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Two talks next week in the UK

With the end of Lent comes the end of my staying-at-home. Having fasted of going somewhere fast, I am now looking forward to two talks in the United Kingdom, the week after Easter.

On Friday, April 25, at 6:30 pm, I will be appearing at Leeds Trinity University to speak on "Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?" This will be the first time I include material from the upcoming book of the same name in a public talk. We'll see how it goes.

On Saturday, April 26, I am speaking at the Spring Conference for the Society for the History of Astronomy in Manchester; mine is the final talk of the conference, and has the title "Angelo Secchi and the Jesuit Influence in Astronomy." According to their web site, "The SHA Spring Conference 2014 will take place on Saturday 26 April 2014 between 9.30am-5pm at Chetham’s Library, Long Millgate, Manchester. M3 1SB. Chetham’s Library, founded 1653 is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world. Owing to limited seating (65 max), early pre-booking at £5 per SHA member (£10 non-members) is strongly advised." The setting itself sounds like it might be worth the price of admission.

I have no idea if these venues are anywhere in range of anyone reading my "specolations" but if you are, feel free to come along.

No writer is a genius to his copy editor

Busy times here... I have had a boatload of visitors, all of whom were wonderful, and a boatload of writing, all of which has been a lot of fun. Funny how tired I feel now...

Patrick and Teresa came to Italy. Apparently they had a good time. I have already passed on their recommendations about where to eat in Florence to other friends heading that way, and I will try to remember them myself when I get there this summer. Meanwhile I got to see them twice, one afternoon in Rome and one day when they came out here. I just so thoroughly enjoyed hanging out with them. I forget how much fun it is having friends on the same continent, much less in the same room.

Among the other guests this past month were members of the International Astronomical Union's Working Group on Planetary Surface Nomenclature. We work regularly via email, but the last time most of us were all in the same room was in 2005 so we held a little meeting here to go over general policies and, in the process, get to meet those who have joined the WG in the last nine years. Again, it was nice just hanging out with people in my field, and show off our wonderful quarters and setting. I have known (or at least, known of) some of these folks for 40 years.

Meanwhile, our book on Baptizing ET has come back from the copyeditor. No man is a hero to his valet, and copyeditor is someone who sees your writing, if not naked, at least in its underwear. For every five suggestions that are just wrong and idiotic, grumble grumble, there are fifty where I am embarrassed to say she is absolutely right, and why didn't I notice that when I was writing it? All praise to copyeditors. The rest of my life could use one.

And an abstract has been accepted to a meeting; and an article about science fiction solicited from me by the magazine US Catholic has come back with nice noises and good suggestions from the editor; and I have a column due this weekend up in England.

Fr. Bill Stoeger SJ (1943-2014)

A member of our community, Bill Stoeger, died on Monday. He had been found to be suffering from a particularly aggressive form of cancer last fall, which treatment was not able to contain.

I wanted to say that Bill was both the smartest man, and the holiest man, I have known; but he would have rejected that characterization, out of hand. So I will only say that his goodness, and his genius, never ceased to move me. He's the only person I know who could both understand and work with the mathematics of the Big Bang, and also direct retreats for religious women.

His scientific output was astonishing. At Cambridge, he was student of the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, worked with George Ellis, and was a classmate of Stephen Hawking; and his work was on a par with theirs. Every year, like clockwork, Bill would produce two major scientific papers published in the leading journals (Astronomy and Astrophysics, Physics Review, General Relativity and Gravitation), most recently on the topic of connecting the more esoteric aspects of cosmology theory with actual observations of the structure of our universe. His work has been cited hundreds of times in the literature; one paper alone, "Proving almost-homogeneity of the universe" written with R. Maartens and George Ellis and published in 1995, was referred to by at least 85 other papers in the field of cosmology according the the NASA ADS service (which notoriously underreports citations).

His work with his colleagues in religious life is not so easy to quantify but it was an equally important part of his life. He was in regular demand as a spiritual director and leader of retreats, both in the US and Europe. Connected with this work were the series of books he co-edited on Divine Action in the Universe, published jointly by the Vatican Observatory and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at Berkeley.

One often neglected aspect of how he lived these two lives, of science and service, can be seen in his scientific collaborations. More often than not, he worked with scientists from the developing world – South Africa and Brazil in particular. And he showed a special patience with those members of our scientific community who could be brilliant but eccentric and sometimes hard to deal with.

