On 11th February 2019, planetary scientist and Jesuit Br. Guy Consolmagno spoke to the University of Pennsylvania community in his Magi Project and Collegium Institute talk Adventures of a Vatican Astronomer.
Br. Consolmagno is the Director of the Vatican Observatory, where he currently oversees the entirety of the Vatican’s astronomical research. Prior to his 2015 appointment by Pope Francis, he had studied and conducted planetary science research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Arizona, and Harvard College Observatory. He then took his vows as a Jesuit brother in 1991. He has published over 40 scientific papers on meteorites, asteroids, and the origin and evolution of small bodies in our solar system. He has also authored multiple books, the latest being Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? Thanks to his Vatican connections, his work has sent him around the world several times to dozens of countries and every continent.
In Adventures of a Vatican Astronomer, he shared some of those adventures and reflected on the larger meaning of science in our vast collective experience, explaining why he feels called to science and how his religious journey inspires him to seek new worlds.
As Brother Guy Consolmagno, described, once we view the universe as the creation of a good God, the process of scientific discovery becomes a quest to better comprehend God. As we study the possibilities of other life forms, “whether we are unique or not, the fact that we do exist is enough to be astonished.” This astonishment is a sense of appreciation that we all can enjoy; it is not limited to Astrophysics PhDs.
Br. Consolmagno also recounted his adventures from Hawaii to Antarctica, stressed the interest of the Vatican in scientific progress, and kept us on our feet with clever jokes from his experiences. What I found most captivating about his talk was how he weaved in a not only theological, but also philosophical take on his scientific work as the Director of the Vatican Observatory.
Religion, and his Catholic faith in particular, gives him the inspiration and ultimately the reason, to do science. He cautioned against using science to try to prove or disprove the existence of God by reminding us that science does not prove, but describes:
“You can prove anything you want by choosing the assumptions carefully. Belief in God and a God who created the universe is a fundamental assumption. If you assume that what we see in the universe is the product of a good god, then you can see evidence of this, in many, many places, including the phenomenal chemistry that allows us to have this conversation.”
Regarding the potential abundance of life on other planets, Br. Consolmagno warned against extrapolating from the singular data point that we have: us. In science, extrapolation from a limited number of data points is incredibly dangerous, let alone one.
Furthermore, given that science describes, and its descriptions are constantly changing, there is an inherent danger to hang faith in the existence (or non-existence) of God on a concept in science. What if we discover that what we once thought was true turns out to be a primitive attempt at a scientific answer? Consider how much more we know about the universe now than we did even eighty years ago. Is it not conceivable that what we take as given now could be overturned by future discoveries in science?
It is for this reason that Br. Consolmagno chooses to take religious faith as an assumption, a lens from which he can appreciate and give meaning to objective scientific pursuits with which he is involved.
He concluded by emphasizing the love in the labor of love that is his life’s work:
“By understanding or at least getting used to this universe, you in a sense get used to God… You never really understand physics; you just get used to it. And I realized that if you’re in love with someone, you never really understand them; they’re not a problem to be solved. They’re someone you grow to know over time. And this universe you’ll never understand, you get used to it. And its creator, you get used to, but… only by spending the time to get to know it.”