Musings on lecture by Vatican Astronomer

October 28, 2016
Vatican Observatory, Arizona (source:

Jesuit priest and Vatican observatory director Brother Guy J. Consolmagno visited Adelaide in August and gave a public lecture at UniSA.

Guy J. Consolmagno (source:

I arrived early to have a meal at the Mawson Lakes hotel. Paul Curnow (ASSA vice president) and I spotted each other. He was at a table with a group of people, two of whom wore clerical collars, so I assumed one was Brother Guy. Paul invited me to eat with the group, a mixture of amateur astronomers (ASSA members) and Catholic church members, and in some cases, possibly both.

During dinner I asked Guy about the forthcoming southern edition of his book, Turn Left at Orion. He recently co-authored another book, Would you Baptize an Extraterrestrial? Whatever my pre-conceptions may have been, he seemed smart and witty, hard not to like.

His talk was titled The Heavens Proclaim: Astronomy and the Vatican after a now out of print book. It quickly became clear that he was a very good Science communicator (in 2014 he was recipient of the Carl Sagan Medal for excellence in education and public outreach) and a long-time practitioner of the Scientific Method. He also writes an interesting blog. The talk ranged widely from the Vatican Observatory‘s roots in the Gregorian Calendar reform of 1582 to the work of the Jesuit astronomers at the observatory’s current (and surprising!) location in Arizona.

A number of slides in the talk were devoted to Galileo. Guy admitted that while the whole sordid business was more nuanced than is sometimes realised, the church should not have gone after Galileo in the way it did. Contrast this to Mother Theresa who said she would have sided with the church over Galileo! It should of course be still further admitted that the fact that it took 350 years for the Catholic church to pardon Galileo (not until 1992, and assuming he needed pardoning at all!) of the charge of heresy should be more than a bit embarrassing to the Church. I don’t want to dwell on this here though.
Guy mentioned religion at various points during the talk, quoting scripture a handful of times, citing for example the number of occurrences of “star” in the Bible. He didn’t justify why he thought Christianity and the Catholic denomination in particular was the correct one out of all the possible religions (or none at all). Given the convictions of a substantial part of the audience, I suspect he didn’t feel the need to do so.
He wittily reversed the atheist quip about believing in only one less god than a monotheist, saying that he believed in only one more god than Richard Dawkins; not a valid move of course, but funny.

I wondered whether Guy’s view of the relationship between Science and Religion would align with the late evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould’s Non-overlapping Magesteria:

Here, I believe, lies the greatest strength and necessity of NOMA, the nonoverlapping magisteria of science and religion. NOMA permits—indeed enjoins—the prospect of respectful discourse, of constant input from both magisteria toward the common goal of wisdom. If human beings are anything special, we are the creatures that must ponder and talk. Pope John Paul II would surely point out to me that his magisterium has always recognized this distinction, for “in principio, erat verbum”—”In the beginning was the Word.”

In his talk, Guy said that Science brings him closer to God. According to his wikipedia page:

He believes in the need for science and religion to work alongside one another rather than as competing ideologies. In 2006, he said, “Religion needs science to keep it away from superstition and keep it close to reality, to protect it from creationism.”

The relationship Guy espouses seems more strongly aligned with Science than does NOMA, with a focus on preventing religion from going off the rails, yet still it’s clear (and not surprising since he’s a Jesuit priest) that for Guy, religion acts to inspire his relationship with Science.

Guy commented upon Georges Lemaître, the Belgian Catholic priest who published a paper in 1927 titled A homogeneous Universe of constant mass and growing radius accounting for the radial velocity of extragalactic nebulae, and later the idea of a “primeval atom”, making him the father of Big Bang theory. In the paper he proposed a value for the estimated rate of universal expansion subsequently confirmed by Edwin Hubble, now called the Hubble Constant. There’s an argument to be made that it should have been the Lemaître Constant after the less widely published Belgian scientist.


Georges Lemaître (source:

Although Lemaître may have been sympathetic to the essence of NOMA, he helped to persuade Pope Pius XII to stop making proclamations about the relationship between science and religion, stating that there was neither a connection nor a contradiction between religion and his hypotheses.

