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  • Modern European
  • Christopher M. Graney
Decoding the Stars: A Biography of Angelo Secchi, Jesuit and Scientist. By Ileana Chinnici. (Leiden: Brill. 2019. Pp. xix, 367. €140.00 / USD $169.00. ISBN 978-90-04-38729-4.)

Ileana Chinnici's biography of Father Angelo Secchi, S.J. (1818–78), introduces English-language readers to the life and work of this pioneering astrophysicist. The book has flaws, notably its high cost and abundant typographical and editing errors. Despite these, it is an interesting and valuable work.

Such a costly book should show evidence of more attention from its publisher. A heading atop the cover reads, "Jesuit Studies—Modernity through the Prism of Jesuit History." An editor and an editorial board are listed inside, under the heading "Volume 16," but there is no series editor's foreword, and no listing of the other titles in the series. The reader is directed to Brill's Web site for more information. The forewords are by scientists: Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory (VO); and Nichi D'Amico, President of Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF). Chinnici is an astronomer and historian at the [End Page 496] INAF-Palermo Astronomical Observatory and a VO Adjunct Scholar; the VO and INAF share close connections with Secchi's work. This seems to be a book produced by astronomers, with limited support from Brill. The typographical and editing errors that result are usually mere annoyances, but some do obscure information: e.g., Chinnici seems to relay, without commentary, that Secchi's father died in 1839, and his mother remarried the previous year (p. 14).

The reader who looks beyond these problems will be treated to a fascinating story. Father Secchi was among the first to study celestial objects using the combination of a telescope to collect and focus light, and a prism to disperse that light into a rainbow "spectrum" of component colors. Through this "spectroscopy" Secchi and others began to determine, for example, the composition of stars. Secchi discovered in the spectra of stars and the sun the color signature of Hydrogen. Today astronomers understand that all stars are composed primarily of this simple element; its overwhelming abundance in the universe is considered strong support for the "Big Bang" theory of the origin of the universe. Chinnici shows how Secchi also contributed to studies of weather and oceans, and worked to improve the lighthouse system and map-making of the Papal States.

The Papal States themselves were one of several substantial obstacles that hindered Secchi's work, according to Chinnici's portrayal. Secchi wanted to help modernize the Papal States but was confronted with ineptitude, limited resources, and political chaos. Still, he accomplished much with little. Visiting the Paris Observatory, he imagined what his observatory at the Collegio Romano, built atop Rome's church of St. Ignatius, could do with "a thousandth" of their resources (p. 114). One of his meteorological instruments won the "Grand Prix" at the 1867 Paris Exposition. That reflected well on the Papal States, but he found that the other materials they provided to the exposition were embarrassingly poor. After Rome was taken by the Kingdom of Italy in 1870, Secchi struggled to keep his observatory running. The Italian government could not manage the observatories it had. Italy's leading astronomer being an obedient Jesuit, who pledged no support to the government, was politically inconvenient for it and for some in the scientific community. But Secchi being determined to remain part of that community made him distasteful to some in Italian Catholic circles: a petition was made to the First Vatican Council that his observatory with its "evil machines" be exorcised to purge it of any "Satanic influence" (p. 265).

But, as Chinnici shows, Secchi's second substantial obstacle was Angelo Secchi. He got into quarrels. He sulked. He rejected a colleague's [End Page 497] apology, telling him he was like Pontius Pilate (p. 157). And, for a man with a vow of poverty, he was very possessive of his observatory (p. 253). He was not an unsympathetic character; he endured much. But he could have endured less.

Secchi's last substantial obstacle was European astronomy, which was...