Just a quick note to remind you that I am on vacation and not posting daily columns here BUT I am posting in Facebook ( Wanted to touch bases today with an interesting story that I will also be posting this on Facebook!


Another plane flight, another fascinating seat mate, another wonderful story!

I had an exceptional and serendipitous meeting on my flight last Saturday from Los Angeles to Honolulu where I was seated next to David Ciardi, an astronomer and research scientist from Caltech University.

Our conversation began with “well, what brings you to Honolulu – or do you live there?”

I replied that I live in Italy and was going to Hawaii on vacation. David said, “I am an astronomer” (no one had ever said that to me before in a first meeting!) and told me he was heading to Honolulu to attend the 29th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). I learned that this is a two week-long meeting that brings together over 2500 astronomers from an estimated 75 countries around the world.

I said I imagined the Vatican Observatory would be represented and David said he was sure it would be as it is one of the most respected authorities in the field of astronomy.  As we exchanged business cards, I said I know the Vatican has been famous for centuries for its telescopes and, as a matter of fact, is known for the VATT (Vatican Advanced Telescope Technology) atop Mount Graham near Tucson, AZ. In fact, I have been to the observatory in Castelgandolfo on a number of occasions for their celebrated biennial summer school courses for graduate and under-graduate students of astronomy.

Once in my hotel, I did some research on the IAU website and sure enough, the Vatican has sent four of the Jesuits who run the Vatican observatory …three based in Tucson. I wrote to my Rome Jesuit astronomer friend, Bro. Guy Consolmagno to see if he could put me in touch with them.

Bro. Guy contacted the Jesuits here, gave them my cell phone number and I got a call Monday from Fr. Christopher Corbally. We made an appointment for an interview on Tuesday and he was wise enough to get me press credentials, knowing that security was tight at the Hawaii Convention Center, with credentials being checked very carefully.

I spent Tuesday morning doing a crash course in astronomy, reading the latest stories and news from and about the IAU, and studying the IAU website, etc., as I certainly wanted to prepare a thoughtful interview. Fr. Corbally and I met at 4 pm at the convention center and had a wonderful conversation before, during and after the interview. (The interview will air on Vatican Insider upon my return to Rome.)

I took these photos during that visit:









What is interesting is that the IAU general assembly has been planned for years but was taking place amid protests against the building of the TMT telescope atop a mountain held sacred by native Hawaiians on the island of Hawaii, also known as the Big Island. It was a peaceful protest but the message from the native Hawaiians was that they do not want the building on a sacred spot of the TMT the Third Meter Telescope that would be one of the biggest in the world. Plans and financing for this project have been underway for a long time and people here told me the protesters – many were native Hawaiians – were simply awaiting the presence of the IAU astronomers.

In any event, as you see, the expression really is true: “It’s a small world!”