Fr. Coyne Remembrances
My faith journey has had dips and dives. Perhaps it is better to think than to believe? I prefer to do both, though I find it hard. Fr. Coyne’s interview with Professor Dawkins has been encouraging in my pursuit of truth. I wish I had the opportunity to meet Fr. Coyne who, in that interview, keenly identified God as a God of love, not a God of explanations. His was both a thoughtful and faithful response.
I am a Catholic who is also a scientist and I had on a whim emailed Fr.Coyne to ask for his advice on how I could best evangelize my fellow scientists. In response he sent be a copy of a few of his relevant works. From reading these works and much reflection I learned a great deal about how much we expect God to give us answers and how we ought not make an idol of knowledge. As a scientist and just a person who loves to learn about how everything works, it was and still is quite a challenge to me but one I have seen more wisdom is as I mature. I do wish I could have had the chance to speak with him in person, I am certain I would have learned much on the art of balancing science and religion, of how to hold both reason and faith in homeostasis from him.
God rest his soul.
Sometime in the mid 1960’s, Fr. Coyne was staying at our parish rectory which was near the University of Arizona. My father was at the church on a Sunday afternoon. He asked George to come over for dinner. My mother was horrified because it was the first time he was coming for dinner and we were having hot dogs. She thought that he was used to nice meals at the rectory and we were going to feed him hot dogs. George enjoyed the meal and said that he hadn’t had hot dogs since a baseball game.
Padre Giorgio!….Literally, a LIFETIME of memories!! Forefront is my first time to Italy and Castel Gandolfo with my beloved parents, Frank+ and Noel+ Clark. Friends with Padre Giorgio, I was fortunate enough to have been brought to Castel Gandolfo by my Mom and Dad. I turned 18 years old on this, my first, trip to Europe.
Greeted by Padre Giorgio at the (Fiumicino) airport, we looped through the beautiful Italian countryside to the Papal Palace where Father Coyne made us cappuccini in the kitchen of the Pope’s Summer residence where we laughed and happily nibbled on biscotti and enjoyed homemade frothy espresso drinks. Looking beyond the wide-open shutters through the palace’s kitchen windows, Lago Albano took my breath away.
Distinctly, my clearest memories of Padre Giorgio involved….Family. Each time I met Father Giorgio after age 18, whether a wild college student sending college boyfriends to Castel Gandolfo when a junior at Gonzaga-in-Florence, Italy; or a moody and stressed out graduate student at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome; or a skeptical young adult reflecting on a career, Padre Giorgio was/is, upon reflection, Family.
Unforgettable are moments of: Padre Giorgio presenting a wedding gift to his dearest friend, Rita Calligheri (Assistant Extraordinaire), a hand carved trunk with La Specola Vaticana engraved image in the wood (Exquisite!); or, visiting Padre Giorgio after dinner when I was in graduate school-walking down the dark palace hallway to find Padre Giorgio at his desk, in a large Renaissance room, with the light on. He in his big office chair, out of darkness, into the contrast of light brightening the room. Illuminating Wisdom! Upping the cool factor learning that Padre Giorgio started running marathons; or Padre Giorgio briefly stopping through San Francisco on a generous tour of California with Specola Vaticana familes; and when in San Francisco, Padre Girgio’s innumerable dinners with The Clark Family at Osteria, Spinnaker, Sausalito and Mass at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Bolinas, CA in honor of his friend, our Mom, (Noel Clark) buried nearby.
A still talked about San Francisco favorite is Father Coyne presenting on the 100th Anniversary of Charles Darwin to the entire Student Body of Convent of the Sacred Heart & Stuart Hall High Schools: “The Darwin Project”. Finding his shoes extra cute, over 200+ 14 to 18 years old co ed students were captivated by Padre Giorgio’s presentation. Students and Faculty mesmerized by his breakout sessions. Intellectual, hard to impress, Independent- Catholic school Teachers accepted and welcomed Padre Giorgio as one of their own.
