Science in the Bluegrass

Chris Graney

Hi, my name is Chris, and I am here from the Vatican’s astronomical observatory to write for The Record about science. That may sound a little strange. But it is also true.

Yes, the Vatican has an astronomical observatory — with astronomers, telescopes, cameras and peer-reviewed publications of research. It actually has two observatories. I am part of one of them — the absolute lowest part, mind you, but part nonetheless. The Record invited me to write a regular column. It will be about science, especially astronomy, and will appear every other month.

Some think it strange that the Vatican maintains an astronomical observatory. But the Church has been involved with astronomy for a long time. John Heilbron, a prominent historian of science, opened his 1999 book “The Sun in the Church” with the often-quoted line, “The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and probably all other, institutions.”

Moreover, at different times in history the Catholic Church operated a large fraction of the astronomical observatories in the world. Most were run by priests of the Society of Jesus, who established some of the earliest observatories in Africa, South America and the Far East. The modern Vatican Observatory got its start with Pope Leo XIII in 1891. He wanted to emphasize that the church supported science.

Consider how the Church intersects with so many other areas of human endeavor — art, music, literature, philosophy. Why would science be different?

Originally the Vatican Observatory’s scientific research was done right at the Vatican. But Rome grew. Its skies became polluted and lit up by artificial light. So in the 1930’s, under Pope Pius XI, the V.O. moved its telescopes to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome.

In time, even the skies of Castel Gandolfo became less clear and dark, so under the papacy of St. John Paul II a second observatory was constructed in the mountains of Arizona in the U.S. There the air is clear and dry and the skies are very dark. The “Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope” began operation there in 1993. It is run by the Vatican Observatory Foundation, a U.S. organization headed by the V.O.’s director, Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno. And I am a small part of this U.S. wing of the Vatican Observatory.

The intersections of the Catholic Church and science don’t always involve formal scientific institutions like the Vatican Observatory, however. I write for the V.O.’s “Sacred Space Astronomy” blog (Google it). Just this past Saturday, the feast of St. Lawrence, I had the fun and privilege of posting an article there on “The Tears of St. Lawrence.”

Saturday marked the beginning of the Perseid meteors or “shooting stars.” Astronomers originally thought meteors were weather things, like clouds or rainbows (hence the term “meteorologist”). When they first began to understand that meteors could be a regular occurrence with a connection to the solar system, they were excited about their new discovery.

But the Catholic faithful of certain regions had already discovered the regularity of the meteors. They had noticed that shooting stars always appeared around the feast of St. Lawrence and called them “The Tears of St. Lawrence.” Perhaps you saw some of those tears this week!

Chris Graney is also a professor of astronomy at Jefferson Community & Technical College and a parishioner of St. Louis Bertrand Church.

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