Posts Tagged ‘Vatican Observatory’
Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, is used to questions about his job, such as “Why does the Vatican have an observatory?” and “Aren’t there more important things to do than look at the stars?” In fact, he used to ask himself the same type of questions.
Br. Consolmagno recalls being a postdoctoral fellow at MIT and lying in bed at night wondering, “Why am I wasting my time worrying about the moons of Jupiter when there are people starving in the world?”
He had no answer, and he eventually quit his job and science and joined the Peace Corps.
“I told the Peace Corps people, ‘I’ll go anywhere you ask me to go, I’ll do anything you ask me to do; I just want to help people,’” he says. “They sent me to Africa, to Kenya, where I ended up teaching astronomy to graduate students at the University of Nairobi!”
Now as an astronomer at the Vatican, Br. Consolmagno explains that he encounters God in his scientific studies.
“Astronomy is how we experience the universe as creatures who are interested in more than just, ‘what’s for lunch?’” says Br. Consolmagno. “But what I have also come to see is that belief plays a fundamental role in being able to do that astronomy.”
According to Br. Consolmagno, there are three religious beliefs you have to accept on faith before you can be a scientist: that this universe actually exists; that the universe operates by regular laws; and that the universe is good.
“Science is where I get to spend time with the Creator,” says Br. Consolmagno. “When God invites me to encounter him in the things that have been made, as St. Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, God is setting up a game we get to play together. It is a game that, on top of everything else, tells me he loves me. And for that, I am grateful to be an astronomer.”
To read more about Br. Consolmagno’s thoughts on God and astronomy, visit Thinking Faith, the online journal of the British Jesuits.
Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, a researcher and spokesman at the Vatican Observatory, recently shared his thoughts on science and religion on The Washington Post’s blog.
With news about the Higgs boson particle, the so-called “God Particle,” that’s helping scientists understand how the universe was built, Br. Consolmagno says he’s explained multiple times that “No, the God Particle has nothing to do with God…”
Although not a particle physicist, Br. Consolmagno is often interviewed because of his role as a Vatican astronomer. He says some are surprised to hear that the Vatican supports an astronomical observatory, but that science and religion complement each other:
But the real reason we do science is in fact related to the reason why so many people ask us about things like the God Particle. The disciplines of science and religion complement each other in practical ways. For example, both are involved in describing things that are beyond human language and so must speak in metaphors. Not only is the ‘God Particle’ not a piece of God, it is also not really a ‘particle’ in the sense that a speck of dust is a particle. In both cases we use familiar images to try to illustrate an entity of great importance but whose reality is beyond our power to describe literally.
Finding God in all things is at the core of Ignatian Spirituality and is rooted in the growing awareness that God can found in everyone, in every place and in everything. But in rocks from outer space? Jesuit Brother Bob Macke says yes. Currently in his first year of theology studies at Boston College, he shared his thoughts on how God can be found in lunar material, some of which is more than 4.5 billion (yes, with a B) years old.
One of the things that attracted me to the Society of Jesus was the Ignatian principle of finding God in all things. I saw Jesuits seeking and finding God in so many ways, from ministering in the Third World, to delving into questions of philosophy and theology to exploring the grandeur of the universe.
As someone with a background in physics and astronomy, I am no stranger to the idea that by studying God’s creation we encounter God. As a 38-year-old, first-year theology student at Boston College and a recent graduate of a physics doctoral program, I can see in hindsight a pattern of formation as a Jesuit brother that has only strengthened this idea.
After I completed philosophy studies in 2006, I began my regency assignment teaching physics and astronomy at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, a wonderful opportunity to teach in my field and minister to students. During that time, I heard from a friend at the Vatican Observatory, Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, who told me about an opportunity to study meteorite physical properties in a doctoral program at the University of Central Florida. I had spent a summer at the Vatican Observatory doing exactly that kind of research. So, with the provincial’s blessing, I left regency after only one year and spent the next four years at the University of Central Florida measuring the densities of meteorites, the percentages of pore space within them and their responses to a magnetic field. And somehow, as part of graduate studies and in the context of Jesuit life, I was to find God in these rocks from outer space.
