Stories from another world

2012-02-01 L’Osservatore Romano

As children we were used to listening to stories that explain the origin of things inside and outside us. When we become adults we ourselves learn to tell them and we retain the pleasure of learning other new ones. As astronomers it is our duty to tell humanity a story: that of the universe, a universe that is 14 billion years old!

Since their origins human beings have felt the need to seek a rational explanation that enables them to understand the deepest meaning of the cosmos that surrounds them. We usually think of the universe as outside us. But we forget that the matter of things in our daily world and in our own bodies is produced in the nucleus of the stars.

In his Hymn to Matter Teilhard de Chardin sings of it as a “triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations: you who by overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards or measurement reveal to us the dimensions of God”. There it is: knowledge of the universe dilates our heart.

Three institutions have decided to recount their contribution to this journey of knowledge:  the National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN), the Department of Physics of the University of Pisa and the Vatican Observatory. While the latter engages in theoretical and observable astronomy, the INFIN and the Department of Physics are concerned with topics which in order to unify knowledge of the cosmos are indispensable. In fact, if telescopes make known to us the infinitely great, particle accelerators help us to become acquainted with the infinitely small; which, moreover is the seed from which the infinitely great subsequently germinated. This unusual juxtaposition of “great” and “small” must already stir us to wonder!

The story of the universe cannot be told without our “small” human stories. In this crossroads of cosmic history and human history, Pisa is a privileged place. It was here that Galileo Galilei was born and Pisa is also the city in which Archbishop Pietro Maffi, who was created a cardinal of  Holy Roman Church in 1907, carried out his pastoral ministry from 1903 to 1931.

Maffi was a passionate popularizer of astronomy. The esteem he met with in the scientific sphere was unanimous. It prompted Pius X to appoint him President of the Vatican Observatory in 1904, charged with reorganizing it and with finding it a new director (a Jesuit, Johann G. Hagen), who was chosen at a delicate moment in the institution's history. Maffi lived his dual membership – in the worlds both of the Church and of science – as an opportunity to encourage dialogue and collaboration between these two milieus of human experience, which were not considered conflictual but rather as cooperating in the quest for the most profound meaning of human existence.

The exhibition: “Stories from another world: the universe inside and outside us”, which will open in Pisa next spring, is concerned with the nature of the elements of which the universe and also human beings are composed. It sweeps from the immaterial photon that brings us light to the particles that form the origin of the mass, such as the Higgs boson. This cosmic journey into the depths of matter then continues in the solar system, in the stars of the Milky Way, reaching  to the furthest galaxies.  

Moreover, let us not forget that in our cosmic adventure there are still unresolved problems to which science is seeking to respond. For example: what are dark matter and dark energy? It is worth remembering that according to our latest knowledge of the universe only 4 per cent of it is composed of  “normal” matter, namely, atoms; whereas 23 per cent is made of dark matter and 73 percent of dark energy.

Although the exhibition will be open to a vast public, it targets young people above all. Speaking to students during his Pastoral visit to the United Kingdom in September 2010, Benedict XVI said: “in your Catholic schools, there is always a bigger picture over and above the individual subjects you study, the different skills you learn.... But always remember that every subject you study is part of a bigger picture. Never allow yourselves to become narrow”. His invitation sounds familiar to all astronomers who work and study inspired by the awareness that their duty is to open ever broader horizons to humanity.

José Gabriel Funes