Twenty-five young astronomers from around the world are currently meeting at the Vatican Observatory’s headquarters in Castel Gandolfo (June 4-30). They have gathered for an intensive four-week Vatican Observatory Summer School (or VOSS) in astrophysics. Summer schools are among the most important works of the Observatory. Held since 1986, they have been strongly supported by the Popes; nearly every school has been granted a private audience with His Holiness. God willing, this summer re-starts a regular biennial schedule of summer schools, following a five-year hiatus caused by the Covid pandemic.
The theme of this eighteenth VOSS is “Learning the Universe: Data Science Tools for Astronomical Surveys”. Viviana Acquaviva (Flatiron Institute and City University of New York) and Željko Ivezić (University of Washington and the Vera C. Rubin Observatory) lead a summer school faculty that includes some of the world’s experts on applying the principles of machine learning to astrophysical studies. Fr. Alessandro Omizzolo, an astronomer at both the Vatican Observatory and INAF/Padua Observatory, serves as Dean of the School.
“As telescopes grow larger and the detectors on them become more sensitive, the amount of astronomical data that scientists need to understand has grown dramatically,” Fr. Omizzolo notes. Major astronomical surveys have already measured billions of celestial sources. Future surveys, such as that of the new Rubin Observatory, will produce catalogs of tens of billions of stars and galaxies, and trillions of diverse precise measurements.
The current summer school explores the science behind these surveys. It presents the concepts of Big Data and Machine Learning. It provides a hands-on data analysis experience that will help students use these data sets for their own astronomical projects. It also seeks to build a community that grows throughout this month.
During four decades the Vatican Observatory Summer Schools have touched the lives of more than 400 young astronomers—and also, when they return home, the lives of their friends and colleagues. The school is open to advanced astronomy undergraduates and beginning graduate students from around the world. Most of the students selected come from developing countries.
Tuition is free. Additional financial support is provided by donors through the Vatican Observatory Foundation. Therefore every student accepted can attend.
Previous VOSS faculty have included astronomers from the world’s leading observatories and universities. Among them have been Vera C. Rubin herself (part of the first VOSS); George and Marsha Reike, currently principal scientists on the infrared cameras carried by the James Webb Space Telescope; and Didier Queloz, winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics. Among notable VOSS alumni is Heino Falcke, a key player in the Event Horizon Telescope that first imaged the shadow of a black hole. Current faculty include, in addition to Acquaviva and Ivezić: Dalya Baron (Carnegie Observatories); Marc Huertas-Company (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias / Observatoire de Paris); Francisco Antonio Villaescusa Navarro (Flatiron Institute / Princeton University).
There were nearly two hundred applicants for the current school, who showed excellent potential to pursue an active career in astronomy. The primary selection criteria were academic promise and motivation, with selection limited so that no nation would have more than two representatives. Three young Jesuit scientists are also participating in the school: Dr. Gao Aiden from China, Fr. Williams Dhelonga from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Dr. Matthew Pinson from Australia. The final enrollment, including the Jesuits, includes participants from every continent: nine from Europe; nine from Latin America, six from Asia, two from Africa, and one each from Australia and Canada. Students include thirteen men and twelve women (gender was not a selection criterion), ranging in age from twenty-three to thirty-one.
Please pray for these young astronomers, and for all involved in this important Vatican Observatory program.