It’s been a few months since I have given an update as to what we’ve been doing here at the Foundation. Of course, I did provide a couple of diaries describing the science happening here, but it’s also time to review the state of this site and the foundation in general.
Our stats: As of today, we have 164 paid subscribers (three new subscribers since the last diary — thanks and welcome!) and 10,029 people (we’ve topped ten thousand!) who get notified of new postings. We continue to grow, but not nearly fast enough to keep us in business. Please tell more people about our site; and if you can, please subscribe at a rate of $10 a month (especially since you’re probably not going out to get donuts at this time) or $100 per year. And tell your friends about the site…
Which brings us back why we do the work we do. Even – perhaps especially – in a time of social uncertainty and the threat of an economic collapse, our seemingly abstract work as astronomers is still vital. One insight into that assertion came from Fr. George Coyne, whom sadly we lost in early 2020. (Check out the memorial page here!)
Father Coyne directed the Vatican Observatory for nearly thirty years and during that time he founded the Vatican Observatory Foundation. In his role as fundraiser, gathering the resources that led to the construction of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, he had a profound understanding of both the questions and the needs of our potential supporters. When people looked at the troubles in the world and wondered why we should spend our resources — financial and human — on something so esoteric as a telescope, his reply was direct and surprising: “Yes, we need to feed the hungry and cure the blind,” he said. “But if that is all that we do, then we will all be hungry, and we will all be blind.”
Without the food for the soul — art, music, storytelling, astronomy — our souls starve. If we cannot see the stars for what they are, then both our intellects and our imaginations will have gone blind. Without those qualities that make us more than just mere grazing animals, we lose sight of the greater universe for which we were created. Without “HOLiCOW” we’d be no more than cows.
These present troubles will end; that is why we need to be sure to maintain a world with astronomy and the other arts. We need to be ready to direct our spirits to the greater meaning that only a well nourished soul can reach for.
The creation of the universe was marked by the presence, at the beginning, of the Word. We do not live by bread alone, but by every Word uttered by the mouth of the Creator. Only with your support can we be ready to read, to appreciate, and to share those Words.
And now for more details, which will be of interest to those who have been supporting us…
[In order to read the rest of this post, you have to be a paid-up member of Sacred Space, and logged in as such!]
First, one sad bit of news; Bob Trembley’s brother Victor died of the virus on Easter Sunday. You may know Bob as our web guru, who also writes the weekly “In the Sky” feature here; understandably, he was not able to write his usual weekly feature this week. We have sent him our condolences and on Monday we said a Mass in our community here in Tucson for Bob and his brother Victor.
Beyond that, however, we are fortunate in many ways. So far, we are all healthy, and we are able to continue working full time from our community in Tucson. Likewise, the members of the Specola in Rome can continue to reach their offices (which are in the same building as their community rooms) so that work has gone on essentially unabated. Indeed, in the past month I have heard of several scientific papers that have been completed and accepted for publication. Our scientific work proceeds apace.
However, access to the telescope on Mt. Graham has been cut off, in large part to protect the number of staff people who otherwise would have had to make the trip up the mountain every day to a location far from any health facilities and far from the needs of their families. As you may know, the support and engineering staff are all employees of the University of Arizona or the Mount Graham International Observatory, not the Specola, and so these decisions are not made by us directly, but we were consulted and support this move.
The largest single expense for operating the telescope are the salaries of our dedicated engineering staff, and this continues even as the telescope is shut down. These people are all practically irreplaceable; given their experience and specialized expertise, engineers like them hard to find and they are subject to being hired away by other observatories. (Several of our engineers over the years have been hired away to more senior positions at other institutions.) They are continuing to work on various necessary software and design projects from their homes, but obviously without access to the telescope or the labs on campus other important projects cannot go forward.
On the other hand, we have been able to eliminate a number of other planned expenses for this year. The 2020 Vatican Observatory Summer School is now postponed until 2021; we had gathered more than $35,000 towards paying for this school, and the donors have agreed to allow us to hold onto this money until we need it next year. Likewise our travel expenses are essentially zero, while we have been able to do much of our outreach online (including honoraria provided for our online presentations to various groups.) Still, most of our regular expenses such as accounting and office expenses continue unchanged.
The way we reach the most people most of the time is here, on our Sacred Space Astronomy site, and of course that continues unabated. In fact, with more people staying at home, we’re putting up more posts than ever and have more readers than ever.
So in summary, the work of the Vatican Observatory Foundation has continued essentially unchanged, even in the face of this unprecedented crisis. I am also happy to say that, so far at least, the rate of donations to the Foundation has been more or less on track with what we expect. We are so grateful to everyone who contributes, large and small.