No doubt we can all remember individuals who, while they were not a big part of their lives, have had a profound influence on us nonetheless. For me, one such person was a Jesuit priest and scientist, Prof. George Coyne, S.J. (Society of Jesus). This essay commemorates him on the third anniversary of his death.
From the late 1970s until 1981, I was pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry at Georgetown University and, like many grad students, I was close to my mentor, who was as much a father figure as a teacher. Occasionally, after teaching or a committee meeting, he would come back to the lab and invite me to lunch with him in the Jesuit dining room, a formal, wood-paneled hall where conversations were in whispered tones instead of the raucous give-and-take on the rest of campus. Also, the food was a bit better than on the rest of campus (the Jesuits took good care of themselves, vows of poverty notwithstanding). He would say that the old Jesuits were real characters and that it would be fun.
In the dining room, my mentor would hang his jacket, hat, umbrella, etc., in the cloakroom (he was a real preppie and dressed the part). I, being a poor grad student, had nothing to leave, so I just sat down. Whenever we left the dining room, my mentor would find something missing. Hat, gloves, scarf, whatever. It wasn’t that the old priests were kleptomaniacs but, during lunch, the wine (and even more potent spirits) would flow freely. These old guys would stumble back to their offices feeling no pain, often wearing something they hadn’t come in with. It became a running joke: What would he lose this time?
Image: Rev. Dr. Coyne by the Vatican Observatory Foundation. CC BY-SA 3.0.
I got to meet some interesting people. Robert Drinan, S.J., was an elected member of Congress from Massachusetts, known mainly for opposing the Vietnam War and not being politically pro-life, along with numerous other all too left-of-center viewpoints. Yet, he was an interesting person and a gentleman. Another was Charles Currie, S.J., who was a chemistry prof at Georgetown before assuming the presidencies of Wheeling Jesuit and Xavier Universities. But the one I remember most was George Coyne, S.J., an occasional visitor to campus, who died on February 11, 2020, at 87 years old.
Prof. Coyne earned a Ph.D. in astronomy at Georgetown in 1962 with a spectral study of the lunar surface. I recall that there were white-domed observatories on the Georgetown campus, but I was not aware that they were actually used until I became acquainted with Coyne’s work. Early on, I really thought they were simply quaint artifacts of the past. In fact, they were put to some good use, and my fellow grad students and I would often visit them.
While I do not intend to write a biographical sketch of Prof. Coyne, some background is important. He received a B.S. in mathematics (and a licentiate in philosophy) from Fordham in 1958 before beginning his time at Georgetown. He then did postdoctoral studies at Harvard and the University of Scranton. Most of his career was spent on the faculty of the University of Arizona (Lunar and Planetary Observatory, UA-LPO) while also serving as director of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory (1978 - 2006).
The Vatican Observatory has long been affiliated with UA. You might be curious as to why a church would have an observatory. Well, the Catholic Church had been the historical keeper of the solar calendar for centuries (the Gregorian calendar). Of course, we now have modern means to sync to the solar calendar, but the observatory remains an important scientific endeavor. The Vatican observatory has usually been headed and staffed by Jesuits; indeed, ten have had asteroids named for them, including Coyne.
I was fortunate to have heard Prof. Coyne speak once in person at a seminar (the many other times I heard him were via video). I want to relate just two of the lessons he taught that have played an important part in my life as a scientist.
It’s Only a Theory:
During a discussion with the evolutionary biologist and noted atheist Richard Dawkins, the topic of evolution vs. creation arose. Many know Richard Dawkins as an often combative and sarcastic debater. While he can usually keep his composure, he will occasionally descend to a level of borderline personal invective that makes his arguments less persuasive.
One would have thought at the start of the conversation between these two that the fur would fly. Not so. Coyne’s patient and gentlemanly manner completely disarmed Dawkins, and the discussion was profoundly illuminating.
Coyne explained that, in American English parlance, the word “theory” perhaps has some unintended or hidden meanings. In essence, American speakers often take the word “theory” to mean “guess.” All too often, the guess is a wild ass guess that’s a speculative idea drawn from fairy dust or pulled out of the blue. For example, the plumber tells you: “I have a theory that your sink is not draining because there might be a bird’s nest in the vent. That’ll be $200.”
But, in science, a theory is anything but a guess. In chemistry and physics, a theory is usually a mathematical formalism that describes natural phenomena. In the biological sciences, sometimes more descriptive than quantitative, a theory might not have a mathematical foundation but rather an observational foundation.
Coyne pointed out all these facets of language before dealing with the central question: The theory of evolution vs. biblical creation. He then suggested, and Dawkins accepted (!), that evolutionary biology is the “best scientific explanation” of the origin of species. So, instead of the word “theory,” with the associated linguistic pitfalls, we have an alternative terminology that, at the very least, allows the conversation to proceed. Before that, both sides just stomped out of the room, harumphing at one another.
Coyne’s clarification of this point is applicable in all scientific fields and important today, given that scientists often communicate poorly. What’s worse, many don’t even care. I have endured countless presentations and meeting lectures by those at the top of their fields, wondering afterward if I could get that hour of my life back again. Coyne taught me that, when we speak or write, the idea is not to show how smart we are but, instead, to share ideas. His simple re-definition of “theory” is wise counsel to speak and write precisely.
Give Us a Bit More Time:
A topic that Coyne loved to discuss was the universe’s age, which he declared with no hesitation is 13.7 billion years. He pointed out that we understood this well, meaning that we not only deduced the number (13.7 billion), but we had a measure of the uncertainty of the number (0.2 billion years). Both are critical in a scientific discussion.
Coyne had a unique way to grasp this number. After all, 13.7 billion years is something that none of us have experienced or will experience. He would scale this proportionally to a time period we recognize: One year. He would pretend that the universe, right now, is one year old, then examine what we see.
Our one-year-old universe started at midnight, January 1, one year ago. The first life on earth (that we know of) occurred on September 4. The dinosaurs were born on Christmas day, December 25, and they lived only five days. But the most fascinating concept is the very last day of this proportionate, one-year-old universe. The first humans came into existence at two minutes before midnight (that is, two minutes before right now). The historical Jesus Christ was born two seconds ago, and Galileo was born one second ago.
Coyne’s point was that modern science, which arguably began with Galileo, has been an infinitesimally tiny endeavor, just the last second of our one-year-old universe. In that last second, the most complex of organisms, the human being, has been asking the fundamental questions and developing the means to understand the universe.
Microscopically and macroscopically, we have developed basic science (to enquire and attempt understanding) and applied science (engineering, from bridge building to pharmaceutical development). Coyne would end by stating that he never met a humble scientist, but that we as scientists should be! Truly, science is in its intellectual infancy, so we can’t expect to have all the answers. Give us a bit more time!
I have never forgotten the lessons I learned from him. When a politician speaks of settled science, you need only consider that we have been at this enterprise for such a short time, that nothing is settled; no understanding is complete. And, as for the person who claimed: “I am the science,” Prof. Coyne is still spinning in his grave.
Dr. Bruno, a scientist retired after more than 40 years in research, amuses himself writing books and editing scientific journals, along with wood and metal working.