fbpx
STEM-Talk

Episode 2: Br. Guy Consolmagno: The Vatican Astronomer

Brother Guy Consolmagno // Mar 8, 2016

Guy Consolmagno is not your typical scientist. The director of Vatican Observatory is also a Jesuit Brother, astronomer extraordinaire, MIT graduate, former Peace Corp volunteer and self-described science fiction geek.

The second-generation Italian-American, born in Detroit, now divides his time between the Vatican Observatory in Italy and the Mount Graham International Observatory in Tucson, Arizona.

In 2014, Brother Guy received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society for his unique position as a scientist and man of faith, and he believes firmly that the scientific and spiritual inquiry are more complementary than conflictual.

Consolmagno is the author of several books about astronomy, and science and faith, including most recently, “Would You Baptize an Extra-terrestrial?” He also authored “God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion,” and gave a lecture at IHMC on that topic. That lecture can be found on YouTube at https://youtu.be/MJGsdY2bcsk

In another IHMC lecture, Brother Guy discusses “Discarded Worlds: Astronomical Ideas that Were Almost Correct”: https://youtu.be/Gr0R5oiIoak

Brother Guy writes for a blog called the Catholic Astronomer, which can be found at www.vofoundation.org/blog

STEM-Talk co-host Tom Jones, a former NASA astronaut who shares Brother Guy’s love of astronomy—as well as the same MIT thesis advisor, John Lewis—interviews Brother Guy about his life-long journey to understand the universe and the role of faith in that pursuit.

Introducing this podcast episode is host Dawn Kernagis and IHMC CEO Ken Ford.

1:15: The Vatican Observatory is in a town outside of Rome called Castel Gandolfo, which is also the Pope’s summer residence. Ford and his wife Nancy first met Brother Guy there a few years ago.

3:52: A day in the life of Brother Guy in Rome: after his 6 a.m. wake-up call, he works until the Italian coffee break at 10 a.m., then goes back to work until the big meal of the day at 1:30 p.m., which is followed by an afternoon siesta. In late afternoon, he spends an hour of prayer walking in the gardens, followed by Mass. Then he works again until 9 or 10 p.m., responding to emails from America.

4:44: “It’s a full day, but it’s almost like getting two days of work in,” Brother Guys says of his daily routine. “It’s exhilarating because it reminds me of all the different worlds I get to live in.”

5:07: A “Sputnik kid,” Brother Guy was in kindergarten when the Soviets launched the first satellite into the earth’s orbit. He was a high school senior when NASA astronauts landed on the moon. “How could you not be crazy about astronomy and science?”

6:18: Brother Guy followed his best friend to MIT for college. “I discovered MIT had weekend movies, and pinball machines, and the world’s largest collection of science fiction, and I knew I had to go there.”

6:55: At MIT, he studied geology, quickly discovering meteorites. “From then on meteorites were where my heart was. I never looked back.”

7:36: Astronomy reminded Brother Guy about “bigger things than what’s for lunch”; and also our human intellectual capacity to puzzle about these things.

7:52: Since the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church has backed the study of astronomy at universities, Brother Guys says. “In those days, understanding how universe works was a way of understanding how the creator works.”

9:01: In 1891, Pope Leo XIII established the Vatican Observatory to show that the church supported science. This came during a politically-charged atmosphere of anti-clericalism in France and Italy, based in part on the church’s opposition to the fashionable science of eugenics.

9:45: “You can’t do science without faith,” Brother Guy says. This means that you must have a positive world view to sustain scientific inquiry—in other words, “not think people are inherently evil.”

10:34: Not every religion can support science.

11:15: Noblemen and clergymen founded science in the 17th and 18th centuries because they had the free time to explore and think about the world.

11:41: “It’s a nineteenth-century myth that the church opposed Galileo.”

15:03: “What science has done is to remind us forcibly over and over again how big, how incredible, the creator of the universe must be. So science can only enrich our view of God.”

17:55: Brother Guy briefly considered becoming a priest, but realized he wasn’t a people person, so went to “nerd school” instead. After MIT, he did his Ph.D. at the University of Arizona, followed by two post-docs, at Harvard and MIT.

19:32: Brother Guy leaves academia to join the Peace Corp in Kenya. “I was lying in bed wondering, ‘Why am I doing astronomy when people are starving in the world?’”

