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An Interview with Dr. Fr. Paul Gabor, S.J. (Part Two)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2016/03/15


An interview with Dr. Fr. Paul Gabor, S.J. He discusses: description of research areas and the reason for personal interest in these areas; entering the ranks of the Vatican Observatory, and the main misconception about the purpose of the Vatican Observatory’s Research Group in Tucson, Arizona and the Vatican Observatory in general; source of ability to speak eight languages and the assistance in current work; convictions in Roman Catholicism, and arguments and evidences for the truth of Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular; and the current activities at the Vatican Observatory and the aim of the research in the future.

Keywords: Fr. Paul Gabor, Roman Catholicism, Vatican Observatory.

An Interview with Dr. Fr. Paul Gabor, S.J. (Part Two)[1],[2],[3]

6. Your research interests lie in “tests of achromatic phase shifters, stabilization (through optical path dithering), wave front filtering (with single mode fibers), polarization and other issues regarding the implementation of nulling interferometry, techniques and instrumentation that can be used to discover planets orbiting other stars.”[4] In brief, could you describe each of these areas?  Furthermore, could you provide the reason for your personal interest in this research?

Interferometry can be used also with optical telescopes. It is very hard, though. Since radio waves have wavelengths of inches or even miles, the instruments needed to manipulate them are of comparable size and the quality of the machining (tolerance of bumpy surfaces) suffices to be at a similar level. In optical astronomy, wavelengths are about one hundredths of a human hair, and therefore the quality of the surfaces needs to be a million times better than with radio instruments.  This is one reason why optical interferometry is so much harder than radio interferometry.

Let’s return to exoplanets. In order to learn more about them we need to develop techniques allowing us to separate the exoplanet’s light from its host star’s. This can be done using a particular interferometric method, called nulling. A nulling interferometer makes the star appear much fainter than it is, while leaving the exoplanet at full brightness. It does it by cleverly combining the troughs and crests of optical waves. Since we need to overcome a contrast of ten orders of magnitude (1 unit to 10 billion), the level of control we need to have over the optical waves needs to be on a corresponding level. In other words, the instrument needs to control the geometric lengths of all optical paths within it (usually hundreds of meters) with an accuracy of a thousandth of a wavelength, i.e., a thousandth of a hundredth of a human hair: that is about the size of a single atom. It can be done. In fact, it was one of the things I did to earn my Ph.D.

Several ways of separating planet light from starlight are currently studied. Nulling interferometry is just one them. What remains to be seen is which of these methods is best and decide a plan of action, building advanced facilities on the surface of the Earth and in orbit.

7. In the September of 2010, you entered the ranks of the Vatican Observatory[5].[6] You had assignment to the Vatican Observatory’s Research Group in Tucson, Arizona[7], and became the Vice Director in September 2012.[8] What do you consider the main misconception about the purpose of the Vatican Observatory’s Research Group in Tucson, Arizona and the Vatican Observatory in general?

The Vatican Observatory is a standard research institute in the field of astrophysics. It is an institution of the Vatican City State, and its research staff are members of the clergy. The Observatory’s activity, however, is quite ordinary astrophysical research. There are numerous misconceptions about the Observatory’s work. People sometimes think we make horoscopes for the Pope or that we have been charged with resolving the enigma of the Star of Bethlehem. None of this is true.

And speaking of misconceptions, the word “observatory” itself is somewhat misleading. Literally, it designates a place where observation is conducted. Many astrophysical research institutes are called “observatories” because in the past they truly were places of observation. The institutions, still called “observatories” by inertia, conduct observations today in remote locations where they have placed their telescopes and other observing facilities to escape light pollution. The institution’s headquarters remain in the original locations, often with some historical instruments still on the premises. This is also the case of the Vatican Observatory. The institution has two sites with offices, libraries, meeting rooms, etc. One is at the Papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, and the other is in the main building of the Department of Astronomy of the University of Arizona in Tucson. Currently we operate only one telescope. It is on Mt Graham in Arizona, about 3 ½ hour drive from campus.

