The Pope's Astrophysicist

MARGARET WERTHEIM

For close to a quarter century George Coyne has been director and senior scientist at the Vatican Observatory, the Roman Catholic church's beachhead on the shore of astronomical research. A small and energetic man, Coyne is the son of a working class family who is still slightly dazzled to find himself at the epicenter of Catholic life.

Father George Coyne,
head of the Vatican Observatory Research Group.
(photo by Richard Ballard)

A Roman summer is at its peak and the Sistine Chapel is punishingly full. Tourists of all nations crowd together ogling Michaelangelo's ceiling. At the back of the Chapel a group of some thirty scientists and theologians are gathered, a small knot trying to cohere against the pressures of the jostling throng. Together we have come to meet with Pope John Paul II as the culmination of a week-long conference on science and religion convened by the Vatican Observatory. Our host and guide Father George Coyne glances at his watch — one does not keep the Holy Father waiting. As he shepherds us out of the crush through an inconspicuous door, Coyne hurries us towards a private antechamber beyond.

For close to a quarter century George Coyne has been director and senior scientist at the Vatican Observatory, the Roman Catholic church's beachhead on the shore of astronomical research. A small and energetic man, Coyne is the son of a working class family who is still slightly dazzled to find himself at the epicenter of Catholic life. During his tenure he has overseen the revitalization of his institution, which today boasts eleven professional astronomers and cosmologists, all of them Jesuits. They specialize in fields like galaxy formation and, to quote from their latest annual report, "the dynamics of inflationary universes with positive spatial curvature."

En route to meet His Holiness, Coyne leads us through what feels like several miles of corridors, every yard decorated by Italian masters. Rounding one corner an entire wall erupts with rococo excess. In front of us Christ rises into the heavens his feet hovering yards above the ground. "They really knew what miracles were back then" quips English cosmologist Paul Davies, a leading figure on the international science and religion scene. All around us the wealth and power on display are staggering — the might of the Catholic Church congeals into aesthetic overload. Cardinals swish by swathed in deep red satin. Bishops shimmer in silk and gold. The Swiss Guards stand watch in multicolored velvet pantaloons. It's the last living Renaissance court — and the greatest fashion show on earth.

Finally we are shown to a meeting room to await the pontiff. His is a schedule that rivals any president and we have been allotted an hour of his time. Suddenly the air resounds with a polyphony of voices as John Paul enters with his retinue. Before the door swings shut I catch a glimpse of young priests in song, a swirl of cassocks and ecstatic hosannas.

Our conference has been wrestling with evolution, both biological and cosmological. So too, his Holiness tells us, "the Church's Magisterium is directly concerned with the question of evolution, for it involves the conception of man." Though "Revelation teaches us that man was created in the image and likeness of God," John Paul goes on to say that "new knowledge has led us to realize that the theory of evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis." The Catholic church has long accepted a developmental worldview, complete with descent from apes and a Big Bang beginning. This pope in particular has been a champion of science and has lent his personal support to the decade-long program "Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action" of which our conference is a part.

As he finishes speaking Father Coyne approaches the dais. The two men are of the same generation (Coyne is 69, the Pope 82), and in many ways their lives have followed similar paths: both have been rigorously schooled in theology and philosophy, both speak multiple languages, both have risen from humble backgrounds to unique positions in the Catholic church. But what a difference a throne makes. Without hesitation Father Coyne drops to his knees to kiss his superior's ring. As a Jesuit, he is bound by absolute obedience to the reigning pontiff. Symbolic, ritualized, nonetheless it is an act of extreme self-abnegation. That a practicing scientist can prostrate himself before a religious authority seems a betrayal of all that scientific tradition stands for. In this gesture is crystalized what seems a fundamental tension: How can one live as both a Jesuit and a scientist?

The Vatican Observatory Research Group (VORG) is officially headquartered at Castel Gandolfo, a fortified castle perched on the rim of an extinct volcano an hour outside Rome. Formerly owned by the Medici, the castle now serves as the Pope's summer palace and the VORG's spiritual home. I had visited Father Coyne there just prior to the Pope incident. As a definitively lapsed Catholic, every fiber of my being rebelled against his prostration; at the same time I was intrigued. This summer I made the trip to his second home, in Tuscon Arizona, where the contrast could not have been starker. Light years away from Roman opulence, the VORG conduct their research from a small suite of offices at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory. Rome and Tuscon, Catholicism and cosmology — I wondered how Coyne squares the circle of living at once in two such disparate worlds.

