Finding Joy in the Heavens

In a recent post, Br. Guy Consolmagno pondered two different questions,”Why does science need God?” and “Why do we need science?”

1280px-castel_gandolfo_specola_vaticana_1_by_stefano_bolognini

One of the telescopes owned by the Vatican Observatory, this one located at Castel Gondolfo – another main telescope is also located in Arizona. By Stefano Bolognini (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons.

We have to ask ourselves, what’s the point? Why do I spend late nights gazing at the heavens, studying stars, planets, and nebulae? Over the years, my love of astronomy has developed out of a search for understanding and discovery, the desire to know the universe on a deeper level. As I’ve explored topics such as cosmology and theoretical physics on an amateur level, while preparing on a professional (or rather, in a more appropriate term, vocational) level, for the priesthood.

Ultimately, both pursuits are the result of a deeper need to know, to learn, and to come closer to truth, albeit from different perspectives. When I do come closer, at the same time discovering just how much further I really have to go, I also discover something more, something unexpected, and something that Br. Guy discovers in his search as well: joy. The search for truth, both from a scientific and spiritual standpoint both lead to joy: we need science to better understand our physical world, and religion helps us to move ever deeper, discovering the foundation of the beauty of our universe.

As Br. Guy states it, “This is not a sort of pantheism. God is not the same thing as the laws of nature. But everything that makes science worth doing, desirable to do, everything that gets us out of bed in the morning to do it, is a pointer toward God.”

In my own journey, the scientific has led to the religious, and the religious has led me to a greater desire to study the natural world: the more I study science, the greater the awe increases in my heart, and I realize how God the Father has created a universe beyond words and understanding, drawing me into an ever deeper desire to study said universe. Indeed, my continued study of science is what led me to religion, and Catholicism, in the first place, helping me to realize not only the necessity of a Creator behind our magnificent universe, but also the necessity of a Savior, and the faithful presence the Spirit in our lives.

You can read the rest of his article over at the Vatican Observatory Foundation blog.

Friday night fun: a comet, an eclipse, and a full moon

Tonight, Friday February 10th, promises to give us quite a show in terms of astronomical phenomena. While it may mean a late night for observers, hopefully you’ll be able to sleep in a bit on Saturday morning. A rundown of tonight’s show in the night sky:

Full moon: Tonight you will see the full “snow” moon, which is a fairly accurate name, considering the time of year.

c4ualkrwqayqnhs

An example of what you will see – from EarthSky Twitter Feed

Penumbral lunar eclipse: If you’re in the right spot at the right time, you may see that something seems a bit “off” about the moon tonight, and you’d be right: for a period of about four hours, the full moon will be just slightly passing through Earth’s shadow. The greatest eclipse will occur at 7:44 EST or 4:44 PST. That means for those of us on the West Coast, such as yours truly, it may be difficult to notice any change at all, both due to the amount of light in the sky and the fact that we are near the edge of the eclipse itself.

045p_20110929_mj

Comet 45P/Honda–Mrkos–Pajdušáková

Comet 45P: In the early hours of morning, just prior to  dawn, you will see Comet 45P/ Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova (say that three times fast) streaking through the constellation Hercules. Better take a pair of binoculars for this one – at magnitude +6.5, it will be difficult to see with the naked eye unless you are in an extremely rural area. Start with the handle of the Big Dipper and continue over to the constellation Bootes and green hue of the comet should be visible. Recent evidence suggests, however, that it no longer has a tail, due to a likely close approach to the sun, burning off much of the comet’s ice.

So make some hot chocolate, bundle up, and enjoy a night of looking up at the heavens! Then sleep in tomorrow morning.

Pax.

H/T to Smithsonian Mag, EarthSky, and Sky and Telescope

Persistent Perseids Pierce the Planet

800px-The_2010_Perseids_over_the_VLT

A Perseid meteor over the Paranal Observatory in Chile. By ESO/S. Guisard [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Unless you live in a big city (or are visiting one in a foreign country), you may have noticed an occasional streak across the night sky late at night or early in the morning. This signals that Earth has begun to cross the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle and we are fast approaching the height of one of the most spectacular meteor showers of the year: the Perseids.

This year, however, the show will be extra special, possibly the best in 20 years.

Jupiter has done us a favor this time around, pushing the cometary debris a little closer to Earth. Late at night on August 11th, I highly encourage you to bundle up and head outside. After the moon sets around 1AM, you are in for a spectacular show, if predictions are correct. Astronomers are expecting up to 150 meteors per hour – for those playing the home game, that’s at least two a minute.

Some tips for viewing the meteor shower:

  • The best viewing will be early in the morning, after 1AM when the moon sets.
  • Look towards the northeast, but don’t stay so focused on that point that you lose the rest of the sky.
  • If possible, get away from city lights. I usually go to a campground or a local lake.
  • Bring a jacket so you can bundle up – even if you are in a warm climate, sometimes temperatures at night can get a bit chilly during the summer.
  • Bring a reclining lawn chair or a good blanket to rest on so you can observe comfortably without craning your neck. A sore neck will mean a quick end for your star-gazing.
  • Be patient. I know it’s a weeknight, but try to stay out at least an hour. Not only does this increase your chances of seeing some spectacular sights, it will allow your eyes to adjust fully, which can sometimes take up to 20-30 minutes. Also, the show gets better throughout the early morning.
  • Even though the peak is on Aug. 11/12, the days prior or following should still provide a decent show.
  • Bonus: Bring a good pair of binoculars and see if you can identify any objects in the sky. Mars and Saturn will be in the vicinity of the Moon on August. 11, in the south-southwest sky. That reddish star below Saturn on that night? That will be Antares, one of my favorites to spot.

More information is available from Astronomy Magazine, EarthSky, or any decent Google search.

Ad majorem Dei gloriam!

Juno’s Jovian Journey is Just Beginning – Quick Facts

Late last night, or early this morning depending on your time zone, NASA’s Juno spacecraft completed a successful insertion into Jupiter’s orbit. The maneuver, considered the most risky of the entire mission was televised live (about as live as you can get due to the 35+ minute signal delay from the giant planet) via NASA. Take a look at the little probe that could:

567922main_junospacecraft0711

Juno spacecraft detail, via NASA. Original higher-res (easier reading) here

Why is this mission important? Juno will be only the second close-up look we will have had of the giant planet, and the science that it helps to complete promises to give further clues about our solar system and Earth itself. Juno takes its name from the Greek goddess, who was the wife of Jupiter and subsequently exposed Jupiter’s…immoral…endeavors, which he had been trying to hide. The Juno spacecraft is also meant to expose Jupiter, but in a much less embarrassing, and much more useful, manner…

Even Google got in on the Juno jubilation:

Screenshot 2016-07-05 18.27.51

Screenshot of today’s Google doodle

Here are some quick facts about Juno’s ongoing mission:

  • Launched: August 5, 2011
  • Arrived: July 4, 2016
  • Total time to reach Jupiter: 5 years
  • Total distance travelled to reach Jupiter: About 19 AU, which included an Earth gravity assist in 2013 (For those playing the home game, the distance from Earth to Jupiter ranges from 4 to 6 AU. Why didn’t Juno fly straight to Jupiter? Because planets move, making even a manned Mars mission difficult…)
  • Speed approaching the Jovian system: 74 km/s
  • Current speed: 0.5 km/s
  • Current orbital period: 53 days
  • Orbital period after a realignment in October 2016: 14 days
  • Total planned “science orbits” after realignment: 33
  • Projected end of mission: After a total of 37 orbits in February 2018, after which Juno will plunge into Jupiter’s atmosphere, incinerated in a fiery cataclysm of space exploration awesomeness.
  • Lego minifigures on board: 3 (seriously)
  • Twitter accounts: 1 (@NASAJuno)

I highly recommend visiting the following Juno sites: Space.com, NASA, and the Juno YouTube Channel

Until I can post some of the sure to be wonderful pictures from the Juno mission and other tidbits, which might be a while considering I am currently a tad busy*, keep looking up!

