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?”

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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.

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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.

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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

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:

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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:

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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.

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.

On the Journey: Moving with the Torrent

Note: Regular readers may notice some changes. Please hang in there while the dust settles; I will be posting an update on said changes (including background on the new address and blog title) this weekend. You can still expect reflections on faith, literature, and current events, but I also want to include more science (and specifically astronomy) based content as well. As always, I reserve the right to post as frequently or infrequently as needed, due to my primary duties and busy schedule as a seminarian and graduate student in Theology. Pax.

Augustine’s Confessions: Book I, Chapter 16

But we are carried away by custom to our own undoing and it is hard to struggle against the stream. Will this torrent ever dry up? How much longer will it sweep the sons of Adam down to that vast and terrible sea which cannot easily be passed, even by those who climb upon the ark of the Cross?Confessions I.16

Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings; for it is well that the heart be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited their adherents. -Hebrews 13.9

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Not for the faint of heart! Photograph of Battlefield High School, taken 2 Feb. 07 by K.D. Reeves. Public domain, free for public use and consumption. Complies with Prince William County School photo use guidelines. Via Wikimedia Commons

Being a teacher is tough. I know. Even though I was not in education any great amount of time, I worked in both the private and public systems. My experience ranged from being an assistant in a program that welcomed students with the most difficult situations and histories to teaching English in a small Catholic school.

Yes, teaching is tough. As a teacher, you are left with the responsibility of forming young minds, of helping them grow and become well-formed individuals. Your job extends far beyond school hours. The Lord knows how many late nights I spent up as a teacher! It is not for the faint of heart, for teaching is one of the greatest tasks a person can undertake.

And yet, there are teachers out there who lead their students astray. Whether through imposing their own personal ideologies or teaching outright error inside the classroom or outside the classroom, it is sad to note that some teachers do not lead their students down the right path, and this is what Augustine speaks about in this week’s passage. He recognizes that many of his instructors not only taught contraditions, but taught outright error as well. I know that many reading this may think that surely it is not so bad today (even I bristle at all of this), but I wouldn’t be so fast to make that assumption. While I have been blessed to work with some of the most gifted educators who deserve far more credit than they have received (specifically those in the Catholic school and those who worked with students who experienced Emotional Disturbance), I have also recognized that many parts of the system are broken, particularly in public schools. False ideologies trump truth and more money is thrown at the problem, rather than trying to spend the existing money more responsibly.

Educators have a lot of hard work ahead of them, and we need to pray for those dedicated teachers who seek to teach and form their students properly! But, that’s not what this post is about. This post is about the student…

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Christ the Teacher Icon

Augustine recognizes that even though some of his teachers led him down wrong paths, he was more than willing to follow them: “It is true that I learned all these things gladly and took a sinful pleasure in them. And for this very reason I was called a promising boy” (I.16). Augustine acknowledges that even though teachers have a certain responsibility, so to do the students. As we journey on the spiritual path, we should and must look to others for guidance. But those whom we seek need to be well-founded in the truth.

Let’s look at science: would you trust an established scientist who presents peer-reviewed research, or the guy selling snake oil or other “get well quickly” schemes in order to treat an illness? Would you look to an experienced cosmologist to teach you about the universe or the conspiracy theorist who sees shadows around every corner?

But what about our faith? How does all of this apply to Christianity? As Catholics, we have the authority of the Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. Clinging to the Word of God, looking to the history of the Church, and allowing ourselves to be rightly guided by our shepherds, we can grow closer to the Lord. Some practical ways to do all of this are to read Scripture daily, study the lives of the saints, and get to know the Catechism. In the next few days, I will pass along some helpful hints on reading Scripture and staying with it.

There is one true teacher, but we as students must choose to follow Him.

Questions for reflection:

  • What can I do to better inform myself about my faith?
  • Have I allowed myself to be carried away by strange teachings?

This is part of a continuing series, Companions on the Journey, which travels along with a particular companion in the spiritual life, one of the great saints, in order discover how some of their writings might be applicable to our everyday lives. Currently, we are traveling with Augustine of Hippo through his work, Confessions. You can take a look at previous posts in the series or read the introduction.