As Br. Guy posted in his beautiful piece on the passing Fr. George Coyne, SJ, today the Church will lay to rest an historic figure in the Church. Why do I call Fr. Coyne an historic figure? After all, he didn’t put forward a stunning theory on par with Georges Lemaitre’s “Cosmic Egg,” nor will his name be adapted to a catch phrase like, “The Copernican Revolution.” He will never become a science textbook staple like the “Father” of modern genetics, Fr. Gergor Mendel, nor will his name be synonymous with famous Catholic scientists like Galileo Galilei. Yet, Galileo would have salivated at the opportunity to spy the heavens through the optic Fr. Coyne helped bring into being. True, Fr. Coyne was not the “Angel” in a Jewish Synagogue who spun the lens for the VATT telescope, but his dialogue with Roger Angel and agreement that if this Angel spun the glass Fr. Coyne would build it’s house led to the development of the Vatican Observatory’s research home on Mount Graham with the blessing of now St. John Paul II. The success of the VATT made Roger Angel’s spin cast technique the foundation for the forthcoming giant mirror telescopes like the Giant Magellan Telescope. In light of this, I think it safe to say that Fr. Coyne has at least a partial claim as co-grandfather of professional spin cast mirror telescopes.
Risk and reward, the heart of a scientist, the heart of a Catholic, and the heart of Fr. George Coyne.
My remembrance of Fr. Coyne is less about his influence on modern astronomy and more of his influence on me. In 2003, I reached out to Fr. Coyne via e-mail, wondering if the Vatican Observatory had any programs for the non-scientist on matters of faith and astronomy. As a lover of both, I figured the Vatican Observatory was the best place to look for such a program. I must admit that my expectation was to not even receive a response. After all, why would a Vatican Office that is involved with scientific collaboration with groups like NASA, the ESA, and the Planetary Science Institute even care what a newly ordained priest with a four inch reflector telescope thinks about faith and astronomy. Much to my surprise and delight, Fr. Coyne responded quickly, professionally, and kindly. Fr. Coyne’s e-mail (one that I looked for in my e-mail history, but could not find) quickly confirmed that the Vatican Observatory did not have programs for the non-scientist. After sharing the professional collaborations the Vatican Observatory does have, I was expecting the conclusion to be, “Therefore, don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Instead, Fr. Coyne shared a sentiment that reflected his willingness to consider a risky new director for the Observatory, “Maybe we should look into something for the non-scientist… Check back with us in the future to see if we develop anything.”
It was ten years later that Br. Guy walked through the door Fr. Coyne opened, leading to the first ever Faith and Astronomy Workshop. Though I never met Fr. Coyne, I can confidently say that he and Br. Guy changed my life and helped God realize a passion and gift that lay dormant in me that is now fully engaged with my explorations of faith and science with you on Sacred Space Astronomy.
One of the great gifts of YouTube is that historic figures can be remembered in video. Here is one of my favorite lectures from Fr. Coyne. Enjoy and say a prayer for Fr. Coyne and the Jesuit community as they return their brother to the Lord this day.
Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.