BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
As a teenager taking Latin classes for fun at Owensboro Catholic High School in the 1980s, Christopher Graney did not expect to one day become a member of the Vatican’s own astronomical institute.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” said Graney, who graduated from OCHS in 1984 and today is a professor of physics and astronomy at Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville.
In summer 2019, the OCHS alumnus was made an adjunct scholar of the Vatican Observatory (shortened to the VO). The VO is a scientific research institute of the Holy See and is one of the oldest astronomical institutes in the world.
Graney said Br. Guy Consolmagno, SJ, the observatory’s director, had nominated him during the summer and the nomination was approved in August by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
This status means Graney is now an official member of the Vatican Observatory, with all of the rights and privileges of one of the researchers.
Latin and learning
Graney told The Western Kentucky Catholic that his involvement with the VO “came through science but also through Latin,” having taken several years of high school Latin at OCHS with Fr. Peter Lauzon. (Sadly, Fr. Lauzon died of cancer in 1995.)
Graney believes these Latin classes were what proved to be his “ace in the hole” for this connection.
“This came directly out of stuff I learned at Catholic High,” said Graney. “I still have my old high school Latin book – and I still use it,” he said, adding that he has never taken another formal Latin class after OCHS, having self-taught the rest that he needed.
Sure, he might like Latin – but why is that so important for a scientist?
“Because today, scientists do not know Latin,” said Graney. “But not that long ago, most science communication was done in Latin. It was the international language.”
Graney gave the example of Isaac Newton’s great work, the “Principia,” pointing out that it is in Latin.
“If you really want to know what Newton said, as he wrote it, you must know Latin,” said Graney.
He added that learning what scientists have done in the past, in their own words – especially when looking into “where things went wrong” – Latin is crucial.
Road to the observatory
Graney’s relationship with the VO began when the first research paper he wrote in the area of astronomical history was published in a Lithuanian astronomical journal. He connected with Fr. Richard Boyle, SJ, who was a fellow American and frequent contributor to the journal.
It turned out that Fr. Boyle was an astronomer with the VO, and Graney soon was corresponding with him and Br. Consolmagno. The rest, as they say, was history.
Graney has most recently served as the editor for the Vatican Observatory Foundation website’s Faith and Science pages, which contain hundreds of resources for Catholic educators and Catholics seeking to learn more about science. (The Vatican Observatory Foundation is the fundraising arm of the Vatican Observatory.)
Graney said his privileges with the VO include using their telescopes at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome, and on Mount Graham in Arizona, selected for the location’s dark skies.
Due to light pollution around Rome, the Arizona telescope (named the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope or VATT) is newer and the main instrument of the VO
“As an adjunct with the VO I have access to the facilities in either Castel Gandolfo or Arizona, which is very cool,” he said. “I’ve been to Castel Gandolfo before, but not to the VATT.”
Graney looks forward to working with the VO, and expects to travel to Rome in the near future to do some research.
High school memories
Graney said he was interested in science before high school, “but it took off at OCHS.”
“As time’s gone by, especially as my kids have gone through high school and beyond… I realize (OCHS) was a really good environment,” said Graney. “I always thought it was good, but I appreciate it more now.”
He also grew to love learning in general, thanks to the “fairly energetic” teaching style of Fr. Lauzon.
He recalled a particularly memorable project during his junior year Latin class, when students participated in OCHS’s foreign language fair.
Graney and his classmates “researched what Romans ate, how they ate, how they set a table… then we prepared the meal, dressed up in ‘Roman’ fashion, and ate the ‘Roman’ meal right there at the language fair – in front of everyone,” he said.
“As I recall, Fr. Pete was half amused and half annoyed with our unorthodox interpretation of a language project assignment,” said Graney.
Graney said he took Latin never thinking it would be useful: “I took it because I thought it would be fun,” adding that, “we had fun in Latin class!”
But in the end, Graney said his knowledge of Latin has been “central” to “pretty much all of my research.”
His most recent area of research has been the astronomer Johannes Kepler, and his ideas about the nature of the universe of stars, and how he opposed the ideas of Giordano Bruno.
“Of course this work involved reading and translating portions of Kepler’s work in his original Latin, as much of it has never been translated,” said Graney.
“Absent those Latin classes at OCHS, my research, my papers, my books, would not exist,” he said.
Originally printed in the December 2019 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Copyright © 2019 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic