Friday, June 03, 2016

Nuns of the Universe!

This past Sunday the daughter of one of our senior members was at church, spending time with her mom after returning from Turkey. Her husband has a new job in British Columbia -- as an astronomer and she's awaiting his return to Canada. Cool.

I commented that astronomy is a deeply spiritual enterprise in some respects, and thankfully she agreed. I mentioned that despite the whole Galileo thing, the Roman Catholic church has been quite committed to the study of the heavens, with astronomers in New Mexico and Italy. I have blogged about the RCs chief astronomer in the past.

Now I learn about some remarkable nuns from the 19th century who were part of a huge project to map the night sky. Read this from The Atlantic

At a convention in Paris in 1887, the world’s best astronomers hatched an ambitious plan. Harnessing the emerging technology of glass-plate cameras, they would photograph and map every star in the night sky, plotting each star’s position in an enormous catalog. This massive undertaking would require the participation of 20 observatories across six continents, each of which was assigned to chart a corner of the cosmos...

Shortly after the initiative was launched, in something of a symbolic gesture of support for scientific research, Pope Leo XIII permitted the Vatican Observatory to help the project along. (Yes, such an observatory exists to this day; various iterations have been operating since the late 18th century.) A series of astronomer-monks were put in charge of the Vatican’s obligations to the Carte du Ciel, but the labor largely involved rote number-crunching and tedious data transfer. Not every high-profile brother-scientist was up to the task.

That’s why in 1909, the archbishop in charge of the observatory wrote to the nearby Sisters of the Holy Child Mary community, reportedly asking for “two sisters with normal vision, patience and a predisposition for methodical and mechanical work.”

You guessed it, when in doubt, get women to do the grunt work. Apparently they did it exceedingly well and two more sisters were added to the team. The Atlantic article goes on to say

As for the nuns, the mapping techniques they used were made obsolete by leaps forward in telescopic technology. But as the Catholic News Service reports, “modern-day scientists eventually discovered that comparing the star positions recorded a century earlier with current satellite positions provided valuable information about star motions for millions of stars”—essential for understanding the arrangement of the cosmos. Perhaps that’s a service to a higher power. Most certainly, it was a service to humankind.

I'm not entirely sure why I'm sharing this information, other than that it intrigued me that these nuns were involved in such an ambitious enterprise and did it well.


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