We will miss him. I will miss him.
Once again I have let my journaling get away from me... so much of little import and great consequence has happened since last I wrote. These include:

• visiting old friends in Easton, Pennsylvania, where I lived, 25 years ago – and also Wernersville, where I was a Jesuit novice, and Lititz, which still has the best chocolate in North America;

• visiting a couple, both professors, who invited me to speak at their respective universities and who are such good folk that I can only see them now as great friends in their own right, and no longer just as the children of people my age;

• getting myself elected the president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, i.e. chief fundraiser, thus insuring that I will be moving back to Tucson after Loncon (attention to all my friends who are millionaires, I will be coming after your second million soon);

• realizing that last Thursday was the birthday of a woman I dated years ago, when she was an undergraduate and I was a post-doc (much too young for me), and calculating that that teenage kid is now 50 years old;

• submitting the second version of our book to my editor, and then having a beta reader return his copy with about 100 typos. I am hoping the editor discovered the quickly-resubmitted version.
At Boskone this past weekend (which was, as always, delightful and much too short; I only got to see a tiny number of the people I wanted to see) a couple of events collided in my brain…

One was the panel I was part of on Saturday morning about science fiction set in our own solar system; the other a panel I heard later that day on “Characters and Characterization” that included Steve Miller
(of Liaden series fame).

The point I wanted to make in the first panel was how hard it is for science fiction to communicate the idea of different gravity… few books make me really feel the lighter gravity of Mars or the heavier gravity of some other alien planet.
The point that Steve Miller reminded me was of one of my favorite characters in the Liaden series, Theo Waitley.
Consider this passage from Fledgling; (it is under 250 words, so I can quote it here). The scene is on a large commercial space liner; the point of view is one passenger, Cho, observing the group of professors including Theo’s mother. Theo, who is a awkward 14-year-old, is a part of the group:
The group burst into the corridor ahead of her, their talk filling the space with echoes. Cho took a deep breath in protest of the hubbub, and stood to one side, watching.
The first into the intersection was the halfling, skipping lightly through the change of the gravity field at the lock boundary as if she were born to such things. Behind her, one of the elders tripped, and bounced sharply against the wall. The halfling turned, one hand extended --
"Theo, please don't..." a woman's fine voice said, perfectly audible beneath the elder's loud exclamations. The halfling – Theo – spun deftly on one toe, removing herself from danger as the elder staggered, colliding with the other side of the passage, barely keeping her feet, her lamentations increasing in volume and degree…

[one page later] …Cho glanced aside to discover the ignored halfling – winsome Theo -- amusing herself with the gravity nexus, leaning playfully forward, allowing the field to keep her upright...
"Theo, surely that's not safe!" Chair snapped.
"But I'm not having a problem, Professor Hafley," Theo said, holding her arms out at side, as if gliding on a placid breeze.  "It's like leaning into a wind!"
The thin, young face was almost impish with the joy of her play and it took Cho's best effort not to laugh.
Excerpt From: Fledgling, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
I love this passage on several levels. First of all, the sense of play really contrasts the young teenager with the older professor types. Second, if you know the story, in fact this is a vital plot point — Theo, whose clumsiness was a major plot point up to now, is without realizing it growing into her body, and is actually developing out of her awkward stage into someone who indeed “born to such things”… as we will eventually learn.
But it also succeeds in letting you feel gravity in a way I haven't seen often. (Not, of course, different planetary gravity.)

(added in edit: you can download this book for free from the Baen site here. Beware, it is a gateway drug!)

Where is Brother Guy, February 2014?

Here is what I am up to for the next month... I include links to the public events (that have links)

Florida, February 1-8
Staying with my parents
Northern California, February 9-12
Staying at Santa Clara U. Jesuit community
Wed Feb 12: Lecture in an evening class University of San Francisco; staying at Loyola House Jesuit Community (USF)
Boston, February 13-16
Fri Feb 14: Working in the lab with Cy Opeil SJ, Boston College
Fri-Sun: Boskone Science Fiction Convention
Chicago, February 17-19
Staying at: Jesuit Community, Loyola University
Tues Feb 18: Speaking at Adler Planetarium during the day; at  St. Isaac Jogues Parish that evening
Wed Feb 19: Speaking at St. Xavier University
Tucson, February 20-24
Thurs Feb. 20: Vatican Observatory Seminar (I'll be there, but not speaking)
Pennsylvania, Feb. 25-March 1 (no links yet for these events)
Wed: Talks at Penn State Hazelton
Thurs: Talks at De Sales University
Tucson, March 2-5
Back to Rome, March 6

Boskone schedule (first cut)

Apparently I will have a lot of free time in Boston.... not!

