By John D’Anna, The Republic, February 16, 2020
As a scholar, he once told a colleague that without “good science” as a foundation, all of his work would amount to nothing. As a priest, he believed not only that faith and reason were not mutually exclusive, but that they enhanced each other. And as a man, he sought to bridge the gap between the heavens and heaven itself and left a complicated legacy in the process.
Father George Coyne, a Jesuit priest, astronomer, author and former director of the Vatican Observatory who was instrumental in bringing one of the world’s most sophisticated — and controversial — telescope arrays to the top of Mount Graham in Southern Arizona, died earlier this week. He was 87.
“He was a remarkable astronomer, a remarkable director, a remarkable Jesuit, a remarkable man,” Brother Guy Consolmagno, current director of the observatory, wrote in a tribute he shared with The Arizona Republic via email.
“His first words to me when I arrived at the observatory back in 1993 were simple: ‘do good science,'” Consolmagno wrote. “He understood that without solid science at our foundation, all the other work of the observatory would be in vain.”
Consolmagno said that “more than once I recall chatting with him in his office when the telephone would ring; he would ignore it. ‘You’re with me now,’ he explained. ‘Why should I let someone else interrupt us?’”
Before his death on Tuesday, Coyne was one of two living men to have had an asteroid named for him. The other is Consolmagno.
In a 2010 interview, Coyne addressed the honor with characteristic humor and humility.
“It was really fun to tell my dad,” he said. “I’m not giving him grandkids, but at least he’s got something with the family name. As long as it’s not the one that comes and hits the Earth, we’re in good shape.”
A youthful interest in the cosmos
Coyne, who was born in Baltimore in 1933 and educated in Catholic schools, discovered his love for galaxies, planets and stars as a young Jesuit. His professor of classical Greek and Latin literature was an amateur astronomer and noticed that Coyne perked up every time the lecture digressed.
“He’d scratch his head with a pencil and say, ‘Gentlemen, do you realize that tomorrow is the beginning of spring? Do you know what that means?’ And of course we didn’t,” Coyne told interviewer Krista Tippett on the NPR program “On Being” in 2010.
“So he’d go to the blackboard and he’d trace the ecliptic and the celestial equator. And so one day he called me in and he said, ‘Every time I get distracted and talk about astronomy, you’re sitting on the edge of your chair with your eyeballs sticking out.’ I said, ‘Father, I love it.’ And he said, ‘Well, we’ve got to get you reading.’”
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Coyne graduated from Fordham University in 1958 with a degree in mathematics and received his doctorate in astronomy from Georgetown University in 1962. He was ordained as a priest in 1965, the same year he arrived as a visiting research professor at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.
In 1969, he was appointed as an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo, site of the Pope’s summer home about 15 miles southeast of Rome.
He maintained his professorship in Tucson and became assistant director at the UA’s planetary laboratory in 1977. In 1978, the freshly anointed Pope John Paul I, who reigned only 33 days before his death, appointed Coyne director of the Vatican Observatory. He served there for 28 years before retiring in 2006 as the longest tenured director in the history of the observatory, which traces its legacy to the time of Galileo.
When he took over, the observatory was staffed primarily by German and Belgian scientists, many of whom had been there since it moved to Castel Gandolfo in 1935, Consolmagno said. As they retired, Coyne recruited Jesuit scholars from Asia, Africa and elsewhere around the globe and opened the door for women scientists as well.
He also created a summer research academy and recruited some of the most eminent names in astronomy to teach there, including Vera Rubin, who is credited with the discovery of dark matter, and 2019 Nobel Prize winner Didier Queloz.
An observatory built amid conflict
Coyne continued to split his time between Italy and Tucson and he was eventually appointed director of the UA’s Steward Observatory and its Department of Astronomy.
Over the next decade, he leveraged his association with both institutions to lay the groundwork for the collaborative Mount Graham International Observatory in the Pinaleño Mountains of Southern Arizona, a collection of three of the most technologically advanced telescopes. That collaboration in the name of science would make Coyne a lightning rod.
The Large Binocular Telescope, the world’s largest telescope at Arizona’s Mount Graham International Observatory.
The Large Binocular Telescope, the world’s largest telescope at Arizona’s Mount Graham International Observatory. (Photo: Courtesy David S. Steele, Large Binocular Telescope Observatory)
Mount Graham, 70 miles northeast of Tucson, is the highest peak in Southern Arizona and is one of the state’s 16 officially designated “dark skies” astronomy sites, far from city lights and atmospheric pollution that are the banes of astronomical research. It had once been considered as the site for Kitt Peak Observatory, according to an article in the journal Organizations and Strategies in Astronomy, and was desirable because some of the peak had been logged and roads to the top had been built.
The problem, however, was that the peak, which had been wrested from the San Carlos Apache Reservation during Arizona’s territorial days, was still considered sacred by the tribe, which knows it by the name Dził Nchaa Si’an. The tribe filed suit to block the project.