During question time at the end of the talk, someone asked Guy how young people could be encouraged not to abandon religion as they learn more about Science. Guy responded by agreeing that adopting a scientific world view doesn’t mean abandoning religion, reiterating that Science brings him closer to God, and suggesting that an atheistic worldview was unnecessary and perhaps even a little further, at least to him and the questioner, not tasteful.

As an atheist and secular humanist, I obviously disagree with this viewpoint. It’s possible to retain a sense of wonder and a hunger for knowledge without the need for a deity.

Guy spoke about the fact that Lemaître understood the importance of allowing the data to speak, to provide evidence in support of (or not) an hypothesis.

In relation to the god hypothesis, that is all an atheist claims.

What I don’t understand is why the god hypothesis is different from any other. Is there supporting evidence for a deity of a particular kind, the god(s) of the Bible, for example? Shouldn’t the Scientific Method be applied here? Does Guy consider this valid? That’s the question I would ask if I spoke with him again, I think.

My only other criticism was the brief mention Guy made about how the Catholic church helps the poor, arguably not appropriate for a talk about astronomy, but not surprising when you accept that it was part lecture, part sermon. I’ve sat through (and given enough in my misguided past) sermons to know one when I hear one. I’ve written more about the relationship between the church and the poor elsewhere.

There’s no doubt that Brother Guy Consolmagno and the other Jesuit astronomers at the Vatican Observatory are doing good Science. In particular, Guy’s research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies and he employs the observatory’s 1.8 metre telescope to observe Kuiper Belt objects.

Of course, you need math, science, and a telescope or at least data from someone else’s telescope to do astronomy. You don’t need religion to do astronomy.

To borrow the title of the 2009 Intelligence Squared debate, “is the Catholic Church a force for a good in the world” insofar as astronomy is concerned? It would seem so, but in the end, I can’t help but feel that the Vatican Observatory and its astronomers stand in stark contrast to the Catholic church’s irresponsible prohibitions against contraception, the scandal of child abuse by clergy, and the extravagance of beatification.

Two novae in Sagittarius!

October 28, 2016

Since my last post I’ve made two more observations of TCP J18102829-2729590, on Oct 26 and 27. Mine are the larger purple data points. Fraser Farrell pointed out a nice recent Sky & Telescope News article about this nova.


Another nova was discovered in Sagittarius on Oct 26: ASASSN-16ma. There are only a few observations of this one so far. Mine is at top right under the cross hairs.


ASASSN-16ma is currently three magnitudes fainter than TCP J18102829-2729590, but the latter arrived on the scene first, after all.

The weather looks good for tonight and tomorrow so I hope to get some more observations in over the weekend.

Nova TCP J18102829-2729590 still on the rise

October 24, 2016


Nova TCP J18102829-2729590 in Sagittarius is still on the rise although not at the same rate as a day or so ago. Early days though: these things are unpredictable.

The official AAVSO alert notice was posted overnight:

I have ongoing alignment problems with my LX-90 8″ scope (16 years old) and they caused me enough grief last night that I couldn’t make a visual estimate before the nova was below my fence line. I’ll try again in the next day or two.

Nova in Sagittarius

October 23, 2016

Not far from one of my favourite Cepheid variables (W Sagittarii), a nova in Sagittarius was discovered 3 days ago (TCP J18102829-2729590) by Koichi Itagaki of Japan. It has risen from magnitude 11 to 8 in that time.

The plot below shows the 10 visual and Johnson V observations submitted so far to the AAVSO International Database:


Two thirds of the visual observations are from Andrew Pearce in Western Australia. My single observation so far, made tonight, is under the cross hairs at upper right, with Andrew close on my heels. It’s always reassuring when two observations made close in time (less than an hour in this case) by different observers agree, within the limits of precision of the chosen method (visual estimation: approximately one tenth of a magnitude).

