A conversation with the “Missionary of Science”

Brother Guy Consolmagno, Vatican astronomer, was invited by the Catholic Discovery Centre to come to New Zealand for a nationwide tour to “show a side of the [Catholic] faith that most people don’t see”

He was in Christchurch this month lecturing on the history of astronomy and his work back in Rome where he’s based. But he has a bigger message. He told journalist Mina Amso that science is for everybody, especially people of faith.

“I find that among younger people most scientists are happy to accept you if you are a person of faith or not; it wasn’t always true, but it is true today. But many people of faith are scared of science. And so I am acting as a missionary of science to my fellow Catholics.”

Are people receptive to a Papal astronomer?

He says it strikes him that people are still mostly astonished to know that there is a Papal astronomer.

“They haven’t really formulated those questions because – and this is the genius of having a Papal astronomer – the very fact that I exist, regardless of who I am, whether it’s me or some other Jesuit doing it, the very fact that there is a Papal astronomer completely destroys the stereotypes. And you’re left wondering ‘alright, what was that all about? Maybe he’s not really a Catholic.’ Well, I am. ‘Maybe he’s not really an astronomer.’ Well, I am. If you thought that was impossible, well, it’s time to think again.”

Brother Guy, you, astronomy and New Zealand go way back, tell us about the connection

I came to New Zealand for the first time more than 20 years ago to go to Antarctica and I was part of an expedition there to search for meteorites. So that’s when I met New Zealand. That’s also when I went to Lake Tekapo and saw the sky there. Since then I’ve got to know a number of astronomers at the university here. People who do radar work on meteors.

One of the great historians of the history of spectroscopy John Hershaun is at Canterbury University here. So, there are a number of notable New Zealand astronomers. Also, when I was a student, there were a couple of professors at MIT I had who were kiwis, so I always knew there’s depth of scientific knowledge.

New Zealand is blessed because of its geography. Because it’s the furthest south, you have a lot of land area where you can put up a decent size telescope. (New Zealand is) also blessed in a funny way with having an English language in its native tongue, because science is done in English. And it’s an unfair and undeniable advantage to anyone who wants to be a scientist, to have fluency in the English language.

Br Guy being interviewed by Fr John O’Connor

So, this is your 2nd visit to Lake Tekapo in 22 years. Has anything changed, do you think?

I would have to say it was a bit bigger and a bit more developed (when I visited the second time). I like most of the changes, I like the fact that they recognise astro-tourism as a benefit that must be protected; that it has ‘dark sky’ status. That is really important. The more people realise having dark sky is important to our health, it’s important to our culture and important to our economy. There will be the stronger motivation to make sure we protect our dark skies.

What did you do when you were in Lake Tekapo?

We were only there for twelve hours. There were people supporting Bishop Paul from Christchurch that he wanted to bring as a community-gathering exercise so we all went to see the telescope together. But at the same time, we saw the telescopes, it was cloudy, it was miserable, bit of a rainy day, until we walked out of the telescope dome at the end of the tour and looked up and the sky was crystal clear. And so, I spent half an hour going ‘ooh,’ and ‘ahh’ looking at things, seeing my old favorites that I haven’t seen in a long time. Just with a pair of binoculars and pointing out a few of my favourites to my friends. And the skies people who were guiding [us] were very good at explaining things to people. So, it was a marvelous combination of being close to the sky and close to nature but also being close to a bunch of people as we were getting to know each other. And that’s one of the amazing things about astronomy is it brings people together; we all live under the same sky.

And whether you have a phD or not, you can appreciate the sky; the sky is gorgeous. I think it’ss even more gorgeous if you know what you’re looking at but even if you don’t know what you’re looking at, it’s still gorgeous. And it reminds you that the universe is bigger than you and your day-to-day worries.

It makes you feel small and important at the same time, which is a good thing. The small is good but the importance of the fact is that (as) small as I am, I can look at the universe and I can understand it. Small as I am. That God who made that universe is so infinite that he can also pay attention to me with all of His attention.

What are your favourite things to look at in New Zealand’s dark skies?

Some of the things you can only see in the southern hemisphere. We start with the Southern Cross and Alpha Mega Centauri and those are just breath-taking and I can never get tired of looking at them.

With a pair of binoculars, you can pick out some truly spectacular globular clusters. These are a collection of half a million to a million stars in a ball of light and the two best in the sky were only visible from the south; And that would be Omega Centauri and 47 Tukani. And I was able to pick those up with a pair of binoculars.

