Plenty of ‘scope

When is an astronomer not really an astronomer? When he has trouble distinguishing Venus from Sirius. But Matthew Pinson SJ explains why that didn’t cloud his recent experience at the Vatican Observatory Summer School.

By Matthew Pinson SJ

There’s plenty of dark sky around Cowra, a town of 9000 people in the Central West of New South Wales. So as a child travelling home from barbecues, bonfires or bush dances, I would often look out the car window at the starry sky.

“Dad, why do the trees go past as we drive along, but the moon seems to travel along with us?”

Even with Dad’s explanation, I was just eight years old and only had a basic understanding of parallax, but my method of scientific enquiry was already established. Leaving aside the beauty and grandeur of what is present in nature, I dedicate myself to asking why the universe appears the way it does.

So, earlier this (northern hemisphere) summer, I felt like something of an imposter, turning up at the Vatican Observatory Summer School (VOSS), joining 24 of the finest young astronomers from around the world, when I have trouble distinguishing Venus from Sirius. Fortunately, my love of learning carried me through.

Matthew Pinson SJ at the Vatican Observatory. Photo courtesy of Matthew Pinson.

The Vatican Observatory is staffed by Jesuits and is located at the southern end of the garden of the Papal summer house at Castel Gandolfo, an hour’s train ride south-east of Rome. Though people sometimes assume that the Vatican Observatory must be focused on theological questions about the relationship between science and religious faith, this isn’t really the case. While most of the Jesuits working at the Observatory take an interest in this field, and give talks on it from time to time, the institutional work of the Observatory is in astronomy, and its output can be found in scientific rather than theological journals. A similar principle holds for VOSS, which takes place every two years or so. Its students come from the astronomy departments of universities across the world, and they gather for specialist study in some area of astronomy.

This year, the focus was the use of machine learning and data science tools in astronomy. Coming from a background in materials physics, I found this a nice, gentle introduction to astronomy, because although I didn’t have previous experience in machine learning specifically, I constantly work with various forms of data and make use of computational tools in my physics research. I was surprised to discover that many of the most-used machine learning techniques are simpler than I had expected: even the famed deep learning using neural networks is at heart simply an efficient way to approximate non-linear functions by putting together linear pieces.

VOSS deliberately gathers a wider geographic distribution of students than is found at many summer schools; our 24 students came from 19 different countries. Many of these countries have only one or two astronomical institutions, so the students enjoyed the chance to meet more young astronomers and potentially lay the groundwork for future collaborations. They were united by a love of exploration: both learning more about our universe and seeing the beautiful natural and historic attractions around Rome.

Of course, the organisers know that they can’t bring people to such a location and not give us time to explore the world outside the classroom! We spent the first weekend in Florence, visiting the Galileo Museum as well as the Uffizi Gallery. Other highlights were the Vatican Museums (including the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica), Subiaco (where St Benedict decided to adopt a monastic life) and the extensive archaeological site at Ostia. It was easy to get a sense of the many different eras of Roman history, very different from anything one can find in Australia.

Matthew Pinson SJ

Image 1 of 6

Matthew at the Vatican Observatory. Photos courtesy of Matthew Pinson SJ.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the school was listening to each student give a fifteen-minute talk introducing themselves, their country and their research. Again, it was interesting to see the variety present among the students: some from the world’s largest cities and others from tiny villages; some who always knew they wanted to be astronomers and others who ended up in the field almost by accident. During my own talk, I assured everyone that Australia’s animals are not as dangerous as they are reputed to be!

After lectures in the mornings, afternoons were spent working on research projects. I joined three other students to work on a computer program to identify possible quasars. A quasar is a black hole at the centre of a galaxy, which is extremely bright due to the release of energy from gas being drawn into the black hole. The difficulty in locating them is that an extremely bright object an enormous distance away looks very similar to a moderately bright object (a star) that is close to Earth (that is, only tens of thousands of light years away, compared with billions of light years for a quasar). A large part of our time was spent learning how to access and manipulate the large databases of information coming from astronomical surveys, but we also came up with a program to identify the most promising quasar candidates for further examination.

The only real disappointment during our time at the school was that we weren’t able to meet Pope Francis. We had an audience scheduled, but he was still in hospital recovering from surgery on the appointed day. Many of the students are Catholic and very fond of Pope Francis, and he is widely admired by others as well, so it was sad to see people miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Nevertheless, we appreciated the message of encouragement he sent.

As a Jesuit scientist who has tended to work independently, I found it inspiring to see Jesuits doing science together, as companions in a common work but more importantly as brothers in faith. I’ll draw consolation from that experience as I continue to discern how I’ll make use of my scientific training and outlook in my life and ministry as a Jesuit.

Matthew Pinson is an Australian Jesuit studying theology in Boston as part of his formation for priesthood.

Listen to Matthew talking about his time at the Vatican Observatory Summer School below: