Catholic cardinals are under media lockdown, with communications to the outside world cut by an electronic shield, and the first indication they have made a decision on the replacement for Pope Benedict XVI will come old-world style: A smoke signal in the skies above the Vatican.
Over the weekend, workmen installed a pair of new stoves inside the chapel where the cardinals are meeting, CNN reports. One stove will burn up the ballots after the cardinals finish voting. And the other — this one sends a smoke signal into the sky to alert that a vote has gone forth.
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said in the CNN report that the cardinals are likely to vote Tuesday — but they aren’t bound by any rule to do so. If they do vote, watchers may see the first smoke signals around 3 p.m. Eastern Time, he said. And don’t expect any leaks: Shields are in place preventing cardinals from contacting the outside world with cell phones or other technological forms of communication.
Black smokes means the cardinals haven’t chosen. White smoke — or “fumata bianca” — tells the world a new pope has been picked. But as CBS reports, sending the right color signal can be tricky business.
“Most smoke is due to things not burning completely, producing tiny particles that float in the air,” said Robert Krampf, a science educator, in the CBS report. “The color of that smoke depends on what those particles are made of. Black smoke is usually made up of tiny bits of carbon. White smoke is usually more complex, made up of fuel, vapor, water vapor or mineral ash.”
The making of the smoke colors has changed through the years. The Catholic Church used to burn wet straw with paper to get the dark color. But that didn’t always give the best result.
“Unfortunately, wet straw gives you grey smoke, not black smoke,” Mr. Krampf said, to CBS. “This has sometimes led to quite a bit of confusion, with people thinking that a new pope had been selected if the dark smoke was not dark enough.”
So the Vatican has gone high-science. The church now uses a chemical compound that darkens the smoke, and to eliminate any chance of confusion, officials partner the smoke signal with the ringing of bells at St. Peter’s Basilica.
So white smoke, ringing bells — there’s a new pope.