Many of my visual estimates of variable stars are made with 7×50 binoculars. Tonight I used my Meade LX-90 8″ telescope (magnification of 82x) because the nova is still too faint for my binoculars. There’s a beautiful asterism near the nova that makes the field hard to miss and makes for an enjoyable observation.


Last night I took images of the nova with the intention of carrying out wide field DSLR photometry, however there’s a star quite close to the nova. When combined with the amount of defocus normally used for DSLR photometry, separating the light from the two stars becomes impractical. So, I haven’t submitted an observation (untransformed) from that imaging run.

I’ll follow this object visually with interest for as long as the weather and my equipment allow.

Nova Lupi 2016 update

October 5, 2016

The nova in Lupus (ASASSN-16kt) continues to decline, having peaked at a visual magnitude of 5.6, declining to 6.5 in less than a day.

The plot shows my two binocular observations before the weather in Adelaide went loopy (as opposed to Lupi), the last under cross-hairs at magnitude of 7.2. It’s now down to around magnitude 9.0.


The sky is clear tonight, and may be okay for a couple more days, so I might attempt some tri-colour DSLR observations. Tonight’s out due to an ASSA meeting. Typical! 🙂

ASASSN-16kt update

September 28, 2016

I made a second observation of the nova in Lupus last night (Sep 27). It had faded from a visual magnitude of 6.7 on Monday to 7.2 (both in purple below). Observations since then show a further brightness decline.


I was pleased to see my first observation counted among those submitted by Elizabeth Waagen (AAVSO) for inclusion in “telegram 4322” from the the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams in Harvard (my first). See the AAVSO alert from Elizabeth for more details.

There was no chance of another observation tonight after the storm here in Adelaide today; no power so no light pollution but no clear sky either. I’d say another day or two will go by before I can observe it again.

Nova in Lupus!

September 26, 2016

ASASSN-16kt was discovered in the constellation of Lupus on September 24 by the All-Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae with data from a 14″ telescope in Chile.

The discovery magnitude was 9.1 with nothing greater than magnitude 17.5 previously known at that location.

I made a visual estimate of the nova at magnitude 6.7 tonight (September 26) from suburban Adelaide with 7×50 binoculars. At the time of writing, only 8 observations by 6 observers had been submitted to the AAVSO International Database including three Australian amateurs: Terry Bohlsen, Rod Stubbings and myself (highlighted at right), two Argentinians (Gustavo Ballan and the near-omniscient Sebastian Otero) and one Brazillian (Alexandre Amorim).


Other than photometry (visual or image based), amateurs are increasingly taking the spectra of bright novae, and ASASSN-16kt is no exception, with Terry Bohlsen (New South Wales) taking an early spectrum soon after discovery.

These Stellarium screenshots show the location of the nova in Lupus as the south-west sky appeared at around 8pm tonight from Adelaide (wide and narrow field):

Lupus constellation borders.png


The AAVSO finder chart (7.5 degrees) is shown below in a similar orientation:


I was interested to see a request from a researcher, Laura Chomiuk, for high-speed photometry of the nova to:

…to test a recent theoretical prediction of Ken Shen’s: that novae should show fast periodic oscillations in their optical light curves, if gravity waves help expel the envelope.

Time will tell whether the nova has peaked short of naked eye visibility. I hope to make another observation tomorrow night but the forecast does not look favourable for at least a couple of days thereafter.

At least this nova waited for the cloud-dominated winter we’ve just had to pass by.

Mother Teresa: saint?

September 18, 2016

The September 2016 Richard Dawkin’s Foundation newsletter highlighted an article by Joe Nickell titled: St. [Mother] Teresa and the Miracles Game:

Around the world, the Catholic faithful clamor for their beloved late priest, nun, or other personage to be added to the roster of saints. Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) heard them and lowered the requirement from three verified miracles to two (one for beatification, another for canonization), creating numerous saints and beatifying over 1,300 others—more than had all his predecessors together.


Source: Mommy dearest, Mother Teresa not so saintly

Mother Teresa’s canonisation (confirmation as a saint) occurred on September 4 after the “necessary” two miracles were “identified”, the first for beatification (in which the Pope declares the dead saint-to-be as being in a state of bliss) in 2003, the second for sainthood.

