Transcript: Space4U podcast, Brother Guy
Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team
Hi there. I’m Rich Cooper with the Space Foundation. And this is the Space4U podcast, a podcast designed to tell the stories of the amazing people who make today’s space exploration possible. Today. I’m joined by Brother Guy with the society of Jesuits. Brother Guy’s the director of the Vatican Observatory and president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.
Brother guy is a native of Detroit, Michigan with degrees in studies from MIT. Harvard and the University of Arizona, his truly stellar background includes stints teaching, serving in the peace Corps in Kenya writing hundreds of scientific publications, as well as several popular books, including the eye-catching titled, would you baptize an extraterrestrial?
He wrote that with Father Paul Mueller, who is also with a society of Jesuits. Brother guy has also hosted programs for BBC radio four. And for more than 10 years written a monthly science column for the British Catholic magazine, the tablet brother guy’s journeys. As a teacher, scientist, astronomer and writer have taken him to every continent on earth.
Where he has worked with renowned scientific institutions to better understand our universe in September 2015, brother guy became the head that one of the most unique and renowned institutions in the world, the Vatican observatory, which holds some of the world’s oldest records and scholarship about astronomy brother, guy.
Thank you for joining space for you and our conversation today on astronomy. So how does a guy from Detroit, Michigan end up leading the Vatican observatory? Believe me, it was not clever planning on my part. Um, sheer accident. I really grew up, you know, at the time of space and a spot like blanched when I was in kindergarten and people landed on the moon just before my senior year in high school.
So I had this interest in astronomy as a kid in every smart kid, wanted to be an astronomer. So that was part of it. It was, you know, a time when science was really being given, especially to boys in those days, I have to admit. But then when I went to the Jesuit high school in Detroit and saw and met the Jesuits, I also was introduced to a lot of other things that turn out to be important in the life of a scientist.
They said all the smart kids did Latin and Greek. And so I gave up science for a while. I did the Latin and the Greek. I learned how to write. I learned how to give public talks. One of the crazy things most people don’t appreciate is that most scientists present papers at meetings. Now, as posters, rather than a school of five-minute talks, where do you learn how to lay out a poster to it?
You can have people’s eyes. See the important graph and see the important texts. I learned that in the high school yearbook so much. Oh, what I needed as an astronomer, I learned doing what didn’t seem to be astronomy in high school. I went off to Boston college thinking maybe I’d be a journalist. Maybe I’d be a Jesuit, but my best friend was going to MIT.
And MIT had the world’s biggest collection of science fiction. And when I visited him, I was overwhelmed both with science fiction books, but also that sense of joy, that sense of fun. That was happening at MIT with students were building and learning all sorts of crazy and wonderful things. And I thought I got to go here.
When I applied, I had to apply for a particular department and I, I’m not going to be an engineer. I couldn’t build things very well. And I saw this, this major earth and planetary sciences planets are places where people have adventures. So I thought I’ll sign up for that. Only when I got there, I discovered first of all, that was legit ology department.
And secondly, in the geology department, you get to study rocks that have fallen out of the sky from the asteroid belt called meteorites. You can touch outer space, you can hold it in your hand. And, Oh, that was astonishing. So I was sold. It was only years later trying, you know, many, many different jobs.
Discovered all the different things I did, which is to say, well, I didn’t get tenure. I didn’t get the permanent job here. I was still looking. I was still searching. Finally, after my peace Corps experience, I was teaching in a small college, small college teaching is so much fun. I could do that as a Jesuit, that old dream that I’d had 20 years earlier came back.
But when I joined the Jesuits, I had to take three vows, poverty, chastity, obedience, poverty. I’ve been a grad student. I could deal with that. Chastity it wasn’t getting a whole lot of dates. When I was a grad student. Obedience was the tough one. After a few years of training, as a judge, Whitman philosophy and theology, they ordered me without me asking, without me having much of a say in it at all.