One afternoon in early August we head out from the campus to Mount Kitt Peak where the VORG observe the stars. Site of the world's largest collection of telescopes, Kitt Peak is located in the Quinlan Mountains, an ancient range that cuts through the Sonora desert like a huge exposed spine.

Father Coyne is piloting the VORG's four-wheel drive as we hurtle across a picture perfect section of the Sonora. This is the home of the saguaro, state flower of Arizona and the king of cactuses. In the communal house Coyne shares with his Jesuit confreres, one room has been converted into a tiny chapel that is graced with a stained glass window depicting the Jesuit crest and that of the Pope arrayed against a saguaro strewn landscape. "You can tell when you hit 4000 feet," Coyne says, "because the saguaro suddenly stop." Unlike astronomers, these majestic succulents shun the highest ground.

At 6875 feet Kitt Peak is the highest point in the Quinlan range. Twenty-two optical telescopes and two radio telescopes cluster atop the mountain. It's a truly spectacular site — white domes nestle against a landscape that looks as old as time itself. Agave, brittlebrush and cholla cactuses cling to the slopes between rocks weathered into fantastic forms. Man and nature seem both at their peak here — clean, taut, pared down to almost pure essence.

From the lookout deck of the Bok telescope the view along the range is stunning. But Coyne and his colleagues prefer to look up. The group has a special interest in the formation and evolution of galaxies and with this ninety inch reflector they are studying the rate of star formation in nearby galaxies. How do stars form? How do galaxies begin? How did the universe come into being? The question of origins is also of central interest to the Vatican — and has of course been since the beginning of the Catholic church.

Throughout Christian history, the realm of the stars and planets has served as a pointer to the realm of God and the Christian soul. For the medievals in particular the celestial heavens stood as a metaphor for the theological Heaven. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the study of the stars was regarded virtually as a branch of theology — "this divine rather than human science" Copernicus called it. Kepler, the founder of modern astrophysics, famously declared: "For a long time I wanted to become a theologian ... Now, behold how through my effort God is being celebrated in astronomy." Half a century later, Newton himself attributed the force of gravity to God. Without the deity constantly tweaking the planetary orbits, Newton believed the cosmic system would gradually disintegrate.

Coyne too sees the material world as a manifestation of divine will. "The human person participates in the mystery of God, and so does the universe" he says. He has no truck with Creationists and Biblical literalists and is exasperated with religious believers who want to put limits on scientific inquiry. "I have friends who pray that science will never discover or understand certain things. I just don't understand that," he declares, looking momentarily pained. "Nothing we learn about the universe through science threatens our faith. It only enriches it."

But what if we discover other intelligent beings? In 1997, when NASA scientists announced they had evidence for life on Mars, commentators indulged in an orgy of speculation about the downfall of Christianity should ET ever pay us a call. Coyne is amused but sanguine when I raise the subject. He points out that Catholic theologians considered this question as long ago as the thirteenth century and unanimously concluded that life on "other worlds" would cause no theological crisis. Since God was a God of plenitude, the great medieval thinkers believed that if other worlds existed then they ought to be inhabited. Why would God create empty worlds?

"In the theological tradition established by Saint Paul," Coyne tells me, "the whole of nature is groaning towards the Christ. That is usually interpreted in an anthropocentric way, but it does not have to be." The question for the medievals was not whether Christianity would collapse, Coyne says, but rather if each world would need "its own instantiation of the Christ." In short, would an intelligent starfish race need its own starfish Jesus, or would the human son of Mary be the Savior for all beings? Like Thomas Aquinas, Coyne feels confident that his faith is secure from alien attack.

Throughout his astronomical career Coyne's work has inadvertently dovetailed with our growing desire for extraterrestrial contact. In the mid 1960's he was part of a team studying the surface chemistry of the moon, a subject of interest to NASA at the time, for the agency was then trying to locate a landing site for the Apollo missions. Later his research shifted to the formation of stars and the evolution of proto-planetary discs around stars, a major topic now in astrobiology. It is assumed that planets are the first requirement for any form of life.

