Deceased Academicians

George Vincent Coyne, SJ


George Vincent Coyne, SJ

Date of birth 19 January 1933

Place Baltimore, MD, United States of America (America)

Nomination 02 September 1978 (Academician Perdurante Munere)

Field Sciences of the Universe

Title Director of the Vatican Observatory

Place and date of death Syracuse, NY, USA † 11 February 2020

  • Biography
  • Publications
  • Commemoration

Most important awards, prizes and academies Academies
American Astronomical Society; American Physical Society; Astronomical Society of the Pacific; International Astronomical Union; Optical Society of America; Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Honours: Ph.D. honoris causa, St. Peter’s University, Jersey City, NJ, USA (1980); Loyola University, Chicago, IL, USA (1994); University of Padua, Italy (1995); Jagiellonian University, Crakow, Poland (1997).

Summary of scientific research
The research interests of George Coyne have ranged from study of the lunar surface, antecedent to the NASA Ranger and Apollo Programs, to the birth of stars. He has pioneered a special technique, polarimetry, as a powerful tool in astronomical re­search. Currently he is studying cataclysmic variable stars, binary stars where one star is a superdense object which is capturing matter from its companion. He is also searching for protopla­netary disks about young stars. He has published more than 100 articles in reviewed scientific journals and has been the editor of a number of books. Parallel to his scientific research he has developed an interest in the history and philosophy of science and in the relationship between science and religion. Thus he founded the series of studies concerning controversies about Galileo, entitled Studi Galileiani, and he is one of the principal organizers of a series of conferences on the theme of Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action.

