Nuns mapped stars for the Vatican

I spotted a cool article at CNS about four Italian sisters who helped to map a half million stars for the Vatican’s part in a vast mapping project.

Mapping with the stars: Nuns instrumental in Vatican celestial survey

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Of the many momentous or menial tasks women religious perform, one of the better-kept secrets has been the role of four Sisters of the Holy Child Mary who were part of a global effort to make a complete map and catalog of the starry skies.
Up until recently, the women were no more than nameless nuns whose image has long been preserved in a black and white photograph that showed them wearing impeccably ironed habits and leaning over special microscopes and a ledger.
But now their identities have been pulled out of obscurity by Jesuit Father Sabino Maffeo, assistant to the director of the Vatican Observatory. He stumbled onto their names as he was going through the observatory archives, “putting papers in order,” he told Catholic News Service April 26.
Sisters Emilia Ponzoni, Regina Colombo, Concetta Finardi and Luigia Panceri, all born in the late 1800s and from the northern Lombardy region near Milan, helped map and catalog nearly half a million stars for the Vatican’s part in an international survey of the night sky.
Top astronomers from around the world met in Paris in 1887 and again in 1889 to coordinate the creation of a photographic “Celestial Map” (“Carte du Ciel”) and an “astrographic” catalog pinpointing the stars’ positions.
Italian astronomer and meteorologist, Barnabite Father Francesco Denza, easily convinced Pope Leo XIII to let the Holy See take part in the initiative, which assigned participating observatories a specific slice of the sky to photograph, map and catalog.


Read the rest there.

The piece mentions Fr. Francesco Denza. There is more about him HERE. And interesting fellow and one of many priest-scientists… just to show how much the Church hates science, right?

Frankly, many women religious would do better to do things like this than the antics they are up to these days.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Just Too Cool, Look! Up in the sky!, Women Religious and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Hoover says:

    I imagine nuns can’t do too many useful things when they’re busy traveling around “on a bus”…

  2. arcanum_divinae says:

    We could do with more science being done by people like this as well…

  3. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Thank you for drawing our attention to this – very interesting!

    It is worth noting “lady computers” went on being important for a good part of the century: I think it is in his lecture, ‘Los Alamos from Below’, that Richard Feynman tells how important calculations were carried out swiftly enough by lots of people (mostly, I think – or even all women) working simultaneously with adding machines.

  4. Semper Gumby says:

    Deo gratias for these nuns. Great article.

    A while back Popular Science had an article about the Mt. Graham Observatory in Arizona. They mentioned that the Jesuits had a telescope there, near a European project called Lucifer. This is an acronym for something like “Light Camera-Infrared for Extraterrestrial Research.” This, of course, made for some amusing and somewhat frenzied conspiracy theories by certain unhinged websites.

  5. The Masked Chicken says:

    It turns out that humans do better at these sorts of discrimination tasks than computers. That is why modern sites like Galaxy Zoo use humans to classify galaxy types.

    At Los Alamos, the women were called, “calculators.” Each woman did exactly one calculation (I don’t remember since it has been a while since I looked into this, but I think most did use adding machines). They would be comparable to executing individual steps in a computer program.

    As for the nuns, the project that they worked on, the Astrographic Catalogue, was in collaboration with twenty observatories around the world in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries (going until 1964). It was done in two parts: the first part was a sky map of stars to magnitude 11, which resulted in 250 volumes and finished in 1964; the second half, a map to magnitude 14, which would have created the Carte du Ciel, never got a lot of traction and was all-but-forgotten until the late 1990’s, when it was discovered that the recordings of the star positions (in a, then, rather antiquated system) could be computerized and updated to modern systems, thus providing data for 2 1/2 million stars.

    Nowadays, of course, much of this work has been digitized. In fact, one could do something similar with a laptop and a little programming experience. Still, analog people doing digital or digitizing work have contributed enormously to science. It was part of the romance of doing science of a by-gone era, sigh. I think kids should be exposed to analog science as a pre-requisite before being turned loose on a computer. Analog thinking, in my opinion, makes one more creative, because there is less separation between a man and his art or science.

    The Chicken

  6. Semper Gumby says:

    Masked Chicken: Thanks for the GalaxyZoo tip, that site looks really interesting.

Comments are closed.