Today the Vatican group are undertaking a detailed survey of all the galaxies in the neighborhood of our own Milky Way, what Coyne calls our "cosmic backyard." Intended as an adjunct to the work done by the Hubble Space Telescope, this is the distinctly unglamorous end of astronomy, which increasingly is obsessed with getting back to the Big Bang. The further out in space you look the further back in time you see and The Beginning is where Big reputations are made. By concentrating on nearby galaxies the VORG are contributing to our understanding of the contemporary universe, which is as far from that nadir as it's possible to get. Such a focus is unlikely to win them any Nobels, but it's research that provides an important service for the whole astronomical community.

Perhaps more than anything it is this aspect of the VORG's work that sets them apart. In an age of Everest-sized scientific egos modesty is not a quality one encounters often in these circles. Yet it is a natural outgrowth of what Ignatius of Loyola, the Jesuit's founder, called "our way of proceeding." From the beginning, Ignatius stressed that a central aspect of Jesuit life was the concept of "ministry," or service to the wider community. In the sixteenth century, the original Jesuits tended the poor and the sick; for Coyne and his Vatican colleagues, astronomy is their ministry, their form of community service. That sense of duty eventually led to the VORG's decision to build their own telescope, a step which propelled this religious group to the very forefront of optical R&D and helped to usher in an astronomical revolution.

To understand what this revolution means, Coyne took me to visit Roger Angel at the University of Arizona's Mirror Lab, a legendary haven of optical innovation where the world's most powerful telescope mirrors are made. In the mid eighties when Angel needed a test case to try out his technology he teamed up with the VORG, whose advanced technology telescope — the VATT — now boasts the first ever "spun cast" mirror.

Given the firewall that usually separates science from sport in the average frat-brain, I am amused to find that Angel's Lab is bolted to the side of the University's football stadium. It's the one building on campus strong enough to support the huge machinery that casting requires. As we buzz for entry Coyne talks about his love of sport: At his next birthday he will turn 70, yet he still gets up every morning at 5am to ride his bike for twelve miles and run for three.

The doors of the Mirror Lab swing open and I feel as if we have stumbled into an outpost of NASA. This is aerospace not bench top territory. The main workroom stretches three stories high and is half the size of a football field. Gigantic gantries crisscross the cavernous volume while huge cranes stand by with claws unclenched. They must be strong enough to heft twenty tons yet gentle enough to handle crystal. "It's a huge technical challenge," says Coyne, "you can't afford to scratch anything." The whole building is low-pressurized to protect the nascent mirrors from dust. Fifty yards away, at the far end of the lab, an enormous mirror is being polished. It is 8.4 meters in diameter and I can hardly believe its size! It seems at once impossibly big and indescribably delicate. With its deep concave surface, glistening smooth and bathed in water to aid the buffing, it resembles nothing so much as a vast contact lens.

Telescope mirrors are augmented eyes extending our vision monstrously. This one has twelve times the light gathering surface of the Hubble and is one of a pair intended for the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT), that will soon be world's most powerful optical instrument. One of the missions of the LBT, Angel tell me, will be to take pictures of extrasolar planets. "Before you could only speculate about extraterrestrial life. Now we're at a point where we can make telescopes that we can actually go looking for life," he enthuses.

Maximal vision demands that no bump on the mirror surface be larger than 100 nanometers. If the giant mirror being polished here was expanded to the size of North America there would be no protrusion higher than four inches! The custom-designed robotic polisher crawling over its surface acts like a mechanical caterpillar nibbling away just atoms at a time. Tethered by cables to a main computer it constantly adjusts the shape of its buffing foot to maintain perfect contact with the surface. A dozen technicians are watching over the process like anxious expectant fathers.

Unlike conventional telescope mirrors who's surfaces are spherical surfaces, the ones made here are parabolic, the most efficient shape for focusing light. Coyne and I are watching from a landing at the first floor level and frankly, as we peer down into the dish, I wonder how anyone tells the difference. The distinction might sound trivial, but Coyne tells me that polishing a parabolic surface is a major technical hurdle Angel's team has resolved. As a particularly deep parabola, the VATT's mirror represented an especially challenging case and much of the technology here was trialed on its surface.