20:30: He reaffirms his love of astronomy in Kenya, teaching it to graduate students, and observing the stars with villagers. “To be able to share with people that thrill of seeing the universe outside yourself; to remind them that we’re all part of the human race that went to the moon. That’s why we do astronomy.”

21:15: Brother Guy joins the Jesuits as a scientist. He must take three vows: chastity and poverty, harkening back to his graduate school days, were easier than obedience—until he got a letter ordering him to go to Rome. “I had to obey,” he says. “Life is tough, but there it is.”

22:30: He lauds the stable funding situation at the Vatican Observatory, compared to academia.

23:00: Commercial break: STEM-Talk is an educational service of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a not-for-profit research lab pioneering ground-breaking technologies aimed at leveraging human cognition, perception, locomotion and resilience.

23:51: Brother Guys compares the asteroid belt to the “scrap heap of the solar system: The bits and pieces that didn’t get into a planet, and tell us what the ingredients of the planet are.”

26:07: Pope Benedict made references to astronomy during his homilies and was fascinated by the Vatican’s own meteorite collection.

29:35: Brother Guys ruminates on being a student at Arizona, where he studied meteorites from Vesta, the brightest asteroid in the sky. “We were able to show conclusively that they were ten times in richer in trace elements than typical meteorites.”

30:07: Also learned about Vesta, from the Dawn spacecraft in 2011-2012: the core of Vesta was twice the expected radius; the crust was six to eight times thicker. “Suddenly we realized Vesta was not pristine. Vesta is a second-generation body. It’s something that was a lot bigger.”

31:50: “Science is not about finding the answers—but understanding the things we do know in a deeper and more profound way all the time.”

33:07: The commercial mining potential for asteroids nearby earth is just beginning; contains great potential for rare elements, platinum and gold; iron and nickel. “What’s that gonna do to the economy of the earth? It’s going to change things.”

34:49: “We’re probably not going to remember the first companies that exploit space. We’re going to learn from their mistakes.”

35:09: Commercial break: STEM-Talk is an educational service of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a not-for-profit research lab pioneering ground-breaking technologies aimed at leveraging human cognition, perception, locomotion and resilience.

35:34: Brother Guys mentions the need to take “inventory of what’s out there.” Advance warning of potential catastrophic events is key to deflecting or preparing for them. We can have three to four years of advance warning of a comet.

36:20: International cooperation is also key to understanding and handling such events. “Something that was big enough to destroy the dinosaurs didn’t care what species of dinosaurs they were. They all went.”

37:47: To a scientist, the question is not ‘Is there life on another planet, but what is that life like?’

41:00: In 2012, a British journalist asked Brother Guy, “Would You Baptize an Extra-Terrestrial?” His answer: “Yes, if she asks…” That answer fundamentally changed the frame of the question, by making it the extra-terrestrial’s choice.

43:07: Similar to being in love, a lot of prayer is just shutting up and listening, Brother Guy says. Turning off your brain and your concerns; remembering the universe that you are in and the presence of love in that universe.

44:36: Other times, praying involves asking. “Sometimes in the asking, you end up recognizing the answer that’s been sitting there all along.”

44:47: Commercial Break: Brother Guy’s two IHMC evening lectures can be found on YouTube. Look for: “God’s Mechanics: The Religious life of Techies”; and “Discarded Worlds: Astronomical Ideas That Were Almost Correct.”

47:20: “Believing in God doesn’t mean rejecting reason.”

50:12: “Looking for the elegance of the universe is not only a pointer to scientific truth, but ultimately a pointer to God.”

52:37: Brother Guy doesn’t get caught up in criticizing the bureaucracies of big organizations. NASA, after all, “got us to the moon,” he says.

53:54: Science works best as a conversation in a community. “Sometimes the greatest advances occur when we don’t even notice—and we need somebody next to us to point it out.”

54:45: Brother Guy writes for a blog called the Catholic Astronomer at www.vofoundation.org/blog. There you will also find his calendar of speaking engagements and travels.

55:33: Saturday tours of Mt. Graham International Observatory and Discovery Park in Safford, Arizona.

56:11: Work is being done on a visitors’ center at the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo, Italy.