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Vatican turns eyes to heavens

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The Vatican is hosting its second astronomy conference in seven years, as the Roman Catholic church strives to avoid being seen as anti-science. Delegates are expected from 26 countries, including Britain, the US, Italy, Germany, and Russia, the BBC reports.

Father Jose Funes, head of the Vatican Observatory, said the conference would focus on disc galaxies, cold dark matter, and black holes. "Disc galaxies are a hot topic," he told the BBC.

Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, will be the first subject for discussion. The delegates will go on to discuss the latest theories and ideas in galaxy, star, and planet formation.

The Vatican's history of involvement in astronomical research has its roots in the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. Then Pope Gregory XIII set up a task force to consider the full scientific implications of the 1582 switch in timelines. But it wasn't until 1789, almost two centuries after Galileo's "heretical" proposal that the Earth orbited the Sun, that the church set up its own observatory.

Since then, the tradition of scientific exploration has been maintained, and the Vatican now runs an observatory - the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope with its 1.8 metre mirror - out in Tucson, Arizona.

Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, a member of Father Funes's 13-strong team, explains that the Church has maintained its interest because science holds no fears for the faithful.

He told the BBC: "This is our way of seeing how God created the universe and they want to make as strong a statement as possible that truth doesn't contradict truth; that if you have faith, then you're never going to be afraid of what science is going to come up with." ®

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