Vatican Corner 01-12-2020

The Vatican Observatory in partnership with the University of Arizona operates a 1.8 meter telescope built in the 1980s named the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope or VATT. It is located 10,000 feet high on Mount Graham, AZ where the skies are among the clearest, steadiest, and darkest in continental North America. The primary mirror of the telescope uses a honeycombed construction to reduce weight and has an unusually sharp focus across the field of view. The telescope is used primarily for imaging and photometric work and it regularly outperforms much larger telescopes. Among its much varied scientific work is the observation of Near-Earth Asteroids that might sometime in the future, collide with the Earth. The telescope is reducing the uncertainty of the asteroid’s orbits. The Vatican City State supports the Vatican Observatory staff and the regular research costs, but the funds to build and maintain the VATT has come from private donors and the Vatican Observatory Foundation. The annual budget is roughly $1.7 million which is said to be remarkable cheap, for a staff of 12, but being Jesuits they have taken a vow of poverty, live together, and only receive a token salary. The Vatican Observatory has one of the world’s largest collections of meteorites, with over 1,000. They came from a French gentleman scientist of the 19th century – the Marquis de Mauroy. He was a great collector and supporter of the Vatican and he had donated a few of his meteorites to the Vatican when he was alive. A’er his death his widow wanted to clear out the basement so she donated the entire collection of meteorites along with thousands of thousands of collected mineral rocks. In 2015, Pope Francis appointed Jesuit brother Guy Consolmagno, as the new director of the Observatory. He is the first clergyman awarded the Carl Sagan Medal for outstanding communication of planetary science to the public. His research has always focused on those smallest bodies in our solar system. He has made significant contributions to the study of meteorites in the past several decades, measuring density, thermal conductivity, and other properties which no one had done before. That data has become the one everyone now uses, and it can help answer deep questions about the formation of the planets. He says the Observatory winds up doing mostly long-term projects that won’t make anyone famous, because it’s not cutting edge science, but it’s of enormous support to the rest of the astronomical field. Consolmagno was asked if when he first moved to the Vatican Observatory if he got any funny looks or skepticism from his non-Jesuit colleagues? He said the most common reaction he gets is “You go to church? So do I. Don’t tell anybody,” because everybody thinks they’re the only one. He says some of the most prominent people in the field have told him about their religion. Also so many of the great heroes of science were deeply religious people. Pope John Paul II in 1998 wrote: Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.