My husband, daughter, mother and father in law, Clark Family and friends are each blessed to know Padre Giorgio. Most profound is Padre Giorgio’s friendship with my Dad, Frank Clark. I reached out to Padre Giorgio to celebrate the 9.21.2019 Memorial Mass for Frank/Dad/Gramps who died on 8.1.2019, Frank and Noel’s 66th wedding anniversary. Padre Giorgio could not make it to San Francisco; but sent these most meaningful words, “Frank Clark was one of the finest persons I have ever known and I was blessed with every moment I spent with him.”
Just a few months later, I was stunned to learn from friends who received word via a Vatican Observatory Foundation email and The New York Times of Padre Giorgio’s 2.11.2020 passing: Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes; entering Life Eternal not long after his friends, Frank Clark and Specola Vaticana’s Fr. Manny Carriera, SJ. St. Bernadette Soubirous said, “I shall spend every moment loving…” How grateful am I to look back at the last communication I received from Padre Giorgio on 9.28.19.
Signing off, he writes, “Love you all.”
I first met Fr. Coyne in fall 1994, when I had a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. My book on Jesuit astronomer Christoph Clavius had just come out, and George and I had been in correspondence about it. The Academy routinely encouraged us to invite interesting people to visit and dine with the fellows as a group, so I invited George to come to dinner one evening at the Academy, and he accepted.
When he arrived, after introducing ourselves, he said, only half-jokingly (I thought), that he was looking forward to meeting the other fellows, but that he wanted to talk about astronomy and history; it would be my responsibility to deal with any theological questions!
The other fellows were all eager to meet and talk with the director of the Vatican Observatory, and Galileo came up quite a bit, of course. If anyone mentioned theology, he turned to me, and I had nothing to say. We talked astronomy and history all evening.
Reminiscing George Coyne, the “Re-Founder” of Vatican Observatory
With the death of Father George Coyne in Syracuse, New York State, on 21 February 2020, the Catholic world in general, and Jesuit Society in particular, lost a rare, unique person who could comfortably combine love for “good science” with profound faith in a caring and loving God. Acclaimed as one of the world’s most respected and well-known Jesuit scientists, Coyne was a man of many parts – an accomplished scientist with an asteroid (14429 Coyne) named after him, a world-renowned scholar with 11 honorary doctoral degrees, a highly-respected researcher and writer with several books and more than 100 scholarly papers in peer-reviewed international journals, a visionary leader and institution builder who is deservingly recognized as the second founder of the internationally-reputed Vatican Observatory, Rome and Tucson, Arizona, USA. It may be hard to replace a person of his calibre, but we can be proud and be grateful to God for the gift of him to the world of science and of religion, particularly to the Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus.
Coyne, the “Re-Founder of Vatican Observatory”
Brother Guy Consomagno, present Director of Vatican Observatory, rightly considers Coyne the second founder or re-founder of the Observatory. This indeed is a well-deserved honour accorded to Coyne because he not only had the longest term as the Director of the Observatory – 28 long and eventful years as Director and another 6 years as Director of the Vatican Observatory Foundation – but also, in a significant way, transformed it. Perhaps the best way to gauge the measure of success of a visionary leader and institution builder is to look at the mismatch or difference between the heritage that has been bequeathed to him/her and the legacy the same person has left behind. I had known Coyne for over 25 years, and I can unhesitatingly state that if such an evaluation were to be done, Coyne would certainly come out with an uncontested A-plus. When he took over the reins of the Observatory in 1978, it was just another international observatory. Of course, historically it had many significant achievements. It was one of the oldest in the world since its origin can be traced to the simple observatory set up by the Jesuits on the roof of the Collegio Romano as early as 1580s when the well-known Jesuit astronomer-mathematician Christopher Clavius (1573-1612) and his colleagues were engaged in very important astronomical activities, including the independent confirmation of the telescopic discoveries of Galileo. Well-known astrophysicist, the Jesuit Father Angelo Secchi (1818-1878), who pioneered astronomical spectroscopy, was its Director for 28 years. Also, it was one the first astronomical institutions to involve women in scientific work. In the beginning of the 20th century Father John Hagan (1847-1940), its Director, recruited 4 Sisters of the Holy Mary – Emilia Ponzoni, Regina Colombo, Concetta Finardi, Luigia Pancri – in some of the activities of the observatory.
