Easter 2014

The Empty Tomb, Fra Angelico, ca. 1437

“The Resurrection accounts certainly speak of something outside our world of experience. They speak of something new, something unprecedented — a new dimension of reality that is revealed. What already exists is not called into question. Rather we are told that there is a further dimension, beyond what was previously known. Does that contradict science? Can there really only ever be what there has always been? Can there not be something unexpected, something unimaginable, something new?”

- Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 2

Good Friday 2014

Crucifixion_triptychDuccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255-1260)
Crucifixion Triptych

Good Friday Stations of the Cross Meditations
by Archbishop Giancarlo Maria Bregantini of Campobasso-Boiano
Led by Pope Francis

The Bible That Went to the Moon

Microchip bible that went to the moon (Catholic Herald)The Catholic Herald reports:

Nearly 200 rare biblical texts on parchment and vellum are among the artifacts that will be on display at the Vatican in a new exhibition.

The event, which will be called ”Verbum Domini II: God’s Word Goes Out to the Nations”, will run from April 2 to June 22.

Along with three fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls and an original copy of the King James Bible, printed in 1611, visitors to the free exhibition will see the microchip Bible that traveled to the moon and back on Apollo 14 in 1971.

Read here.

Geocentrism Debunked

Here’s the website: Geocentrism Debunked

And here’s the episode of Al Kresta’s show, aired today, on the same topic. Despite its reappearance in the news of late, I’m not inclined at the moment to waste too much more time on it. The Cardinals are on.

Vatican Observatory Hosts Conference on Alien Life

Space.com reports:

Are we alone in the universe? The ultimate question of life beyond Earth and the solar system takes center stage in a science conference led by the Vatican Observatory and the University of Arizona this week.

Nearly 200 scientists are attending the conference, called “The Search for Life Beyond the Solar System: Exoplanets, Biosignature & Instruments,” which runs from March 16 through 21 in Tucson, Ariz. The Vatican Observatory is co-hosting the conference with the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory.

Read here.

9 Scientist Priests

RealClearScience has posted a brief slideshow of nine priests who were also important scientists. See the list here.

Trifolium repens

Trifolium repens


Image: public domain

Me, on “Cosmos”

My latest column on Cosmos is now available The Catholic Thing:

“Yet, perhaps to the chagrin of both some creationists and the anti-religious, man’s continuity with the material world has been emphasized since the writing of the first lines of Genesis. Recently, Catholics emphasized this material connection with a well known sacramental, blessed ashes on the forehead, and words that are reminiscent of Sagan’s, but preceded him by millennia: “Remember, man, you are dust…”

But which of these reminders is right: Cosmos’ presentation of the grandeur of man’s material origin in the stars, or Ash Wednesday’s call to humility in its reminder of man’s natural origin and destiny as dust and ashes? Both, in their way.”

Read here.

Extinctions and Space

There’s one sure way to spice up science headlines: add dinosaurs—and when you combine dinosaurs with space and exotic cosmology, you can’t go wrong.

Thirty years ago, a scientific hypothesis brought space and extinction together. Scientists noticed what appeared to be a regular repeating pattern of massive extinction events in Earth’s history, falling roughly every 26 million years. What could explain such a pattern? One possibility is that the cause lies in the ecosystems themselves: something about biological communities causes them to fail when they reach certain milestones. Another possibility is that the cause is external, resulting either from the geological processes of the Earth, or perhaps from something extraterrestrial.

Perhaps the most famous (though not the most severe) extinction event in history is the one that occurred at the end of the Cretaceous period and brought about the end of the dinosaurs; the evidence is now conclusive that a major meteor, asteroid, or comet impact near the present Yucatan played a decisive role in this extinction event. But if an impact event caused at least one major extinction event, could impacts be a more general cause of extinctions? Other evidence seemed to show, in addition to periodicity in extinctions, a similar periodicity of around 30 million years or so in the rate of impacts on the Earth’s surface. We thus have two pieces of evidence that fit together: extraterrestrial impacts and extinctions both occurring at similar intervals, the former being an obvious potential cause of the latter.

But what could cause impacts from space to occur in a regular pattern?

Periodicity is not uncommon in astronomy, and there’s an obvious source: orbits. Objects that travel in orbits around other objects naturally tend to display regular, periodic behavior. This line of thinking led to the proposal that it was in fact orbital motion that led to the regular peppering of Earth with extraterrestrial objects.

Far out beyond the orbit of the most distant planets lies the Oort cloud, a vast spherical region surrounding our Sun that is populated by icy bodies that, when they fall near the Sun, form comets. When the early solar system formed, the massive planets carved out a relatively clear bubble inside of which the Earth and the familiar planets orbit. The remaining debris ended up in one of three places: either sucked into the Sun or the forming planets, shepherded into the asteroid or Kuiper belts, or flung into the deep space of the Oort cloud. Every now and again, one of these Oort cloud objects comes falling into the inner solar system, appearing in our skies as a comet, but generally these bodies orbit slowly in the distant reaches, uninclined to make their way inwards.