Main publications
Coyne, G.V., ‘Comparative Spectrophotometry of Selected Areas on the Lunar Surface’, Astron. J., 67, p. 574 (1962); Coyne, G.V. and Gehrels, T., ‘Wavelength Dependence of Polarization. VIII. Interstellar Polarization’, Astron. J., 71, p. 355 (1966); Coyne, G.V. and Gehrels, T., ‘Wavelength Dependence of Polarization. X: Interstellar Polarization’, Astron. J., 72, p. 887 (1967); Coyne, G.V. and Kruszewski, A., ‘Wavelength Dependence of Polarization. XI: Mu Cephei’, Astron. J., 73, p. 20 (1968); Coyne, G.V. and Kruszewski, A., ‘Wavelength Dependence of Polarization. XVII: Be-type Stars’, Astron. J., 74, p. 528 (1969); Coyne, G.V. and Wickramasinghe, N.C., ‘Wavelength Dependence of Polari­zation. XVIII. Interstellar Polarization and Composite Interstellar Particles’, Astron. J., 74, p. 1179 (1969); Coyne, G.V., ‘Mass Exchange in Beta Lyrae’, Astrophys. J., 161, p. 1011 (1970); Coyne, G.V., Lee, T. and Rieke, G., ‘Photometry and Polarimetry of V1057 Cygni’, Publ. Astron. Soc. Pacific, 84, p. 37 (1971); Coyne, G.V., Gehrels, T. and Serkowski, K., ‘Polarization by Interstellar Grains’, Proceedings of Symposium #52, IAU, Interstellar Dust and Related Topics, (J. Mayo Greenberg and H.C. van de Hulst, eds.), 1973; Coyne, G.V., ‘Polarimetry of R CrB at Visual Light Minimum’, Astrophys. J., 186, p. 961 (1973); Coyne, G.V., Capps, R. and Dyck, H.M., ‘A Model for the Observed Polarized Flux for Zeta Tauri’, Astrophys. J., 184, p. 173 (1973); Coyne, G.V., ‘Polarimetry in the Emission Lines of Shell Stars’, M.N.R.A.S., 169, p. 7 (1974); Coyne, G.V. et al., ‘The Peculiar Object HD 44179 (The Red Rectangle)’, Astrophys. J., 196 (1975); Coyne, G.V. and McLean, I.S., ‘Wavelength Dependence of Polarization. XXX. Intrinsic Polarization in Phi Persei’, Astron. J., 80, p. 702 (1975); Coyne, G.V., Kemp, J.C., Tapia, S., Rieke, G. and Lebofsky, M., ‘Infrared and Visible Polarimetry and Photometry of Highly Variably Quasi-Stellar Sources’, Astrophys. J. Lett., 218, L37 (1977); McLean, I.S. and Coyne, G.V., ‘Spectropolarimetry of o Ceti (Mira): Discovery of Polarized Balmer Emission’, Astrophys. J. Lett., 226, L145 (1978); Coyne, G.V., McLean, I.S., Serkowski, K. and Frecker, J.E., ‘High Resolution Polarization Structure of Hß in Be-Shell Stars Measured with a New Digicon Spectropolarimeter’, Astrophys. J., 228, p. 802 (1979); Coyne, G.V., Tapia, S. and Vrba, F., ‘Wavelenght Dependence of Polarization. XXXIII. The α Persei Star Cluster’, Astron. J., 84, 356 (1979); Coyne, G.V., ‘Wavelength Dependence of Polarization. XXXIV. Changes in Polarization Across Ti0 Bands’, Astron. J., 84, p. 1200 (1979); McLean, I.S., Coyne, G.V., Frecker, J.E. and Serkowski, K., ‘Detection of Polarization Structure Across the Emission Lines of the Wolf-Rayet Star HD50896’, Astrophys. J. Lett., 231, L141 (1979); Tapia, S. and Coyne, G.V., ‘Upper Limits for the Luminosity of a dM Companion in AM Herculis Objects’, Close Binary Stars: Observations and Interpretations, IAU Symposium No. 88 (M.J. Plavec, D.M. Popper and R.K. Ulrich, eds.), D. Reidel: Dordrecht, p. 471, 1980; Vrba, F.J., Coyne, G.V. and Tapia, S., ‘Observations of Grain and Magnetic Field Properties of the R. Coronae Australis Dark Clouds’, Astrophys. J., 243, p. 489 (1981); Coyne, G.V., Magalhaes, A.M., Moffat, A.F., Schulte-Ladbeck, R., Tapia, S. and Wickramasinghe, D., Polarized Radiation of Circumstellar Origin, (eds.), Vatican Obs. Publ. (1988); Magalhaes, A.M., Piirola, V., Coyne, G.V. and Rodrigues, C.V., ‘Optical Polarimetry of Reddened Stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud’, Interstellar Dust, IAU Symposium 135 Dordrecht: Reidel (1988); Rubin, V. and Coyne, G.V., Large Scale Motions in the Universe, (eds.), Princeton, Princeton University Press (1988); Minniti, D., Coyne, G.V. and Tapia, S., ‘Interstellar Polarization in the Field of the Globular Cluster M22’, Astron. Astrophys., 236, p. 371 (1990); Piirola, V., Coyne, G.V. and Reiz, A., ‘Multicolor (UBVRI) Polarimetry of Magnetic Cataclysmic Variables’, Astrophys. Space Sci., 170 (1990); Piirola, V., Scaltriti, F. and Coyne, G.V., ‘Circumstellar Disks Deduced from Sub-arcsecond Polarization Observations of Two Young Stars’, Nature, 359, pp. 399-401 (1992); Piirola, V., Hakala, P. and Coyne, G.V., ‘The Discovery of Variable Polarization Over the 13.9 Minute Spin Period of the Intermediate Polar RE 0751+14’, Astrophysical Journal, 410, L107-L110 (1993); Vrba, F.J., Coyne, G.V. and Tapia, S., ‘An Investigation of Grain Properties in the Rho Ophiuchi Dark Cloud’, Astron. J., 105, p. 1010 (1993); Piirola, V., Coyne, G.V., Larsson, S., Takalo, L. and Vilhu, O., ‘Polarimetry of AM Her type Bianaries’, V, ‘The Asynchronous (?) Polar BY Cam = H0538+608’, Astron. Astrophys., 283, pp. 163-174 (1994).