8. You speak eight languages at various proficiencies with great proficiency in English, Polish, Czech, Slovak, and French, and elementary proficiency in Italian, German, and Hungarian.[9] Where does this polyglot[10] ability source itself?  How does this assist in your current work?

I am very fortunate that I was exposed to multiple languages at an early age. My mother was an English teacher, and we had English friends who would spend time at our home.  She taught me English in such a natural way that I do not recall learning it. I have only vague snippets of memories of playing with my mother, and, as she told me later, she would sometimes use English, and of listening to a recording of Alice Through the Looking Glass over and over (I don’t know why it held such a sway over me). I believe that exposure to languages at an early age is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for good aural comprehension and good pronunciation. I grew up hearing Slovak, Czech, Hungarian, and English on a daily basis. When I learned Russian, German, French, Polish and Italian, comprehension and pronunciation came to me easily. A Czech friend of mine in Paris did some research into the issue because she wanted to know how to bring up her children to be bilingual. She found that exposure to several languages at an early age may cause some children problems. I would say that it is well worth the risk. Each language is a new world and if you master it, it is a new home.

9. In terms of the relationship between science and theology, much writing, and modern discourse emerges with rediscovery of prior theologians, religions, and irreligious thinkers, and some in groups such as the The New Atheists, where does your conviction in Roman Catholicism lie? In particular, what arguments and evidences most convince you of the truth of Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular?

Raymond of Sabunde in the early 15th century developed the doctrine of the Two Books. The roots of this teaching may be found already in St Paul (Rom 1:20) and several Church Fathers. The idea is simple: In his desire to reveal himself to us, God gave us two books, the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. Neither are an easy read but both are from the same Author, and therefore cannot be in contradiction. Galileo embraced the idea and developed it further, noting that the language of the Book of Nature is mathematics.

This doctrine implies that the faithful should not be leery of science. People often confuse Science herself with what the Enlightenment, French positivism and other philosophical currents mistakenly ascribed to her: an assault on Mystery.  It is true that philosophy in general, and natural philosophy in particular have demythologized the educated person’s view of the world. But the demise of animism, hylozoism and ancient mythologies among ordinary people must be attributed to the disproportionate effectiveness of the Gospel in transforming human hearts and societies.

Unlike myth, however, Mystery is an irreducible reality. It cannot be reduced to simpler terms. It is a dimension of reality. Either you perceive it or you do not. And most scientist do perceive it and marvel at it, regardless of their religious confession. Let me quote Richard Feynman, whom nobody would accuse of religious belief, “Why nature is mathematical is a mystery. […T]he fact that there are rules [laws of nature] at all is a kind of miracle.” Mystery with a capital “M” cannot be explained away. Scientists feel it as a subtle and intriguing beckoning. Rudolph Otto called this aspect of Mystery, mysterium fascinosum. Science is a dialogue between attentive students of the Book of Nature and its Author. It is a path leading ever deeper into Mystery.

Look at those who undertake the journey and at its effects on them. They feel incredibly privileged that Mystery invites them to its intimate presence. Galileo wrote, “I am infinitely grateful to God who has deigned to choose me alone to be the first to observe such marvelous things which have lain hidden for all ages past.” Gratitude is the foundation of all true religion.

Creator, the Author of the Book of Nature, wants to be known. The God of Israel reveals Himself, “I [Wisdom] was daily his [God’s] delight, rejoicing always before him; rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men. [… Wisdom] has killed her beasts; she has mingled her wine; she has also furnished her table […] She cries upon the highest places of the city, ‘Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled’.” (Prov 8:30-31; 9:2-5) Science would be consummate impiety, presumptuous vanity and odious sacrilege if God chose to stay hidden. Faith in a God who wants to be known, who goes to extreme ends to be known, who “came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man”, is in perfect harmony with the adventurous undertaking we call science.