Unless, that is, a gravitational tug upsets them, casting them in and out in showers of cosmic debris. This sort of gravitational tug can be given, for example, by a passing star—and it was just this realization that led, in 1984, to the suggestion that our Sun was not alone.

Instead, it was proposed that the Sun (like most stars in the galaxy) had a companion, a dim and distant dwarf (dubbed “Nemesis”) that followed in a wide orbit. Every thirty million years or so, Nemesis swung close enough in to the Oort cloud to scatter comets about, sending some of them inward on paths that would inevitably lead at least a few to impact the Earth. Thus, we find a pattern to impacts and, subsequently, extinctions on Earth.

In the years that followed, however, the Nemesis hypothesis foundered on the fact that no trace of the hypothetical star was found by any observations. The latest evidence supports the non-existence of Nemesis. A thorough examination of data from the WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) spacecraft, published just recently, found no bodies of significance out to 10,000 AU, and no signs of larger bodies at farther distances have been forthcoming. Nemesis was proposed as speculation, and a quarter century of observation has led to no observational support. The Sun, as far as we can tell, is alone, and no large planets or dwarf stars lurk beyond Neptune that could explain disturbances of the outer solar system that could lead to periodic comet showers.


But that doesn’t leave us bereft of hypotheses. The newest idea to explain periodic comet showers has to do not with large bodies disturbing the Oort cloud with gravity, but rather with the motion of the entire solar system itself. What’s more, the newest iteration of this latest hypothesis invokes one of the hot topics of modern astrophysics, dark matter.


Just as the planets of the solar system orbit the Sun, the Sun itself orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy, making a giant circuit that takes hundreds of millions of years to complete. But unlike the fairly flat orbits of the planets, the Sun’s orbit is wavy, coasting up and down through the plane of the galaxy. The reason for these waves is that the galaxy’s disk contains a significant amount of mass: as the Sun drifts upwards, the galaxy’s mass pulls it back down, until it plunges through the disk and emerges on the other side, drifting away until gravity pulls it back, repeating the process over again.

As it turns out, the period of this motion above and below the galactic plane appears to be about seventy million years, meaning that the solar system passes through the galactic plane about every—you guessed it—thirty-five million years or so, notably close to the purported period of increased impacts and extinctions. That period alone is enough to be suspicious; it may very well be that the ordinary gravitational disturbance of passing through the plane alone is enough to upset the distant solar system. The newest examination of the theory, however, invokes the latest speculative physics. Dark matter is a proposed form of matter that makes up the bulk of the universe and that interacts with normal matter in ordinarily negligible ways; there is no known means of detecting dark matter directly, but it is invoked to explain a number of observations that cannot be explained by normal matter alone.

Suppose, then, a new paper asks, that not only does the galactic disk contain a high concentration of normal matter, but it might contain disks of dark matter as well, and as the solar system plunges through these disks on its rising and falling track around the galaxy, it is this dense dark matter that causes icy comets to be scattered and sent to collide with the Earth.

Perhaps. Or perhaps motion through the galaxy alone is enough, even without dark matter, to account for the solar system’s disturbance. Or, it could be that we’re chasing phantoms—the statistical detection of impact periodicity and extinction patterns is weak: maybe there really is no periodicity to be explained. As always in science, time will give us more to consider.


Image: Nature/C. Carreau-ESA

Powell on “Cosmos”

As much as I hate to keep picking on Cosmos, its good to see that its historical inaccuracy has not gone uncontested, even outside of the religious media. Here’s Discover‘s Corey Powell asking, “Did ‘Cosmos’ Pick the Wrong Hero?”:

“Despite his heresies, Bruno was neither impoverished nor alone. In reality, he had a series of powerful patrons. In 1579, he was appointed a professor of philosophy in Tolouse, France. In 1581, King Henry III of France offered him a lucrative lectureship at the Sorbonne. In 1583 he visited England, lived with the ambassador to France, and met regularly with the Court…and so on. The gaunt, lonely fellow you see on screen in Cosmos is not the real Bruno.

Nor was Bruno the simple, humble figure shown on TV. A major reason he moved around so much is that he was argumentative, sarcastic, and drawn to controversy. He engaged in bitter academic disputes, many of which had nothing to do with his cosmic framework. One example: He fled France because of a violent dispute about the proper use of a compass (seriously).

None of this means that Bruno in any way deserved his fate. But neither does he deserve to be reduced to a cartoon about intellectual freedom. He was a brilliant, complicated, difficult man.”

Read here.

UPDATE: A response from Cosmos cowriter Steven Soter, and a reply from Powell.