The Guardian has pretensions to being the standard-bearer of the intellectual wing of Britain's press. If this is so, one must ask where the hell the country is heading.
Yesterday it carried an article by a Carrie Quinlan under the title "Vatican to welcome aliens". She writes
'The Catholic church has had a conference about astrobiology. Awesome, say I. I've never heard the term "astrobiology" before, but it is seemingly a way of talking about aliens without sounding like a geek or someone with an unusual relationship to reality. It's one of the paradoxes I enjoy in my brain that I think in all probability there is life on other planets, while at the same time being more than happy to mock anyone who claims to have met it. So, the fact that there's now a much more sciency sounding word one can use to talk about the possibility of Wookiees, Sontarans and Borg is very special. I might be welcome at dinner parties once again.
'I might even be welcome at a Vatican dinner party, which is particularly pleasing – they do, after all, have the best wine. And it'd be really amazing to have a proper conversation about astrobiology and its implications for religion."
The article continues with several hundred words in the same flippant vein, whilst the comments quickly degenerate into the usual anti-Catholic polemic about gays and condoms.
What a pity it is that the author did not bother to explain how conferences on astrobiology come to be held under the auspices of the Vatican. The Vatican astronomers have been in the forefront of the discipline since the observatory was established at Castelgandolfo in 1582 and run by a group of Jesuit astronomers.
The conference is one of the results of a project that began about thirty years ago as a programme for the systematic mapping of the spectrum of everything in the sky. The Jesuits took it on because it is incredibly tedious, and at the time offered no prospect of results, Nobel prizes or any other return on the effort. No-one else wanted to do it.
As the results were gathered and analysed, it was realised that all sorts of information could be extracted, including the presence of exo-planets (that is, planets orbiting stars other than the sun), the size of these exo-planets, their distance from their parent stars and the composition of their atmospheres, which could indicate the possible presence of life as we know it. All of which is amazing except seemingly to Guardian journalists and their fawning readers who take such pride in their ignorance.
Good journalism seeks to educate and inform. I thought that was the Guardian's particular mission in that regard, a much needed counterweight to the gutter press. This parade of ignorance, proudly displayed in the article and in the vast majority of the readers' comments, most of which are off-topic, leads to the question whether the term "British intellectual" is now an example of an oxymoron? It seems that the Guardian has now become part of the British gutter press.
For what it is worth, here is the article.
Fr Chris Corbally SJ of the VATT team writes,
'The "systematic mapping of the spectrum of everything in the sky" section has the spirit of the NStars work, if the details are not completely accurate. It is not a Vatican Observatory project as such, just my own with colleagues mainly from Appalachian State University, but it does need a spirit of service rather Nobel-prize getting; we are not detecting exo-planets, just finding the better, solar-like candidate host stars. It is possible that a spin-off project, which we are just starting, that of monitoring the cyclic activity of young solar analogues, may also indicate stars more likely to have planets modifying that (chromospheric) activity.'
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