Todoa gloria a Dios.

*Speaking of which, a new Aventuras post will be coming up in a couple of days. You can check out the last one here.

Backyard Astronomy: Go outside and look up!

This is part of a continuing series on backyard astronomy. While there is no set frequency on the posts, you can find them (and the initial introduction) here.

I remember like it was yesterday when I saw the Milky Way for the first time. My dad and I were camping, and as we sometimes did, we camped with only the stars as our tent and the granite Sierras as our floor. Looking up, far from city lights, I observed a multitude of stars strewn across the night sky, taking my breath away. Then, over in one section of the dark expanse of the universe I saw it:a band of faint but certainly discernible light touched by darker splotches, both extending across the night sky, almost as if someone had taken a cosmic milk bottle and spilled it on the canvas of the cosmos.

800px-ESO-VLT-Laser-phot-33a-07

Image of the night sky above Paranal on 21 July 2007, taken by ESO astronomer Yuri Beletsky. A wide band of stars and dust clouds, spanning more than 100 degrees on the sky, is seen. This is the Milky Way, the Galaxy we belong to. At the centre of the image, two bright objects are visible. The brightest is the planet Jupiter, while the other is the star Antares. By ESO/Y. Beletsky [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Astronomy does not start with expensive telescopes or fancy software. As I used to tell my English students, the best way to get started in one’s journey with the stars is to get away from the lights and look up. Only by using your own two eyes, unaided by any equipment, can you get a true idea of the sheer immensity of the universe. Well, you may not even get a true idea, but you might get an inkling!

So what happens if someone comes to me and says they are interested in studying astronomy? Here is what I would tell them:

  • First, shelf the plans for buying a telescope. You won’t need it for at least a year, although a good pair of binoculars will come into the picture before then.
  • Second, buy a planisphere. These hand-held charts are portable and should be part of the toolkit for any budding astronomer. Find a size that suits you, and make sure it corresponds to your viewing area! Case in point: when I travel to Mexico for language immersion this summer, I need a different planisphere than if I were back at the seminary in Oregon. The planisphere will help you to identify many common objects in the night sky and help you to grow more comfortable in navigating the cosmos.
  • Third, find a small flashlight and cover it with red transparent film. This will help your eyes stay adjusted, as it can take up to 30 minutes for our eyes to grow accustomed to the dark skies. One stray beam of unfiltered light can hamper, or even restart, that process. Use it to view the planisphere, or write in your journal (more on that in a later post).
  • Fourth: Find a comfortable viewing area that gives you a wide-open view if the sky, unhampered by trees AND city lights. Bring some snack and water too, and if it’s winter, don’t forget to dress warmly! If you want to stay off the ground, bring a reclining lawn chair or something similar; the idea is to stay comfortably while you look up for extended periods of time. The light issue is something that is increasingly difficult to overcome as urban sprawl and development continues unabated. Many of my students had never even been stargazing, much less seen the Milky Way!
  • Contact a local astronomy club! Even if you don’t plan on joining the club’s viewing parties, their websites often include tips for local viewing, even providing directions to particularly lucrative observation locations.
  • Finally, share it with someone! Whether it is the local astronomy club as mentioned above, a close friend, significant other, or even an online community, amateur astronomy can bring a lifetime of enjoyment, and what better way to experience the fullness of that enjoyment than by sharing it with like-minded individuals? When we share our experiences, we not only can help teach others, but we can gain new insights ourselves.

Notice how I made no mention of apps or other software. For now, stay away from them, at least while you are actually outside observing! For your first few trips, grow familiar with the night sky by just using the planisphere, rather than relying on technology. When you move on to binoculars or telescopes, it will make your viewing much easier and more enjoyable. I am not saying to never use star-finder apps, just don’t use them yet And by all means, use the internet for research before heading out. If you do end up using a phone app, however, make sure it has a a “red filter” mode or something similar, so as not to disrupt your night vision, and turn off any automatic lock screens and timers that will cause your phone to exit the app, again, for the same reason. See how much simpler it would be without the technology, at least when you are getting started?