Building up a team of talented astronomers and scholars was another feather in Coyne’s cap. When he began directorship, the observatory had just a handful of astronomers, mostly from Germany and Belgium, but today it has more than 15 fulltime Jesuit astronomers from various parts of the globe. 10 asteroids have been named in honour of Jesuit astronomers, 5 of whom (including Coyne) are current members of the Observatory. Fr. Michael Heller, Templeton Award winner in 2008, is an Adjunct Scholar of the Observatory. In 2010, George Van Biesbroeck Prize was awarded to Coyne. Brother Guy Consolmagno, who already has an asteroid named in honour of him (4597 Consolmagno), was awarded the Carl Sagan Medal in 2014. Also the door has been opened for women scientists to become part of the team of the observatory. Another innovative initiative was the opening of the Vatican Observatory Summer School (VOSS), attracting talented students and internationally reputed scientists as teachers. The practice of appointing outstanding scientists as Adjunct Scholars of the Observatory is another innovative way of attracting rare talents.
Not only was Coyne successful in getting talented scientists, he also succeeded in building up genuine team-spirit and active collaboration among them. As Consolmagno recalls in his interview with Catholic News Service, “Coyne created a space where we were all free to pursue ‘good science.’” Furthermore, on occasional instances of any tension between the Vatican Curia and the Observatory, “he acted as a firewall between us and the vagaries of the Vatican. He made us welcome and he made our collaborators and visitors welcome.”
The news of Fr Coyne’s passing hit me like a comet would, with all its Chinese traditional connotations. I remembered checking here and there for verification that it was not another feeble spam on my computer.
I couldn’t even recall since when I started subscribing to the information and publications on the VOF, but I recall the Director of VOF then as a Fr. George Coyne, who was practically omnipotent, knowing everything there is/was to be known and was so actively involved in everything at the VOF. The title of a book authored by Fr. Coyne interested me. I bought it, read it, and since then my bookshelves were deluged under by like titles by Fr. Coyne. I was desperate to get hold of all his writings and savour them.
Though a lawyer by profession, I have always been interested in Physics and Astronomy. Constantly challenged as to how my Catholic beliefs would reconcile with the science and the astrophysical laws I love, I found the best answer to that since reading Fr. Coyne’s article on reconciling faith and science years ago. That would have been the best and most persuasive article I have ever read in any facets of study I came across, whether in theology, literature, law, philosophy or science.
Somehow, his stepping down as the Director of VOF surprised me somewhat earlier, as I had always expected him to be the masthead of the ship and will just always be there spearheading everything.
The incident which has stuck in my memory is that, once in a period of spiritual desolation, relating back to an incident in my life which is now over 20 years ago, I wrote to Fr. Coyne seeking his advice. The audacity of it, how could I expect the Director of the VOF to know who this person from out of the big wide world is, and to have the time to attend to pleas for spiritual advice from every corner of the earth if not the universe? To my surprise (certainly more immense than the galaxy we are in), Fr. Coyne replied, with real and practical yet simple advice that could be lived out in daily life. My reaction was that I have won the cosmological lottery! And I am forever thankful to Fr. Coyne up to this very moment.
I can only hope Fr. Coyne is now even closer to the stars and other celestial objects he loved, smiling at us from above as the heavenly creatures smile at us each day and night. Till we meet again, Fr.
