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A Catholic scientist will be a part of a team of scientists to use a remarkable new telescope from NASA, and he fully understands how significant that will be.
“It will truly give us a view of the universe we have thus far only been able to see ‘through a glass, darkly,’ as St. Paul wrote,” said Dr. Christopher Shingledecker, assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.
He will study how stars and planets form as part of an international team of astronomers to be among the first to use NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope.
NASA launched the new space telescope on Christmas Day 2021. Named for the man who led NASA through its moon-landing Apollo program, the James Webb will take the place of the Hubble Space Telescope as NASA’s flagship telescope. It is capable of viewing objects up to 100 times fainter than what Hubble could see.
Shingledecker’s team project “Blazing the Trail of Complex Organic Molecules from Ice to Gas” will try to understand the very earliest stages of several star- and planet-forming regions.
“Before now there simply has not been a telescope capable of providing us with the kinds of clues that we could piece together to solve this mystery,” Shingledecker said. Now, with the new telescope, “That all should change.”
Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which is only about 300 miles from Earth, the James Webb will be in orbit 1 million miles away — NASA provides a website for the public to learn where it is and more.
To support Shingledecker’s project the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates the $10 billion telescope, has awarded the team a research grant of $187,000, part of which will fund summer research assisted by Benedictine College students working with Shingledecker on the project.
Benedictine College students working with Shingledecker will have the opportunity to analyze the results and use cutting-edge computer programs that allow them to simulate in mere seconds the development of interstellar clouds that, in space, occur over tens of millions of years. These advanced computer simulations allow scientists to test a wide variety of scenarios under which complex molecules could form, learning to predict conditions in space.
Shingledecker landed a chance to use the telescope because he was a part of a team that found new molecules in space.
“I never expected to be involved in such a big discovery,” he said. “It’s really been a remarkable experience.”
It fuels a lifelong passion of his, he said. “The basic question that arises when we discover complex molecules in the cold, harsh depths of interstellar space is, ‘How did they form?’ Much of my career has been spent trying to answer that basic question,” said Shingledecker.
A great proponent of faith and science, Shingledecker was part of a group that brought the first Gold Mass in the region to Benedictine College.
Taking its name from the gold hoods science doctoral graduates receive, Gold Masses commemorate the Nov. 15 feast of St. Albert the Great, patron of scientists, and are promoted by the Society of Catholic Scientists. Shingledecker helps run the regional chapter of the society.
“It’s really lovely to be able to show [students] that faith and reason go together,” he said. “The church has preserved knowledge [and] promoted learning, schools and science. And for it to be seen as suddenly antagonistic is a betrayal of the legacy of the church in fostering learning and discovery.”
He said faith helps illuminate the possibilities of the sciences — and their limitations.
“There is a false scientific utopianism, which seeks to extrapolate the rapid advances of science in the 20th century infinitely far into the future, and expects science is the answer to everything,” he said. But there is “a growing awareness that science depends on things such as ethics that are completely — and by definition — beyond its capability to fruitfully inform.”
Benedictine president Stephen D. Minnis said the college takes great pride in Shingledecker’s “tremendously important work.”
“His work and that of others in the sciences, along with the construction of the Daglen Observatory and expansion of Westerman Hall on campus, are great illustrations of why Benedictine College is becoming known as the Catholic college for STEM education.”
Before moving to Kansas, Shingledecker was an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation postdoctoral research fellow in Germany, with appointments at both the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Munich and the University of Stuttgart. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, Anna, and new daughter.
“I always wanted to [teach] at a Catholic liberal arts college — it was my goal all throughout school” at the University of Virginia, Shingledecker said.
It was easy to choose which college to choose for his work — Benedictine College is the only such college in the United States that has an astronomy major.