Father George Coyne died of cancer on February 11, 2022 in Syracuse, New York.

He was 87 years old. Father Coyne was named the Director of the Vatican Observatory in 1978, when he was age 45, after the sudden death of his predecessor, Father Patrick Treanor.

It’s notable that he was one of the few appointments made by Pope John Paul I, who only served as a Pope for one month. 

George Coyne served until 2006. He was 28 years as Director and, ex-officio, as a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which is the longest term of any Observatory Director. Under his leadership, the Vatican Observatory research group was established at the University of Arizona, and in collaboration with the university he oversaw the construction of the Vatican advanced technology telescope with the world’s first spin cast mirror.

With the establishment of the biennial Vatican observatory summer schools in 1986, Father Coyne advanced the education of generations of young astronomers, especially from developing countries, but most notably Father Coyne promoted the dialogue between science and theology at the highest level. 

He participated in the famous Galileo Commission, which was created in response to a discourse from Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy in November 1979.

Coyne and Professor Carlos Chagas, who was the President of the PAS in those days, shared the session on scientific and epistemological questions. Following a meeting that the PAS co-sponsored in 1987, in commemoration of the 300th anniversary of Newton’s Principia, he worked with Pope St John Paul II to publish one of the most detailed statements of catholic theology on the relationship between science and faith, which was in a form of a letter from the Pope to George Coyne, which was published in the proceedings of that conference. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, it’s well worth reading. It’s, of course, available online.

Father Coyne was born on January 19, 1933 in Baltimore, Maryland. He entered the Jesuits in 1951, where his interest in astronomy was recognized and encouraged.

He got a BS in mathematics and a licentiate in philosophy from Fordham University in 1958, a PhD in astronomy in 1962 from Georgetown University and, finally, the licenciate in sacred theology from Woodstock College in 1965, which was the year he was ordained.

George’s main research interests were the study, using polarimetry, of the surfaces of Mercury and the Moon, the interstellar medium stars with extended atmospheres and seaford galaxies.

His final papers were on the polarization produced in cataclysmic variables. He was an assistant professor and a research fellow at the University of Arizona, both at the Lunar and Planetary Lab and at Stuart Observatory from 1966 until 1980. During that time, he served, among other things, as the Director of Arizona’s Catalina Observatory, the Assistant Director of the LPL, the Assistant Director of Stuart and, from 1979 to 1980 he was the acting director and head of the Stuart Observatory in the Astronomy Department.

After he moved to the Vatican Observatory he continued on as an adjunct professor at the Arizona Astronomy Department.

He retired as Director of the Vatican Observatory in August of 2006, but remained on the staff and as the President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation until 2011, and that year he was appointed to the McDevitt Chair of Religious Philosophy at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, a position that he held until his death.

He received many honorary doctorate degrees, including from Boston College, the Jagellonian University at Cracow, Loyola University in Chicago, Marquette University, Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City and the University of Potoma and he was a member of the International Astronomical Union, the American Astronomical Society, Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the American Physical Society, the Optical Society of America and, of course, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Speaking personally, I was a graduate student at the Lunar and Planetary Lab when he was on staff there and in the politics of those days, as we grad students all were trying to figure out what our professors were up to, my contribution was the fact that I would go to mass in the morning, hear George’s homilies and from that try to get a level of the temperature of the fights going on in the Observatory at those times, so I had known him for many years, long before I entered the Jesuits.

He was the one who brought me into the Vatican Observatory, served as a role model for how to be an excellent director, someone who gave room for the scientists there to be great collaborators in the greater world of science, and a person that we are all going to miss very much.

Br Guy Consolmagno S.J.

Discovery in the New Cosmology of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo (PDF) 2004

Modern Cosmology and Life’s Meaning (PDF) 2002

Modern Cosmology, a Resource for Elementary School Education (PDF) 2001