Centuries of Stargazing Leave Jesuit Names Written in the Heavens

Centuries after the Holy See muzzled Roman Catholic stargazers for questioning the centrality of the Earth in the cosmos, Jesuit astronomers from the Vatican’s in-house observatory are increasingly writing their names in the heavens.

The Vatican, run by Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope in history, recently announced that three more Jesuit scientists from its Jesuit-run observatory had asteroids named after them as part of a fresh batch that included the 16th-century pope who commissioned the Gregorian calendar and a Tuscan pastry chef whose hobby is the firmament.

Jesuits, while not quite yet as numerous as the stars, have had more than 30 asteroids assigned to them since the space rocks began to be formally named in 1801. That “should not be surprising, given the often scientific nature of this community,” said the astronomer Don Yeomans, who worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and is now part of the group that gives official approval for the names given to asteroids.

The three astral Jesuits named last month are the Rev. Robert Janusz, a Polish priest and physicist who focuses on measurements of light from star clusters (565184 Janusz); the Rev. William R. Stoeger (1943-2014), an American priest (551878 Stoeger); and the Rev. Johann Georg Hagen (1847-1930), an Austrian American who, per the naming citation for 562971 Johannhagen, “devised several ingenious experiments at the Vatican to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth, directly confirming the theories of Copernicus and Galileo.”

All three work or worked in the Specola Vaticana, or Vatican Observatory, just off the papal gardens at Castel Gandolfo, a short drive from Rome. The observatory is a descendant of centuries of Vatican-sponsored research into the stars, and it is the only Vatican body that carries out scientific study.

The history of the observatory, which has been staffed by Jesuits since the 1930s, is a rebuttal to the notion that the Roman Catholic Church has always sought to stand in the way of scientific advancement, an idea perpetuated by high-profile cases like those of Galileo and Giordano Bruno at the hands of the Inquisition during the Renaissance.

“There are institutions like the Pontifical Academy of Science that tell the Vatican what’s going on in the world of science, but we actually do the science,” said Brother Guy Consolmagno, an asteroid honoree (4597 Consolmagno) and director of the observatory, whose website tagline is “faith inspiring science.” In a 2017 interview with The New York Times, Brother Consolmagno said that part of the mission of the observatory was “to show the world that the church supports science.”

It’s telling that a former director of the observatory, the Jesuit astrophysicist Rev. George V. Coyne, who died in 2020, played a significant role in getting the Vatican to shift position and formally acknowledge in 1992 that Galileo might have been correct.

“One thing the Bible is not,” Father Coyne told The New York Times Magazine in 1994, “is a scientific textbook. Scripture is made up of myth, of poetry, of history. But it is simply not teaching science.”

The Specola’s roots date to Pope Gregory XIII, who built an observatory — known as the Tower of the Winds — inside the Vatican so that astronomers could study the reform of the Julian calendar, which was in use until 1582. Gregory, a.k.a. Ugo Boncompagni (1502-1585), was an important early patron of the Jesuits and now has an asteroid named after him, 560794 Ugoboncompagni.

Among the astronomers who worked on the reformed calendar was a Jesuit, Christopher Clavius (1538-1612) — asteroid 20237 Clavius — who lived at the Roman College, a school in the Italian capital started in 1551 by St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the order.

The Roman College formed generations of astronomers, including Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598-1671) — asteroid 122632 Riccioli — who published a map of the moon in 1647 and codified some of the lunar nomenclature that is still in use. When Neil Armstrong said: “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed,” on the 1969 Apollo 11 moon mission, “Tranquillity” was a reference to the Mare Tranquillitatis, or Sea of Tranquillity, which Riccioli had named.

Asteroid 4705 Secchi is named after the Jesuit priest Angelo Secchi (1818-1878), who pioneered astronomical spectroscopy and was the director of the observatory at the Roman College from 1848 until his death.

Mount Graham International Observatory, Ariz., where the Vatican operates a telescope in partnership with the University of Arizona.Credit…Joe McNally/Getty Images

The Vatican observatory’s current astronomers mostly split their time between Castel Gandolfo and Mount Graham, Ariz., where the Vatican operates a telescope in partnership with the University of Arizona.

The Rev. Jean-Baptiste Kikwaya Eluo, who works at the observatory, said that being a scientist and a man of faith changes the way that a person observes the world. He said that his scientific vocation had been fostered by his superiors in the Jesuit order. (He also has an asteroid named after him: 23443 Kikwaya.)

As Jesuits, “because we truly believe that God is the one who put everything there, it puts us in a very different relation with the thing we are observing,” Father Kikwaya said in a Zoom conversation from Arizona.

The naming of asteroids — which are also known as minor planets or small solar system bodies — is overseen by a group of professional astronomers, part of the International Astronomical Union. The group is presented every month with a list of proposed names and citations, but not all asteroids are labeled; only about 3.8 percent of the 620,000 numbered asteroids have been named, following specific guidelines.

Traditionally, names favored mythological figures from Greece or Rome (the first four were named Ceres, Pallas, Juno and Vesta), but inspiration was later drawn from other cultures. Ryugu, for example, is a magical underwater palace in Japanese folklore, while Bennu was named for an ancient Egyptian bird deity (selected from thousands of entries in a “Name that Asteroid!” contest). There is also Apophis, who, in Egyptian mythology, is the enemy of the sun god Ra.

Over the decades, more prosaic attributions emerged, mostly for scientists, astronomers or high-profile figures. In recent years, asteroid names have also been inspired by the winners and top participants of high school science and engineering fairs. (The New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer has an asteroid, too: 212073 Carlzimmer.)

There are restrictions. “Names of pet animals are discouraged,” the guidelines note, and historical figures associated with “the slave trade, genocide or eugenics” are not acceptable. There is also a restriction on military and political figures — they must have died at least 100 years ago to be considered.

Opening up the process has raised questions about attributing asteroid names to students whose future is still an untraveled road, however.

Take the case of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who had an asteroid named for her (23238 Ocasio-Cortez) after her high school project won a prize at an international science and engineering fair. “It’s true,” she wrote on Twitter in 2018.

Despite Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s subsequent career, the asteroid will retain her name; there is no retroactive reclamation. “We don’t do that,” said Gareth Williams, secretary of the naming group, which is called the Working Group for Small Bodies Nomenclature.

The group also tends to “strongly discourage” naming asteroids after religious figures, Dr. Williams said. But the current crop of Jesuit astronomers “were not named because they were Jesuits, they were named because they were astronomers. They just happened to be Jesuits,” Dr. Williams noted.

Many of the asteroid names have a story attached. In the latest batch, asteroid 44715 was named Paolovezzosi, for Paolo Vezzosi, an amateur astronomer and pastry chef from the Italian town of Montelupo Fiorentino, in Tuscany. Mr. Vezzosi, according to the citation, “provides delicious cakes,” at outreach events.

He was nominated by Maura Tombelli, president of an astronomy group that funded and built a public observatory in Montelupo Fiorentino. Ms. Tombelli has discovered 200 asteroids during her decades of stargazing (asteroid 9904 is called Mauratombelli in her honor).

Nominating Mr. Vezzosi was a way of thanking him for helping to get the observatory off the ground, Ms. Tombelli explained.

“We had nothing else to give, just my rocks in the sky,” she said.

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