The Vatican Observatory Summer School (part 1)

Posted by David Eicher
on Friday, June 29, 2007

Vatican Summer SchoolThis summer, starting June 9, the Vatican Observatory hosted a summer school for graduate students who are studying a particular theme in astronomy or astrophysics. The seventh Vatican Observatory Summer School (VOSS), held at the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome, focuses on extrasolar planets and brown dwarfs. On the first day of school, the 27 students from 22 countries who were chosen to attend gathered at the historic observatory, overseen by director José Funes and this year's chair, Dante Minniti of the Pontificia Universidad Catolica in Santiago, Chile.

I was privileged to be invited to attend as a guest lecturer this year, and planned on providing daily blogs starting on the first session of my attendance, June 18. But my laptop computer's hard drive died that morning, and so I am relegated to giving you reports of what happened at the conference in Italy a little more than a week late. Ah well, better late than never ...

The first week of the conference, before I arrived, the whole group — students and faculty — had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI. Although I missed that great honor, I was introduced to and toured Castel Gandolfo with the United States Ambassador to the Holy See, L. Francis Rooney. Each morning, the students tramped from their hotel to the observatory, which is housed in a complex that also serves as the Papal Summer Residence, and heard sessions about exoplanets. The presenters included Fernando Comeron of ESO, Didier Queloz of Geneva Observatory, Debra Fischer of Lick Observatory, and Willy Torres of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Over the early part of last week, the sessions reviewed a tremendous amount of material students had previously studied, building an appreciation of the overall state of research on brown dwarfs and exoplanets. The latest discoveries, just weeks old, were fresh on everyone's mind and formulated much of the talk over lunch and dinner.

As an added treat, I was given a behind-the-scenes tour of the observatory's equipment, which includes a 16-inch Zeiss refractor and a double astrograph, both dating from 1935; a double-refractor astrograph from 1942; and a Schmidt dating from 1957; by Guy Consolmagno, energetic Vatican astronomer and author of such celebrated works as Brother Astronomer and Turn Left at Orion. Further, Consolmagno shared with me an inside look at the Vatican's celebrated meteorite collection, which he curates.

I'll continue to post more about the meeting, including some interviews with the students, over the next couple of days.  To see a photo gallery of trip highlights, click here. You may need to disable your pop-up blocker to view this gallery.

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