To print: Click here or Select File and then Print from your browser's menu.


Looking for GOD and ALIENS

Father Coyne, a scientist and Jesuit priest, contemplates God, telescopes, mirrors, and extraterrestrial life.

by Margaret Wertheim

For close to a quarter century, Father George Coyne has been director and senior scientist at the Vatican Observatory Research Group, a small but intensive unit of cosmologists and astronomers funded by the Holy See. A wiry and energetic man who entered into Jesuit training at the age of eighteen, Coyne is the son of a working-class family from Baltimore and is still slightly dazzled to find himself at the epicenter of Catholic life. In looking to the stars, Coyne sees his life as a natural outgrowth of what Ignatius of Loyola, the Jesuit's founder, famously called "our way of proceeding." Ignatius stressed that a central aspect of Jesuit life was the concept of "ministry," or service to the wider community. For the original Jesuits of the sixteenth century that meant tending the poor and the sick; for Coyne and his Vatican colleagues, their ministry is astronomy.

The Vatican Observatory Research Group (VORG) is officially headquartered at Castel Gandolfo, a fortified castle perched on the rim of an extinct volcano an hour outside Rome. Formerly owned by the Medici, the castle now serves as the Pope's summer palace and the VORG's spiritual home. Last summer, I made the trip to Coyne's second home, in Tucson, Arizona. There, light years away from Roman opulence, the VORG conducts its research from a small suite of offices at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory. Rome and Tuscon, Catholicism and cosmology-Coyne moves effortlessly between the two worlds, insisting that "nothing we learn about the universe through science threatens our faith. It only enriches it."

In the mid 1960s, Coyne was part of a team studying the surface chemistry of the moon, part of NASA's preparatory work for the Apollo missions. Later, his research shifted to the formation of stars and the evolution of proto-planetary discs around stars, a major topic now in astrobiology, as it is assumed that planets are the first requirement for any form of life. Throughout his astronomical career, Coyne's work has inadvertently dovetailed with our growing desire for extraterrestrial contact, a subject about which he remains optimistically equivocal.

Today, the Vatican group is undertaking a detailed survey of all the galaxies in the neighborhood of our own Milky Way, what Coyne calls our "cosmic backyard." In the mid 1980s, the VORG decided to build its own telescope, a step that propelled this religious group to the very forefront of optical research and helped to usher in an astronomical revolution.

The Biggest Mirror on Earth

To understand what this revolution means, Coyne took me to visit Roger Angel at the University of Arizona's Mirror Lab, a legendary haven of optical innovation where the world's most powerful telescope mirrors are made. When the lab was getting started, Angel needed a test case to try out his technology and he teamed up with the VORG, whose advanced technology telescope, now boasts the first ever "spun cast" mirror.

In a bizarre partnering of science and sport, the Mirror Lab is bolted to the side of the university's football stadium. That's the one building on campus strong enough to support the huge machinery that casting requires. As we buzz for entry, Coyne talks about his love of athletics: At his next birthday he will turn seventy-one, yet he still gets up at 5 a.m. every morning to ride his bike for twelve miles and run for three.

Inside the lab, the main workroom stretches three stories high and is half the size of a football field. Gigantic gantries crisscross the space while several enormous cranes stand by awaiting orders-they can lift twenty tons, yet are eggshell sensitive. "It's a huge technical challenge," says Coyne, "you can't afford to scratch anything." The whole building is low-pressurized to protect the workspace from dust. Fifty yards away, at the far end of the lab, a newly minted mirror is being polished. At 8.4 meters in diameter, it seems impossibly big and at the same time indescribably delicate. With its deep concave surface, glistening smooth and bathed in water to aid the buffing, it resembles a miniature lake or, perhaps more aptly, a vast contact lens.

Telescope mirrors are indeed augmented eyes extending our vision to the far reaches of reality. This one has twelve times the light-gathering surface of the Hubble and is one of a pair intended for the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT), which will soon be world's most powerful optical instrument. One of the missions of the LBT, Angel tells me, will be to take pictures of extrasolar planets. "Before, you could only speculate about extraterrestrial life. Now we're at a point where we can make telescopes with which we can actually go looking for life." In order to maximize the mirror's resolving power, no bump on its surface is allowed to be larger than 100 nanometers. If this mirror were expanded to the size of North America, there would be no protrusion higher than four inches! The custom-designed robotic polisher crawling over its surface chips away just atoms at a time and constantly adjusts the shape of its foot to maintain perfectly contoured contact with the surface. Unlike conventional telescope mirrors whose surfaces are spherical, the ones made in Angel's lab are parabolic, the most efficient shape for focusing light.