Writing about one of the greatest men I have ever met is a heavy responsibility. It is impossible to do justice to somebody who touched the lives of so many, in so many different ways, and who did so much good. But many others are writing their recollections of Fr. Coyne, and perhaps among all of us we can give a more proper dimension to the multifaceted legacy of that extraordinary man.
One of the best things that have happened in my life was to be chosen as a student at the 3rd Vatican Summer School, back in 1990. At that time, being a graduate student just opening my eyes to a world that was changing quickly after the Berlin Wall had fallen just a few months before, I was thrilled by the idea of attending an international summer school in astronomy. And, at the Vatican? Being myself a Catholic this was both exciting and intriguing. For sure it was going to be quite interesting, but what I did not suspect at the time was how deep an impact it would have on my life and my career.
At the time I knew that there was a Vatican Observatory, but I know next to nothing about it. I knew about Father Martin McCarthy, who worked there, as I had seen some of his papers some years earlier, but hardly anything else. The announcement of the summer school informed me that the Vatican Observatory was located at Castel Gandolfo – I guessed that it would be somewhere near the Papal summer residence, but what a surprise to discover later on that the school would take place at the Papal palace itself!
That worried me a little. We would be a group of young students coming from everywhere in the world, and we were supposed to stay all day at the summer residence of Pope John Paul II? How would that fit with the security measures at the palace? How disciplined would the behavior have to be? What would be the character of the astronomer priests who would host us there, at the core of the Vatican?
Intrigued by all this, I looked for information at the library of the Observatory of Meudon, where I was staying in the months preceding the school (remember, this was 1990; the world wide web was years into the future for everybody). There I found some recent annual reports of the Vatican Observatory, where I learned that the director was a Jesuit called George Coyne, a man of venerable appearance who appeared in pictures wearing glasses with a thick frame, talking solemnly to the Pope in some of the images. It was hard to tell how approachable this man would be but well, I would know in some months from then.
If I had had any concerns about the school, the venue, or the Vatican astronomers, they were shattered in the afternoon of Sunday 10th June 1990, when we had the first get-together of students, faculty, and observatory staff at the balcony of the Papal palace next to what would be the classroom. It surely was not as I had imagined – it was far better in every respect! That is when I met Father George Coyne.
Also Father Coyne was not as I had imagined. That affable man dressing informally like everyone else, who was welcoming us, talking to each one of us, joking, eating and drinking with all of us, was Father George Coyne, director of Specola Vaticana. This was hard to guess from the annual reports…
To me, saying that the summer school was a life-changing experience for the students is somewhat of an understatement. At that young age, in one of my first outings abroad, sharing that month with the other students, with the astronomers of the faculty, with the astronomers and other staff of the observatory, was just fantastic and I remember it to this day as the most enriching experiences in my life – -scientifically, but above of all humanly. Many of the friendships made back then continue to this day.
It did not take long to realize that the character of the school very much reflected the character of Father Coyne. The dedication to learning, the buildup of sincere friendships, the appreciation of the place where we were, the enjoyment of all the good things that the experience was offering us during that month, that deep, healthy joy of living – all that was also in Father Coyne’s character. The summer school made us better scientists and opened doors for many of us. But, above all, I like to think that what we shared in that month at Castel Gandolfo made us better persons.
The sense of humor of Father Coyne was legendary and we had plenty of samples during the school. His first words when we found him after he got lost in a village while jogging, during the school trip: “I never thought I would say this, but I am glad to see you!” His remark when he made stops for ice cream while driving us on excursions from Castel Gandolfo: “The Pope gave me some money for ice cream”. His advice while waiting at the private audience in Rome, minutes before the Pope walked in: “You can call him Holiness or Holy Father, but please don’t call him Mister Pope”… But there was also a much deeper side, which was revealed in our private talks with him during the school, in which he was interested in us, our environment at our home country, about our careers, about how we were perceiving how the school was going. He really cared about each one of us, and he showed that he did. This was Father Coyne.
