International Year of Astronomy: Science and Religion

12 February 2009

International year of Astronomy (IYA), 2009, UNESCO, International Astronomical Union, Nicolas Copernic

International year of Astronomy (IYA) 2009 has been initiated as a global effort by the International Astronomical Union and UNESCO to help the citizens of the world rediscover their place in the universe through day and night time sky, and thereby engage a personal sense of wonder and discovery. Preparatory and cornerstone events were held in many countries during 2008.

Local, national, regional and international activities will take place as a unifying activity for humanity throughout IYA 2009. Over 140 countries are expected to participate thereby making it possible to reach out to 97 per cent of the world’s population. National nodes have been formed in each country through collaboration between professional and amateur astronomers, science centres and science communicators. A central IYA secretariat has been established via website

The opening ceremony for International Year of Astronomy will take place at UNESCO headquarters in Paris 15-16 January 2009 with around 400 participants. Among them are eminent scientists, including Nobel Prize winners, and some 200 students from over 100 countries.

Science and Religion

In its historical roots and tradition, the Vatican Observatory is one of the oldest astronomical research institutes in the world dating back to the reform of the Church calendar in 1582. The Papacy actively supported astronomy establishing the observatory at the Roman College in 1774.

The Vatican Observatory was refounded by Pope Leo XIII in his Motu Proprio Ut Mysticam of 14 March 1891 in order to counteract the longstanding accusations of hositility of the Church towards science. Previously located on a hillside behind the Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, the modern observatory founded in 1930 was entrusted to the Jesuits and is situated at the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, outside Rome.

The Library at Castel Gandolfo contains more than 22,000 volumes and possesses a valuable collection of rare antique books including works of Copernicus (*), Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Brahe, Calvius and Secchi. Research results are published in international journals and the Annual Report is distributed to 400 institutes around the world.

Combining religion and science, the early traditions of ‘Specola Vaticana’ reached their climax in the mid-nineteenth century with the pioneering work of the Roman College by the famous Jesuit, Fr. Angelo Secchi, who was first to classify stars according to their spectra. Over time the religious orders of Barnabites, Oratorians, Augustinians and Jesuits have been amongst those contributing to the personnel and directors of the Vatican Observatory.

Its dependent research centre, the Vatican Observatory Research Group (VORG), is hosted by Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, Tuscan, USA. Supported by the Holy See, the astronomical research and education institution, and its Mount Graham Observatory in Arizona, continues to boast many distinguished scholars. In 2008 the Templeton Prize was awarded to cosmologist, Fr. Michal Heller, Vatican Observatory Adjunct scholar.

The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) at the Mount Graham International Observatory (MGIO) in Arizona has been pursuing long-term research programmes and includes various current studies and international collaboration. It also counts on the help of friends and benefactors through a specially created tax-exempt Vatican Observatory Fund.

Translated by Dr. Martin McCarthy, S.J., a dedication plaque of the VATT reads:

The new tower for studying the stars has been erected during the XV year of the reign of Pope Paul II on this peaceful site so fit for such studies, and it has been equipped with a new large mirror for detecting the faintest glimmers of light from distant objects. May whoever searches here night and day the far reaches of space use it joyfully with the help of God.

As prologue and epilogue, it provides a fitting link to International Year of Astronomy 2009.

Ita Marguet, January 2009

Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in preparation of this text.

(*) In 2008 DNA examination of hair and tooth samples by Polish and Swedish scientists confirms the burial place of Polish astronomer, Nicolas Copernic (1473-1543). In 2005 some of his remains were found by Professor Jerzy Gassowski during escavation at the Cathedral of Frombork, a town in the north of Poland. It completes over 200 years of archaeological and scientific research. (Source: Le Dauphin?, Friday, 21 November 2008).