They ordered me under obedience with a letter from Rome saying you’ve been assigned to do astronomy in the Vatican. I had to go in and move to this miserable palace at the Pope loosen. And this, this. Really ugly scenery of rural Italy. Oh my gosh. What the terrible food that everybody knows about and, Oh yeah, they happened to have one of the world’s largest collections of media rights and they needed somebody to curated.
And I had the background in media rights and the person who assigned me there didn’t know about the media rights or my background. It was just one of those, um, divine coincidences of, shall we say harmonic, convergence? Indeed amazing that truly the stars aligned for you in that. So you talked about the, getting a letter from Rome and they had this incredible collection of meteorites, but what else does the Vatican observatory have?
What’s its role? How did it come about? Because most persons would not think that the Vatican would have such an institution, but it’s got some of the oldest astronomical records in the world. What’s a little bit of that history. How did that come about? Well, the real professional work of astronomy got going in the 19th century and a lot of it was very practical.
You mapped out the star is to figure out where the sky is a star is ours, so that navigators would see, could figure out where in the world they were. So that’s where the Royal observatory in Greenwich came about that. So the national observatory of the Naval observatory in Washington, DC came about.
Having national observatories became a symbol of nationhood. It happened that in Rome, in the middle of the 19th century, there was a really great astronomer named Angelo Secchi and he was one of these falling maps. He did lots of things. So he still referred to the Secchi disk that they use to measure the clarity of water.
He did the first observations of solar activity and relating that to magnetic fields. To the point where the instrument in space that does that now on a NASA spacecraft is the sun earth connection. Helio’s through something, something. So if the acronym spells out his name second, well, second was this Jesuit priest who also ran the observatory at the Roman college and as the Vatican and the Lacy was being gobbled up by the newly unifying Italy.
The Italian astronomers said, you know, why don’t you have this guy come representing his country? This country is nothing but the, a little area around the Vatican anymore. And the other astronomers in the world said, yes, but he’s got things to say that you don’t really recognize that country in order to be able to hear him.
Well, second, he died in 1878. And for about 10 years, there was nobody at the Vatican doing astronomy, but they recognized this would be a great thing. To make the Vatican known as an independent nation, independent of Italy. The other thing happening in the 19th century was the very beginning. Of that goofy idea that somehow science is going to replace religion.
People say that goes back to Galileo, but you read the history. No, nobody in Galileo’s time was talking that it was a late 19th century idea of this. I do know that there was a war between science and religion. So 19th century, it’s a Victorian idea. And the church thought having an astronomical observatory.
Would be a way of demonstrating, putting their money where their mouth is that no, the church embraces science. So that means that we were given the task to do astronomy with no agenda other than be seen doing good science. And that’s one of the reasons we’ve got that kind of freedom. I bulldozed to be small, but good.
And you know what? Halfway there with small. I think we’re good too, but we’ve got a dozen astronomers can come from all over the world. We’ve got an Indian and African, a couple of Europeans, a couple of Americans, a Canadian, this whole group, all doing the science that we’re interested in. Maybe the science that we learned when we were in grad school, you at school.
Cause we come from graduate schools all over the world. You know, we’ve got one fellow from Oxford and a few from Canada and I’m from Arizona. All of us are doing astronomy in collaboration with other astronomers, from other observatories around the world, whether it’s in Lithuania or in Germany or South America.
And we’re plugged right into the astronomical community. But with this extra benefit that because we’re not tied to a three-year program, we can do that’s Toronto, me that compliments what our colleagues do to provide the data that they need. So to give you three examples of the kind of stuff that we’re doing, we’ve got the meteorites.
I mentioned that, and that meteorite collection is a wonderful addition that, you know, we can do things that other collectors can’t do. We’ve got a collection of photographic plates of the sky taken by telescopes is going back to the 1890s. And these plates are being scammed, digitally and studied. So that people who are looking to see how the variability of a star changes today compared to a hundred years ago, a lot of people may have heard of Tabby star, right?
The star that has these strange fluctuations and the capital of spacecraft saw these strange fluctuations. What does it mean? Well, to help test theories you want to know, was it always doing that? We’ve got Tabby star in photographic plates. That we’ve had people come and do the clever and careful measurements of to see how the star had changed over a period of a hundred years, because we’ve got some of the oldest photographic plates in the world, in our collection.