For the beatification, the case of an Indian tribal woman was selected. Monica Besra claimed to have been cured in 1998 of stomach cancer, in the form of a tubercular tumor, after she placed a locket with a picture of Mother Teresa on her abdomen.

Nickell goes on to say that the doctors treating the woman said the cyst (not tumor) had continued to receive treatment even after the death of Mother Teresa. Mrs Besra’s husband is quoted as saying: “It is much ado about nothing. My wife was cured by the doctors and not by any miracle.” He conceded that his wife “…felt less pain one night when she used the locket, but her pain had been coming and going. Then she went to the doctors, and they cured her.”

Mrs Besra herself still believed in the miracle, while admitting she was treated by doctors in hospital. “I took the medicines they gave me, but the locket gave me complete relief from the pain.” It is of course not outside of the realm of possibility that the placebo effect could account for the pain relief. In any case, it appears that the claim that Mother Teresa cured Mrs Besra, is unfounded.

As a an aside, why do some consider it acceptable to thank God for the honest, hard work of doctors and nurses? The fact is that God can’t lose. If a patient dies, it was His will. If they live, He is praised. If only gods were held to the same account as people…

The second case, the one that took Mother Teresa over the line to sainthood was that of a Brazillian man who had lapsed into a coma due to some kind of brain infection (the details differ with the source). His priest prayed for Mother Teresa to intervene with God, and the man supposedly awoke suddenly as a result. As Nickell points out, it may of course simply be that the treatment he was undergoing was effective, after all.

Again from Nickell:

In both cases “miracle” was defined as it always is in such matters as “medically inexplicable.” The evidence is therefore not positive but negative, resulting in a logical fallacy called argumentum ad ignorantiam “an argument from ignorance”—that is, a lack of knowledge. One cannot draw a conclusion from “we don’t know”—least of all that a miracle (supposedly a supernatural occurrence) was involved.


Doctors—including Catholic doctors—should refuse to play the miracles game. If the Church wishes to honor a doctrinaire nun, let it do so without an affront to science and reason.

Miracles, like the existence of gods, should be treated with the same scrutiny as any other phenomenon. As Gregory A. Clark wrote in The Salt Lake Tribune, Sainthood for Mother Teresa exposes the delusion of religion:

Seeking intellectual respect, Pope Francis recently declared that God is not “a magician, with a magic wand.” But as the pope’s canonizing Mother Teresa shows, he’s happy to promote God’s magic when it makes for good PR.

and in response Clarke points out that:

One miracle is as possible — or impossible — as another. Preach that an omnipotent deity can perform miracles, and you also preach that at other times He chooses not to.

Apart from the more well publicised evils, especially of late, the corruption of the Catholic Church is again revealed in a casual disregard of evidence and abuse of logic.

But just suppose for a moment that the idea of sainthood made sense. What kind of a saint is Mother Teresa?

In her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Mother Teresa had this to say:

And I feel one thing I want to share with you all, the greatest destroyer of peace today is the cry of the innocent unborn child. For if a mother can murder her own child in her womb, what is left for you and for me to kill each other?

The Catholic News Agency provides the transcript of a 1954 speech by Mother Teresa to the National Prayer Breakfast, some of which is eerily similar to the Nobel Peace Prize speech 25 years later. After similar sermonising about abortion, we see this, also shared as a quote by the Faithful Catholics website:

Once that living love is destroyed by contraception, abortion follows very easily.

It is bit of a stretch to see how the conclusion follows from the premise of either of the statements:

  • if a mother can abort a pregnancy then we are more likely to commit murder.
  • if (some form of) love is destroyed by contraception then abortion easily follows.

Indeed, the nature of the “living love” that is “destroyed by contraception” is unclear and seems vaguely reminiscent of Monty Python’s “every sperm is sacred” song from the Meaning of Life.

To those of a less dogmatic persuasion, there are surely greater “evils” than abortion, as a child affected by the Zika virus attests to.

