Posts Tagged ‘Jesuit Father George Coyne’
As a priest and an astronomer, Jesuit Father George Coyne bridges the worlds of faith and science, but he’s quick to acknowledge that they serve two different purposes. “I can’t know if there is a God or if there is not a God by science,” he says.
At the same time the emeritus director of the Vatican Observatory sees no conflict between scientific and religious knowledge, though he admits that the church has not always agreed. But even in the famous case of the astronomer Galileo, there were issues other than science at stake, notably who could interpret the Bible. “Galileo was never given a chance to talk about his science,” Coyne says. “Galileo knew how to interpret scripture, but he did it privately.” The Council of Trent had forbidden private interpretation 70 years before in response to the Reformation.
Still, says Coyne, Galileo pointed the way to a happier relationship between faith and science. “Galileo anticipated by four centuries what the church would finally say about the interpretation of scripture,” argues Coyne. “Galileo said that scripture was written to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”
Fr. Coyne recently sat down with U.S. Catholic Magazine for a question-and-answer session about Catholicism, science and the human experience.
Give us some amazing facts about the universe that would enrich a Catholic understanding of faith.
The universe understood scientifically is an amazing challenge to both science and to religious faith. The scientific facts about the universe are very well established. First the universe is 13.7 billion years old. A billion is a one with nine zeroes behind it, so that’s a lot of years. Second, it contains 10,000 billion billion stars. That’s a one with 22 zeroes behind it.
We know the age of the universe by its expansion: Galaxies are all moving away from us. There is a very tight relationship between their distance from us and their speed. Namely, the farther away an object is, the faster it is going. If you’re two times farther away from me, you’re going away four times faster. If you’re four times farther away from me, you’re going away 16 times faster. It holds for every galaxy in the whole universe.
When we measure the age of the universe by its expansion, we discover that the universe began to expand 13.7 billion years ago, plus or minus 200 million years. It’s an amazing measurement.
How do we count all those stars?
When the Hubble telescope takes a photograph of the most distant part of the universe we can see, it produces an image called the Hubble Deep Field. The image has millions of dots of light, and every one of those dots of light is a galaxy. Hubble concentrated on a very small part of the sky, one-twentieth of the thickness of my index finger held at arm’s length. So you have a million galaxies in this little piece of the sky. What if we measured the whole sky? By multiplying all that together you get 100 billion galaxies, each of which contains, on the average, 200 billion stars.
An astronomer by training, Jesuit Father George Coyne has devoted much of his life to researching the surfaces of the moon and Mercury, interstellar matter, binary stars and distant galaxies in order to gain a greater understanding of them. He has taught astronomy at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and has served as both director of the Vatican Observatory and president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. Now, he joins the faculty of Le Moyne College in Syracuse as their first Religious Philosophy chairman.
Coyne’s arrival comes at a time of exceptional student interest in the natural sciences and allied health fields at Le Moyne. Opening this month, its new science complex will house the physical, life and health sciences. This addition is a 50,000-square-foot building that will adjoin the reconfigured Coyne Science Center for a total of 105,000 square feet of academic space. The complex includes teaching facilities to accommodate large introductory-level classes and small upper-level classes, as well as cutting-edge facilities for faculty research and faculty-mentored student research.
Four Jesuits in history have had asteroids named after them. Jesuit Father George Coyne, director emeritus of the Vatican Observatory and president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation and Brother Guy Consolmagno, curator of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory, are the two living astronomers with that distinction. They shared their observations of life, faith, friendship and the universe from their seats in the Vatican Observatory with Krista Trippet, host of the Speaking of Faith radio program on American Public Media during a recent show. Go here to download the interview or to listen to the interview directly.