We’ve also got, um, you know, we, we moved from the Vatican itself out to the Pope’s summer palace in the 1930s and built telescopes up in the Hills there, gorgeous area. The Vatican libraries decided to give us all of their modern science books. Most of them modern means printed with a printing press. So we’ve got the whole, you know, transactions and the philosophical society of London going back to 1665 sitting on a shelf and our library, we’ve got the transactions of the Harvard college observatory and the observatories of the national observatory in Sweden.
And every other nation that I was over is going back to the 19th century. So, if you’re a historian, you can just walk into our library and pull out of that history of astronomy and how astronomy has done. We’ve also got a telescope in Arizona, um, modern telescope, the first of the spin test mirror telescopes.
It has phenomenal optics. It’s got one of the best electronic cameras in the world made by the fellow who makes the best cameras. And it works in collaboration with the telescopes. Of the university of Arizona, one of the great astronomical centers of the world. So we’re plugged in right now as well with astronomy doing, being done at the cutting edge, uh, discoveries being made with our small telescope that can then be tested on bigger telescopes.
So there’s a world of difference between Rome, the eternal city and Arizona. There’s that there’s a big change there. How did, how did that relationship with the university of Arizona? Come about because that is where again, you and your dozen or so colleagues work out of, uh, how did that relationship?
Well, first of all, let you know that only half of us work here because there is still. Lots of things in Rome that keep us busy there. So the media rights in Rome, the plate vault is enrolled the libraries in Rome. The other thing to remember is if you do use a telescope, you’ve got a week on the telescope and then you’ve got three months to try to figure out what went wrong and three months to plan, but you’re going to do the next time.
So most of that work can be done in front of the computer, anywhere in the world. But connection with Arizona though is entirely personal. I got my doctorate here, so I know the people here. George coined the director when we decided to look for another place because the light pollution made Rome impossible for a telescope anymore.
He had all the connections here and astronomy really is a very, very small outfit. You know, there are probably more people who play professional baseball that are professional astronomers. It’s easier to get in the big leagues than it is to get into one of these big astronomical settings. And it means that everybody knows everyone else.
And that means these personal connections, these personal friendships will color what astronomy gets done, what collaborations occur, what equipment gets made. There is another side to this though. And it means that if you’re not in the inside, you’ve got to have a hard time making those personal connections.
How do we get into the inside? Well, you meet these people in graduate school, but what if you’re somebody from Argentina? What if you’re somebody from Ecuador, what if you’re somebody from Nigeria? How can you get into the inside of that? So, one of the things that we’ve done at the Vatican observatory is to hold a summary school every two years, where we bring the best students from around the world to come and live for a month in Rome, be instructed by the professors from Arizona or Oxford or Cambridge.
And be known by them so that then they may go back to their home country for a degree, or they may get a post-doc in one of these other institutions. And then that way bring their astronomy and the astronomy of their home country into this community of people, because astronomy is not the study of stars or planets, it’s human beings, studying stars and planets.
And that human element is essential. To making astronomy happen. Your descriptor of that, there are less astronomers than there are major league baseball players is astounding. Why do you think that we don’t have more astronomers? Well, for one thing, uh, baseball is easier to follow than astronomy to try to explain baseball as somebody who doesn’t know the game, you’ll appreciate the joke.
Um, but I do think, you know, an astronomy is better off than other fields of science, but in order to get that kind of support, you’ve got to have it to be in some sense, a spectator sport. You’ve got to be able to have people. Interested and able to see what’s going on as a championing. Astronomy’s lucky that way, because anybody can look at the stars and be amazed and anybody can get an amateur telescope.
And, you know, it’s probably a little bit of Sandlot, uh, astronomy in their backyard and get that sense of fun. Get that sense of why we love doing it. And, you know, people who do particle physics have a lot harder time trying to do that. So. You mentioned that the earlier in your comments about the Victorian era and the conflict that people saw that science was going to overtake religion, and that there was this sort of resounding conflict between the two, but again, in preparing for this interview.
