Back to Rome? On a fast train? Don't get on the wrong train! We are lucky that there is another one a half hour later. We aren't going to miss this at any expense.
Back at the NorthEast Astronomy Forum, we met Giovanni Sacco, of Unitron Instruments. We mentioned that we were soon leaving on an astronomy tour of Europe. He linked us up with his colleague, Claudio Costa, who invited us for a tour of the Vatican Observatory.
When we meet him in Termini station, Claudio was a soft-spoken but confident man wearing a Kennedy Space Center sweatshirt. He walked us to his car and we began our drive to Castel Gandolfo, the Summer residence of the Pope. Long ago, the Vatican had an electronic issue with one of their research telescopes. Claudio had the chance to offer his assistance. He laughs, recalling the biggest stroke of luck in his life: "I got the contract, fixed the telescope, and then at the end, I said I didn't want any pay, I just wanted access to the observatory. So they said OK, we will pay you, and give you access!" Now, Claudio is in charge of the restoration of these historical telescopes. For over 20 years, he's used the Vatican's former research telescopes at his leisure, and let me tell you, these guys are big. But we'll get to that.
Palazzo Gandolfo is the former residence of the emperor Diocletian. Now the Pope lives here, along with a team of astronomer-priests who conduct their research. Claudio briefly lets us out of the car for us to enjoy the gardens.
Inside the astronomer's quarters is display case after display case of truly extraordinary materials. Apollo aged autographs signed by Gene Cernan, a meteorite that came from Mars, original copies of Copernicus, Newton, Galileo, and Kepler.
There is something sacred about looking at one of the first ever sketches of Earth revolving around the Sun. Science and religion have had a rocky relationship in the distant past (just ask Galileo and Copernicus), but the stance of a spiritual astronomer is very wise. Studying the mysteries of nature is one of the important ways that we can understand the divine around us. There is nothing incompatible about exploring science and exploring faith at the same time.
Claudio leads us up to the first dome. Inside is an enormous reflector. So big we couldn't get it into any one picture. In the 1960s, a Pope purchased this telescope from his own pocket. Wow! It was once state of the art, and the mechanical components all impressed me immensely. In this room, the Pope himself watched the 1969 landing on the moon, and from where we stand right now, he addressed the world on the importance of this moment.
Next, Claudio led us to the second telescope, a double refractor, one visual, the other, for photographic plates. Claudio showed us the restoration. It's now controlled by a playstation controller! Claudio showed us the great difficulty involved in creating photographic plates. First, the telescope must cool down to the outside temperature, because the focus changes as it cools. This takes two hours. Next, Claudio charges a photographic plate places it in the telescope. He takes an exposure, then develops the plate, and checks to see whether all the stars are in focus. He makes any adjustments necessary, and then from there he can begin a longer exposure for the study of Nebulae. All in all, he can develop maybe three exposures in a single night.
Now consider this. Long ago, the Vatican participated in the first ever complete survey of the sky: the "Carte du Ciel". Observatories from all over the world participated, and systematically photographed every part of their sky that was overhead. From 1910 until 1921, the observatory created photographs of the skies. A team of three nuns operated sophisticated Zeiss microscopes, carefully turning precision knobs to record the positions and brightnesses of the stars in the sky. One nun measured the positions and brightnesses of stars on Zeiss microscopes. The second nun checked the answer on an identical instrument. The third one wrote it down. They did this for YEARS! In this time, if you performed tasks like these, you were called a "computer". All in all, they catalogued 481,215 stars. Again it makes you appreciate, astronomy is the delicate art of staring as hard as possible into the void of space, to maybe catch a glimpse further into the Universe than ever before.
At 12am, we board our train back to Florence, and sleep for a measly 4 hours aboard the train before arriving at the station. Astronomers have strange hours, but that's why we see such extraordinary things.