Monday, July 24, 2017

An observer from the Vatican

Not this telescope, a very modern Celestron scope with
an autoguider
It was a clear evening, hardly any humidity veiling the gardens as we came down from the terrace, on of the Jesuits wondered if it might not be a good idea to pull out one of the small(er) telescopes and look at the heavens. So at about 9:30, three Jesuit astronomers, a philosopher of science and me convened in the courtyard, lights out, except for the light in the pool of the fountain.  It won't be fully dark for another hour.

This telescope has an autoguiding system, you sight on four stars to calibrate, then you can just pull up a celestial feature from the menu and the telescope will twist and turn until it has the selected feature in its field of view.  Very cool. The hard part is figuring out what you might want to see and whether or not it is visible.

The visibility depends on whether a particular feature is "up" on this time of the year,  the light pollution in the sky,  and whether or not it is behind the roof of the Specola!  And if you are tall enough to see through the eye piece.  I had to stand on a chair (carefully, so as to not fall on the telescope) to see a couple of things.

What to look at?  Jupiter!  The moons again, strung out like a necklace of pearls, and just a wisp of its stripes to be seen. Saturn, where we strain to see the Cassini division in the rings, and wonder if that is one of the moons of Saturn we see, or....

We pulled out Turn Left at Orion (Guy Consolmagno SJ and Dan Davis' great guide to the sky, even without a telescope, just a good pair of binoculars, you can see fascinating things), to see what we might see. Astronomers suggested galaxies they had studied.  We saw Vega, icy blue. We looked for double stars.  We saw a ring nebula, which Rich Boyle SJ called a smoke ring, and for all the world that's what it looked like. Does God blow smoke rings?

There were things to be seen even if you weren't looking at the telescope.  I saw a meteor streak across the sky.  We watched a satellite sail majestically across the sky, wondered if it was the international space station (no, you can find the ISS's orbits as a function of time on the web and I checked the next day).

There is something about looking up at the heavens, even when the scientific work does not actually require it, that pulls you deeper into the mysteries of both God and the astrophysics.

The title comes from a time when Br. Guy was visiting a telescope to do some observing, and went to Mass at a local  parish where the pastor announced they had a visitor:  an observer from the Vatican. Not that kind of observer!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Talking trash and the Lateran Treaty

There's a phone book. No, there is not a direct listing for the
Pope. Yes, I looked.
I am not in Kansas, and most definitely not in Bryn Mawr at the moment.  The Vatican Observatory is just across the border from Italy, in the Villa Barberini, the gardens and farm that form part of the Holy See's extraterritorial properties (this part of Vatican City State is, at 140 acres, bigger than Vatican City proper).  I'm staying in an apartment in the extraterritory, which is delightful, looking out onto a small enclosed garden gone slightly feral, with huge orange flowers, overgrown white roses, a pair of palm trees and an old, old olive tree that a flock of swallows calls home.  And a fountain.

There are many ways I'm sure I'm in another world, I would know it even with my eyes closed.  The chant drifting in through the open window in my office, which I realize with a start is not a recording, but the nuns in the cloister next door chanting their Office.  The burble of the fountain in the courtyard below, the trucks circulating through town towing billboards and booming out ads, and the incredible silence that drops over the town between 2 and 4 for the riposo, the after lunch rest in the heat of the day.  And then there is the trash and recycling, which has to be transported across international boundaries.
View into the enclosed garden.

The question of how to deal with the Specola's garbage required consulting the provisions of the Lateran Treaty of 1929!  Rather than drive the trash and recycling into Rome (indeed, someone used to do that), now it gets moved across that international border between Vatican territory and Italy (and the Vatican reimburses the municipality for the services.) Though it sounds like a long haul, but it's just a few feet from the storage room to the street, a shorter distance than the recycling travels down my driveway at home.

In other ways, this feels much like home. The corso, with its eclectic mix of shops is different from Lancaster Avenue only in that cars are more likely to stop for you at the crosswalks and the incredibly narrow sidewalks. Walking two abreast is a challenge and at peak shopping times, I imagine it looks like a parade of ants threading their way from food source to home and back. The cascade of bells from the cathedral (which are just about even with my window and not even 100 meters away) remind it's noon, louder than Bryn Mawr's bells which chime the hours aways, but still a gentle cue to the passage of time.
Duomo (cathedral) in Albano, St. Bonaventure was once 
the bishop here.

And I will miss the after Mass-apertivos on the terrace overlooking the gardens. The other night was humid and the long tree lined avenue that leads away from this end of the gardens was misty.  The birds whirled up as someone walked by. The whole scene looked like it had been done with CGI, I half expected to see orcs come roaring down the avenue.  The sunsets have been glorious and the evenings pleasant, even as the days are hot.

