Summer School of astrophysics... at the Vatican

Twenty-five young astronomers from all over the world will be able to participate in the Vatican summer school next June 2023. This is one of the initiatives of The Specola VaticanaThe Catholic Church's Astronomical Observatory and scientific research center, which reopens its doors after the pandemic.

Leticia Sánchez de León-August 2, 2022-Reading time: 5 minutes
specola vaticana

Fr. Gabriele Gionti, S.J., points to a 1935 Zeiss telescope in the Vatican Observatory ©CNS photo/Paul Haring

The Summer Schools -The Specola Vaticana is back in operation after the pandemic, after five years of being inactive for five years. stand by. The next astrophysics course (the eighteenth edition, by the way) is scheduled for June 2023 and will host twenty-five young astronomers from all over the world for four weeks at one of the Specola's sites, in the town of Castel Gandolfo, very close to Rome.

What is the Specola Vaticana

The Specola ("specula" in Latin, from the Italian verb specere "to look at, to observe") Vatican is the Astronomical Observatory and scientific research center of the Catholic Church and one of the oldest astronomical observatories in the world: its history begins in the mid-sixteenth century, when in 1578 Pope Gregory XIII ordered the erection of the Tower of the Winds and invited numerous Jesuit astronomers and mathematicians to prepare the calendar reform promulgated in 1582.

Next June 2023, twenty-five young astronomers will join the more than 400 who have already gone through the Vatican's scientific research programs. This year, the theme of the VOSS (Vatican Observatory Summer School) is "Learning the Universe: Data Science Tools for Astronomical Surveys".

As telescopes have become more powerful and measurement tools more sensitive, the amount of astronomical data scientists need to understand has grown dramatically. Large astronomical surveys have already made thousands of measurements. Thanks to technological and computational progress, new observatories, such as the Rubin Observatory, will produce catalogs of tens of billions of stars and galaxies and trillions of different measurements.

Summer School 2023

The Summer School The 2023 Vatican Council aims to assist the field of science in this regard: by introducing the concepts of Big Data y Machine LearningIn addition, a hands-on experience of data analysis of the observations made will be explored, allowing students to use these data for their own astronomical projects. In addition, the teachers of the summer schools are always prominent astronomers from the most prestigious observatories and universities in the world, such as Vera Rubin or Didier Queloz, winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The Summer School is open to advanced undergraduate astronomy students and PhD students from all over the world. Most of the selected students come from developing countries. Classes are free of charge and additional financial support is provided by the benefactors through the Vatican Observatory Foundationwhich ensures that all accepted students are able to participate.

The Vatican Observatory Summer Schools have been held since 1986 and are one of the most important initiatives of the Specola. Since their foundation, almost 40 years ago, they have always received the maximum support from the Popes and the participants have always been able to greet the Pontiff during their stay in Italy. In addition to the Summer SchoolsThe Specola also regularly hosts academic conferences, as well as outreach events open to the public.

The history of Specola

The foundation of the Vatican Observatory officially took place with the motu proprio. Ut mysticam of Leo XIII of March 14, 1891. After the foundation, the observatory was equipped with an initial rotating dome of three and a half meters, to which three more were added in a few years, together with more modern instrumentation acquired through donations. Two years later, the Specola was equipped with a heliograph for photographing the Sun, placed on the terrace of the Vatican Museums (later moved to the terrace of the present-day Mater Ecclesiae Monastery where Benedict XVI resides). In 1909, a large refractor was placed on top of the tower adjacent to the Palazzina Leone XIII, protected by a dome of more than eight meters.

One of Specola's first important scientific achievements was its collaboration in the international project Carte du Ciel, the first photographic atlas of the stars. La Specola collaborated with 21 other observatories around the world to complete the mapping of the sky. To carry out this major scientific endeavor, it was necessary to equip La Specola with a large telescope. The San Juan Toweralso located within the walls of Vatican City, where an 8-meter rotating dome was built.

Changes of location

In the late 1920s, the increasing illumination of the city of Rome made it increasingly difficult to observe the sky. The observatory was then moved to the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo. The new facility, completed in 1935, was equipped with the most powerful means, such as an astrograph, laboratories for the study of meteorites and a large library. Years later, a Calculation Center was installed for increasingly advanced astrophysical research.

In the 1970s, the same problem that had forced the Specola to move from Rome to Castel Gandolfo arose again with the increase of artificial lighting in and around the town. The Specola again began the search for a site to house a new observatory, finally opting for Tucson, Arizona. The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) in Arizona was inaugurated in 1993 and is equipped with an advanced telescope and a series of astrophysical laboratories.

Specola's goal: to serve science

Some might wonder why the Vatican is interested in astrophysics and whether it was really necessary to "set up" a whole observatory to study the stars and meteorites. Along these lines, on the occasion of the Year of Astronomy (2009), the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, conducted an interview with the Jesuit Guy J. Consolmagno, the current director of the Specola, who answers some of these questions: "When Pope Leo XIII created the Specola Vaticana, one of his motivations was to show the world that the Church supports and promotes true science. And to fulfill this mandate we are not only obliged to do our scientific work, but also to make it public and share it."

"The science -he adds- is exactly the same. We obey the same scientific laws and publish in the same journals. The difference is in the motivation. We do not work to make money or to gain personal prestige. We simply work for the love of science. And, of course, that is what many other scholars would like to do as well, but it is wonderful that here, in the Vatican, we can fulfill this desire without having to face so many other problems.

A freer science

It may sound idyllic and unrealistic, but the truth is that, as a Vatican institution, researchers working at Specola obtain funding for their projects through the Vatican Observatory Foundation so they don't need to compete with other observatories for government funds: "Those working at NASA have to continuously report the results and progress of their research in order not to lose their funding. We, on the other hand, can devote ourselves to long-term scientific research, which also requires several years of work before a result is achieved.". In addition, "we can work on what we find most interesting and not on projects that are imposed on us by potential financiers. and devote ourselves to research that may last five, ten or even fifteen years."

The authorLeticia Sánchez de León

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