The Vatican's In-House Astronomer

The Vatican's In-House Astronomer

Guy Consolmagno in one of the rooms of the vatican observatory.

Why you should care

Because religion and science don’t have to be at odds.

To get to Brother Guy Consolmagno’s office, you take a train heading southeast from Rome. It winds its way away from Vatican City for an hour, into a bucolic setting that holds Lake Albano and the tiny town of Castel Gandolfo. Once you get off the train and walk through the streets, you look for a little bronze plaque whose Latin simply reads “Specola Vaticana.” Open the doors and you’re in the Vatican Observatory — a secret lab in a volcanic crater, just what every budding scientist dreams of.

And Brother Guy is a scientist, in addition to his work with the church. The Detroit native holds two degrees from M.I.T. and a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona. In another life, he made theoretical computer models of various bodies in the solar system — models that turned out to be right (even though, he says, the data he was basing them on wasn’t quite so spot on). But a crisis of his faith in research sent him to join the Peace Corps and then the Jesuits — which led him to his current calling: science in the name of God. He’s been working at the Vatican Observatory for 23 years, and last year was named its director.

In the U.S., science and religion are often cast as two sides in a Holy War, and, indeed, scientists have often bumped up against Catholic doctrine — 400 years ago, the Church deemed Galileo’s heliocentric teachings “formally heretical.” But by then it was already key for the Catholic Church to have scientists at its call. Astronomers created the calendar for Gregory, and the Vatican still has a small stable of eight or nine Jesuit scientists busily thinking and researching, their funding steadier than most of that available in the academic world — especially since their vow of poverty makes them cheap to keep. Meanwhile, Pope Francis, himself a trained scientist, has brought scientific concerns like climate change to the forefront along with his much-lauded social-justice focus. “I think [Pope Francis] has made a difference to how science is perceived,” says Celia Deane-Drummond, a botanist and professor of theology at Notre Dame.

“We have this enormous freedom to go wherever we think is interesting,” Brother Guy says. While NASA will fund a spacecraft mission or a big telescope, it can be hard to convince Congress to fund the day-to-day research that most scientists actually work on. However, that research work is what helps us interpret the data the spacecraft collects. At the Vatican, the small team doesn’t have to worry that the money will be cut off, even though the million-euro budget’s pretty small when compared to the rest of the Vatican pie. With that million euros comes a certain freedom to study what they find interesting, leading to a far-ranging slate of topics — how galaxies cluster, how the universe formed and where the next interesting exoplanet might be.

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Guy Consolmagno with large Zeiss optical telescope from1935 in dome roof of vatican observatory.

Source Annette Schreyer/Laif/Redux

It can be difficult to find scientists to fill the Observatory, since you must hold two advanced degrees: one from the academy and one from the Jesuits. Chris Impey, head of the astronomy department at the University of Arizona at Tucson, where the Observatory built their new telescope when Castel Gandolfo’s light pollution became too distracting, served on the advisory board that selected the program’s new director. Though he was personable and had a résumé filled with distinguished research, there were two things working against Brother Guy: He wasn’t a Jesuit priest — he’s a brother — and he was American. The Vatican doesn’t want the Observatory to seem too American, especially when their recruitment is focusing on Latin American and Asian countries where Catholicism is building. But “you pick the best one for the job,” Impey says. “And he was the best one for the job.”

Michelle Francl, a theoretical chemist at Bryn Mawr, first met Brother Guy at a conference at Google. “He was wearing a shirt that said ‘Ask me about my vow of silence’ while talking loudly on the bus,” she says. They bonded over finding a place to attend mass together. As a woman of faith and a scientist, she sees a lot of common ground between the two disciplines, quoting Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt’s description of religious contemplation as “a long, loving look at the real.” Put that on your grant application.

While Brother Guy acknowledges the perceived culture war between religion and science, for him there’s no conflict. “In some ways, scientists and religious people are the last people who say, ‘There IS a truth,’ ” he says. While he has met believers who think they have to reject science to stay true to their faith, he sees no inherent battle between God and Galileo — just with some of their followers. That’s where he comes in.

Brother Guy brings religion into the scientific conversation in unexpected ways, showing up at sci-fi conventions — he’s a longtime fan who’s written some “dreadful” unpublished science fiction — and scientific conferences around the world. But that’s not his biggest battle: He’s got to bring religious groups around to the stars, liaising with religious fundamentalists who, he says, are often fearful of the unknown while at the same time curious to find out more. Luckily, astrophysics is the best possible science for that. “Astronomy is the great gateway drug to science,” he says, and anyone who’s walked outside on a dark clear night and tried to number the stars knows he’s right.

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