And even as you just alluded to you don’t believe that and that you don’t feel that way. Can you share with our listeners why you see science and religion? Not having to be in conflict with each other, but rather they can compliment one another. I really had a hard time for a long time. Understanding why anybody would think there was a conflict.
I had a hard time answering the question because I didn’t understand the question. And finally, I had a conversation with, of all people, William Shatner. So there’s a big name drop there, captain Kirk. And he asked the same question and he asked it in a very clever and clear way. And then I suddenly realized a lot of people who don’t know what science is.
You know, the last time in science was in high school where the goal of science was to give the answers the back of the book. They think that science is a big book of facts. And if all they know about religion, that’s what they learned. When they were 12 years old, they had to memorize Bible verses. I think Rajan is a big book of facts.
And what happens if the one book doesn’t give the same facts as the other book, then they’re in conflict and you’ve got to choose or even worse when they do give, without saying facts. And it shows that the one has proved the other, but the whole premise is wrong. Science. Isn’t a big book of facts.
Science is, is conversation of trying to deal with the experiences we have when we look through a telescope. And figure out what’s going on knowing all the time that we only have to ask the story. And that’s why we keep going back to the devil and religion is the same thing. It’s trying to make sense out of those experiences that we can call religious experiences, but realistic that I’m alive.
And I have no idea why I’m alive, not only what it is I’m supposed to be doing, but even how it happened, that there is a me and that there is a thing called alive. And how do I deal with that? And how do I deal with those questions I have at three in the morning when I’m lying in bed and can’t get to sleep.
Both of those are the combination of taking the history of what people have thought about this before applying it to the experiences you have, trying to make sense of it. And you realize that in many ways, you’re using the same tool you’re using observation and you using reasoning. You’re using experience and you’re using hearing what smart people before you have come up with that maybe that could have something to tell you, and maybe you can then have something to tell the next generation so that they’ll look back and you, and so you are one of those smart people.
But in both cases, it’s not a matter of rigid sense of facts that must be adhered to, or else you’re not a real scientist. You’re not a real religious person. That’s not the way it works. There are facts, but it’s the interpretation of the facts. It’s an understanding of the facts that constantly grows in that constantly makes you grow.
Pope Francis is also a man of science degree in chemistry. Also like yourself has been an instructor educator as well as a writer. What kind of direction? Uh, you mentioned the academic freedom that you and your colleagues have at the observatory, but what kind of direction does the Pope offer to the observatory or is it very much a hands-off affair and allow you and your fellow astronomers to go where the stars take you?
It’s actually not even just hands off, it’s an encouragement, it’s an active, I really like what you’re doing. Uh, it’s fun to hear about. And in very active, since that thinks what we’re doing is wonderful and he encourages us to do more. And it’s not just transits. You know, I was also with the observatory under Pope Benedict, who was himself, a scholar, and he understood how scholarship and before him Pope John Paul, the second who you forget sometimes, but he had been a university professor.
So he also knew what scholarship was about and you can trace it back. Every Pope, going back to the time we were founded in 1891 has given us great encouragement. The one who they say probably had the least understanding of the astronomy was John the 23rd. And what he would do in the summertime when he was living in the papal palace was he’d show up with the astronomers who were working.
Cause we’re in the same building in those days. And he’d come with a bottle of wine and, you know, sit and chat with them. As they were looking at the stars and then I’d go back to work. That sense of encouragement is both in the fact that, you know, they pay us to be able to do this. They support the astronomy we do financially, but also when we have groups of astronomers come, the Pope will take times out of their schedule.
To come and meet with the astronomers, to have an audience with them, to chat with them, to talk with them. He has met, I mean, the Pope, all the Pope’s have met with every one of our summer schools, one way or another. There may have been one school that, uh, the scheduling didn’t work. Right. But they really try to make sure that the Pope’s get to have a private audience with the summer school students.
