By Paul Dobbyn
GAZING through a telescope at the night sky would most likely not be rated as a moment of worship for most people.
Not so US-born Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno.
In a recent conversation in Brisbane, the man often known as “the Pope’s Astronomer” who works at the Vatican Observatory, begged to differ.
“Worship for me can be something as simple as looking through a telescope and seeing something beautiful,” he said.
“The universe, you could argue, had to be rational for it to work…however, the universe didn’t have to be beautiful but it is, and for that we give God praise.”
Likewise correlation of data in scientific research can lead to worship.
“I might go: ‘Wow. Now I see that.’” Br Guy said.
“At such times I can recognise the same kind of moment of joy that I have in a moment of prayer.”
None of which is a surprise to the award-winning astronomer-turned Jesuit.
“The universe is God’s way of communicating with us,” he said.
“God speaks with us in the things he made.
“That’s not me … that’s St Paul – he says that in a letter to the Romans.”
Br Guy also cleared up a couple of misconceptions including the notion that he was the Pope’s only astronomer – “There are a bunch of us, a dozen, all Jesuits.
“And actually I’m not in Rome all the time; there’s too much light pollution for the Vatican’s telescopes to be used scientifically,” he said.
“For that work I use the Vatican’s observatory in Arizona.”
He also gave enlightening comments on science and religion including oft-heard claims such as “science has replaced religion as a way of finding meaning in the world”.
Then there was his new book Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? … and Other Questions From The Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory.
“Would you?” was the next question put to Br Guy.
“Only if they asked me,” he said.
Then talk turned to questions about whether humanity was any closer to contacting intelligent life from beyond Earth, and indeed whether such life could conceivably exist.
Entering the Jesuit’s stellar world, even briefly, was a privilege.
Brought by the Assembly of Catholic Professionals to Brisbane to speak at a luncheon on October 16, this year’s winner of the prestigious Carl Sagan Medal proved down-to-earth and able to bring difficult scientific concepts within reach.
Indeed the full title of his award, the Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science, attested to this ability.
Br Guy’s response on his twitter site @specolations to the honour was also instructive.
“I won the Carl Sagan medal from the AAS/DPSI (American Astronomical Society/Division for Planetary Sciences). I’m hoping it’s made of really good chocalte (sic),” he tweeted on July 2 this year.
However, in his Brisbane interview, Br Guy said he was “astonished” how much the award meant to him.
“It was a recognition from my peers: it was fantastic to be recognised as even in the same breath as Carl Sagan,” he said.
“Of course there is some irony in me receiving the award – as people like to point out, Carl was an agnostic.
“That really doesn’t matter.
“Planetary science isn’t just for one type or another type, one belief or another belief … it’s a common love of discovering the universe and what could be better than that?”
Br Guy said his youth in America had definitely shaped his love for this branch of science.
“The sputnik was launched. People were landing on the moon … it was in the air at the time,” he said.
His faith, love of life and learning came from his parents.
“My parents were terrible,” he said tongue-in-cheek.
“They gave me a such a happy childhood and were impossibly wonderful people, so how could I ever be as good as them?
“To my great joy, they’re still alive and kicking at 96 and 93.
“They gave me a faith-filled but not fanatic background to faith … in this way they showed faith was not anything unusual and very much an ordinary part of life.”
His parents also encouraged a love of learning, which thrives to today.
“My father loved astronomy as a kid and grew up to become a great writer, working on a newspaper at university and going on to become a distinguished economics journalist,” he said.
“Mum was a school teacher; my grandfather an Italian immigrant was a lawyer.”
This love of learning and writing comes together in his book, co-written with Jesuit Father Paul Mueller, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?…and Other Questions From The Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory.
The book is based on more than 700 emailed questions received at the observatory over the past few years.
“Some of them are rather whacky and others quite profound,” he said.
“The thing is the questions tell you more about human beings who asked them than anything else.
“For instance the question: What was the Star of Bethlehem?
“What the question really asks is how God acts in the world.
“And the answer to that is it’s a mystery you live with.”
So what’s a typical working day like at the Vatican Observatory?
“Typically it’s similar to any life of any Jesuit – the hour of prayer, meals together, community together,” he said.
“At same time, it’s similar to life of any scientists – writing papers, going to meetings with other scientists…
“There are twists though, the main one being why I’m doing the work.
“It’s not for my own career or advancement or to heap praise on university I’m at.
“I’m doing the research to give glory to God.”
What about the importance of religious truth versus scientific discovery, and the claims of many that science has replaced religion as the only way of seeing the world?
“Only people who don’t know what science is would make this claim,” he said.
“That was a very 19th Century idea when it looked like the universe was totally mechanical and Newton’s laws could explain everything – electricity and steam engines are going to solve all our problems.
“The 20th Century showed that none of this was true – quantum physics has shown the universe is a lot stranger than Newton’s laws.
“The world wars and pollution and all of the things that can go wrong with technology, show that technology isn’t the solution to everything either.
“There are no systems so perfect that people don’t need to be good, to paraphrase TS Eliot.”
So what’s next on Brother Guy’s infinite horizons?
“Before leaving Australia to go back home, I go on my annual retreat, in this case at the Jesuit’s Sevenhill Winery (and Centre of Ignatian Spirituality),” he said.
“I’ll be promoting the new book, writing more books, popularising science and doing the science itself.
“But really, you never know.
“I became a Jesuit out of my love for God…if God wants me to do something, that’s what I will want to do more than anything else.”