Science also implies a certain ethics. Here are a few examples. Science can be done only in a society valuing truth above courtesy. Those who are too arrogant and egocentric cannot do science. At some point in their career, their expectations will be frustrated, the experiments will falsify their hypotheses, empirical facts will contradict them.  When that happens, the arrogant and egocentric ultimately have only two choices: become humble or leave science. The Czech poet Otakar Brezina called science “asceticism most sublime”. It is the enthusiastic and spontaneous asceticism of children at play, immersed in their game, forgoing and forgetting everything else. If aliens come in spaceships, conquering cosmic distances, we can be sure that we will have a lot in common because their society, like ours, will have engaged in science. Assiduous reading of the Book of Nature (like that of the Book of Scripture) transforms individuals and societies – very slowly and painfully but inexorably.

10. What current research activities does the Vatican Observatory conduct at the moment? What does the group aim to research in the near and far future?

Most people think that a research institute is like an enterprise, with some strategic plan of activity. Some institutes have one, but this is not particularly useful. In our case, research at the Vatican Observatory is multiple and varied. It is not because we have some clever plan to cover key areas of current research but rather because we have a limited pool from which we can recruit research staff. Leo XIII in 1891 wanted to show clergy doing science, and therefore our research staff is exclusively clergy. As a result, our research is a function of the individuals and their interests.

We do have two major assets representing the Observatory’s research infrastructure. The first one is the Vatican collection of meteorites. Meteorites are samples of Solar-System bodies, of asteroids and comets, and some are also samples of the Moon and Mars. Some contain grains that have been unaltered since the time before the formation of the Solar System. Meteorites are an incredibly rich source of information for planetary science.

The second is the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) on Mt Graham in Arizona. Its primary is the prototype spin-cast mirror, made by Roger Angel and his team in the mid 1980s. It is parabolic, with a diameter of 1.8 metres and an equal focal length.  Using the same technology, the Mirror Laboratory has since produced a number of 6.5-metre and 8.4-metre mirrors, the largest monolithic mirrors ever produced. VATT was dedicated in September 1993, and in order to produce good science for a few more decades, we decided to automate it together with University of Arizona’s two other telescopes, creating a robotic telescope network.

Classic telescope-time management implied that scientists would submit observing proposals, and then telescope time would be allocated to them as a number of whole nights because observing meant going up to the telescope, operating it and acquiring data. This meant that each night the telescope would serve only one science case.

With larger, more costly and more complicated facilities, the system is different. The telescope is operated by a specialist operator. Data acquisition is sometimes conducted by the scientists themselves but increasingly also this is done by specialized personnel. There are major advantages to such a system. The facilities are exclusively in the hands of people who are efficient at what they are doing. Several science cases can be accommodated in a single night, adapting the programme to the conditions. The disadvantage is the cost.

Smaller telescopes cannot afford to employ the necessary specialists. The answer is robotic operation. What is more, it turns out that robotic facilities are more efficient at certain types of tasks, such as repetitive monitoring of a large number of targets. Even the best trained humans cannot be expected to hop from one target to another after only a couple of minutes all night long, every night. The robot reduces the overhead time between data acquisitions (e.g., slewing and pointing) to a minimum. As a result, robotic facilities can conduct research programmes that have not been thinkable with human operators.


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Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Vice Director, Vatican Observatory Research Group.

[2] Individual Publication: March 15, 2016 at; Full Issue Publication: May 1, 2016 at

[3] MSc (1988-1994), particle physics, Charles University in prague; BA (1997-1999), philosophy, Ignacjanum; BA (2000-2003), theology, Centre Sèvres; and PhD (2005-2009), Astrophysics, Université Paris Sud (Paris XI).

[4] Please see Vatican Observatory Foundation (2014). Paul Gabor, S.J.. Retrieved from

[5] Please see Vatican Observatory Foundation (2014). History. Retrieved from

[6] Please see Vatican Observatory Foundation (2014). Paul Gabor, S.J.. Retrieved from

[7] Please see Tucson. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

[8] Please see Vatican Observatory Foundation (2014). Paul Gabor, S.J.. Retrieved from

[9] Please Please see LinkedIn (2014). Paul Gabor: Vice Director, Vatican Observatory. Retrieved from

[10] An individual with knowledge of multiple language.  Someone with an aptitude for acquisition of languages, i.e. someone capable of speaking many languages with fluency.


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