There you have it: 6 steps to taking your first foray into night-sky viewing and amateur astronomy; next I will talk a bit about equipment. If you have any questions, comments, or anything to add, let me know. Until then, keep looking up!

Pax.

Finals are finally done!

Hey there folks – Dean here… It’s been a while, but I have a good reason (as I am sure my mom would agree with me): We’ve been preparing for finals and other end of the year happenings, which has left me with little personal writing time.

As of five minutes ago, however, I submitted my last paper for the semester.

So what comes now? Well, over the next week, there will be some new material, both in terms of science and and faith, particularly the ongoing “Journey” series, currently focusing on Saint Augustine. I will also introduce a new series of posts, “The Believing Astronomer Lost in Mexico,” chronicling my upcoming experience with language immersion in Mexico City.

As always, to God be the glory in all things, and know that you remain in my prayers. Please pray for me, and my brother seminarians, as well! As we near Pentecost, let us pray for the descent of the Holy Spirit in all our lives, that we may be ready to invite Him into our Hearts and give glory to the Father through His most glorious Son!

Pax.

Bill Nye and the Loss of the Liberal Arts

Bill NyeThis past week, Bishop Robert Barron published a critique on a recent video posted by Bill Nye, known to us millennials as The Science Guy. In the video, Nye answers a question from a philosophy student (full disclosure: I have a degree in philosophy) who asks whether or not philosophy is still relevant. Nye answers in the negative, and while he provides one or two salient points (such as the fact a career in philosophy is not exactly lucrative, but most people going into it know that anyway), for the most part, he misses the point entirely; it’s quite clear that he is outside his field of expertise. While I think that Bishop Barron does take some of Nye’s examples too seriously, I whole-heartedly agree with the Bishop’s main point: Nye fails to realize that in order to truly flourish as a society, we need philosophy, and the other liberal arts, to teach us about beauty, truth, and the intrinsic value of the human person. As Bishop Barron points out:

Father BarronThe physical sciences can reveal the chemical composition of ink and paper, but they cannot, even in principle, tell us anything about the meaning of Moby Dick or The Wasteland. Biology might inform us regarding the process by which nerves stimulate muscles in order to produce human action, but it could never tell us anything about whether a human act is morally right or wrong. Optics might disclose how light and color are processed by the eye, but it cannot possibly tell us what makes the Sistine Chapel Ceiling beautiful. Speculative astrophysics might tell us truths about the unfolding of the universe from the singularity of the Big Bang, but it cannot say a word about why there is something rather than nothing or how contingent being relates to non-contingent being. How desperately sad if questions regarding truth, morality, beauty, and existence qua existence are dismissed as irrational or pre-scientific.

Science is, indeed, a critical and necessary part of our lives. Without science, we would still be in an age that equated astronomy with astrology and chemistry with alchemy. We cannot, however, throw out philosophy and the other liberal arts. As Bishop Barron points out later in the article, without these disciplines, we wouldn’t “know anything about how to live a decent life, how to differentiate between the sublime and the mundane, how to recognize God.” I have great respect for Bill Nye. He taught me a lot about investigative science when I was a kid, and now as CEOt of the Planetary Society, he has done a lot of good work to increase awareness of the need for planetary exploration. That said, he certainly does not understand philosophy or the value of the liberal arts.

While our lives would be dark and perhaps even more dangerous without science, so too would they be dreary, boring, and meaningless without philosophy, without literature, without a study of the human person in all its glory and brokenness, without a recognition of the good, true, and beautiful.

Science, specifically astronomy, pointed me in the direction of faith, but it could only go so far. In the end, it was these other disciplines, and most of all Divine Grace, that carried me the rest of the way. I suppose Bill Nye would see that as trite and perhaps a bit deluded. That’s OK.

Come to think of it, Grace carried me the entire way from the beginning, because it was probably by His grace that the first book I ever checked out from the library was a book on the solar system, initially piquing my interest in the larger universe. Then, years later, He would draw me closer to Him through the recognition of that same beauty I could see through the telescope was created by Goodness itself, with His Son by my side the whole time, waiting for me to open my heart to the promptings of the Spirit so that I might come to faith and trust in Him.