But there's nothing on this schedule I would want to give up, it all looks like fun... as usual, this is just the first announcement and the program is subject to change...

Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?
Friday 17:00 - 17:50
When we finally meet the aliens, how will the encounter affect the Earth’s religions? Does their sentience guarantee a soul capable of salvation? Is it likely that they will be creatures of faith? Will they adopt our creeds? Will we convert to theirs? Will they deflate old beliefs, or inspire new ones? How have SF writers handled these questions so far? What frontiers of faith have yet to be explored?
Guy Consolmagno, James D. Macdonald
Stay Near the Fire: The New Solar System Science Fiction
Saturday 10:00 - 10:50
Forget star-spanning empires. Recently, writers from Charles Stross to Kim Stanley Robinson, James S. A. Corey to Hannu Rajaniemi have instead created stories set in the future of our own solar system. What are the scientific reasons for this? Is there sufficient room for our imaginations in staying (relatively) close to home? Who’s writing the best stuff about it?
Charles Stross, Guy Consolmagno, Allen M. Steele, Joan Slonczewski
Interview with Science Speaker Bill Higgins
Saturday 14:00 - 14:50
Join us for a lively discussion as former Special Guest Guy Consolmagno interviews Boskone's current Hal Clement Science Speaker, Bill Higgins. Bill is a radiation safety physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago. As a longtime member of fandom, he writes and speaks about the crossroads where science, history, and science fiction meet. Other topics that may come up include spaceflight, astronomy, physics, and maybe even some weird aviation.
Guy Consolmagno (M), Bill Higgins
Reading -- Guy Consolmagno
Saturday 15:30 - 15:55
Guy Consolmagno
The Year in Physics and Astronomy
Saturday 17:00 - 17:50
An annual roundup of the latest research and discoveries in physics and astronomy. Our experts will talk about what's new and interesting, cutting-edge and speculative: the Higgs, solar and extrasolar planets, dark energy, and much more besides.
Mark L. Olson (M), Bill Higgins, Guy Consolmagno, Jeff Hecht
The Dark Universe
Sunday 11:00 - 11:50
What are dark matter and dark energy? What is this dark universe that coexists alongside the cosmos we can see and feel? How apropos is George Lucas' description of The Force? (Obi-Wan Kenobi speaks of "[A]n energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.") Is there something in this idea that might reveal mysteries that keep eluding us -- and do we really want to find out?
Mark L. Olson (M), Bill Higgins, Elizabeth Bear, Guy Consolmagno
Vandals of the Void: The Chelyabinsk Meteor Strike of 2013
Sunday 13:00 - 13:50
One year ago, a window-shattering shock wave injured 1400 Russians and startled the world. A 20-meter asteroid had exploded in the sky above Chelyabinsk. Join Bill Higgins and Guy Consolmagno for a look at what scientists have learned about this striking event.
Bill Higgins, Guy Consolmagno

(edit: another previously listed program item, "Welcome to Fermilab" is confirmed to be a solo presentation by Bill Higgins.  I will be in the audience!)

Book Review: The Vicar's FAQ

The Vicar's FAQ by Caroline Symcox

So, say you’re an American who likes to read English cosy mysteries who finds the universe in which they are set as alien as a fantasy novel…

Or say you’re a writer who wants to work in that universe.

Or say you’re a person who takes religion – not just theology or spirituality, but the actual practice of religion – seriously, and you want want to understand more about how it works in a nuts-and-bolts way….

Or who wants to write about people practicing a religion in the universe of your novel…

Or say you’re someone who practices as an Anglican and wants to understand better how it works.

Or say you’re just someone looking to enjoy an odd moment now and again with a gentle, comforting voice speaking with quiet enthusiasm about a topic she finds particularly interesting.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up The Vicar’s FAQ. The only reason I started reading it, of course, was that I had met the author, Caroline Symcox, a couple of times and I had enjoyed her company.

She describes herself in the book: “I’m a female, middle-class, southern English thirty-something Christian who also happens to be an ordained member of the Church of England…” Later, describing the life of a typical vicar, she writes, “It’s almost expected that vicars will have at least one quirky thing that makes them unique. It might be a love of science fiction. It might be getting dressed in Dark Age armour and re-enacting major battles of the period. It might be practising martial arts. It might be collecting Japanese anime and manga. It might be playing bass in a rhythm and blues band. Or in my case, it might be all of those things.”

