Where Science and Religion Actually Do Mix

Site at Papal Summer Residence, 25 km SE of Rome

I wrote a while back about how the science-oriented movies “Creation” and “Agora” appear to have failed in the United States because of animosity from Christianists.  It was a pleasant surprise, then, to find a scientific institution that is entirely backed by a religious one: the Vatican Observatory (VO), or Specola Vaticana.  It was founded quite explicitly to counteract charges of anti-science bias on the part of the Catholic Church.  As far as I can tell, it’s the only scientific institution in the whole world that is supported entirely by a religious organization.

The Vatican became involved in astronomy quite early with the activities of the great Father Christoph Clavius, who in 1582 devised the Gregorian Calendar that is used to this day.  It had three previous observatories before the current one: the Observatory of the Roman College (1774-1878),  he Specula Vaticana (1789-1821), and the Observatory of the Capitol (1827-1870).  The VO was established in 1891 on the grounds of the Vatican itself, but with the growth of Rome, seeing became impossible.  The site shown above was established in the 1930s.   It was still too close to Rome, though, so in 1981 they established an office at the Seward Observatory at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

VATT in winter

In 1993 they finally got a world-class telescope with the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT), a 1.8 m near-IR scope on Mount Graham in Arizona.   This was built with the new technique of spin-casting (spinning the glass blank to form a parabolic surface while molten) and has such a deeply dished surface that it has a focal length of f/1.0 – i.e. the focus is only as high above the mirror as the mirror is wide.  It was one of 80 telescopes featured in the International Year of Astronomy program in 2009.

The VO has a staff of 16 Jesuits and a budget of about $1.5M per year.  That’s a respectable size.    What’s probably the world’s largest purely astronomical institution is the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore MD,  and it has a staff of 450.  The VO’s research activities look to be quite broad, but one thing they’re particularly interested in is long-term surveys.  Since they’re free from the usual funding cycles of foundations and governments, they can accumulate data over long periods.  They’re currently working on complete galactic surveys of the Local Group, of star clusters in the Milky Way, of “spectrally peculiar” stars, and of meterorite properties.

Their patient long-term outlook is a nice real-world fit to the theme of Neal Stephenson’s recent SF novel, “Anathem” (2008), where the technorati stuff  themselves into monasteries, away from the upheavals of the secular world, in order to pursue their interests in peace.   That’s also the theme of  the great SF classic “A Canticle of Leibowitz” by Walter Miller (1959), where monasteries become the last refuges of learning after the nuclear apocalypse.

Yet the VO is the only religious-scientific operation that I’ve found.  There are lots of religiously-oriented universities that do science, of course, and lots of governmental institutes in countries with a national religion, but no other institutions that are supported directly by the religious organization itself.  Science is overwhelmingly done at universities, not at monasteries.   It’s a nice vision to imagine monks laboring away over centuries on the greatest book of all, the Book of Nature, but that’s not the way science is actually done.

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