Pax.

You can see the original video here. 

Find more from Bishop Barron and his Word on Fire Ministries here.

Stephen Colbert, Brian Greene, and Gravity Waves

I know I am a bit late in posting this, but last month, Albert Einstein was proven correct once again (but who’s really surprised at that?): gravitational waves were detected by LIGO, he Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory. This is a huge discovery for the field of physics, one that promises to send ripples through science for decades to come (pun intended).

The waves detected by LIGO are the result of two black holes rotating around each other, leading to an eventual merger. But what does all of this mean? If you recall from high school physics, Einstein said in his general theory of relativity that space-time was similar to a giant rubber sheet. Gravity then is simply the various heavenly bodies resting on that sheet, causing indentations, or distorting the fabric of space-time itself. Einstein predicted further that when two massive bodies rotate around each other, ripples would then be sent out in space-time, similar to the ripples you see in a pond when you skip a rock. These waves are important for the same reason that we study seismic activity in the Earth: as seismic waves in the Earth allow us to form a picture of the interior of our planet, so too would these gravitational waves allow us to study areas of the universe that we are otherwise unable to observe.

But don’t take my word for it; let an actual astrophysicist, Brian Green of Elegant Universe fame, explain the whole thing, with a bit of help from Stephen Colbert:

Looking forward to the discoveries to come in the years ahead!

Pax.

Pic of the Week

 

arp273_hst

Peculiar Galaxies of Arp 273

This week’s photo, from NASA, we see two galaxies experiencing a close encounter:

The spiky stars in the foreground of this sharp cosmic portrait are well within our own Milky Way Galaxy. The two eye-catching galaxies lie far beyond the Milky Way, at a distance of over 300 million light-years. Their distorted appearance is due to gravitational tides as the pair engage in close encounters. Cataloged as Arp 273 (also as UGC 1810), the galaxies do look peculiar, but interacting galaxies are now understood to be common in the universe. In fact, the nearby large spiral Andromeda Galaxy is known to be some 2 million light-years away and approaching the Milky Way. Arp 273 may offer an analog of their far future encounter. Repeated galaxy encounters on a cosmic timescale can ultimately result in a merger into a single galaxy of stars. From our perspective, the bright cores of the Arp 273 galaxies are separated by only a little over 100,000 light-years. The release of this stunning vista celebrates the 21st anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit.

With all the talk of gravitational waves and black holes recently, I thought this was an interesting specimen. See the original here.

This Month in Stargazing: February

This month promises to provide some good opportunities for naked-eye viewing as we continue with cool winter nights, and (hopefully) clear skies:

Five planets before sunrise: about 45-60 minutes before sunrise, you can still view all five of the planets visible with the naked eye. Look for Jupiter in the southwest, and proceed to Mars, Saturn, Venus, and Mercury towards the southeast. The moon does start rising early in the morning this month, but it is also waning, so shouldn’t cause too much interference. Mercury will be particularly striking on February 7. In addition, the moon will be on the other side of the Earth at night on February 8. Discover magazine has a good blog about how to view this event.

Feb. 1 – The moon will be in conjunction with Mars in the early morning hours, rising in the southern sky, with the closest approach occurring in the constellation Libra.

Feb. 3 – Now it is Saturn’s turn to meet the moon, again in the early morning hours.

Feb 23. – Jupiter greets the moon, rising in the east and reaching their highest point, at least here in the Pacific Northwest, at 01:24. Look for their closet approach in the constellation Leo.

Feb. 29 – Mars and the moon meet up once again in the southern sky in the early morning hours, at 01:31.

Moon: The New Moon will be on February 8, which of course promises means some good stargazing. The full moon will be on February 23.

Remember that any of the times listed here need to be adjusted for your locality. For example, the times for most of the planetary conjunctions with the moon are about 30 mins earlier in my hometown of Sacramento. Your best bet is to use a resource like In-The-Sky.org, which will make adjustments based on your location.

Happy viewing! Pax.

Other sources: