Vatican astronomer shows his faith in science


DANIEL ISLAND – “We get to know the creator by what he has created.”

That is how Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, Vatican astronomer, summed up his union of science and religion. He spoke of his two vocations to juniors and seniors in theology and religion classes on April 14 at Bishop England High School.

Brother Guy tells the story of his vocation in the hopes that students get a sense of how fun it is when you are doing what you love.

The self-described nerd, albeit one with a stellar career, found his vocation in his 30s after achieving more than modest success in astronomy.

As students sat enrapt, the joking Jesuit was his own straight man. He laughed his way through the story of his life. He is 46. He was 32 when he finally realized that God was talking to him and the conversation was about the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.

“Ten years as a brother and I still don’t totally understand it, but it feels right,” he says and follows the statement with trademark humor. “I do science no longer for the glory of Guy but for the glory of God.”

The brilliant astronomer was appointed to the Vatican Observatory in 1993. Four months out of the year, he is studying the cosmos at the Vatican Observatory, one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world. It is located outside of Rome at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, Italy. The other eight months, he is traveling throughout the United States, lecturing, attending conferences, giving papers and working at the Vatican’s research center, the Vatican Observatory Research Group, hosted by the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

He is working on two projects: meteorites  understanding their physical formation and how they turn from dust to solid rock; and performing research on the Kuiper Belt Project with Notre Dame and Northern Arizona University by observing protocomets.

As a child, he told the Bishop England group, he loved to study and read books. At college, he felt out of place while other students partied. He had gone to a Jesuit high school and admired the order’s depth of knowledge and discipline.

“I wanted to be the guy with all the answers,” he said.

He spoke to a Jesuit priest about joining the religious life.

“He asked if I had prayed about it,” he said. “I was 18, who prayed? So, I went to my room and prayed. Nothing happened. Then, I asked myself what do priests do. They deal with people. They deal with the kinds of problems I was trying to run away from.”

It was then that he realized God was talking to him. The teen-aged Consolmagno decided he would just be the best nerd he could be and transferred from Boston College to Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he studied science and astronomy – and fit in. In graduate school, he studied small planets and the origin of the solar system. His master’s thesis at MIT and subsequent work modeled the evolution of the moons of the outer solar system, predicting and explaining many of the features later discovered by the Voyager spacecraft. His thesis on the role of electromagnetic forces in chemical fractionations of the early solar system pioneered the field of gravitoelectrodynamics – the behavior of dust subjected to both gravitational and electromagnetic forces. He was the first to apply this concept to describe the dynamics of the dust rings in the outer solar system.

By the time he turned 30, he was the respected, published Dr. Consolmagno and he was running out of gas.

“I thought ‘why am I wasting my life studying moons of Jupiter when people are starving in the world,'” he recalled.

Free of commitment, he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Nairobi to teach astronomy in a university. It was a frustrating assignment because he wasn’t digging ditches or building schools. He began another introspective mental conversation with God. He realized that in order to feed the whole person, he had to feed the soul.

“A starving person is still a person,” he told the audience. “… Anything that can pull someone out of that flat existence, that is what makes a difference. It is that basic longing (of curiosity) that orients me as a human being toward God.”

Continuing to try to inspire the Bishop England students to fully develop their talents, Brother Consolmagno said that working at the Vatican observatory has been the most satisfying and happy experience of his life. He explained the Catholic Church’s commitment to the study of astronomy with imagery of elegance, beauty and personal relationships.

“You learn about a person in a deep and intuitive way by seeing what they have created,” he said. “‘By their fruits you will know them.’ Science and religion, when properly instituted, coexist. When they don’t coexist, they are flawed. If you make the Bible into a science textbook, it’s going to be obsolete in five years. The Bible is not a science textbook, it is a heck of a lot more important. Recognize the role of religion for preserving truth, and science for preserving theories.”

The Jesuit was intrigued with students’ questions which ranged from how small is our galaxy to how difficult is it to be celibate. He adroitly fielded the requests for more information with philosophical humor infused with faith.

“Our galaxy is run of the mill,” he said. “In our local cluster, it’s the second largest. The Andromeda cluster is bigger. There are 100 trillion galaxies out there and we’re just a tiny bit of it. We are so tiny and insignificant that only God could take care of us.”

One young man asked if Consolmagno believed in aliens?

“Do I believe intelligent life outside of earth is possible? Sure,” he said. “The odds of us being the only planet with intelligent life are miniscule. Either there is life, intelligent life, out there waiting to discover us or there isn’t, and we are all alone. Intelligent life has to be self-aware, have the ability to make decisions, and to choose or not to choose. Alien intelligence would have to be a creature of God because God created everything. So, in what sense are they alien? They are our relations, our brothers and sisters. No, I don’t believe in ‘alien’ life. It is there because it is a creation of God. I don’t rule anything out, but I am not afraid of it, either.”

He clarified some teen-agers’ confusion about science verses Biblical teaching. He used an example of the scientific method of hypothesis, experimentation and proof.

“Scientists start with an observation, then they think of it in terms of a bigger picture,” he explained. “The hypothesis comes out of insight and inspiration. Their goal is to make a more beautiful picture. Elegance and insight are at the core of science.”

In his modest opinion, Brother Consolmagno said science makes for a lousy religion.

“It’s always changing, making new ideas which equals good art,” he said. “The Bible is not a science textbook. Science textbooks are out of date every three years. The Big Bang Theory will be out of date some day. The Bible is not a book about science, it’s a book about God. The church says evidence of evolution is overwhelming. That is not a hypothesis. Recognize that creation is an act of God, an act of love.”

Another student asked what he hoped to gain from his work?

“I do science because, for me, it is fun,” he answered. “Not superficially fun or every now and then. I get it. It is beautiful and harmonious. I feel that in some way I am shaking hands with God. Science is knowledge, truth and being close to the source of knowledge and truth.”

One young man suggested the scenario of a meteorite hurling toward the earth and asked Brother Guy if he thought that would be the act of a loving God.

Without missing a beat, Consolmagno responded: “No, it is an act of physics. God puts us in this universe and tells us the rules. We have the ability to track meteorites and if we don’t use our intellects then maybe we deserve to get wiped out. God has given us the ability to live in harmony in creation yet time and time again, we repeat original sin, the sin of pride.”

Francis Jolly, age 17, wondered why Venus orbits in retrograde. The answer she received was that it possibly got hit in a giant impact and then Consolmagno went on to explain the theories of unitarianism verses catastrophism and the conclusion of uniform patterns being marked by unique events.

“You begin to see the personality of God,” laughed Brother Guy.

Jolly also tested the astronomer by wanting to know how God could create the world in seven days when time, as understood by man, did not yet exist.

“We should not limit God to our human language,” responded the brother. “The earth wasn’t yet invented so we are not talking earth days. It is poetry. Anyone who sees poetry or interprets poetry for other than what it was meant to be, loses the meaning and the beauty of it.”

Jolly was satisfied with the answers.

“I found him fascinating,” she said. “Especially his curiosity. I enjoyed his sincerity about his work and how it intertwined with his faith and the search for more information.”

Brother Guy’s how-to’s about astronomy were originally published in his book, “Turn Left at Orion,” in 1989. The guide (co-written by Dan M. Davis) is the number one bestseller in astronomy on the internet bookstore, All the profits go to the observatory. He is also the author of “Worlds Apart” (with Martha W. Schaefer) a planetary sciences textbook, and “The Way to the Dwelling of Light: How Physics Illuminates Creation.” The Jesuit astronomer has a new book coming out in the spring of 2000, “Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist” published by McGraw Hill.

William Durst, chairman of the theology department at BEHS invited the astronomer to the school for his second appearance in three years.

“He is magnificent with high school students,” Durst said. “Students will give up their lunch periods to attend his lecture twice. It’s exciting to have him here.”