(Some readers here may recognize Caroline Symcox as an author in the Dr. Who universe. I’m told she wrote a story where Dr. Who goes to the Council of Nicaea and deals with that evil arch-villain, Athanasius. Actually, St. Athanasius is a minor hero of mine… though I can see where the evil arch-villain bit comes from, too! That wouldn’t be the only place that she and I disagree. And have fun doing so.)

What surprised me the most was how readable the book was. I found that her voice comes through wonderfully, so that spending time in the book feels like spending time with the person.

The details of her explanations are fascinating, in the way that (I have discovered) most geeks like myself find the actual functioning of any complex system to be fascinating. She conveys a lot of this material in easily-digested bits, with stories and examples, such that the first half was surprisingly a page-turner.

I found the second part of the book where she engages in the theology of Anglicanism to be even more rewarding; but here I would read a few pages about how she believes Christianity, and then set the book aside to consider and think about what she was saying, and how I might have said it from my own perspective. Reading these parts was (I am saying this deliberately to embarrass her!) a spiritual experience for me.

Her description of the call to a religious life fits exactly my own experience of discerning my own vocation to be a Jesuit. Though we have different vocations and different churches, the points of similarity are striking. Not only did they make me chuckle with recognition, but they let me reflect from a slightly different angle about my own experience.

Her perspective on being an Anglican I found fascinating, precisely because I am not one. The Church of England had always seemed to me to combine the worst traits of Roman Catholicism’s heavy overhead (also known as, the structure that’s big enough to support me and my work) with the worst traits of Protestantism’s unfocused theology. But having read her description, I can at least understand where she’s come from even if I don’t find myself there.

The nits I would pick are not matters where I think she’s wrong but only places where I think she could have gone further in her descriptions – and made the book twice as long, and half as readable, I am sure.

And so to whom would I recommend this book? It is not a book of apologetics, though I could see it as a gentle companion to Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic. It’s much more a reference book than a cozy read, except that I did read it from start to finish in just a few days (and felt sad to come to the end). I thoroughly enjoyed it; does that reflect on the book or on my odd tastes?

At the very least, I wish that every author who tries to “invent” a religion for their fantasy universe, or includes vicars in their cosy English novels, would have this book to hand to remind them of all the details that need to go into a religion that actually functions in a real society.

It’s an odd little book. It’s impossible to categorize. But I really enjoyed it.

Slow news day in Detroit

I wonder how many of my friends in Michigan will be spewing coffee over the front page of their morning paper this am? Here's what the print edition of the Detroit Free Press looks like today (Friday, Dec 13):


Yeah, that's me. The reporter said they were looking for an "evergreen" story to run when news is slow, between Christmas and New Years. I guess they chopped this Christmas Tree down early. I especially like the fact that I am sharing the front page with Bilbo Baggins.

You can find the story online (including a video) here.

writing-writing-writing… thud

Sunday, I wrote. My iron-clad rule is to never work on Sundays, because everybody needs a break; but with impending deadlines (having spent the previous week in Switzerland writing a paper about Vesta), I was at my desk all day, writing-writing-writing.

Monday, I finished my text for the chapter on Medieval Cosmology, for an upcoming book on Medieval Science Fiction. In the process of it I kept having to deal with my despair at how little I really know about the subject, and how different it is to talk glibly about this stuff on a panel at a local SF convention compared to writing a text that other people may be citing as if I were an expert. Impostor syndrome never goes away. Well, the chapter is done. I hope I haven't told too many lies and that whoever does read it will appreciate the spirit in which it is presented...

Tuesday morning, the Medieval paper was sent off. Thud.

That night I was up until 2 am working with my co-author on the last bits of the ET book. I left him with ten pages to revise. He got those to me (with much weeping and teeth-gnashing) late Wednesday night. I made the changes, and left him a copy of the text for one last read-through on his part. Finally, he got those to me at 10 pm Thursday.

Since both of us had to be up to catch a 7 am train to Rome on Friday (he's off for his annual retreat, I had a meeting in Rome) it really had to be finished then. I skimmed over and accepted virtually all his suggested revisions. At about 11 pm, the text of Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? was dropped into an email, and sent off to my editor in New York. Thud.

Friday was spent in Rome, attending the first meeting of a scientific advisory council to a newly formed something-or-another on science and faith at the Vatican. I only understood about half of what we were doing there, and why, and that was *after* we switched to English. Met some nice people and got a good pranzo out of the deal, however.

Saturday (today) I was up at 5:30 am to meet a photographer from the Detroit Free Press, here to take pictures of Detroiters at the Vatican. She wanted the morning light. She got it. We drank lots of coffee and talked about the Tigers. All in all, a wonderful time, but I am ready to fall over asleep...