Preceding this in the 1954 speech we have the following pearl of wisdom:

I know that couples have to plan their family and for that there is natural family planning. The way to plan the family is natural family planning, not contraception. In destroying the power of giving life, through contraception, a husband or wife is doing something to self.

There’s nothing surprising about this stance from the viewpoint of a Catholic worldview of course, but there are well-known problems that can be directly linked to religious sanctions against contraception, e.g. the spread of HIV, poverty, overpopulation.

Arguably, aside from the abuse of children by priests, the command to the faithful not to use contraception is one of the greatest evils of the Catholic Church.

Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. Visitors to the Home for the Dying in Calcutta have reported that patients were placed on basic stretcher beds (indeed, video footage shows this), strong pain relief was rarely used (in a “hospice”, where people are dying in significant pain), so too for antibiotics, and needles were observed being rinsed under running water rather than sterilised. There were also reports of patients who could have recovered with proper treatment not being sent to a hospital, including the case of a 15 year old boy with a kidney infection that went untreated by antibiotics; a transfer to hospital was prevented.

This despite associating with and receiving prizes from shady individuals such as Jean-Claude Duvallier, the right-wing Hatian dictator and amassing funds from corrupt individuals such as Charles Keating, who sent Mother Teresa millions and lent her his private jet when she visited the United States. Instead of creating world-class medical facilities with such funds, the Missionaries of Charity spread to more than 100 countries.

Yet when sick later in life, for example when she required a pacemaker, Mother Teresa herself received top medical care in the West.

Although she and her missionary sisters and volunteers no doubt provided some comfort to the sick and dying, there was a cult-ish element to the work of Mother Teresa. For example, she is quoted as saying:

I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.

and of telling a terminal cancer patient in extreme pain:

You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.

Mother Teresa seemed at least as interested in using the poor and their suffering as an opportunity for conversion to Christianity as anything else, the ultimate point of missionary activity after all.

Watching the short (24 minute) film by Christopher Hitchens, Hell’s angel (YouTube), provides a quick way to revise your pre-conceptions about Teresa of Calcutta.

Coincidentally, a few weeks before the canonisation, I finally made time to listen to the audio version of Hitchen’s book: The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, which provides further insight.

Hitchens visited the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and acted as a Devil’s Advocate in the case for her canonisation, giving testimony to the Archdiocese of Washington. As is so often the case, he says it best:

Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.

300 variable star observations

September 8, 2016

I recently passed 300 variable star observations, having started in 2010.

301 obs

That’s a tiny number compared with prolific Australian visual observers like Rod Stubbings or those doing CCD photometry (e.g. of eclipsing binary variable stars) who quickly reach the thousands, such as fellow ASSA member Robert Jenkins or AAVSO’s Mike Simonsen.

Still, I’m pleased with my few hundred plodding individual observations of 16 variable stars, namely:

  • pulsating variables: R Car, l Car, W Sgr, X Sgr, L2 Pup, eta Aql, alf Ori
  • novae: T Pyx, V1369 Cen, V339 Del, Nova Sgr 2015 No. 2
  • eclipsing binaries: zet Phe, BL Tel, V Pup, eps Aur
  • the massive, once naked eye visible, unstable star: eta Car

Most of these are visual observations, and most of those were with 7×50 binoculars:


264 visual obs

I started making DSLR photometry observations in early 2015 after taking Mark Blackford’s first AAVSO CHOICE course on the subject:

36 DSLR obs

While visual estimates are quick and convenient in a time-poor life, photometry requires some effort from imaging through to processing and analysis, but the additional accuracy and error characterisation are satisfying, as is the ability to capture multiple bands in a single image, Johnson V and B primarily.

My last DSLR submission was in April. I’m looking forward to some nicer weather so I can get out and do more soon, in addition to the visual estimates I sneak in between the clouds.

Census 2016 resource

August 8, 2016

Not sure how to respond to the religion question in this year’s census? provides pragmatic questions and answers.

Edit: Now if only I could actually complete the census online…