Jesuit Father George V. Coyne, who led the Vatican Observatory as its director for 28 years, got his start in the field of astronomy as a young student in formation for the priesthood by secretly studying under his blanket, flashlight in hand.
Father Coyne died Feb. 11 in Syracuse. He was 87.
He served as Vatican Observatory director from 1978 to 2006, overseeing the modernization of its facilities, raising its profile in the science world and welcoming a new international generation of Jesuit astronomers to its staff. He joined the observatory staff as an astronomer in 1969 and held the position until 2011.
Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, the Vatican Observatory’s current director, recalled the first words from Father Coyne when he joined the observatory staff in 1993: “Do good science.”
Father Coyne, he said, created an atmosphere that attracted young astronomers from around the world and established a program for adjunct scholars who could be affiliated with the observatory, use its facilities and spread its name without living on site. The arrangement opened the door for women to join the staff, Brother Consolmagno told Catholic News Service Feb. 13.
“George did a lot to promote women in astronomy,” Brother Consolmagno said, explaining how his predecessor initiated the biennial Vatican Observatory Summer School for astronomy graduate students. Nearly half of the students were women, and the program helped develop young astronomers in the developing world, he said.
Father Coyne most recently was on the faculty of Le Moyne College in Syracuse, where he had taught astronomy while holding the McDevitt Distinguished Chair of Religious Philosophy since 2011.
He was widely known for promoting conversations on the intersection of theology and science.
Among his most widely known works was the 2002 book “Wayfarers in the Cosmos: The Human Quest for Meaning,” co-written by fellow Vatican Observatory astronomer Father Alessandro Omizzolo.
Research was an important part of Father Coyne’s astronomical legacy. His work included the study of the lunar surface that helped guide NASA as it planned the Ranger missions and the Apollo crewed missions to the moon. He also conducted research on Mercury’s surface, interacting binary star systems that give off sudden bursts of intense energy, and Seyfert galaxies, a group of spiral galaxies with small and unusually bright star-like centers.
Born in Baltimore, he spent nearly all of his priesthood as an astronomer. After graduating in 1951 from a Jesuit-run high school near Baltimore, he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville, Pa.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a licentiate in philosophy from Fordham University, a doctorate in astronomy from Georgetown University and a licentiate in sacred theology from Woodstock College.
He was ordained in 1966.
A Funeral Mass was celebrated Feb. 17 in Panasci Chapel at Le Moyne College. Burial was in the Jesuit cemetery in Wernersville.—CNS