Brother Guy Consolmagno, PAS Academician

Commemoration of George V. Coyne

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.