I walk past the cathedral and can see the top of the cloister out my window, all so serene at the moment, but in World War II, the bombs did not spare it.  L'Osservatore Romano has the story here.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Column: Just Enough Distraction

I find much wisdom in Lewis' Letters to Malcolm, though I was somewhat vexed to find that Malcolm was fictional.  Much of the appeal of the book for me is in its tone, and its ability to limn questions without answering them.  I find mystery appealing.  The full quote is:

“A clergyman once said to me that a railway compartment, if one has it to oneself, is an extremely good place to pray in 'because there is just the right amount of distraction.' When I asked him to explain, he said that perfect silence and solitude left one more open to the distractions which come from within, and that a moderate amount of external distraction was easier to cope with. ” — C. S. Lewis. “Letters to Malcolm.”

This column appeared at on 20 July 2017

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, ‘Everyone is looking for you’ Mk 1:35-37

Next week, they are tearing down the wall of the building 20 feet away from my office. Last month they were using jackhammers to remove the terrace underneath my window. It’s been a bit noisy in my office, to say the least, and likely to get noisier. So, in the absence of students and classes to teach, I have fled to the hills, literally.

I’m writing this from my temporary office in the Vatican Observatory — the Specola Vaticana — now housed in the papal gardens in the Alban Hills outside of Rome. My desk is tucked up under the eaves of what was once a cloistered convent for Basilian nuns, renovated for the Specola’s quarters in 2009 when the nuns moved next door.

The quiet here is almost as deafening as the jackhammers at home. I can hear the papal roosters crowing, the burble of the fountain in the courtyard below, and the traffic brushing past the walls that separate the Holy See from Italy, but no one is knocking on my door asking if I know when they will tear out the classroom down the hall or if I’ve thought about curriculum planning for the spring yet. I can work in peace.

Working at the Specola is, to use C.S. Lewis’ image, much like praying on a train: “[T]here is just the right amount of distraction.” Not so quiet that my to-do list dances in my head, not so noisy that I can’t hear what creation and the Creator have to share this morning.

I often long for the perfect spot to pray, to go off like Jesus walking long before dawn into the hills to be with his Father in silence and solitude. But perhaps what I need more than the occasional retreat is to learn to find the spots where I can pray with “just the right amount of distraction.”

Even Jesus did not remain hidden away, but returned with Simon and his disciples to tend to the needs of others. So, too, I need to catch the moments between meetings to look toward God, to take a few minutes to sit in the piazza’s late afternoon buzz and pray.

In finding these pockets of space and time, I’m practicing tuning my ears to the murmur of God at work in all things and at all times, even when the walls are falling around me.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Princess Bride, Chemistry and Rome

The 3rd century amphitheater is in use,
concerts start next week.  Note the exit.
I'm working on an essay about what it means to be an experimental science, wrangling with the philosophy of science literature, Including this delightfully brisk paper by William Goodwin, "Experiments and Theory in the Preparative Sciences" ($), which might be summed up as "Experiment.  You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."  (My apologies to Inigo Montoya.)

Two other words I learned this week do not mean what I think they mean.  Agone and vomitorium.  The church built on the site of St. Agnes' martyrdom is Sant'Agnese in Agone.  You might think (but I couldn't possibly comment) that agone refers to Agnes' agony.  Nope. Its root is the Greek agora, amphitheater, as this are used to house a sporting arena.

And on a walk up the Colle dei Cappuccini (the hill where the Franciscans have a church), there is a 3rd century amphitheater, with two vomitoria — large exits that let the audience pour out at the end of a performance.  Not what you thought!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Eternal City

The heat was incredible in Rome when I arrived last week.  I ran with sweat and swilled water at every opportunity.

I spent a day and a bit in Rome before heading off to Albano Laziale where the Specola is located.  I visited various churches, walked the streets and did my back to school shopping (for me and for The Egg).

I enjoyed the irony of the guys dressed up in the toga and centurion outfits, outside the Pantheon, while someone thrashed modern music on an electric guitar a few feet away.  Did I mention the heat?  OMG. The Pantheon was packed, and despite the signs asking for silence, the whispers grew to a roar.  The swallows flying up and onto the drum of the dome inside looked like something out of a Fellini film.

Despite the drought, at least some of the fountains were on, including those in Piazza Navona.  I ducked into the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone, sited where Agnes was thought to have been martyred.  The head of Saint Agnes is kept in a reliquary in a very plain chapel, in full view not five feet away from you, a crown of laurels framing her skull.

Then there was the body of St. Camillus in St. Mary Magdalene. Right there, from the 16th century, in impeccably clean clothes in a glass case. If it were not for the glass walls, I could have reached out and touched him. I left wondering who cleans and cares for these bodies, and why do we display them, so we can look upon a miracle, the incorruptible body of a saint?  

The domes in the summer light which streamed through high windows.  The man, the body of Christ, wrapped in a dirty sleeping bag half hidden behind a car on the steps outside of St. Augustine’s.  His chest bare and his legs sticking out, he looked like he could be a Christ taken down from the cross. He slept fitfully in this heat.  As I stood not 5 feet away, reading the sign about the church. Signore, pieta!

Rome's attractions are less attractive in the heat, I now understand why popes and emperors fled to the Alban hills in the summers.  It's almost 10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler up here than in the Eternal City.