Catholic Vancouver Nov. 28, 2017

Faith drives science, says Vatican’s chief astronomer 

By Agnieszka Ruck

Brother Guy Consolmagno, the director of the Vatican Observatory, speaks with audience members after a presentation at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver Nov. 22. (Photos by Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

VANCOUVER—Anyone who has seen the rings of Saturn through a telescope and exclaimed, “Oh my God!” is proof that faith and science are compatible, says Brother Guy Consolmagno,  researcher, astronomer, Jesuit, and director of the Vatican Observatory.

“The very thing that makes us different from a cow or a cat, the very thing that makes you go ‘Oh my God,’ I call the human soul,” said Bro. Consolmagno to 375 science teachers, students, and others at UBC’s Hebb Theatre in Vancouver Nov. 22.

“Science only happens because of the ‘Oh my God!’ moments. Nothing would happen without them.”

Before he joined the Vatican observatory or became a Jesuit, Bro. Consolmagno was a 33-year-old post-doctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had received undergraduate and master’s degrees from MIT, then a doctorate from the University of Arizona, all in planetary science.

Yet, while walking on the bridge across Charles River to his MIT office, he realized he had hit a crisis point in his scientific career. He asked himself: “Why am I knocking myself out trying to understand the moons of Jupiter when there are people starving in the world?”

Bro. Consolmagno quit astronomy and burned almost all of his scientific papers. He joined the Peace Corps and flew to Kenya, where he ended up teaching astronomy at a high school where most of his students were orphans. When the locals realized he had a PhD, they insisted he teach astrophysics at a nearby university instead.

Brother Consolmagno speaks at UBC Nov. 22.

He spent two years in Kenya. Every weekend he had a chance, he would pull out his telescope and scan the night sky. “Everybody in the village would come out and they would look at the moons of Jupiter,” he said.

“In those days, I had a very clever cat, but my cat never wanted to look through the telescope. It was just interested in getting fed.” An interest in stars “is one of those things that makes us more than just well-fed cows.”

The human curiosity about galaxies beyond and the “oh my God!” reaction is “what theologians call the image and likeness of God. We don’t live by bread alone. It’s literally true.”

After two years in Kenya, Bro. Consolmagno returned to the United States and became an assistant professor at Lafayette College in Easton, PA. He joined the Jesuits in 1989 and quickly became an astronomer for the Vatican Observatory and curator of the Vatican’s meteorite collection.

“I’ve had a few moments big enough to publish in (the scientific journal) Science,” but it's not what excites him about going to work every morning. 

His motivation “is the gasp of amazement when I saw a pattern in nature that no one had anticipated before. It comes with it a burst of joy. That joy is very much the same joy that C.S. Lewis talks about in Surprised by Joy. It’s the presence of God.”

Science teachers, students, and other members of the public file in for the free lecture at UBC.

He now finds immense joy in studying the heat capacity and other qualities of meteorites. He challenged his audience to seek out moments of awe in their lives as well.

“If you are a scientist or an artist or whatever it is you are doing, and you have lost touch with that source of joy, think about it and ask yourself: How can you get it back? That’s what will move you to do the really wonderful work that makes you and the community you share it with to go: ‘Oh my God.’”

He added that faith is not blind trust, but a recognition that no one knows all the facts.

“It’s when you have to make decisions in the face of inadequate data, that’s when you need to have faith,” he told hundreds of Vancouver scientists and students.

“It’s proceeding even after you’ve done everything you can do to see and you know you can’t see everything. We never have all the facts; faith is how we deal with the fact that we have to proceed anyway.”

Brother Consolmagno.
St. Mark's College president Peter Meehan with Brother Consolmagno.

That faith is important for everyone, including scientists, new parents starting a family, people joining religious life, or families moving to new homes, cities, or countries.

“Where is your heart? Which is to say: where is your God? What does that tell you about the kind of God you worship?”

The free lecture was co-sponsored by UBC's department of physics and astronomy as well as St. Mark's College.