Coyne and I are watching from a landing as the polisher inches its way over the surface and I wonder, frankly, how anyone tells the difference-it looks pretty near spherical to me. The distinction might sound minor, but Coyne tells me that polishing a parabolic surface is a major technical hurdle that Angel's team had to resolve. As an unusually deep parabola, the VATT's mirror represented an especially challenging case and much of the technology used here was developed on its surface.

Inside a High-Tech Igloo

Angel's most important innovation, however, is spin casting, a technology whereby the shape of the mirror is created while the glass is molten. The idea of a liquid parabola was first suggested by the great seventeenth-century astronomer Johannes Kepler: Spin a bowl of liquid and the force of gravity will naturally sculpt its surface into a parabolic depression. A few telescopes have actually employed this idea using rotating bowls of mercury, but that's a toxic way to view the stars. Angel realized that Kepler's insight could be implemented with molten glass-you'd just have to keep the whole apparatus spinning while the glass cooled and set.

Coyne and I climb up to a platform on the second floor of the lab so we can see down into the section where the casting takes place. We have come at a rare moment, for a brand new mirror has just been taken out of the oven and is sitting on its pallet like a gigantic lozenge. Most of its bulk is a honeycomb structure; there's just a thin layer of glass on top which will be polished to form the actual mirror surface. Angel explains that "the honeycombing gives the mirror strength but radically reduces the weight." Still, we're talking twenty-one tons of ultra-pure borosilicate glass, which must be specially shipped in from Japan.

The oven itself is one of a kind. A gargantuan Rube Goldbergesque contraption bristling with bolts and snaking tubes, it is ten meters in diameter and two and a half meters high. This apparatus rests on a base three and a half meters high that spins the entire construction seven times a minute. In flight it looks as if it might take you to the moon. On its floor is a layer of aluminum plating sitting on a bed of steel ball bearings, which allows the mold to expand and contract as the glass heats and cools. Without this precaution, thermal expansion would tear the mirror apart.

God's Sperm

Even turned off, the oven radiates power and Father Coyne and I approach it slowly, as if creeping up on a sleeping tiger. I'm not sure what I expected, but when we finally get inside we find ourselves standing in a strange high-tech igloo. The whole thing is lined with ceramic panels, each embedded with heating coils that press out in relief against the chalky background. I am reminded of fossilized worms embedded in shale. Father Coyne has never been in the oven before and he's clearly amazed, poking at the panels and marveling at the heat they produce. When they're cooking, the temperature reaches 2120 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt rock.

At peak power the coils draw 1.5 megawatts, enough to power a small suburb. Angel tells the story that when the VORG's mirror was cast, the original oven was spinning away wildly when suddenly he noticed it slowing down. Someone had kicked out the extension cord. "Things were a lot more relaxed back then," he observes dryly. These days the lab has two separate connections to the Tucson grid, plus two backup generators. Loss of power now would cost several million dollars in wrecked materials.

That original casting produced a 1.8 meter mirror, small by today's standards. But as Angel notes, a mirror is just the first part of the equation. "It was absolutely critical for us to see that the mirror could be turned into a telescope that would actually produce good images. And the Vatican group did that." To this day, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope remains the best two-meter imagining scope on the planet, the perfect instrument for near-field astronomy. Its descendants, such as the Large Binocular Telescope, will be focusing on far fainter and more distant objects that may at last be able to image extrasolar planets. In a lovely twist of fate, the Roman Catholic Church has paved the way for instruments that may finally enable us to detect life on other worlds.

But should we expect to find life elsewhere? One afternoon as Father Coyne and I stroll among the telescopes at the Mount Kitt Peak facility just outside of Tucson, I asked Coyne if he believes there will be other populated worlds. As a priest who has been watching the stars for nigh on fifty years, he's likely given the question a good deal of thought. All the more reason why his answer startles me. Looking out at the telescopes arrayed around us, Coyne suggests that we might view stars as God's sperm. Every sperm has the potential to produce life, he says, but most of them never realize that goal. Like sperm, "each star is fired with a propensity for life, but there is no reason to think any of them have achieved this." Perhaps out there it is really nothing but vast clouds of gas and billions upon billions of nuclear fireballs going through the motions of physics and chemistry without ever reaching a biological threshold.

Then again, perhaps that threshold has been reached and somewhere in the infinite void of cosmological space there is another sentient being looking out for us. Whether or not we have intergalactic siblings, Father Coyne is confident that we are not alone-as a priest and as a scientist the marvel for him is the universe itself.


Current Issue | Web Exclusives | Advertise | About | Subscribe | Search | Main

Site and magazine supported by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.
2002 Science & Spirit Magazine. All rights reserved.