Angel's major innovation however is spin casting. Kepler was the first to understand that one way to make a parabola was to rotate a bowl of liquid. A few telescopes have employed this idea using rotating bowls of mercury, but that's a toxic way to view the stars. Angel realized that Kepler's insight could be implemented with molten glass — you'd just have to keep the whole apparatus spinning while the glass cooled and set.

Coyne and I climb up to a platform on the second floor level from where we can see down into the aft section of the lab, where the casting takes place. We have come at a rare moment. A brand new mirror has just been taken out of the oven and is sitting on its pallet like a colossal freshly baked cookie. Most of its bulk is a honeycomb structure; there's just a thin layer of glass on top which will be polished to form the mirror surface. Angel explains that "the honeycombing gives the mirror strength but radically reduces the weight." Nonetheless it's 21 tons of ultra-pure borosilicate glass.

The giant oven itself is one of a kind. A gargantuan steel contraption bristling with bolts and snaking tubes it is ten meters in diameter and 2.5 meters high. This apparatus rests on a base 3.5 meters high that spins the entire construction seven times a minute. In flight it resembles a gigantic whirling pressure cooker. On its floor a layer of aluminum plating sitting on a bed of steel ball bearings allows the mold to expand and contract as the glass heats and cools. Without this feature, thermal expansion would tear the mirror apart.

Father Coyne and I approach gingerly. Even turned off it radiates power. I'm not sure what I expected, but when we finally crawl inside we find ourselves standing in a bizarre high-tech igloo. The whole thing is lined with ceramic panels, each embedded with heating coils that press out in relief against the chalky background. I am reminded of fossilized worms embedded in shale. Father Coyne has never been in the oven before and he's clearly amazed, poking at the panels and marveling at the heat they produce. When they're cooking the temperature reaches 2120F degrees, the heat of the earth's mantle fifty miles down and hot enough to melt rock into magma.

At peak power the coils draw 1.5 megawatts, enough juice for a small suburb. Angel tells the story that when the VORG's mirror was cast the original oven was spinning away wildly when suddenly he noticed it slowing down. Someone had kicked out the extension cord. "Things were a lot more relaxed back then," he observes dryly. These days the Lab has two separate connections to the Tuscon grid, plus two backup generators. Loss of power now would cost several million dollars in wrecked materials.

That original casting produced a 1.8 meter mirror. But as Angel notes, a mirror is just the first part of the equation. "It was absolutely critical for us to see that the mirror could be turned into a telescope that would actually produce good images," he says. "And the Vatican group did that." In fact the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope is the best two-meter imagining scope on the planet, the perfect instrument for near-field astronomy. It's descendants will focus on much fainter and more distant objects, hence the Roman Catholic Church has paved the way for telescopes that may finally enable us to detect extraterrestrial life.

But should we expect to find life elsewhere? One afternoon at Kitt Peak I ask Coyne if he thinks there will be other populated worlds? As a priest who has been watching the stars for nigh on fifty years, I figure he's given the question a good deal of thought. All the more reason why his answer startles me. Looking out at the telescopes arrayed around us, Coyne suggests that we might view stars as God's sperm. Every sperm has the potential to produce life, he says, but most of them never realize that goal. Like sperm, "each star is fired with a propensity for life, but there is no reason to think any of them have achieved this." Perhaps out there it is really nothing but vast clouds of gas and billions upon billions of nuclear fireballs going through the motions of physics and chemistry without ever cracking a biological threshold. It's a bracing thought.

At the end of Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time, he famously declared that when physicists discover a unification of general relativity and quantum mechanics then we would "know the mind of God." In truth, however, Hawking argues that his theories make God redundant. Specifically, he has said that his "no-boundary cosmology" removes the need for a Creator. If there is no definitive origin to the universe, as his theory suggests, then, Hawking says, there is no need for any originating power, and hence no God.

In 1981 Hawking was invited to a conference at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences hosted at their villa in the horticultural splendor of the Vatican Gardens. During this meeting the physically frail but intellectually fearless physicist voiced his controversial views about the deity. Paul Davies tells the story, probably apocryphal, about the meeting that took place between Hawking and the Pope. Hawking suffers from Lou Gehrig's disease, a crippling and ultimately fatal degeneration of the motor neurons. The world-famous synthesizer was yet to be installed and at the time he was still speaking through his own disintegrating vocal chords. No one recalls the precise conversation that took place. But apparently John Paul had trouble understanding and knelt down beside Hawking's wheelchair to hear better, thereby prompting one wit to remark that "things had certainly changed since Galileo."

