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Fame I can live with

A friend has pointed me to a site called Eye of the Tiber, with this article about the Pope and aliens which quotes me...

Think of it as The Onion for Catholics.

Georgetown University delights

My address to the Georgetown commencement can be streamed here.

It was a wonderful event. My thanks to everyone who made it possible, from those who invited me to those who treated me like royalty. Unlike some honorees at some other schools, I did not get a zillion dollar honorarium; Instead, I got a box of "Fleurir hand grown chocolates" which was much, much better! (Unlike a check, I get to keep the chocolates... on my waistline, alas.)

Today I'm going on a picnic with my 2-year-old goddaughter Corinne, along with her parents (and five year old sister) and her grandmother, whom I have known since high school. And the weather in DC continues to be beautiful.


I realized late last night that my previous cryptic message was about a person that many of my friends from the Carolingia SCA who are on LJ would have known as "Azrael" back in the early 1980s.

To give all the details that I have, from a mutual friend: "... Jennifer died over the weekend.  She and her husband were swimming on vacation in Mexico and were swept far from shore.  Glenn could not save her. Jennifer and I have stayed close all these years and I miss her immensely. Her funeral will be in California on Monday."

The past never goes away

In the space of fifteen minutes, I heard on the internet...

...that a high school friend of mine, whom I haven't seen in about 40 years, will be in Washington when I am there this weekend and wants to get together;

...that I am mentioned in the Huffington Post for saying something four years ago that I don't remember saying, and for which I would just as soon not be famous;

...and that an old girlfriend of mine, whom I last heard from about 25 years ago, has died, drowned while on vacation.

Don't adventures ever end?

I am cooler than you think!

At least, that's according to this post from a blogger at Georgetown.

Of course, that depends on what you think.

(Hat tip to beamjockey for spotting this.)

Meanwhile, my relatives want to know if I am getting $30K to speak, like some other commencement speakers of note. The answer is, no. On the other hand, I don't know of any petitions against my presence... yet.

Another degree

Georgetown College, the arts and sciences college of Georgetown University, has announced their commencement speakers this year. It includes one current and one former US cabinet member; an Ivy League dean; a couple of heavy hitter CEOs; a couple of foundation presidents. And a Vatican astronomer.

With it, comes an honorary doctorate in humane letters. Already a friend has asked if one can get a degree in inhumane letters – I know a few people who would qualify for that!

I am flattered and bemused. Mostly I am thrilled to get the chance to visit DC and meet my youngest goddaughter, whom I have yet to see in the flesh...

After the talks...

My weekend in the UK was a delight. I had a chance to visit with many old friends, my talks went well (in a constructive way), and I ate too much curry!

Before my ET talk at Leeds Trinity I was briefly interviewed for BBC Leeds Radio, and radio is always fun. I pointed out to the producer that the thing Leeds is most famous for, to Americans of my generation, is the Who's Life in Leeds album, arguably the best live rock album of all times. He laughed, and said that the amazing thing is that he's heard concerts in the venue where it was recorded, and the acoustics there are famously awful!

My own "live at Leeds" event was recorded and is supposed to go "live" on the internet in the next week or so. Like the Who album, it was a combination of old stuff, old stuff reworked, and new material. I will be giving a talk like this a lot in the next year, to promote the book of the same name, so it was instructive to see which bits played well with that audience. I already have ideas of what to move, what to add, and what to drop from the talk.

The next day I went to the Society for the History of Astronomy, heard a couple of great talks, and gave my own talk on Angelo Secchi. My friend and fellow Jesuit Tim was shocked at the way I introduced religion into the subject – something that I would have thought was unavoidable when speaking about a priest who was an astronomer and forced into exile because of his religion; as they say in Perry Mason, that line of questioning goes to explaining the motivation behind the subject's actions. However it is apparently a topic introduced in academic circles in the UK safely, only if one has an American accent.

The too-much-curry occurred on Oxford Road, Manchester, that evening. Wonderful time! And a humbling moment... walking back to the U of Manchester RC Chaplaincy, where I was staying, one of the priests with our group suddenly stopped, waved us on, and then went over to speak with a homeless guy sitting on the sidewalk... apparently that is part of his ministry, and he knows all these folks by name. That's work that I admire and wish I had the courage to do. (The ability to do it well would help, too. I did try working with the urban poor when I was a grad student in Boston, and saw first hand how hopeless I was at it.)

Finally returning to Rome on Monday, I was in the airport at Fiumicino buying a train ticket back into Rome when an African fellow came up to me and started saying, insistently, "Pardon me sir, pardon me sir!" Finally I could ignore him no longer, and I turned to shoo him away. He was a fellow Jesuit, at the airport to pick up someone else, who recognized me and just wanted to come up and say hi.

Humbling moment number two.

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.