Fr. George V. Coyne SJ, who directed the Vatican Observatory for nearly 30 years from 1978 to 2006, died on Tuesday, February 11 at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse, N.Y where he was being treated for bladder cancer. He was 87 years old.
Fr. Coyne was named director of the Vatican Observatory at the age of 45 — notably he was one of the few appointments made during the brief papacy of John Paul I — after the unexpected death of his predecessor. He served until he was 73, the longest term of any Observatory director.
During his tenure as Observatory director, Fr Coyne oversaw the modernization of the Observatory’s role in the world of science, welcoming onto its staff a number of young Jesuit astronomers from around the world including Africa, Asia, and South America. Under his leadership the Vatican Observatory Research Group was established at the University of Arizona and in collaboration with the University he made possible the construction of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, with the world’s first spin-cast mirror, on Mt. Graham.
Fr. Coyne promoted the dialogue between science and theology at the highest level. In close collaboration with Pope St. John Paul II, in the 1990s he organized a series of conferences on “God’s Action in the Universe” at the Observatory’s headquarters in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, in collaboration with the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences of Berkeley, California. A series of proceedings were published by the University of Notre Dame Press. A letter from St. John Paul to George Coyne on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Newton’s Principia was one of the most detailed statements of Catholic theology on the relation between science and faith. He wrote a number of publications on this topic, most notably his book with Alessandro Omizzolo, Wayfarers in the Cosmos: The Human Quest for Meaning.
And with the establishment in 1986 of the biennial Vatican Observatory Summer Schools in astronomy and astrophysics, Fr Coyne advanced the education of a generation of young astronomers, especially from developing countries.
Fr. Coyne was born on January 19, 1933 in Baltimore, Maryland, the third of eight children. He attended Catholic elementary schools and received a full scholarship to the Jesuit-run Loyola High School in Blakefield, Maryland. Upon graduation in 1951 he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Wernersville, PA. During his first year of studies in Latin and Greek literature, he was instructed by a Jesuit priest who, in addition to having a PhD in the classical languages, also had a MS in mathematics and an educated interest in astronomy; he noticed George’s interest in astronomy and encouraged him in the field. George earned a B.S. in Mathematics and licentiate in philosophy from Fordham University in 1958, a Ph.D. in astronomy in 1962 from Georgetown University, and finally the licentiate in sacred theology from Woodstock College in 1965, the year he was ordained.
For his doctorate in astronomy at Georgetown University, Coyne carried out a spectrophotometric study of the lunar surface. 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.
Coyne’s main research interests was the study via polarimetry of a number of astronomical objects. These included the surfaces the Moon and Mercury; 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. His final papers were on the polarization produced in cataclysmic variables, interacting binary star systems that give off sudden bursts of intense energy.
Coyne was visiting assistant professor at the University of Arizona 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 University of Arizona Department of Astronomy. The following year he served as Director of the University of Arizona’s Catalina Observatory and as Associate Director of the LPL.
Coyne was appointed Director of the Vatican Observatory by Pope John Paul I in 1978, and in that same year he also became Associate Director of Steward Observatory. During 1979-80 he served as Acting Director and Head of Steward Observatory and the Astronomy Department, and thereafter he continued as an adjunct professor in the University of Arizona Astronomy Department.
He retired as Director of the Vatican Observatory in August 2006. After spending a sabbatical year as an Associate Pastor at St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in Raleigh, NC, he remained on the staff of the Vatican Observatory and served as President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation until 2011. In that year he was appointed to the McDevitt Chair of Religious Philosophy at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY.
Coyne was awarded honorary doctorate degrees by Boston College; the Jagellonian University in Krakow, Poland; Loyola University Chicago; Marquette University; St Peter’s College Jersey City; and the University of Padua, Italy. He was a member of the International Astronomical Union, the American Astronomical Society, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the American Physical Society, the Optical Society of America and the Pontifical Academy of Science.
Br. Guy Consolmagagno, S.J.