Then because we are so far south, even though it’s not the most favorable time of the year, you can see the Magellanic Clouds, and within the Magellanic Clouds you can see all sorts of detail. There’s, in a large Magellanic Cloud, a burst of light, called the tarantula, which is great fun.

But even just to look at the Milky Way and that region between the real cross and the false cross – it’s just filled with clusters of stars, knots of nebulosity, and sights that take your breath away.

Brother, you delight in visiting New Zealand. What’s your favourite spot?

It still has to be Lake Tekapo, on top of everything else, partly because it’s the place where I first discovered the skies here. It will be special to me for that reason.

How different is a Papal Astronomer from a non-Papal astronomer?

Well there are a dozen of us who are doing astronomy [in the Vatican], and our mission is to show the world that the Church support science, and our individual instructions, the thing that I was told would be my job when I arrived, and that I tell any astronomer coming now, is to do good science.

And this is remarkable because if you’re working on a government grant you have to do the work the grant is paying for and you have to have results in three years or you’re not going to get any more money. But at the Vatican we can work on anything wherever our curiosity directs us and if it takes five years or 10 years to come up with the results, we are given the freedom to do that.

So, in a lot of ways what we do is the kind of science that our fellow scientists don’t have the opportunity to do and we complement the work they do, by doing long term surveys for example.

There are two spacecrafts right now orbiting small asteroids. One by the Japanese, one by the Americans, and these asteroids are just piles of rock. They’re not a big rock, they are a pile of rocks. We kind of knew that was going to happen and we could even tell you how much of the space is rock and how much empty space because we look at the asteroid you can measure the size of asteroids and the mass of the asteroids and that tells you the density, but in my lab I’ve made measurements of the densities of the individual kinds of meteorites that the labs are made out of and that means that we can then compare the measurements in our lab with the measurements at the spacecraft, and say “alright its 52% or 48% empty space.” We have made the measurements in our lab of meteorite densities that everybody else uses now to compare against what they see in space.

On faith versus science – The Evidence to support this and that

It’s wonderful to say you need evidence. The truth is you have to have an intuition before you know to look for the evidence. Evidence for what? “I think there might be…” Oh, now I know what to look for.

Science starts with faith. Science starts with ‘I think this is a problem worth studying, and maybe I am going to be wrong. I think that this approach I am going to try is going to work, maybe I am going to be wrong. And you don’t know until you’ve done it. That you have the evidence to show that I was right or I was wrong. So, science is not about evidence. Evidence of what? if you don’t have the intuition. If you don’t have the spark that comes from your soul then you don’t know what to do science on.

And, in the same way, religion starts with evidence, every religious experience is an experience. whether it’s the birth of a child or death of a parent or just one of those suddenly I was walking down the street and suddenly got hit by the presence of God and had no idea where I was coming from. What does that mean?

And then you can go to your faith community and say ‘was it just because I had bad pizza last night or was it something real?’ Have other people experienced this, what did they learn from it, how does my experience fit in with theirs? That’s the way that science and religion are both so common. That they start with an individual moment of insight, then verified and challenged and developed in a community of other people. You can’t do science alone. You’ve got to write a paper to at least show someone else what you did. You can’t do religion alone. You’ve got to compare your experience with other people to put it into a larger context to be able to say this is real and this is how I interpret what happened.

What advice could you give on having a positive conversation with others about the connection of science, evidence and faith?

If you have the eyes of faith, the eyes of faith come first. If you have those eyes, you’ll see God everywhere in the universe. If you don’t have those eyes, you don’t. Don’t criticize somebody who doesn’t. But don’t think that it takes an extraordinary mystic to see that, anyone can. It’s important to remember most scientists over the history of the world and through to today have been people of deep faith. The fellow who came up with the big bang theory was Georges Lemaitre, he was a Catholic priest. The fellow who came up with genetics, Gregor Mendel, was a monk. If you look on the back of your iPhone, you’ll see the names of two prominent Catholic scientists Mr Ampere and Mr Volta. Because anything of this electrical world will tell you how many amps and how many volts. Both of them were tremendous scientists and very devout Catholics. The light that comes from the sun to us is explained through a series of beautifully elegant equations called Maxwell equations; James Clark Maxwell was a very devout protestant. It’s absurd that great scientists have to be atheists. It’s not in the evidence. You want be evidence based? Take a look at the evidence.

What are your final thoughts …

I think that science gives us a way to know God, and we recognise the presence of God in joy. God wants us to be filled with joy, God surprises us with joy, and when you find joy in your science, there’s where you’re finding God.