Jewish Journal

The Vatican’s worldly mission in the cosmos

by Brad A. Greenberg

June 28, 2009 | 10:35 pm

Here’s a story I neglected to mention last week from The New York Times. It concerns the Vatican’s observatory in Arizona—I once met a priest/researcher from there—and it opens with what the Times’ reporter must have thought was a surprisingly worldly scene:

Fauré’s “Requiem” is playing in the background, followed by the Kronos Quartet. Every so often the music is interrupted by an electromechanical arpeggio — like a jazz riff on a clarinet — as the motors guiding the telescope spin up and down. A night of galaxy gazing is about to begin at the Vatican’s observatory on Mount Graham.

The headline for this story was “Vatican’s Celestial Eye, Seeking Not Angels but Data.” Yeah, I know that’s a bit ridiculous: No telescope is going to revealing angels traveling to and from heaven, and I don’t know anyone stupid enough to believe it might. But the story is worth reading.

An excerpt is after the jump:

The Roman Catholic Church’s interest in the stars began with purely practical concerns when in the 16th century Pope Gregory XIII called on astronomy to correct for the fact that the Julian calendar had fallen out of sync with the sky. In 1789, the Vatican opened an observatory in the Tower of the Winds, which it later relocated to a hill behind St. Peter’s Dome. In the 1930s, church astronomers moved to Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence. As Rome’s illumination, the electrical kind, spread to the countryside, the church began looking for a mountaintop in a dark corner of Arizona.

Building on Mount Graham was a struggle. Apaches said the observatory was an affront to the mountain spirits. Environmentalists said it was a menace to a subspecies of red squirrel. There were protests and threats of sabotage. It wasn’t until 1995, three years after the edict of Inquisition was lifted against Galileo, that the Vatican’s new telescope made its first scientific observations.

The target tonight is three spiral galaxies — Nos. 3165, 3166, 3169 in the New General Catalog — lying about 60 million light-years from Earth, a little south of the constellation Leo. Sitting at a desk near Dr. Corbally is Aileen O’Donoghue, an astronomer from St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., who is interested in how these gravitational masses tug at one another, creating the stellar equivalent of tides.

“Exposing, 30 minutes,” she says. As Celtic ballads play in the control room, data is sucked up by hard drives, and a column of numbers scrolls down her computer screen. Dr. O’Donoghue, who was raised Roman Catholic, is the author of “The Sky Is Not a Ceiling: An Astronomer’s Faith,” in which she describes how she lost and then rediscovered God “in the vastness, the weirdness, the abundance, the seeming nonsensicalness, and even the violence of this incredible universe.”

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