When we had a group of cosmologists a couple of years ago for a big meeting, celebrating the work of that great cosmologist, George Lemaitre. The guy who came up with the big bang theory and Oh yeah. I happened to be a Catholic priest and Pope Francis and met with the Nobel prize winners and the other cosmologists there.
So that sense that he’s not telling us what to do, but he’s interested in hearing what we’re doing is the best kind of support. That’s fantastic. Uh, the photo that’s on your website of the recent, uh, summer school class with the Pope, uh, truly shows the international reach that you guys have. How does a young person get involved with a summer school like that, and an opportunity to learn with you study with you, observe with you and your colleagues.
How does that come about? Well, it’s a tricky balance because you don’t want to bring in people who are going to be flooded and overwhelmed because they’re not prepared. But you also don’t want to eliminate people just because they didn’t have the same opportunities that someone else has. The way it works is we send invitations to every astronomy department that we could find an address for everywhere in the world, develop a poster, the students who will see the poster, who are astronomy students, generally fitting Xing undergraduate or beginning graduate work.
Are then free to apply. We generally get about a hundred to 200 applications for 25 places. And then the people who are going to be running that summer school, we put together a team and a particular topic. We’ll go over all the applications and choose the best 25 students. And there are two criteria that we use.
The first is they actually have to be at a level where they can get something out of the school. So they’ve got to show that they really want to be professional astronomers, and they’ve learned enough of the basic physics and math that they can handle the material to the summer school. And if they haven’t, we’ll tell them, you know, stay in school a little bit longer and try again.
We had somebody who applied to four schools before he finally got in, but he got in great time for him. The other criterion is no more than two students from any one country. And that stops any one country from dominating the school, but it also guarantees that we get as broad a representation as possible.
Beyond that we’ve never had a quota in terms of religion. We’ve had every religion and no religion. And you can see in those photographs, we normally have a number of Muslim students. We didn’t the last couple of schools because Ramadan occurred during the month of the summer school. And then I think, uh, the Muslims were felt, uh, intimidated or intimidated.
Maybe isn’t the right word, but, but they weren’t sure that they, or be able to fulfill their duties for Ramadan during the summer school, we would have attempted to make it happen. But. We understand their, their hesitation. Oh, you’ll also noticed that since the beginning there’s been equal numbers of men and women at the school, and that had nothing to do with a selection effect.
We have never used a gender bias. Say, we’re going to have to make the numbers come out. Even it’s just come out even naturally, because those are the students who were the best. You mentioned that the summer schools and the other activities you’ve engaged have encountered and been involved with other phase and other religions.
Do other religions have similar institutions to the Vatican observatory that you work with? Well, everyone’s got a slightly different take on it. I’ve two that come to mind immediately. Where we have had people visit is in Iran. There is a national observatory in Iran is. A a nation that is also tied to its religion.
So, uh, I’ve not been there, but the previous director to me was from Argentina and much easier to travel to around. And then Argentinian passport. He visited and saw the observatory that they have there. Uh, the other place that, uh, when I came and represented the Vatican observatory, they looked at each other sort of with a smile realized, Oh, we’re doing that too.
Was the astronomy department at Brigham young university in Utah, where it’s a strong Mormon university. Uh, I joked with them. Of course, boy, you guys do phenomenal astronomy considering that none of you drink coffee. It’s nice to know that humor can transcend a language as well as religion. So that’s.
That’s pretty good. They all live under the same sky. You know, it’s the one thing that pulls us all together a lot is made about the history about Galileo and the challenges that he had with the church and offering his first theories. And then the church sort of coming back around to recognizing where Galileo was.
Right. What do you think Galileo would say about having an institution like this in the Vatican today? How do you think you’d feel about that? Well, he’d be delighted because of course he was dealing with Jesuits working in the Roman college, uh, doing what turned into astronomy and was great friends with them at one point and during his lifetime.
And he was used to that. You have to remember in Galileo’s lifetime, the universities were run by the church. The church was the Academy viewer. You had to put, put your papers forward for a referee. It was essentially the church because there was no other organization. There was no other structure. To be able to say, wait a minute, you know, you’ve missed a minus sign here.
