From my office for the week at the Vatican Observatory, adjacent to Piazza Pia in Albano, Italy, I hear children running in the park, vendors selling vegetables, and oversized trucks navigating the narrow stone streets.
I’m also next to the main door to the complex, a twelve-foot tall behemoth that could probably stop a military tank dead in its tracks. The door usually has to be slammed shut in order to make sure it latches.
During most of the year at the Observatory, this door opens and shuts just a few times a day, as staff come and go. The Jesuit astronomers live above their offices, so they only use it if they’re venturing into town.
This week, though, the slams are constant—a loud bang that echoes through the stone foyer. It would normally be enough to push someone to the brink.
But this month, through the doors pass the 25 students of the Vatican Observatory Summer School (VOSS), a program that brings together young astronomers ages 22-31 along with some of the best faculty in the field. Their excitement, chatter and enthusiasm make the door slamming much more tolerable—almost pleasant.
I’m here at the school for its first two weeks, to get to know the students and their backgrounds, and their hopes for the future. I’ve dropped into a few of the lectures as well, but the topics, revolving around big data and machine learning in astronomical surveys, are a bit over my head, if you’ll pardon the pun.
So I’ve gotten to chat with the students during the midmorning coffee break (this is Italy, after all) and again over long and delicious lunches (Italy!)
As Br. Guy wrote in our email newsletter yesterday, the 25 come from all walks of life; poor and middle-class backgrounds, small and large families, devoutly faithful or without any religious background. (Religion plays no role in the admissions process).
On the first evening, I saw people talking and sitting with others from their own corners of the world. But by the next morning’s coffee, everyone had mixed together, with people from South America eagerly discussing their research, background and hobbies with students from Africa and North America. Europeans were talking about soccer with people from Asia and Australia. Folks whose governments might be at odds with each other were sitting and making small talk over espresso and croissants.
In my time as Executive Director of Development for the Vatican Observatory Foundation, I’ve seen the remarkable power of astronomy to bring people together. Shared awe of the heavens, it seems, has a special ability to knock down walls.
The national observatory of the world’s smallest country has the unique chance to make this happen. For one, as an institution dedicated to the relationship between faith and science, the Vatican Observatory has always been a champion of dialogue. Its research and strong reputation in the field means that it can attract top experts to serve as faculty.
Also, it’s blessed with incredibly generous supporters to the Vatican Observatory Foundation. This year, the Foundation has covered the entire cost of the school, thanks to our donors’ support. That means that students attend tuition-free, and those with greater need, especially from developing countries, received as much support as they needed for travel, room and board.
If you’d like to be a part of making this and future schools happen, click here. You’ll be a part of something fascinating, unique, and inspiring for not only the students, but everyone in the Observatory family.
Today, Friday, the students and some of the faculty and Jesuits head up to Florence for the weekend—one of the highlights of every school. As I take care of some office work and declutter my inbox, the door will slam much less often this afternoon—but it will be a bit too quiet.
This is the first in a series of reflections on the 2023 Vatican Observatory Summer School (VOSS). Next week, we’ll meet some of the students and learn what brought them to Italy!