Pope Francis to Young Astronomers: Keep Love and Wonder Alive

The Pontiff drew inspiration from Psalm 8 in letter to students and faculty of the Vatican Observatory Summer School.

Galaxy M74
Galaxy M74 (photo: NASA/ESA/ / Hubble Collaboration)

Pope Francis sent a letter to young astronomy scholars Tuesday encouraging them to maintain their “sense of wonder” and surprise throughout their research. While praising the “great discoveries” of astronomy, he urged the researchers never to lose sight of other important realities such as love and friendship.

“Perhaps the most amazing thing about this universe is that it contains creatures like us, men and women who possess the ability to observe it with wonder and to ‘interrogate’ it,” Pope Francis said in a June 20 greeting to students and faculty of the Vatican Observatory Summer School.

The Pontiff drew inspiration from Psalm 8.

“Indeed, when the Psalmist asks, ‘What is man that you should keep him in mind, mortal man that you care for him,’ he immediately goes on to say, ‘Yet you have made him little less than a God; with glory and honor you crowned him,’” the Pope said.

“May you never lose this sense of wonder, in your research and in your lives,” the Pontiff said. “May you be inspired always by the love for truth and awestruck by all that each fragment of the universe sets before you.”

The astronomical summer school, launched in 1986, is held at Castel Gandolfo, the venue for many papal summer retreats. It aims to bring together young scientists from around the world to study under leading astronomy experts. The school was on a five-year hiatus, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Vatican News reported.

This year marks the 18th edition of the summer school, which is held June 4-30. The themes this year include big data and machine learning, aiming to provide students with data-analysis experience.

Pope Francis cited new advances in astronomical observation technology: the James Webb Space Telescope, launched into space in 2021, and the Vera Rubin Observatory.

The Vera Rubin Observatory, funded by the U.S. government and based in the Chilean Andes 300 miles north of Santiago, is set to finish construction in 2024. The observatory’s telescope, which is 27.5 feet in length, will take images of the entire visible night sky every three to four nights. According to its website, the observatory aims to map the Milky Way galaxy and create an inventory of the solar system, in addition to other work.

Pope Francis voiced enthusiasm for the research.

“All of us are fascinated by the great discoveries about the universe that astronomers are offering us in these days,” the Pope said. “We are amazed at the marvelous images sent from the new James Webb Space Telescope, and once the Vera Rubin Observatory becomes operative we expect to see how the universe continues to expand and change before our eyes. Above all, we are struck by the vastness of the universe, its enormous extent and the astonishing number of galaxies, stars, and planets that have been identified.”

“The immensity of the universe has always been a source of wonder for humanity. Its sheer size can be overwhelming, even frightening,” the Pope said. He noted the scholars’ efforts to use new technology to understand “something of that vast expanse” of the universe.

“You are in the process, then, of acquiring tools that can help you understand the universe,” he remarked. “Yet all of us know that, even with the best of tools, the quality of their results depends on the wisdom and expertise of those who employ them. In science and in philosophy alike, we can be tempted to obtain only those responses that we already expected and not to let ourselves be surprised by new and unforeseen discoveries.”

“My hope is that you will not remain content with the results of your research until you have also had the experience of being surprised,” Pope Francis said. “And even though you are looking at reality through the window of astronomy, be sure not to neglect the other windows that can show you other important realities, like compassion and love, realities that you are no doubt encountering also in the friendships that you are forming in these days.”

The Pope wrote his message while convalescing from abdominal surgery at Rome’s Gemelli Hospital, Vatican News reported. He offered the summer-school participants his best wishes for “pleasant and fruitful days of study and friendship.”

“I cordially bless you in whatever paths your work leads you, and I ask you, please, to pray for me,” he said.

The Vatican Observatory was refounded by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, though papal support for astronomical research dates back centuries earlier. The observatory was originally located near St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome but relocated to Castel Gandolfo under Pope Pius XI due to light pollution from the city.

In 1981, again due to growing light pollution, the Vatican Observatory launched another research center, the Vatican Observatory Research Group, in Tucson, Arizona. Then it launched the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope in Mount Graham, Arizona, in 1993, according to the Vatican Observatory website.

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