And what people often forget is three things about Galileo. First of all, he was always a good Catholic, you know, he was not some 21st century atheist thinking it. The second one was that he actually didn’t have the goods is proof for the motion of the earth around the sun didn’t work. And given the cows allergy, they have at the time.
And the observational tools they had at the time, it really looked like the system of the earth standing still matched the data better. I think it’s been a long time before histories of historians of astronomy have been able to recognize this in part, because most of the works written in the contemporary contemporaries of Galileo were written in Latin.
And there are not that many people who know both Latin and astronomy to be able to read and understand what the other people we say. But they’re now in the last 20 years have been a real Renaissance of the history of astronomy at that time, probably the name, Chris grainy. Who’s a tremendous historian of astronomer because he was fluent in Latin and he knows his astronomy.
Has written a number of books describing why people ultimately didn’t agree with Galileo and it had nothing to do with the church thing they couldn’t and everything to do with where the data seemed to be pointing at the time. Other thing about Galileo was that for most of his life, he was a hero. Do people in the church, including Pope’s.
Um, he made his observations in 16, 10, and while it was controversial, he had as many friends in the church as enemies. And he wrote that his philosophy of science 10 years later. And that was a book that was everywhere treated with great respect and honor. And it was only 20 years later. Plus in 1630, one 30, two 33, that suddenly at the end of his life, all of a sudden people in the church said, we’ve got to find you guilty of something.
And even when he said I’ll change the book to fit what you want. They said, no, no, no, you can’t change anything. We’ve got to find you guilty of something. They historians have been puzzling over that now for a hundred years. Why did Galileo really get into trouble? There are as many theories as there are historians, which is to say the story isn’t as simple as sometimes it’s taught in the freshmen physics books, nonetheless Galileo at the end of the day was right.
And the church was wrong to go after him for whatever reason. And the church has admitted it because this is how science works. When you’re wrong, you admit it. And you go on when a technology or a scientific instrument, like the Hubble telescope comes along, that literally rewrites textbooks and the way we look at the universe, Does that present you in the observatory with a challenge of picking sides on sort of an accepted practice and belief, or does new findings like this?
Are they embraced? And we just recognize what was written before is what we knew, but we now know something, of course it’s the latter we’re scientists. And yet we also, in a funny way, have a role in picking sides. That’s, who’s got a program where they will allow you to propose, to send a spacecraft someplace.
For a big program, it may cost a billion dollars and every four or five years they’ll send out an announcement for a new one. Uh, the spacecraft to Pluto was the first end of this program. Uh, Juno’s spacecraft that’s going around. Jupiter now is another example of this major spacecraft program, but who gets to decide which spacecraft is chosen when the Juno’s spacecraft was up for selection, there were four of them.
Other proposed spacecraft that would have done fabulous science and NASA had to choose among the five. How do you do it? You put together a committee of other astronomers. I was on that committee and one of the roles I played with somebody who knows the science and also I’m not in competition because I’m not asking for that money.
I’m not going to be building a spacecraft. And so I could meet someone from the outside who says all of these are great, but this one’s special. Go with this one. How do you think a return to the moon and even a mission, the human mission to Mars? How do you think that will change us? We’ve already changed.
This is not an insight that I have. This is an insight that I got from a historian of science that with Michael Crow, we already know that someday human beings will live on the moon and Mars. We already know that there must be life someplace out there, even though we haven’t found it yet. That’s already factored into the, the true bit of assumptions that we as human beings have.
Now, the other ways that we will change are probably ways that we can only guess at your science fiction, uh, using the analogy of how did the human race change when suddenly we had a new continent and you have a new world, the Americas, and a lot of it, we won’t know until it happens. And I really hope it happens.
I’m a big fan. This was me personally. Guy that gets drawn up or not. Anyone speaking as a Vatican, I’m a big fan of going back to the moon. And I think that there’s a lot that can be done and will be done and should be done by having permanent missions, people living inside the moon, you know, in sealed in caves, but with access to the surface, I also know it’s not going to be easy here in Tucson, Arizona.