Father Coyne and I stayed in touch after the school. We met again on several occasions over the years, at the first gatherings of former summer schools students, at conferences organized by the observatory, in my stays in Tucson in the early 1990s and visits afterwards. In those years I could appreciate even more his enormous driving force at the head of the Vatican Observatory, the way in which he was shaping it and expanding its role, the way in which he was serving the Church through his work at the observatory. I also read some of his works, and I remember well how impressed I was at his talk at the Vatican Observatory Summer School of 2007 where he described his insider’s experience at the Galileo Commission, in which he had served. At the time I thought that the content of that talk, and the freedom with which he expressed it, could hardly be delivered in front of more orthodox audiences. However, I found the same content, developed much further, in a chapter of his 2007 book “Faith and Knowledge”, published by the Vatican. This was also Father Coyne.
There was a curious feature that I noticed at the end of the school and also all the other times when I met Father Coyne in the following years. Talking to a former student of another school years later, I realized that others had noticed it too: he used to disappear just before the time to say goodbye came. Father Coyne did not like farewells.
Our communication had become more sparse in the last few years, but last January 19 I wrote him again on the occasion of his 87th birthday. While writing I imagined him as I had always known him, active, joyful, with projects, touching the lives of others as he had touched mine.
He answered my message half an hour later. Instead of telling me of his whereabouts like other times, his words were:
Thank you for thinking of me and for helping to recall the memories of the many fine times we have shared. Blessings on you and all of your family.
I had the sour feeling that, for the first time, Father Coyne was saying goodbye. He must have known that he did not have much time ahead in our world. And yes, we had memories of many shared fine times to recall.
God bless you, Father Coyne.
What to write about George? The fun of having him join the rugby teams for dinner when I lived near Castel Gandolfo in the 80’s? Monkey Man? The people we met and the fun we had crisscrossing the US raising funds for the foundation? Or our trips to Rome? So many memories.
I met Fr. Coyne when I lived near Castel Gandolfo in the early 80’s. I was American with a Jesuit uncle so I knocked on the Specola door. We have been friends ever since. Later we worked together fine tuning the VOF development program. That’s when I finally got used to calling him George.
Here are some of the things I won’t forget.
His sense of humor:
We were in a full auditorium, maybe 200 people, somewhere back east as he gave his usual lecture called Dance of the Fertile Universe. Part way through, George looked out and knowing that by then I knew most of it by heart – and probably checking to see if I was awake – he said, “Here comes joke number seven, Katie”! The audience was confused to say the least but it was hysterical and woke us all up! Or the story he often told about his first Mass. Seems a nephew yelled out, “He’s my Father”. Or the fact that he was appointed by Pope John Paul I whose demise soon afterwards may have been caused by regretting this decision. His Italian was mostly perfect except for a few really funny mistakes that cannot be repeated here. Were they intentional?
Another story he told, though he might have been exaggerating a bit, was how in the seminary he was able to learn about astronomy by hiding under the covers with a flashlight reading books that were not part of the curriculum. Evidently he had help from one of the Jesuit faculty members who recognized the importance of his interest.
His vocation was strong. He gave support and guidance to me and my family over the years. He said Mass in the inspirational Rooms of Ignatius in Rome. He discussed science and faith easily and respectfully with non-believers. When told he could not use the word “evolution” in a lecture title, he cancelled it.
Students loved his classes. I doubt he gave out anything less than a B, but that’s not the real reason. I saw first-hand as he taught at Loyola University Chicago Rome Center where I was Dean of Students. He enjoyed working with the students and helping them understand the basics of our universe. He loved astronomy and, though he wasn’t too pushy, he shared this love with pretty much anyone who asked.
