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VATICAN-GALAXIES Oct-3-2007 (590 words) With photo posted Sept. 18. xxxi

Vatican pulls top astronomers into its orbit for galaxy conference

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- The Vatican Observatory called together some of the world's top astronomers for a major conference on the creation and evolution of disk galaxies in an effort to better understand the nature of the universe.

More than 200 men and women from 26 countries attended the Oct. 1-5 conference in Rome to share some of the discoveries since the Vatican's last galaxy conference in 2000.

The observatory director, Argentine Jesuit Father Jose Funes, said they were able to attract top scientists and scholars for the meeting because "the Vatican Observatory is a prestigious institute, and the Holy See is well recognized in this field of astronomy."

Hosting the meeting in the heart of Rome also made it "particularly appealing to people," he told reporters Oct. 3.

So much is to be discovered about how planets, stars and galaxies are formed, he said. Scientists hope getting a clearer picture of how nearby galaxies developed will help unlock secrets about the nature of more distant galaxies, he said.

Father Funes, an astronomer who specializes in galaxies, said participants were investigating one type of galaxy, the disk galaxy, which, because of its flat circle of stars rotating around a nucleus or central bulge, looks like "a fried egg."

Because of the development of bigger and more powerful telescopes, many discoveries are being made, he said. For example, galaxies are spread out even farther than scientists once thought, he said.

Father Funes said new findings on how galaxies are growing also were being unveiled at the gathering.

Mary Putman, a professor of astronomy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said smaller, dwarf galaxies are being lured toward a larger galaxy, which then "gobbles up" the smaller star-systems.

She said neighboring dwarf galaxies are drawn in and ripped apart by the strong gravitational pull of the larger galaxy that then sucks in the smaller galaxy's material for its own use.

Putnam, with a team of astronomers, produced in 1998 the world's first image showing the Milky Way tearing off parts of two nearby galaxies.

She told Catholic News Service that an evolving disk galaxy is in constant need of fuel to power its growth.

Earth's galaxy, the Milky Way, gets its energy from a combination of eating up smaller orbiting systems, and having giant clouds which condense in the disk's outer reaches and then "rain" hydrogen fuel onto the galaxy, she said.

Putnam said colleagues in the United States were surprised and "got a kick" out of hearing she was going to present her research to a conference sponsored by the Vatican. But she said that "when I was getting into astronomy I was aware of the Vatican Observatory."

She said seeing the church involved in the field "also shows that whatever your belief system, there is still the mystery of the science going on in the universe that's intriguing to everyone."

Father Funes said that while studying the stars and gazing at galaxies does not erase misery and suffering in the world, "astronomy plays an important role in making us more human."

Discovering the immensity of the universe "helps us to realize we're a small planet, a very fragile planet and we have to take care of it," and save resources for future generations, he said.

Astronomy shows that human beings also "are fragile and small, and in the hands of God," he said.


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