We’ve got this thing called biosphere two, which was an attempt to see, can we actually support. Human life in a small enclosed environment. And the short answer was harder than we thought. I’m not a big fan of going to Mars right away. And that’s because as a scientist, I want to know, did Mars ever have life?
And as soon as you put a human being on the surface, they’re going to leak Eco-Line all over the place. And we’ll never know if anything we find. Is actually native Marsh in life, or just something that tagged along. You talking about fossilized life on Mars and, and the potential of humans there. If we were to find that fossilize life or.
Fossilized bacteria, whatever that matter may be. Do you think that would cause us to have even more change about exploring the universe? Do you think that would encourage us to go faster or would it, do you think it would cause us to give greater pause to venturing out further and beyond earth and its immediate satellites?
Well, that’s an easy one to answer. Cause it happened 1996 in one of those meteorites that was found in Antarctica things that looked an awful lot at the time might be fossilized. Life were discovered. Now there’s still people to this day who will insist. Yes, it actually is life and others who are absolutely sure it isn’t life.
And most of us say, um, fascinating stuff, but the evidence is good enough to say for sure one way or the other yet. So the opportunity is there, but if you look at what happened to NASA immediately following that. They started this whole series of astrobiology institutes. They started a whole new series of going to Mars every two years.
Since then we’ve had a spacecraft going to Mars whenever the, the, uh, alignments are correct for the orbits to get there. They’ve made a huge difference and having even more solid evidence of say life in a plume of enchiladas. Life in the oceans of the guys, crust of Europa, that would be a tremendous boost to the science because you know, up to now, astrobiology is kind of like theology.
It’s a lot of people studying something that not everybody’s sure it’s actually there or not. We’ve got a lot of companies that are now making access to space truly in our grasp. We’ve also had a lot of different company countries getting rides on some of those vehicles to go up into space. Any chance you, well, you’ve already mentioned you’ve got a fear of Heights, but any chance you or other members of the Vatican observatory would be the first Vatican Astros someday it’ll happen?
Uh, why not? We’ve got a young astronomer in our group right now. Who’s a, uh, one of the scientists in a spacecraft mission. That’s about to be launched the Lucy mission. So, you know, we’ve got people essentially working in space right now. The former director that I mentioned, George Coyne applied to be an astronaut back in the 1960s and got pretty far along until they decided that as I say it wasn’t good enough.
Um, there’s no reason why it couldn’t happen. We are already at the Vatican involved in all of this was 50 years ago that the UN passed a, the treaty on the peaceful uses of space. And they had a big beating 50 years ago on how people might use space. And there was a 60th anniversary of that meeting last summer, held in Vienna at the UN headquarters in together.
Now the Vatican is an observer. Member of the United nations and the diplomats came to us and said what the Vatican observatory hosts a workshop where people can prepare for this meeting that was left, left to June. So in March, we had 30 people from the UN representatives of space, corporations, representatives of science representatives.
Like different countries, all meeting at other Vatican observatory, discussing the future of the uses of space. Uh, having a fascinating meeting, I learned all sorts of things. Do you know, there are 90 member nations of the UN that have space departments in the government. It’s not because there was 90 people going into space, but there’s 90 governments who are using space where the customers, whether it’s, uh, the data that you get from space now.
Are there minerals that you’re going to get from the space in 10 or 20 years. And the one thing that will unite everybody into using space properly and using it in terms of having laws that everyone a little Bay is, if everyone recognizes better to everyone’s benefit, you know, I’m not going to invest in a space company.
If the product of that company is going to produce might be pirated by somebody else. I want to be sure. There are laws to say, this is piracy, this isn’t, this is allowed. This is it. I’m not going to put money for a spacecraft to go an orbit. If there’s not some rules about which orbits are safe and we’re not going to run into each other, we need the cooperation in order to do the things we want to do.
The UN is the obvious place where everyone can get together and decide to do this. And it was my honor, as the director of the Vatican observatory to represent the Vatican. At that meeting in June and read a statement from the Vatican that emphasize our delight in the uses of space and what this can do for humanity, but the importance to do this in a way that everyone cooperates and everybody works together peacefully.