One Christmas he joined about 25 of my family members for dinner. When it came time for dessert I realized the table was practically empty as most of the group was outside listening to him and gazing up at the dark sky. The best part of that evening, though, was that George couldn’t find the keys to the usual Fiat he drove so he used some old Vatican limo type car with the two little flags on the front corners. My kids and their cousins loved it. They sat inside and pretended to be the Pope. Made a big splash in the neighborhood. Father Penny does it again!
How many groups did he take through the Papal gardens? Don’t tell anyone but he even let some of the kids run the telescope platforms. Now that they have kids of their own they still talk about it. Such a treat to hang out at the Papal Palace: the spiral staircase, the creaky elevator with the bench inside, his office notably above the Pope’s.
He had a sort of charisma when it came to donors. I think they could see that he wasn’t very comfortable asking for money but he did it anyway because he knew it was vitally important. That’s how he got the VATT built. I know that’s how he got my Dad to help.
He loved kids. When my granddaughter, Ginevra, was about 2. He saw she was bored so he pretended to be a monkey. She was pretty scared but no longer bored. She will always remember Monkey Man.
He was smart. He had a sense of humor. He was normal. He was kind. He cared. But not about his clothes; they were a disaster. I will miss George but happy that he is probably up there with Bill Stoeger finding all the answers and riding his bike.
Un grande uomo di fede ed un immenso scienziato.
Fedele alla tradizione Cattolica con vedute teologiche moderne.
L’astronomia deve a lui molto, per il fecondo connubio creato tra la Scienza e la Religione Cristiana sul terreno comune della ricerca di senso e di risposte ultime ai quesiti posti dalla condizione umana.
Una sua frase mi colpì in modo particolare sulla precarietà dell’esistenza umana, così vera in questi tempi difficili: “siamo esseri effimeri su un pianeta fragile”.
Non dovremmo mai dimenticarlo, a Padre Coyne sarebbe piaciuto così.
Con nostalgia, addio Maestro, sei tornato al Cielo che tanto amavi.
I have many memories, but the ones that stand out are those from the VOSS 2005 for which I was lead instructor. Those weeks were the sea change in our (my wife’s and my) relationship with George and the whole Specola, and a change in the trajectory of our lives. George was a man of God and a man of science seamlessly woven together, both roles effortlessly played for the benefit of the world, AMDG. Thank you George, and pray for us.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to remember Fr. Coyne with such admiration and gratitude. I am Fr. Andrew Greeley’s niece and heard him singing Fr. Coyne’s praises as a scientist, priest, and person for many years. Then, when my daughter at a Jesuit high school ended up using a scripture textbook that mentioned polygenism as a contradiction of biblical truth (among other bizarre proclamations), my uncle referred me to Fr. Coyne, who gave me some scientific and theological background to present to the school president! He also forwarded a few marvelous articles.
Then, when my uncle tragically suffered brain damage, I got to meet Fr. Coyne when he said Mass for him during a few visits to Chicago. I finally connected with him once more on a pilgrimage back to Tucson, which my uncle dearly loved. Fr. Coyne took me and a few family members to lunch and to his residence and was as gracious a host as he was a scholar and human being. I know that my uncle is thrilled to have him back in his company (yes, I am betting they are both in Paradise!) and that they are conversing again with great vigor! May he rest in peace among his beloved stars.
I was in the VOSS86 class. VOSS86 itself was incredible; and among the incredible lessons from that time was from Fr. Coyne: that science and spirituality are not incompatible; that humility in our everyday lives is but a mirror of the awe we feel for creation.
I met George in 1999 as a student of the Vatican Observatory Summer School from Ukraine. That school changed my life forever – I was given a scholarship to enter the PhD program at the University of Arizona. Twenty years later, the knowledge I received and people I met are still playing a significant role in my life.
Of all qualities of George I most appreciated how accessible and modest he was. Such an intelligent, outspoken person, and yet always having a joke to cheer you up, willing to listen, and behaving equally with young people. Science and philosophy were the passion of his life, and yet he remained so human, so down to earth person. George will always be a role model for me, of a scientist and a person.
