Cowabunga and the Star of Bethlehem

After centuries of study and careful observation, we still don’t have a good understanding of what the Star of Bethlehem was.  Most astronomers would bet on a supernova which is the final explosion of a dying star, because such events are extremely bright and last from a few weeks to a month or more.  

Way back, when dinosaurs ruled the earth, between the Jurassic and Triassic eras, 200 million years ago, an unremarkable star on the outskirts of a small galaxy, collapsed.  These are the death throes of every star.  They literally run out of fuel to support continuous nuclear fusion, so the fusion reactions slow down and stop.  Then there is no outward pressure of the constant fusion explosions.  Then all that hot matter begins to collapse under its own gravitational attraction. 


I start the new year with a reflection about something most of us use every day and we don’t give a second thought to it.  I don’t object to whiter teeth or reduced halitosis, because those are good things for us socially and personally.  But the lowly toothpaste tube is emblematic of a subtle disease that has crept into our collective thinking unawares.

In the early days of toothpaste in the old lead-tin tubes (yes, before plastic and the FDA, lead was used to provide a flexible and malleable container – it took a metal shortage in WWII to get the lead out) the nozzle on the tube was about half the diameter of today’s tubes.  Consumers used far less toothpaste to brush their teeth because, for practical reasons, the brush sizes were about the same, so a smaller diameter but same length squeeze of toothpaste meant that consumers must have used less of it back then.  (I have no scholarly data to back this up other than the size of the original nozzles).

Seven and other natural variations

It’s a good prime number.  The Greeks considered it the perfect number as it was the number of intervals in a musical octave.  The number of days in a week, what’s not to like about the number?   Expressed in “Miles per Second,” it is the escape velocity of the planet earth.  For any object to leave our gravitational field, it must be travelling radially (vertically) at that speed or in more familiar units, 25,200 miles per hour.  That’s fast.  Most of us have a hard time imagining moving as fast as our astronauts must.  But I want to take your thoughts in a different direction on this.  Not going up but coming down. Read more…

What’s the use of that yucky old marsh anyway?

Driving into New York City, from the west, you must first endure miles and miles of salt marsh punctuated by industrial ruins.  You can see the factory here or there, the abandoned railroad beds, odd pieces of steel jutting from the water.  At night with a little fog on the water, it looks like a scene from the old Twilight Zone television show, not the western gateway to one of the world’s favorite cities.  The decaying infrastructure in the marsh also belies a set of assumptions and values.  The land for that old salt marsh never was worth much anyway.  Or was it? Read more…

Twin Devils (part 2) – In the Hopeful Season of Advent

In a second scenario, I imagine my teenaged grandchild asking me this question, “Grandpa, you’re a scientist and a priest, what did you do to prevent all those people who deny human-caused climate change from causing all the problems we have today?”   I have mentioned this before, but, at least in one sense, scientists are incredibly conservative.  Why would someone who worked super hard to get to a respected position in the scientific academy be willing to throw all that away in exchange for taking a position that could not be substantiated?  Is it likely that 2,000 scientists from respected universities around the globe all be willing to drink the Kool Aid of public scorn and ridicule? Read more…

Essence and Existence

This may be more of a philosophical or metaphysics reflection than anything scientific, so forgive me this once.  Christian views of the afterlife are often viewed by the non-Christian public with scorn, derision and disdain.  The popular, Medieval, view of the afterlife as winged creatures flying around heaven is also unhelpful.  The Greek doctrine of immortality of the soul (Plato) is so thoroughly mixed into Christian belief that most people are surprised that immortality of the soul is not an explicitly “Christian” belief.  Read more…

Use less, recycle more, keep things longer

Quick, which is the better course of action.  Repair and continue to use my 1997 Ford Explorer or purchase a new, environmentally-friendly electric SUV or hybrid?  This may surprise you but hanging onto your old vehicle is almost always more earth-friendly than purchasing a new one.  Even if the mileage on the old clunker is down to 14 mpg and the eco-friendly replacement is 60 mpg, it is still better overall to hang onto the old one.   The same is true for your clothes, your appliances and even your house.  It is always better to repair and continue to use something rather than purchasing a new replacement.  What about your smartphone? Read more…

Look at what we can accomplish together(humanity dodged a bullet)

My cousin’s son is the principal bassist for the Sydney Australia Symphony Orchestra.  I recall when my cousin visited them ten years ago, they said that Austalian families purchase SPF 70 sunscreen by the gallon.  Australian families purchased gallons per family per year of sunscreen for decades because part of the “ozone hole” loomed over the Australian continent.  Now, after forty years of concerted international effort, we are happy to report that the ozone layer is healing.  Scientists predict that the northern ozone hole will be back to its historic level by the 2030s and the southern hole by the 2060s.  This is a huge public policy success story.

A Priestly Contribution to Science

In 1929, Edwin Hubble published a paper showing that the universe is expanding*.  His empirical observation that distant galaxies were receding from us at a speed that is proportional to their distance away is now known as “Hubble’s Law.”  We have a space telescope named for him.  He was the first and deserves the credit, right?

Maybe not.  Turns out that that The Reverend Monsignor Georges Lemaître beat Hubble by two years.  Lemaître solved Einstein’s equations of General Relativity (no easy feat in itself), and went on to use astronomical observations giving the relationship between distance from the earth and the velocity of recession.  The mathematical constant in this relationship is known as “Hubble’s Constant” although with the knowledge of Lemaître’s work, it should be attributed to the earlier author, Lemaître. 

A Hundred Pounds of Clay

A few of us can remember the Gene McDaniels’ song of 1961, “A Hundred Pounds of Clay,” but did you know that this extrapolation from the creation story of Genesis might be more scientifically accurate than might guess?    I am referring to a 1985 “Clay hypothesis” in the field of “albiogenesis” or the “origin of life.”  In the first billion years or so of our planet’s existence, conditions on the surface were more like hell than the earth we know today.  There was no oxygen in the atmosphere.  Volcanoes belched toxic gases of sulfur, cyanide and nitric acid.  The planet was constantly bombarded by large meteors and comets bringing much of the water that fills our oceans.  There were no plants or any life whatsoever.  The landscape was a dull grey-black.  The red color of red clay would not appear for millions of years with the great oxidation event after plants appeared and started producing oxygen.  Read more…