A Life Spent Looking Heavenward: Rev. George Coyne, S.J.

By Molly K. McCarthy, Le Moyne College Office of Communications

Rev. George Coyne, S.J. (Photo by Le Moyne College)

Rev. George Coyne, S.J. (Photo by Le Moyne College)

The fascination that Rev. George Coyne, S.J. has with the physical universe harkens back six decades to his time as a Jesuit novice in Maryland. It was there that a caring professor named Rev. Hayne Martin, S.J. noticed his fascination with the stars and planets and did what any great teacher would do. He encouraged him to explore that interest further. The young student took the advice to heart. Not only did he fall in love with astronomy, but he also discovered his vocation – to serve God by studying His creation. Fr. Coyne went on to answer that call as director of the Vatican Observatory, president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, and professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona. 

Today, as the McDevitt Chair in Physics at Le Moyne College, Fr. Coyne seeks to inspire in his students a similar wonder at the cosmos, not so that they become astronomers – or for that matter scientists of any kind – but so that they become “better human beings.” In classes such as Transformations: Science and Religion and Cosmology: Science of the Physical Universe, he seeks to instill in the undergraduate students a richer understanding of the world around them – and themselves. His aim is for these young men and women to become engaged in the material and to come to appreciate the joy that can be derived from learning for its own sake. His philosophy of teaching is simple and poignant: “Students come first. Always.”  

Fr. Coyne often reminds the undergraduates he works with that they are “made of stardust and would not be here without the elements that come from stardust.” While many would presume that there is an inherent tension between science and religion, Fr. Coyne says that in actuality the two are quite compatible. (In fact, it was the subject of an initiative he undertook as the McDevitt Chair in Physics titled Science and Religion, in which he invited experts to campus to share their reflections on the relationship between the two entities.) As a scientist, Fr. Coyne seeks natural explanations for natural events, but as a man of faith he knows that “God is beyond natural.” Yet he also believes that the universe should – and does – teach us something about God. As he has said, “It tells me that the God who made the universe is more magnificent than I could ever have imagined and that we came to be in a universe that is dynamic and evolving.”

REV. GEORGE COYNE, S.J. (PHOTO BY LE MOYNE COLLEGE)

REV. GEORGE COYNE, S.J. (PHOTO BY LE MOYNE COLLEGE)

That belief guided Fr. Coyne’s work at the Vatican Observatory, one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world. He joined the Observatory as an astronomer in 1969. When he was named an assistant professor at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (L.P.L.) a year later, he began to divide his time between Rome and Tucson. He continued to do so when he was later named a senior research fellow at the L.P.L. and a lecturer and adjunct professor in the University of Arizona’s Department of Astronomy. In 1978, Pope John Paul I appointed him director of the Vatican Observatory, and he remained in that role until 2006.

Over the course of his career, Fr. Coyne has been the driving force behind multiple new educational and research initiatives. He spearheaded the Vatican Observatory Summer School and the Vatican Observatory Research Group in Tucson, where he studied the surfaces of the moon and Mercury, interstellar matter, binary stars and distant galaxies in order to gain a better understanding of them. Dark mass and dark energy – and how they shape the universe – continue to be a particular interest of his. And in his tenure at Le Moyne thus far, one of his greatest joys has been to help expand undergraduate research in the natural sciences through a fellowship program that sponsors student-led investigations of a variety of topics, including environmental pollution and climate change. 

Fr. Coyne’s own curiosity about the world around him, which first emerged in Fr. Martin’s class many years ago, is as powerful as ever. So too is his belief in the capacity of science to achieve good. He says, “Science itself can be a really unifying factor in a world that can be very divided. As human beings, at some level, we are trying to understand the universe and how we came to be. That connects us, regardless of language and culture.”

Rev. George Coyne, S.J.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in mathematics and licentiate in philosophy at Fordham University in 1958; doctorate in astronomy from Georgetown University in 1962; licentiate in sacred theology at Woodstock College in Maryland in 1966.

Society of Jesus: A member of the Society of Jesus since the age of 18, Father Coyne was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1965.