Fr. Coyne was a great man and was proof that a man of science could always be a man of religion. He was truly a Jesuit, a scholar and a believer. In the 21st century, the world needs to see more people who believe in both science and religion and the importance of both.
Fr. Coyne had a special talent for being present in a conversation. He was always welcoming to me and my family. It never felt to me that he engaged in small talk. He always seemed genuinely interested in talking and being with us. I enjoyed the time we had with him. I have missed him and am sad to know of his passing.
George, through no fault of his own, was always somewhat larger than life to me. It was good to have him and other Vatican people, in the Steward building (my first Jesuit friend was Martin McCarthy, who was very good to a very young grad student). I’ll just note three things here: the first was a discussion with George about what “really” happened to Galileo in the past 30 years or so. The second was that while channel surfing one night I saw George on CSPAN. I was impressed that he told truth to power about such topics as evolution. I also went, long ago now, to a christening that George officiated. He made me laugh many times that morning. I’d say that he was a very good man.
I remember Fr. Coyne fondly for his warmth and wonderful sense of humor. He will be missed by the many people with whom he interacted at Steward Observatory over the years.
Fr. George Coyne married Elizabeth and I in 1990. Shown in the attached picture just prior to the wedding is George Coyne along with (l to r) Jesuit astronomer, Fr. Rich Boyle, Fr. Patrick Crino and yours truly. George presided, with the others joining him on the altar at SS Peter & Paul in Tucson. Fr. Crino joked that it took three priests to get me married!
As a graduate student, I had the honor of serving as George’s TA for the introductory astronomy course for non-majors that he taught. Affectionately known to us grad students as “Father Photon”, I was always impressed with the clarity and humility that George expressed in his teaching, treating the students, as he did everyone, with the utmost respect and understanding. We will miss George–Christian, Astronomer, Educator, and Friend.
I was teaching at Brophy Prep in the 80s and the Phoenix Astronomical Society was meeting monthly in the Physics Lab (then in Loyola Hall). A few of the astronomically-inclined Jesuits attended our meetings. I was put in contact with Fr. Coyne to request he speak at one of our meetings, which he graciously agreed to do.
He spoke of how science and theology were complementary, not antagonists. He illuminated us on the politics of Galileo’s trial. When the meeting was over, I recall some members saying they “never expected to hear a sermon from an astronomer.” Our club continues to draw speakers from the Vatican Observatory to this day, but Fr. Coyne was the first.
I worked with Father Coyne for many years at The University of Arizona; I thank God I got the pleasure to do so. Hope to see him again someday when I’m called to serve with God.
I first met George when I came to graduate school at the Lunar and Planetary Lab and Steward Observatory in 1972. From my very first interactions with him, George taught me valuable lessons in humility and service to others. Of all the many, amazing services George performed for the people and organizations with which he was associated, the Vatican Observatory Summer School (VOSS) stands out as one of the most outstanding services to the world-wide astronomical community that has occurred in my lifetime. I am continually grateful that George picked me to teach the VOSS in 1990 and I consider it the capstone of my career to have taught VOSS14 many years later. This remembrance of George is dedicated to the students, staff and professors of VOSS90 and VOSS14. Keep on looking up!
In the late fall of 1972 Father George taught a portion of an observational astronomy graduate course that I took. Because he seemed much more accessible than the other professors, I approached him to learn more about the art and science of conducting astronomical observations at a research telescope. Coming from a degree in Physics, I had no knowledge whatsoever about astronomical observing but was eager to do so. George suggested that I come along with him for an observing “run” at the 61 inch telescope on Mt Bigelow in the Santa Catalina Mountains just north of Tucson. And so I did.
After we loaded our gear into a carry-all, we picked up the polarimeter at LPL and headed up the mountain. Being my first time it was exciting to go through the routine preliminaries with George of mounting the instrument, balancing the telescope and centering a bright star in the telescope so we could set the clocks. Then began the long, winter night of ten degree above zero Fahrenheit conditions during which we found star after star in George’s program and measured its polarization in several optical bands. Of course, being 1972 the observations were conducted entirely out in the open dome.
