Putting his faith in study of astronomy

Baltimore native honored for 28 years at observatory

April 20, 2007|By Liz F. Kay .. | Liz F. Kay ..,Sun reporter

For more than a century, a little-known group of Catholic clergy has turned its attention to the heavens.

But the vocation involves more than faith and prayer. The priests of the Vatican Observatory conduct cutting-edge research in physics and astronomy at facilities on a hilltop outside Rome and on a mountain in Arizona.

"We try and understand nature as it's given to us," said the Rev. George V. Coyne, a Baltimore native who directed the observatory for 28 years.

Coyne, now 74 and retired from that post, was honored for his contributions to astronomy yesterday by his alma mater, Towson's Loyola Blakefield Jesuit School.

Although the Roman Catholic Church once branded Galileo a heretic for suggesting that the Earth orbits the sun -- a conflict of ideas that remains the stuff of legend -- Coyne said the church has long since embraced astronomy and given its practitioners a serious mission.

"It's certainly not to go out and convert those atheistic scientists and not to baptize aliens," he said.

In fact, the observatory's roots lie in the effort of Pope Gregory XIII to gather the best scientists available, including Jesuits from the Roman College, to reform the calendar in 1582.

"Essentially, it started a tradition," Coyne said -- one that outlasted the scientists' original mission. "To put it facetiously, these people were doing a good job. Keep giving them spaghetti and wine and keep them working."

Over time, the priest-astronomers worked at three different observatories in the Vatican. But their role wasn't formally recognized until 1891, when the church was battling an anti-clerical political atmosphere driven by accusations that it was anti-intellectual, Coyne said.

That's when Pope Leo XIII issued a motu proprio -- a letter officially establishing the Specola Vaticana, or Vatican Observatory -- a visible symbol of church support for intellectual pursuits.

"Today we don't preach that," Coyne said of the observatory's priests. "We just do our work."

The center, entrusted to the Jesuits since 1906, sends a report of its activities to the Vatican every year.

After his official retirement as director, Coyne is taking a sabbatical, but plans to return to the observatory in Tucson, Ariz., in September to continue studying the geometry of binary stars and to lead the observatory foundation.

It's a long way from the streets of Canton, where his family -- including eight brothers and sisters -- attended St. Brigid's parish.

Under the tutelage of the nuns there, he earned a scholarship to Loyola and sold newspapers and carried golf clubs to make ends meet.

When his family moved to the Walbrook section of West Baltimore, he recalled, "I thumbed my way past Pimlico racetrack" to get to a bus in Mount Washington that took him the rest of the way to Loyola Blakefield.

A member of Loyola's class of 1951, Coyne jokes that he joined the Society of Jesus at the age of 18 because "I didn't know any better." While he was studying classics during his first two years as a novice in Wernersville, Pa., Coyne discovered astronomy.

His Greek instructor there, the Rev. Hayne Martin, had a contagious interest in art, dance and science -- particularly astronomy. "He'd be so passionate about it, he'd be dancing to the Greek odes," Coyne said.

Martin would often interrupt his lectures with explanations of astronomical phenomena such as the vernal equinox, illustrating them with elaborate diagrams on the chalkboard.

He also recognized Coyne's appetite for astronomy -- but the rules forbade novices from studying anything but classics for their first two years. So the priest lent Coyne a local library card so he could check out astronomy books on the sly and read them under the covers (with a flashlight Martin also provided).

"It whetted my appetite, got me started, all due to this great professor," Coyne said.

His superiors sent him to Fordham University in New York to study mathematics, then groomed him to teach astronomy at Georgetown University. But the department there had closed by the time he was ordained in 1965, so Coyne headed west to map the surface of the moon with other researchers at the University of Arizona. He became a professor there and joined the staff of the Vatican Observatory in 1969.

When the director of the Vatican Observatory in Italy died suddenly in 1978, Pope John Paul I appointed Coyne to the position -- one of the few actions the pope completed before his own sudden death.

By that time, the Vatican Observatory had moved to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence southeast of Rome, to escape light pollution in the city proper. But Coyne expanded operations by opening a research center in the clearer air at the University of Arizona. More than a decade later, the group built the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, an optical infrared instrument on Mount Graham, about 120 miles east of Tucson in the Pinaleno Mountains.

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