Fr. George Coyne, SJ, passed away on February 14, 2020. He was an astrophysicist, a priest, the former director of the Vatican Observatory, and a “remarkable man.” His life and contributions are celebrated in moving tributes from the Vatican Observatory website and many other outlets, including the New York Times.

The current director of the Vatican Observatory, Br. Guy Consolmogno, SJ, shared his reflections on Fr. Coyne’s life and legacy in his post for the Sacred Space Astronomy blog.

According to Br. Guy, Fr. Coyne essentially “refounded the Specola Vaticana.” He did this by recruiting young astronomers from around the world and by forming “adjunct scholars,” which meant that non-Jesuits, including women, could be associated with the Observatory.

The Vatican Observatory Summer schools are considered one of Fr. Coyne’s significant contributions to the world of astronomy. These sessions were free and attended mostly by astronomers from developing nations. As Br. Guy notes in his post: 

“Every two years, astronomy graduate students from around the world take classes for four weeks at our headquarters outside Rome. The professors at these schools are among some of the most notable astronomers of their era (including Didier Queloz, winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics, and Prof. Vera Rubin, the discoverer of “dark matter”).”

Many of the over 400 alumni have become important astronomers themselves, including Heino Falcke who recently “helped devise the first image of a black hole.”

Additionally, under Fr. Coyne’s direction, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) was established on Mt. Graham in Arizona, using the first spin-cast mirror.

Characterized by his humility, “openness and disarming friendliness,” Fr. Coyne also successfully engaged many critics who were skeptical of a fruitful interaction of faith and science, such as Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher.

Chance and necessity

Many of Fr. Coyne’s talks, revealed his love for the beauty, complexity, and magnitude of the universe and of its Creator. One in particular has a lovely title: The dance of the fertile universe. Recorded in 2014, Fr. Coyne discusses the current state of our knowledge of the history of the universe. A key insight from this lecture is that both chance and necessity are at work in the universe.

The talk is over an hour long, but it is both informative and entertaining. It will inspire you to love the Creator of all that the heavens reveal and hopefully to pray for Fr. Coyne whose life and work helped to discover its secrets.

Requiescat in pace.

For links to other talks, interviews, and articles by or about Fr. Coyne, go to the Vatican Observatory website here.

Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish. -Pope St. John Paul II, Letter to Rev. George Coyne, S.J.,

Cover Image: Vatican Observatory Foundation / CC BY-SA

Read Also:

Vatican Observatory Celebrates Fr. Angelo Secchi, the Father of Astrophysics

Astronomy, God, and the Search for Elegance

Religion, Intelligence, and the Pale Blue Dot

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