After a few hours of successful observing on what proved to be a frigid night up at 9000+ feet, George left me to take a quick nap, instructing me to continue guiding on the star I could see through the eyepiece beneath the bulk of the telescope. And so I did, moving the telescope slightly every now and again to keep the guide star centered on the cross hairs so that the target star’s light precisely entered the polarimeter for recording. Despite sitting almost immobile out in the open telescope dome with my eye glued (frozen?) to the eyepiece, I was determined to show George I could do this job well so I kept at it without complaint. Besides there was no one to complain to. By the way, what were those wisps of light that I saw moving through the guider eyepiece field-of-view every now and then, I wondered?
A good two hours later I heard George return and then heard him run hurriedly up the stairs as if something were wrong. He burst into the dome and shouted, “John, what are you doing?” To which I shivered and simply replied, “Why, George, I’m guiding on the star just as you told me to do”. But then George ran to the console which controls the telescope and dome and shouted, “But, John, it’s snowing! We must close the dome and mirror covers right away to avoid getting any more moisture on the mirror.”
Wow, did I feel silly; how did I not know that it was snowing? Maybe because I was underneath the bulk of the telescope so I could not feel the snowflakes. Maybe because the storm clouds had not completely covered the part of the sky toward which the telescope was pointing. I do not know. But I do know that George’s upset quickly turned to amusement and we both laughed and then shivered as the dome closed on our little adventure. When I sent my memories of this night to George last summer he verified that this is how he remembered it too.
Over the many years after my first encounter with Father Photon (as we grad students fondly called him) most of my conversations with George seemed to come around to musings about the need for humility in science and especially in cosmology. George understood as very few astronomers and cosmologists do, the necessity to remain humble in the face of Creation. Now humility is a real challenge for a University professor and especially for a cosmologist. But when I find myself thinking otherwise, I remember my first observing experience with George, I see his face and kind, forgiving smile and thank him once more for teaching me some much-needed humility…. And the joy and necessity of service to others, as well.
The last time I corresponded with George sometime last summer, I told him I had retired recently, partly because I had lost some enthusiasm for teaching modern college-age students. George chided me by saying that he thought I had quit too soon when I still had so much to give. Then he told me he had 150 students in his classes this fall.
With Father George Coyne the lessons in humility and service for me will never end.
Our memories go back by more than 30 years. Formal occasions, like the Giotto mission in 1986 and the first encounter with Saint John Paul II, the laurea ad honorem in Astronomy from the University of Padova in 1992, the second encounter with Saint John Pail II at the end of the Three Galileo conference in 1997.
But even more vividly, we recall the several times we were together either in Padova, Asiago or Castel Gandolfo. Occasions when it was not only astronomy but also spiritual advice. Two sides of George’s figure in our minds, the astronomer and the Father, were equally important for us.
I remember the first time that I met Fr. George. It was in spring 2002, when we were trying to decide whether to join the faculty of Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona. Then Steward Director Dr. Peter Strittmatter arranged for us to meet Fr. George. We talked about VO, Tucson, and science and religion.
Meeting with Fr. George in no small part convinced us to move to Tucson. Steward Observatory has been my academic home since; and in many ways, as Catholic, Fr. George and VO made us feel like home spiritually as well.
I wish I would have met him; I’m vexed that I hadn’t since I’ve known Br. Guy for around three decades, and have been working closely with the VOF for several years.
Recently, I was driving home from a meeting of the Warren Astronomical Society, and I had NPR on the radio; “On Being” was playing an interview with Fr. Coyne and Br. Guy. “Well this ought to be an interesting drive” I thought. A few moments into the interview my phone rang – it was the president of the W.A.S. “Bob! Are you listening to NPR?”