In addition, federal wildlife biologists deemed the project a threat to the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel, and refused to sign off on it. The controversy would drag on for nearly two decades.
In his 2010 doctoral dissertation on the history of Mount Graham, Monroe (N.Y.) Community College Professor Joel Helfrich argued that Coyne’s ethno-centric worldview led him to dismiss Apache notions of what was sacred and to criticize the environmental groups who sided with them as “self-serving.”
He cited a 1992 affidavit in which Coyne wrote that, “After extensive, thorough investigations by Indian and non-Indian experts, there is to the best of our knowledge no religious or cultural significance to the specific observatory site. If the objection is pressed on the grounds that the observatory is merely on the mountain, then, why has there been no outcry concerning far more widespread encroachment on other, higher peaks and on demonstrable prehistoric sites?”
Helfrich also cited an interview in which Coyne said, “I accept and respect their idea that the mountain is sacred. What I don‘t see is (that) the telescopes desecrate that sacredness. (I) have never gotten anyone, Apache or otherwise, to give any reasonable answer to that. They can‘t speak of these sacred sites because it‘s against their religion — it‘s secret. Well, I‘m sorry. I cannot, you know, evaluate a secret.”
After an act of Congress and two presidential waivers, the project was eventually allowed to proceed, with the first telescope becoming operational in 1993, a dozen years after it was first proposed.
‘Consistent with his humble nature’
The bitterness of the fight remains.
When told of Coyne’s death by a reporter, environmental advocate Robin Silver, co-founder of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, used the word “evil” to characterize the years of antipathy.
Silver decried “the pain and suffering that he caused Apache spiritual leaders and traditional elders and his role in the near extinction of the Mount Graham Red Squirrel in his single minded pursuit of siting the Vatican’s telescope on the Apaches’ sacred ground on Mt. Graham.”
Consomagno said Coyne regretted the ill will caused by the controversy.
“I think that he felt hurt at being the target of attacks that were often based on misconceptions or unspoken prejudices,” Consolmagno said. “But at the same time he tried to be careful not to fall victim to similar prejudices himself. He made himself available to conversations and interviews even from hostile sources. It was consistent with his humble nature.”
Coyne was the author of numerous scientific journal articles and co-author of the 2002 book, “Wayfarers in the Cosmos: The Human Quest for Meaning,” and held an eminent position in the church and in academia. But Consolmagno said he never put himself above others.
“He was very close friends with the lay Italians who worked at the Observatory in Rome, maintaining the quarters and the telescopes and working in the shop and darkroom,” Consolmagno said. “One day at the daily coffee he started telling them a joke that he had just heard from America; I was there and knew how the joke was supposed to end, and halfway into telling it he realized too that the punch line depended on a pun that would not work in Italian. So, as I watched, he shifted the story slightly and turned it into a completely new joke that worked in both languages!”
Melding science and religion
Coyne retired from UA and the Vatican in 2006, but he did not retire from public life, academia or controversy.
He appeared in the athiest comedian Bill Maher’s 2008 movie “Religulous” and was also a guest on his HBO talk show.
In the film, Coyne took issue with Biblical literalists who believe the earth is only 6,000 years old, saying the Christian scriptures were written more than a millennium before the advent of modern science.
“How in the world can there be any science in scripture? There cannot be,” he said, adding that he found religious fundamentalism to be “kind of a plague.”
He said that given the “historical facts,” such as Pope John Paul II’s declaration that evolution “was no longer a mere hypothesis,” it makes sense for the church to invest in science.
“It’s not that the church has this idea, you know, to train us up so we can be the first ones out there to baptize those extra-terrestrials before the Mormons get at them,” he said.
Coyne was a frequent critic of the “intelligent design” theory promoted by evangelicals and argued that the science of evolution was well established and should be taught in public schools.
“Intelligent design isn’t science even though it pretends to be,” he was quoted as saying at the time. “If you want to teach it in schools, intelligent design should be taught when religion or cultural history is taught, not science.”
In an interview with a British Catholic publication, Coyne said he believes God had a role in creation, but science, not theology, explains the universe.
“If they respect the results of modern science, and indeed the best of modern biblical research, religious believers must move away from the notion of a dictator God or a designer God, a Newtonian God who made the universe as a watch that ticks along regularly,” he said.
“God in his infinite freedom continuously creates a world that reflects that freedom at all levels of the evolutionary process to greater and greater complexity,” he wrote. “He is not continually intervening, but rather allows, participates, loves.”
In his 2010 “On Being” interview, Coyne described the tendency to drag God in “when we find out science is inadequate to understanding certain events in the universe,” something even scientists as great as Isaac Newton did.
“We tend to want to bring God in as a god of explanation, a god of the gaps…Every time we do it, we’re diminishing God and diminishing science,” he said.
“My personal life is built on the following: I’m a scientist. I try to understand the universe. My understanding of the universe does not need God.”
This article first appeared HERE.