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September 19th, 2015

So, now I'm the new director...

... of the Vatican Observatory. A lot of people have had questions about what this will mean for me, and also (by extension) what it will mean for them, especially for folks who have invited me to give talks, sit on panels, etc. etc.

The honest answer is, I don’t know yet. I’ve been on the job less than 24 hours, most of that during a weekend! Give me a month and I’ll have a better idea.

But there are some things I can say about the different hats I will be wearing, and how I intend to wear them.

First of all, I will continue as President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.

In fact, my immediate feeling about the Observatory is that we’re in pretty good shape in Rome but we need a lot of attention in Tucson… That’s not because the folks in Tucson haven’t been doing their job, but rather because they’ve been doing it very well indeed. As a result, we now have a telescope that is constantly being improved and constantly more heavily subscribed, and therefore one that needs an ever more stable and secure source of annual funding.

So, I plan to spend the majority of the coming year in the US. There are two linked reasons for this.

First, I have always been sensitive to the fact that when Pope Leo XIII founded the observatory (in 1891) he stated that it was so that the world could clearly see that the Church supported good science. Doing good science is, obviously essential for that; otherwise we have nothing to show. But the “showing” is also essential. We’ve done that in an ad-hoc way for the past 20 years, at least. I am trying to organize a more systematic approach to our education and public outreach (aka “EPO”). The Foundation is the obvious vehicle for that effort.

But, in addition, if we want to have stable funding for our Observatory in the US, it also has to come through the Foundation.

Now, the Foundation gets its most of its funding from two sources: family foundations that are generally set up specifically to fund educational projects, and personal donations that range from tens to tens of thousands of dollars. So we need to provide — and show we are providing — a variety of EPO work that the foundations can fund. And we need to reach out to the donors, especially the smaller donors. To that end, we’re developing all sorts of programs… from the Faith and Astronomy Workshop to a range of high school collaborations, to our Catholic Astronomer blog page.

But a large part of our outreach has always been through public talks at churches, schools, universities, and conventions. In particular I think science fiction conventions are an ideal place for me. First of all, I’m a long time fan; I have some street cred with my fellow fans. And also, these are the places where you find lots of bright and curious folks who love to hear about astronomy, and place it in the human context… that, after all, is what makes science fiction special. The human context includes religion, in all its forms, organized and personal and everything in between.

So I will maintain my schedule of getting to SF conventions as much as I can. But I also need to recognize that my other duties do have to come first. For example, I had three weeks of talks arranged in the UK starting on September 21, and I had to cancel that whole trip once the date of my new job was worked out. I need to be here to sign all the paperwork and learn where the gears and levers of the new job are to be found.

Meanwhile… if you want to keep track of what we are up to, do follow The Catholic Astronomer blog at www.vofoundation.org/blog There’s a calendar there linked to my own personal calendar so you can see where I am giving talks. Except for the UK trip I noted above, I intend to keep all the other commitments I’ve made. (Except where I managed to triple-book myself… I haven’t quite mastered bilocation yet! My apologies to the folks whom I have had to cancel, as a result.)

I’m looking forward to working with the incredible staff and facilities that my predecessors have put together. My task will mostly be to get out of their way and let them fly. And that includes everyone who considers themselves a friend of the Observatory. You should know that all the good thoughts and best wishes I have received from everyone have meant a great deal to me. (And those who have supported in a more tangible way, thanks for that, too!)

Astronomy is a joyful profession, and I intend to have fun at this job. To quote e.e. cummings — there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go!



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