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George Coyne

George Coyne

Director of the Vatican Observatory

George V. Coyne, born January 19, 1933, in Baltimore, Maryland, completed his bachelor's degree in mathematics and his licentiate in philosophy at Fordham University, New York City, in 1958. He carried out a spectrophotometric study of the lunar surface for the completion of his doctorate in astronomy at Georgetown University in 1962. He spent the summer of 1963 doing research at Harvard University, the summer of 1964 as a National Science Foundation lecturer at the University of Scranton, and the summer of 1965 as visiting research professor at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

Interview
Faith and Reason

A member of the Society of Jesus since the age of 18, he completed the licentiate in sacred theology at Woodstock College, Woodstock, Maryland, and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1965. Coyne was visiting assistant professor at the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) in 1966-67 and 1968-69, and visiting astronomer at the Vatican Observatory in 1967-68. He joined the Vatican Observatory as an astronomer in 1969 and became an assistant professor at the LPL in 1970. In 1976 he became a senior research fellow at the LPL and a lecturer in the UA Department of Astronomy. The following year he served as Director of the UA's Catalina Observatory and as Associate Director of the LPL.

Coyne became Director of the Vatican Observatory in 1978, and also Associate Director of the UA Steward Observatory. During 1979-80 he served as Acting Director and Head of the UA Steward Observatory and the Astronomy Department. As Director of the Vatican Observatory he has been a driving force in several new educational and research initiatives. He spends five months of the year in Tucson as adjunct professor in the University of Arizona Astronomy Department.

Coyne's research interests have been in polarimetric studies of various subjects including the interstellar medium, stars with extended atmospheres and Seyfert galaxies, which are a group of spiral galaxies with very small and unusually bright star like centers. (Polarimetry is the technique of measuring or analyzing the polarization of light. When light rays exhibit different properties in different directions, the light is said to be polarized.) Most recently he has been studying the polarization produced in cataclysmic variables, or interacting binary star systems that give off sudden bursts of intense energy, and dust about young stars. He is an active member of the International Astronomical Union, the American Astronomical Society, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the American Physical Society and the Optical Society of America.

VATT science: Coyne will conduct two programs with the VATT using the Vatican polarimeter (VATPOL) and a 5-color polarimeter from Finland. The first is to make more observations of cataclysmic variable stars to understand better how matter flows from the low-mass companion in the binary system onto the strongly magnetized white dwarf star. His second program requires the VATT's very high resolution imaging. Coyne will search for protoplanetary disks of dust and gas that surround very young stars -- stars in the process of becoming a main-sequence star like our sun, perhaps giving rise to planets of their own. He will use an imaging polarimeter to study the scattering of starlight in the circumstellar material around these young stars.

"We have already discovered that some stars with masses between one and five times that of the Sun have flattened disks of material about them which extend from one to ten times the distance from the Sun to Pluto," Coyne says. "From the way in which this material is distributed, we have some indication that planets may have already formed in the regions closest to the new-born star. The evidence is indirect but it is obviously very important. This could prove to be a completely independent way of searching for planetary systems about other stars. Since, even for the nearby stars, the sizes of the disks are at the limit of the resolution of our best telescopes and best observing conditions, the use of the VATT at the exquisite site of Mount Graham is very well suited to this problem. Furthermore, we will have to observe a large sample of young stars in order to begin to establish the frequency of such disks in stars like the Sun."

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George Coyne

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