Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Astronomy: God gives us wisdom to understand His stars!

There are times when I think I’ve got the whole school year planned out all nice and neat, and then something comes along to “rock my world” and coerce me into shifting things around a bit.

Did you know 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy? Did you know that the Vatican operates TWO observatories – one at Castel Gandolfo and one on the top of Mt. Graham in Arizona (in cooperation with the University of Arizona)? Did you know that the Vatican scientists have been doing amazing research on our galaxy since before Galileo came on the scene?

Well, I didn’t … which leads me to this review!

I have just finished an amazing book, The Heavens Proclaim - Astronomy and the Vatican . Published by the Vatican Observatory and edited by (Jesuit) Brother Guy Consolmagno, curator of the Vatican Meteorite Collection and a scientist-historian, this book is a fascinating look at the history, science, and beauty of the Specola Vaticana.

At first glance, this book looks like the typical coffee-table book – pretty pictures, some text, but basically something to be thumbed through occasionally. But that is just “at first glance”.

This book does a great job at first explaining why we should study the stars. The book then goes into the history of astronomy, the Vatican scientists’ contributions through the centuries to scientific research of the heavens, and concludes with what’s in the future for the Observatory. Throughout the book, quotes from encyclicals, papal bulls and letters and talks from pontiffs throughout the centuries reinforce the importance of linking science and religion. In addition, scripture quotes further prove the importance of studying God’s creation.

In fact, the first chapter is replete with scriptural quotes helping to define the raison d’etre of the Specola. By the way, I’ll be using these quotes as copywork for my children while we’re studying all things astronomical over the Fall! This chapter is beautifully illustrated with parts of artworks that show the stars as well as photographs of things like the thin section of a meteorite that looks like a stained glass window! The bottom line is summed up by a quote on the final page of the chapter: Stars are evidence of God’s glory!

Chapter two delves into the history of how the stars first came under the purview of the Vatican: organizing the calendar for standardization of holy days (especially Easter and the feasts surrounding the holiest of holy days). This chapter also discusses and refutes the traditional view of Galileo’s treatment by the Church and then gives the history of the Specola.

The next three chapters can only be described as a crash course in astronomy – stars and the Milky Way, the Universe, galaxies, Sun, planets, meteorites, and extra-solar planets. Within these chapters are glorious photos from the observatory as well as archival photos of items the Observatory has collected over the centuries.

The next section is heavy! Articles that would be perfect for high school students delving into science include “Is Big Bang Cosmology in Conflict with Divine Creation” and “Mathematics: the language of astronomy and the Mind of God”. This chapter concludes with an overview of the pontiffs and their views of astronomy – from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI. Again, linking theology and science.

This valuable volume concludes with some basic questions/answers about stars, astronomy, God’s creation and the future of the Observatory. The format makes this section particularly easy to read (especially coming after the heavily technical previous chapter).

I’m so excited to be able to use this book … and others … to kick off our science explorations this year. We’ll spend the Fall exploring the stars. Watch this blog for other recommended books and other media that we’ll be using as we learn about God’s heavens and reveling in this International Year of Astronomy!

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This review was written as part of the Reviewer program from The Catholic Company. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on The Heavens Proclaim - Astronomy and the Vatican and start your own study of astronomy!

Consolmagno, Guy S.J. (editor) – The Heavens Proclaim - Astronomy and the Vatican . Vatican Observatory Publications (Castel Gandolfo, Italy). 2009. Hardcover. 230 pages. ISBN: 978-1-59276-645-1

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