Half of the astronomers from the Vatican Observatory work out of Castel Gandolfo, Italy, and the other half in Tucson. Italy has been under a strict lock-down for several weeks, while the University of Arizona is also closed and members of staff are strongly urged to stay home. In particular, all the telescopes at the Mount Graham International Observatory, including the Vatican’s Advanced Technology Telescope (the VATT), have been shut down in order to allow the day staff to stay down the mountain, closer to home and family (and, should it be necessary, medical care.)
But our “commute” in Castel Gandolfo is just walking downstairs from the community living quarters to the Specola offices. And our home in Tucson is well served by the internet. (In fact, my own office as president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation is just a room in our house here in Tucson.)
Still, I was curious to find out what people have been up to. So I wrote to folks both in Tucson (where I am myself at the moment) and in Italy to see what’s been going on. Here’s what some of them have passed on to me…
Fr. Jean Baptiste Kikwaya Eluo SJ writes: I used to go to the gym to exercise first thing in the morning followed by daily work in my office on the University campus, until time for the daily Mass at Newman Center on the Campus, then back home to join my Jesuit brothers for half an hour social time before the community dinner. Now that the gym is closed, I cannot go openly to my office, and St Thomas More church is also closed, I had to reinvent new routines that took some time to start flowing. Work is now the first thing I get myself involved in, and I have to wait for the sun to start to go down to go either walking, jogging or biking to close the day. Fortunately, I find time to keep up with prayer and Mass at home, to follow some university conferences online through zoom, to check with friends in US and abroad to find out how they too cope with the lock-down. I am wrapping up my current project on physical properties of very faint Near Earth Objects, and also I open myself up to a new area of research: dust production in comets and meteors.
Recently Fr. Chris Corbally SJ was able to upgrade his laptop at the community residence to have a large external screen, a knockdown effect from the installation of three very large monitors at VATT. So he has found it an easy enough transition to work from home. He is comparing spectra of normal stars with those of a peculiar variable star, which is suspected of being not one but two stars. These spectra were obtained by colleagues with VATT in February. The large screen also helped him referee an article, which required the parallel comparison of several related ones.
Fr. Alessandro Omizzolo works from the astronomy department in Padua, in the north of Italy that has been hardest hit by the virus. Describing his days at home, he writes: It is very hard to live in these conditions of total isolation. I live like an astronomer-hermit. Besides breakfast and lunch, the morning is divided into periods of prayer, celebration of Mass, and then work at the computer (astro-ph, reading articles, preparing articles). My research is on jellyfish galaxies, isolated nearby galaxies (through the images taken past in the year at the VATT), and bright his-z quasars (z>4). Also some new Einstein cross gravitational lens observations. Once or twice a week I teleconference with colleagues in the working group. Afternoons, after about 3-4 hours of work, I listen to music, I read and I dedicate myself to the cleaning of the house. It is important to keep in this time telephone or whatsapp contacts with friends and acquaintances. Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings are dedicated to the preparation of the Sunday homily that I send through the parish website to parishioners.
Fr. David Brown SJ was supposed to be moving to Tucson this spring, but that is still on hold; meanwhile he has kept up his research from Castel Gandolfo. During this time of quarantine, he is working on processing the data obtained from the VATT during an observing run in February 2020, mainly looking at the spectra of stars. Likewise, part of his time is being spent examining the spectra of stars from the PEPSI collaboration and working on completing a few journal articles.
Also in Rome, Fr. Richard D’Souza SJ writes: I am using the time during the shutdown to finish three big writing projects: The first is about the accretion of dwarf galaxy satellites in the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy, which my collaborators and I started writing nearly a year ago. The second is a review article about the stellar outskirts of galaxies like the Milky Way, and what we can learn about their formation history. The third is a popular article about the history and the ongoing work of the Specola for the journal of the Italian Physical Society.
Every spring semester, Fr. Paul Gabor SJ teaches history and philosophy of astronomy at the University of Arizona in Tucson, typically with a score of students, mainly juniors and seniors. This semester, he was very happy to be teaching in a newly refurbished classroom full of new electronic displays. It fit well with his “flipped classroom” approach, where students read handouts and listen to his talks as homework, while class time is devoted to discussions and group work. Unfortunately, since spring break the classroom has been empty; all University of Arizona classes have gone to remote mode. But with the “flipped classroom,” it was easy to make the transition. He still holds class sessions twice a week at the usual time but online using Zoom. All of his 25 students are accounted for(only one cannot make it to their regular Zoom class sessions). He finds that some students are understandably distracted with the extraordinary, uncertain and unsafe circumstances, preoccupied with the situation at home, etc. but he says,“I am confident that we shall manage to complete the course, without compromising its academic level.”