Rev. George V. Coyne, S.J.

Rev. George V. Coyne, S.J.

January 19, 1933 - February 11, 2020

Rev. George V. Coyne, S.J. was born on January 19, 1933 in Baltimore, MD, the third of nine children. He attended Catholic elementary schools and received a full scholarship to Jesuit-run Loyola Blakefield High School in Towson, MD. Upon graduation in 1951 he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Wernersville, PA. During his first year of studies in Latin and Greek literature, he was instructed by a Jesuit priest who, in addition to having a Ph.D. in the classical languages, also had a M.S. in mathematics and an educated interest in astronomy; he noticed George’s interest in astronomy and encouraged him in the field. George earned a B.S. in mathematics and licentiate in philosophy from Fordham University in 1958, a Ph.D. in astronomy in 1962 from Georgetown University, and finally the licentiate in sacred theology from Woodstock College in 1966, the year after his ordination.

For his doctorate in astronomy at Georgetown University, Coyne carried out a spectrophotometric study of the lunar surface. He spent the summer of 1963 doing research at Harvard University, the summer of 1964 as a National Science Foundation lecturer at the University of Scranton, and the summer of 1965 as visiting research professor at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

Coyne’s main research interest was the study via polarimetry of a number of astronomical objects. These included the surfaces of the Moon and Mercury; the interstellar medium; stars with extended atmospheres; and Seyfert galaxies, which are a group of spiral galaxies with very small and unusually bright star-like centers. His final papers were on the polarization produced in cataclysmic variables, interacting binary star systems that give off sudden bursts of intense energy.

Coyne was visiting assistant professor at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) in 1966-67 and 1968-69, and visiting astronomer at the Vatican Observatory in 1967-68. He joined the Vatican Observatory as an astronomer in 1969 and became an assistant professor at the LPL in 1970. In 1976 he became a senior research fellow at the LPL and a lecturer in the University of Arizona Department of Astronomy. The following year he served as Director of the University of Arizona’s Catalina Observatory and as Associate Director of the LPL.

Coyne was appointed Director of the Vatican Observatory by Pope John Paul I in 1978, and in that same year he also became Associate Director of Steward Observatory. During 1979-80 he served as Acting Director and Head of Steward Observatory and the Astronomy Department, and thereafter he continued as an adjunct professor in the University of Arizona Astronomy Department.

He retired as Director of the Vatican Observatory in August 2006. After spending a sabbatical year as an Associate Pastor at St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in Raleigh, NC, he remained on the staff of the Vatican Observatory and served as President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation until 2011. In that year he was appointed to the McDevitt Chair of Religious Philosophy at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY.

Coyne was awarded honorary doctorate degrees by Boston College; the Jagellonian University in Krakow, Poland; Loyola University Chicago; Marquette University; St Peter’s College Jersey City; and the University of Padua, Italy. In 2008 Villanova University awarded Coyne the Mendel Medal, and in 2010 he was awarded the George Van Biesbroeck Prize by the American Astronomical Society. He was a member of the International Astronomical Union, the American Astronomical Society, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the American Physical Society, the Optical Society of America and the Pontifical Academy of Science.