What’s the biggest discovery you think the Vatican observatory team has produced. And how do you think that discovery has changed? The way we view our world and our place in this universe? You really don’t know the significance of something until a lot of time has passed. So there could be things going on right now that we won’t even recognize in 50 years, I’m going to cheat slightly and claim as a Vatican astronomer.
That father Secchi who I mentioned earlier on the one who was the astronomer, those, those telescopes on the roof of a church in downtown Rome, because he did something that no one else had done before, which changed everything. He put a prison in front of the main lens of his telescope. And then by eye and hand painted out the colors of the Starlight that he saw, including the lines of color that were missing.
And I identified different stars by those spectra observed thousands of stars by eye and started the classifications of stars that eventually led to the Hertzberg and Russell diagram into the whole idea that you can use spectra to ask the question not where are the stars because the navigators need them, but what are the stars that change astronomy completely.
It invented astrophysics. And it was done by a Jesuit priest, the 4runner of the Vatican observatory, doing that from the roof of a church in Rome. Uh, and, and carrying on that in the 1930s. The astronomers at the Vatican observatory, then decided to build a laboratory where they would take pure metals and create a catalog of the spectral lines.
The emission lines, absorption lines of each different metal in the periodic table. They started the journal. That’s still going strong. Do they call it spectrum chemical oxygen? They produced the first catalog of these spectral lines. So that today, if you see a star and you have all the spectral lines there, you can go to these catalogs and say, that’s this metal that’s that metal that’s that metal.
You have an amazing background that blends faith, science research, as well as public engagement together. Now I know you shared, you’ve got a fear of Heights and you didn’t want to be an astronaut, right? But thinking about all of those experiences and all of those ingredients that make you the astronomer that you are today, if you were Neil Armstrong and you were taking that first step on the moon, I have to ask you, what would your first words be?
Of course my temptation would be I’m sure Neil Armstrong’s temptation would be to say some wonderful expletive that, uh, you know, a hundred million people around the earth would be horrified to hear just the, the sheer joy of being there. I think my line would probably just have to be. Thank you, God.
Thank you for making this universe. Thank you for letting me be part of it and to be aware enough, to recognize as much as I can recognize and to be part of a human race, where there are enough of us interested in doing this, that we can all do it together. Human rights does a lot of crazy things for good and for evil.
And the history books are full of Wars and Kings, but pick back to Galileo, we all know Galileo. We all know who he was. We all know his story with the telescope and yeah, he got in trouble with the Pope. Do you happen to remember the name of the Pope? And so people say that that trouble came out of the 30 Years War, one of the biggest and nastiest Wars in human history.
And can you name a single general from any of those sides in any of that warfare, but it’s Galileo. We remember last question. Okay. What does space exploration mean to you? It means joy. If it wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t be doing it. If there wasn’t a sense of joy, whether it’s looking through a small telescope at a Nebula that you had not seen before, or a Nebula, you’ve seen a million times, and you’re still like looking at, or that joy you get when the two sets of data lineup on the plot, one against the other, or that joy you get when the math works.
And you come up with an answer that is so elegant, you could cry to me. That sense of joy is why we do space exploration. It’s why I enjoy reading about it, whether it’s the scientific paper or a science fiction story. And to me, joy is the evidence of the presence of God. What’s that further guy? Thank you.
Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for joining space for you and sharing your experience and your stories with us. I will say I am humbled and honored by the time I’ve had here with you. And I know, and I’m sure our listeners have enjoyed this conversation as much as I have. We really are blessed to have you helping us better understand our universe.
So again, thank you. And that concludes this episode of the space foundation space for you podcast. Keep your eyes and ears open for more space for you episodes by checking out our social media outlets on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. And of course our website at www.spacefoundation.org. On all of those outlets and more, it’s our goal to inspire, educate, connect, and advocate for the space community.
Because at the space foundation, we will always have space for you. Thank you for listening.
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