Father Coyne was also at the conference. Like most fellow scientists he is impressed by Hawking's mental agility and does not quibble with his physics. But genius or not, Hawking's grasp of theology is sorely lacking. It is "just silly," Coyne says, "to suggest that this kind of cosmological theory does away with God." He simply does not understand the theological issues. At the Pontifical Academy meeting, Coyne admonished Hawking, "Stephen, God is not a boundary condition."

Coyne rejects most of what is publicly discussed about science and religion. Echoing Immanual Kant, he insists that belief in God is independent of anything scientists discover. More than two centuries ago Kant argued that science could never disprove the existence of God. But neither, he said, could it prove Him. That hasn't stopped many people from trying and today there is a new fashion in what used to be known as "natural theology" and has now been resurrected as the "Anthropic Principle."

Anthropic arguments are based on the notion that some aspect of the universe has been specially tailored to ensure the emergence of life. Take the fact that the force of gravity is precisely an inverse square law. If gravity was any stronger planets would spiral into the sun, if it was weaker they would escape into space. It seems as if this force has been carefully set to just the right strength to make possible solar systems like ours. At the other end of the spectrum, if the electromagnetic force was any weaker or stronger atoms could not form. On both the cosmological and subatomic scales our universe is shaped by forces that seem "finely tuned" to enable a world in which life might emerge. Was some kind of intelligent consciousness built into the very laws of nature?

Coyne dismisses Anthropic arguments as well. "To imagine a Creator twiddling with the constants of nature is a bit like thinking of God making a big pot of soup," he declares with a rare flash of sarcasm. A bit more onion, a bit less salt, and hey presto the perfect gaspatcho. "It's a return to the old vision of a watchmaker God, only its even more fundamentalist. Because what happens if it turns out there is a perfectly logical scientific explanation for these values of the gravitational constant and so on? Then there'd be even less room for God." It's a God-of-the-gaps strategy which Coyne abhors in any guise. The trouble here is that if God is grounded in data then He is immediately subject to revision every time we get new data, and data tends to gets better over time. Coyne sums up his objection to this computational theology with elegant economy: "God is not Information," he says. "God is Love."

What is missing in "this privileging of the cognitive over the empathetic," as Coyne puts it, is the concept of faith. The crux of the God problem is that He/She/It requires a step beyond the bounds of logic, a leap into the a-rational that confounds both believers and nonbelievers alike. Contrary to popular belief, Coyne insists that faith does not happen of its own accord and does not sustain itself. For him at least, it must be continually rekindled and He has little time for dogmatic faith of any stripe. "I thank God constantly that He chose me. But it is not a rock of ages. It's something I have to renew every day."

What Coyne calls "the gift of faith" troubled his old friend Carl Sagan, who once asked him, "George, How come God chose you and not me?" If God is so generous, Sagan declared, then why has He not extended this gift to us all? Coyne thinks He has. "I believe God chooses everyone sooner or later," he answered Sagan, "but not everyone realizes they are chosen." Then with the solicitude that only a true believer could extend toward an avowed atheist, Coyne continued. "I hope Carl," he said, "that when God chooses you, you will recognize it."

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Margaret Wertheim. "The Pope's Astrophysicist." Wired Magazine — Science and Religion Issue (December, 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from Wired Magazine and the author, Margaret Wertheim.

THE AUTHOR

Margaret Wertheim is a Research Associate to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and a Fellow of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities. An internationally noted science writer and commentator, originally hailing from Australia she has written extensively about science and society for magazines, television, and radio. Margaret Wertheim is the author of two books: Pythagoras' Trousers, a history of the relationship between physics, religion, and women, (Times Books 1995); and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet, (Norton 1999). She is currently at work on a book, “Imagining the World,” about the role of imagination in the history of physics.

Copyright © 1993-2002 The Condé Nast Publications Inc. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 1994-2002 Wired Digital, Inc. All rights reserved.




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