An observatory not well known by the general public, but revered by the world’s leading astronomers, provided a unique opportunity for a Rutgers graduate student who spent a month there seeking clues to how galaxies form and continue to evolve.
John Wu and 24 other students from 22 countries worked alongside resident faculty and a group of notable American and British guest scientists at the Vatican Observatory – that is run by the Roman Catholic Church and serves as an example of how science and faith can coexist.
Wu started research this summer with one of those scientists that he hopes will become part of a journal article when the work is completed.
For Wu, this life-changing experience was capped off by an audience with Pope Francis, who commended the students for their scientific collaborations and for sharing unique cultural and religious traditions. Describing the group as “a marvelous mosaic made up of people from throughout the world,” the pope characterized their work as “a fitting and effective means for promoting peace and justice.”
“It is only right that men and women everywhere should have access to research and scientific training,” the pope told the students.
Wu remembers the meeting as one of the most powerful moments of the trip.
“It’s a blur, kind of like a dream,” he said. “I don’t even remember what I said – I think I just stuttered out something like, ‘I’m pleased and honored to meet you.’ We had to meet and greet very quickly.”
Wu, himself a Protestant Christian, spoke highly of his hosts for using the summer school as way to bring people of different cultures together to learn how people in other countries do research.
“What I appreciate most is that the observatory staff are very open-minded,” he said. “The Vatican Observatory is eager to show the world that we can’t close off our minds and stop paying attention to science.”
The Roman Catholic Church claims a rich heritage of astronomical study, dating back to 1582, when Pope Gregory drew upon knowledge of planetary motion to reform the Julian calendar. The church established three observatories between the late 1700s and early 1800s, with the current one being in continuous operation since 1891. The church has explained its interest in astronomy as a way of showing its positive regard toward science.The observatory is located at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, just outside Rome, which is where the students spent most of their time.
Wu recalls the program’s faculty offering the students a menu of possible research topics.
“With the opportunity to be in such close proximity with such awesome scientists, I thought, ‘I’m going to try to do three,’” he said. One project has continued beyond the summer program, and Wu is ultimately hoping to prepare a journal article based on his work in Rome.
A resident of Clinton, N.J., Wu had only a passing knowledge of the Vatican Observatory until his advisor, Andrew Baker, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, School of Arts and Sciences, recommended that he apply for the summer school program. Wu credits Baker and his undergraduate adviser at Carnegie Mellon University, Rachel Mandelbaum, for supporting his application.
“They were really happy that I was accepted,” he said.
Now in his second-year as a doctoral student, Wu is studying star formation in galaxy clusters with Baker. “It’s something we don’t expect to find very often, because the environmental effects of these clusters are so extreme,” he said. “Stars tend to form in more calm environments.”
Reflecting on his work over the summer, Wu said that making initial discoveries isn’t always that time-consuming, but that going back to verify what was found, and statistically proving it, can be tedious.
“We have to do all these consistency checks,” he said. “The results look promising, but we don’t want to mislead anyone. So that’s what remains ahead of us.”
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