“The Heavens Declare the Glory of God” Ps 19:1

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Unfolding the Universe: The first pictures from the James Webb Telescope

Yesterday, on 12 July 2022, the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope were released These images provide us with the deepest and sharpest view of our cosmos to date, showing thousands of galaxies in clarity like never before.

James Webb first image – Galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 / Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

This image covers a patch of the sky “roughly the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone standing on earth”, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said. “We are looking back at more than 13 billion years. The light that you are seeing on one of these little specks has been traveling for 13 billion years” That makes the signal we are seeing just 800 million years younger than the “Big Bang.”

Georges Lemaitre and the Big Bang

George Lemaitre

The “Big Bang” is the starting point that set the expansion of the known universe in motion some 13.8 billion years ago. The Big Bang theory was developed by George Lemaitre – an astrophysicist and a Catholic priest – as a cosmological theory postulating an abrupt beginning of the universe from an initial, superdense concentration of nuclear matter called the “primeval atom” that expanded rapidly building stars and galaxies. The name “Big Bang” that we use today was coined by Fred Hoyle and was meant ironically: he was convinced of a static universe and did not like Lemaitre’s ideas that reminded him too much of a Creator-God. Nonetheless, the new theory gained influence in the following years. It was not until 1964, though, that the detection of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) provided experimental proof.

Read more on Georges Lemaitre, his science and his metaphysical considerations on our previous blog posts:  https://sciencemeetsfaith.wordpress.com/2018/06/20/georges-lemaitre-the-big-bang-cosmology-and-its-metaphysical-implications-i/

The Vatican Observatory

We may also want to focus on other contributions to astronomy from Catholic Scientists.

The Vatican Observatory

The Vatican Observatory is one of the oldest astronomical institutes in the world. The first foreshadowing of the Observatory can be traced to the constitution by Pope Gregory XIII of a committee to study the scientific data and implications involved in the calendar reform which occurred in 1582. The committee included Father Christoph Clavius, a Jesuit mathematician from the Roman College, who expounded and explained the reform. From that time and with some degree of continuity the Papacy has manifested an interest in and support for astronomical research. In fact, three early observatories were founded by the Papacy: the Observatory of the Roman College (1774-1878), the Observatory of the Capitol (1827-1870), and the Specula Vaticana (1789-1821) in the Tower of the Winds within the Vatican.

These early traditions of the Observatory reached their climax in the mid-nineteenth century with the research at the Roman College of the famous Jesuit, Father Angelo Secchi, the first to classify stars according to their spectra. With these rich traditions as a basis and in order to counteract the longstanding accusations of hostility of the Church towards science, Pope Leo XIII formally re-founded the Specola Vaticana (Vatican Observatory) in 1891 and located it on a hillside behind the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Vatican staff members realized that participation in the program ‘to map the sky’ would immediately give their young observatory international recognition. Therefore, Pope Leo XIII commissioned Father Francesco Denza and Father Giuseppe Lais to attend the Astrographic Congress and enroll the Vatican as one of the participating institutions in the international Carte du Ciel project which made a photographic map of the stars.

The pope’s main observatory, by now entrusted to the Jesuits, was eventually moved to the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo in 1935. In the newer time, Father George Coyne SJ (1933-2020) was the director of the Vatican Observatory and was a strong voice for the compatibility of science & faith.

Fr. George Coyne SJ (1933-2020)

The current director is Br. Guy Cosolmagno. He entered the Jesuit Order in 1989. At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, measuring meteorite physical properties in Castel Gandolfo and observing distant asteroids with the Vatican’s telescope in Arizona. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of six popular books including “Turn Left at Orion” (with Dan Davis), and “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial?” (with Paul Mueller). In the recent meeting of the Society of Catholic Scientists, he was presented with the St. Albert Award and gave an insightful and humorous talk on “Life in a Fantasy Universe: The Day-to-day Life of Astronomers in the Vatican.”

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