Studying meteorites can be tedious work, but the pursuit involved travel to New York, Washington, Chicago and London where meteorites are held in museum or university collections.
As I studied more than 1,300 specimens, sometimes the tedium of the repetitive process became too great. I then would hold one of the more primitive meteorites in my hand and muse upon it, reminding myself that it was 4.5 billion years old, one of the earliest objects to form when the solar system itself was forming, and holding clues to that history.
Embedded within the meteorite are a few tiny grains of material that survived the heat and shock of its forming and that remain essentially unchanged from the moment they were created in stars. They are literally stardust. I am awestruck, and in that awe I once again encounter God.
As a priest and an astronomer, Jesuit Father George Coyne bridges the worlds of faith and science, but he’s quick to acknowledge that they serve two different purposes. “I can’t know if there is a God or if there is not a God by science,” he says.
At the same time the emeritus director of the Vatican Observatory sees no conflict between scientific and religious knowledge, though he admits that the church has not always agreed. But even in the famous case of the astronomer Galileo, there were issues other than science at stake, notably who could interpret the Bible. “Galileo was never given a chance to talk about his science,” Coyne says. “Galileo knew how to interpret scripture, but he did it privately.” The Council of Trent had forbidden private interpretation 70 years before in response to the Reformation.
Still, says Coyne, Galileo pointed the way to a happier relationship between faith and science. “Galileo anticipated by four centuries what the church would finally say about the interpretation of scripture,” argues Coyne. “Galileo said that scripture was written to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”
Fr. Coyne recently sat down with U.S. Catholic Magazine for a question-and-answer session about Catholicism, science and the human experience.
Give us some amazing facts about the universe that would enrich a Catholic understanding of faith.
The universe understood scientifically is an amazing challenge to both science and to religious faith. The scientific facts about the universe are very well established. First the universe is 13.7 billion years old. A billion is a one with nine zeroes behind it, so that’s a lot of years. Second, it contains 10,000 billion billion stars. That’s a one with 22 zeroes behind it.
We know the age of the universe by its expansion: Galaxies are all moving away from us. There is a very tight relationship between their distance from us and their speed. Namely, the farther away an object is, the faster it is going. If you’re two times farther away from me, you’re going away four times faster. If you’re four times farther away from me, you’re going away 16 times faster. It holds for every galaxy in the whole universe.
When we measure the age of the universe by its expansion, we discover that the universe began to expand 13.7 billion years ago, plus or minus 200 million years. It’s an amazing measurement.
How do we count all those stars?
When the Hubble telescope takes a photograph of the most distant part of the universe we can see, it produces an image called the Hubble Deep Field. The image has millions of dots of light, and every one of those dots of light is a galaxy. Hubble concentrated on a very small part of the sky, one-twentieth of the thickness of my index finger held at arm’s length. So you have a million galaxies in this little piece of the sky. What if we measured the whole sky? By multiplying all that together you get 100 billion galaxies, each of which contains, on the average, 200 billion stars.
Top Renaissance scientists and scholars gathered on a grassy hill overlooking Rome one starry spring night 400 years ago to gaze into a unique innovation by Galileo Galilei: the telescope.
“This was really an exciting event. This was the first time that Galileo showed off his telescope in public to the educated people of Rome, which was the center of culture in Italy at that time,” said Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, Vatican astronomer, as he stood on the same knoll.
Today, the grassy hill is part of the American Academy in Rome, which celebrated its connection to Galileo earlier this year with a number of events that included a discussion of faith and science with Brother Consolmagno.
The Renaissance men gathered on the Janiculum hill included Jesuit scholars, such as Jesuit Father Christopher Clavius, who helped devise the Gregorian calendar 40 years earlier.
Brother Consolmagno told CNS that the unveiling of the telescope was so significant because “this is the first time that science is done with an instrument. It’s not something that just any philosopher could look at. You had to have the right tool to be able to be able to see it,” because one’s own eyes were no longer enough.
“People then wanted to look for themselves and see if they were seeing the same things Galileo was seeing,” he said.