out I work with the Vatican Observatory, their first reaction is often surprise that the Catholic Church supports a scientific research institute, particularly one that studies astronomy. After all, the Catholic Church put Galileo on trial for heresy.


As it turns out, Galileo's difficulties were more the exception than the rule. The Catholic Church has supported science and scientists throughout her history, beginning with the early Fathers of the Church through to the 21st-century Popes Benedict XVI and Francis.


The Vatican Observatory itself was founded by Pope Leo XIII for exactly this reason, so "that everyone might see clearly that the church and her pastors are not opposed to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but that they embrace it, encourage it and promote it," as read in the document "Ut Mysticam."

Read the rest at Chicago Catholic.

Stammering About God


As I do, a part of me grasps that photons, indivisible packets of light, erupted from the sun an hour and a half before, and now, having traveled almost a billion miles, are gathered into the maw of the Zeiss, to slide down the length of its tube and enter my eye. And still all I can say is “Oh my God.” What was born in the sun, what literally skimmed Saturn’s rings, caressed its atmosphere and careened off its moons, has touched me. Even now, weeks later, I am staggered to think that I have been so intimate with the planets, with the sun.

Karl Rahner, S.J., an eminent theologian of the 20th century, addressing a gathering of scientists, noted that, “To be able to stammer about God is after all more important than to speak exactly about the world.” The chance to be part of the work of the Specola is the remarkable opportunity to do both. Stammer out my awe. Speak precisely about what I have observed. To do science. To seek God in all things. Deum creatorem venite adoremus.

Read the rest at Collegeville's Institute's Bearings.

A Day at the Vatican Observatory


11 am
Working in my office under the eaves, the view is over the courtyard, the library right outside the door.  It looks nothing at all like what Dan Brown described in The DaVinci code, despite the bearded Jesuit brother who directs the Observatory working downstairs.  You know you are at home when the network recognizes your laptop as soon as you lift the lid!  It's a great spot to work, quiet, light filled and in the heat of last week, delightfully cool.

4 pm
Bob Macke consulted with me and my students last spring as we worked to set up an apparatus similar to his to measure the heat capacities of meteorites.  We had trouble with atmospheric water condensing into our liquid nitrogen (which messed with the mass measurements we were tracking). Bob has a useful bit to add to our set-up:  a pasta storage container to enclose the dewar. 

Read the rest at Quantum Theology.


Ghosts of Elements, Spectres of the Universe

If you’ve seen the flash of yellow-orange flames when a pot boils over on a gas stove, you’ve gotten a glimpse of the ghost of an atom, specifically sodium.  The color is part of the atom’s spectrum, which shows which types or frequencies of light are absorbed by that particular atom.

In the late 17th century, Isaac Newton used the Latin word for ghost, spectrum, to describe the bands of colors he saw when light shone through a prism. In 1814 Joseph von Fraunhofer noticed he could see bright lines instead of the bands of colors when looking at certain flames through a prism.  He went on to develop an instrument to measure these spectral lines, called a spectroscope.

Read the rest at Quantum Theology.

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