Vatican’s Celestial Eye, Seeking Not Angels but Data
MOUNT GRAHAM, Ariz. — 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.
“Got it. O.K., it’s happy,” says Christopher J. Corbally, the Jesuit priest who is vice director of the Vatican Observatory Research Group, as he sits in the control room making adjustments. The idea is not to watch for omens or angels but to do workmanlike astronomy that fights the perception that science and Catholicism necessarily conflict.
Last year, in an opening address at a conference in Rome, called “Science 400 Years After Galileo Galilei,” Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the secretary of state of the Vatican, praised the church’s old antagonist as “a man of faith who saw nature as a book written by God.” In May, as part of the International Year of Astronomy, a Jesuit cultural center in Florence conducted “a historical, philosophical and theological re-examination” of the Galileo affair. But in the effort to rehabilitate the church’s image, nothing speaks louder than a paper by a Vatican astronomer in, say, The Astrophysical Journal or The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
“This new tower for studying the stars has been erected on this peaceful site,” it says in Latin. “May whoever searches here night and day the far reaches of space use it joyfully with the help of God.” At that point, religion leaves off and science begins.
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.
I knew the Vatican had an observatory but not that it is in the US. Not a bad article, considering it’s the Times.