brother guy2
Brother Guy Con­sol­magno speaks in Markel Audi­torium April 13 on “Does Science Need God?” Con­sol­magno is the spring semester’s con­vo­cation speaker, scheduled for April 14.
Anders Kiledal | Col­legian

What ini­tially drew you to astronomy?

I’ve always loved looking at the stars, and, as a kid, I had my own little tele­scope. It was also a part of the times. I was a kinder­gartner when Sputnik went into orbit and a senior at [Uni­versity of Detroit Jesuit High School] when man landed on the moon, so it was just part of the zeit­geist. But I was also a big fan of science fiction. To me, planets are places where people have adven­tures, and I wanted to know about the places where people have adven­tures. It was always part of a story.

Who are some of your favorite science fiction authors?

I have very low taste in science fiction. There are some authors who ask deep and pro­found ques­tions, but I do deep and pro­found for a living. I read science fiction for the fun of it. One current favorite is a husband and wife team, Steve Miller and Sharon Lee. They write the worst type of trashy space opera, and I love it. It’s relaxing, it’s fun, and it makes you look at the world in a dif­ferent way. There are some of the classic [writers] who people have long since for­gotten, like James Schmidt, who wrote space opera.

Again, what I love in a good science fiction book is a sense of fun. Someone who does write pro­found stuff but has that sense of fun is Connie Willis. She has done a lot of time travel stories, which are very good, and has more content than the others. Gene Wolf was a modern writer of fantasy. It’s inter­esting — of the latter two, Connie…is Epis­co­palian and Gene…is Catholic. I think having a reli­gious sen­si­bility gives you a compass that allows you to orient what is right and wrong. The laws of right and wrong are as inflexible as the laws of physics.

What are your duties at the Vatican Obser­vatory?

First and foremost, I am an astronomer. I work in the field of plan­etary science and, par­tic­u­larly, mete­oritics. I am inter­ested in small bodies in the solar system, how they formed, where they formed, what we can learn about them today, and what clues they give us about how the solar system formed. What we’ve done in the lab­o­ratory is measure the physical prop­erties of mete­orites — are they porous or tightly packed, and what does that tell us about how they are formed?

At the tele­scope, we look at the colors of distant objects beyond Neptune to see if there’s a pattern between which ones are gray colored, which ones are red colored, com­pared to their orbits and how stirred up the orbits have been over time. It’s a lot of little bits of a few bricks that even­tually build the cathedral. You aren’t going to build it yourself.

Your talk is titled ‘Does Science Need God’ — does science need God?

I don’t think we would have science without God because God gives us the moti­vation to do the science. We do science — I don’t care what your religion is — we do science partly because it’s fun, and that sense of joy, I think, is evident of the presence of God.

We also do it out of curiosity, and that curiosity is what makes us more than just animals, more than just “what’s for lunch,” and we do it out of a desire for the truth. God is a source of truth. Any sci­entist who cares more about “Is it true?” than “Is it going to help my rep­u­tation?” is wor­shipping some­thing that’s tran­scendent and is as close to God as one can be.

Have you ever found any­thing in your research that has chal­lenged your faith in God?

Nothing in my science has ever chal­lenged my religion and my faith in religion, but it has chal­lenged my faith in science. I’ll see one bit of science that I thought I under­stood and see another bit of science that con­tra­dicts it, and of course, that’s exciting because it means that I didn’t under­stand either enough, and I have to learn more, and I know I’m never going to under­stand my religion com­pletely. I’m never going to under­stand God, and I shouldn’t be sur­prised if I’m taken aback by God cre­ating the uni­verse in a way dif­ferent than I expected.

I’ll give you an example. It has nothing to do with science, just my own life. When I was in my 30s, I was con­fident that God had given me great freedom to find him wherever I looked, however I wanted to live. When I was in my 40s, and I had become a Jesuit sci­entist, and it was so obvi­ously right that this is what I was sup­posed to be doing, I realized he may have given me the freedom, but e also had an idea of what he really wanted me to do. How you balance that won­derful freedom versus no, this is what you’re des­tined for. Well, of course, that is the theme of all lit­er­ature. How do you balance freedom and destiny? How do you balance an omnipotent God and a God that is so pow­erful he chooses to be weak and born as a baby? You find that theme in the­ology. You also find these sorts of con­tra­dic­tions in science, and that’s why I love science, because it gives me a sense of God’s per­son­ality, and when you see a familiar trait, a familiar sense of humor, then you have con­fi­dence that you’re looking at the same thing.

Do you find that you’re in the minority among your col­leagues, being out­wardly reli­gious?

That is what I expected, and I was shocked when I came back to the world of science, after taking a few years off to become a Jesuit, to hear so many of my friends come up and say, “Let me tell you about the church I go to, since religion is one of the things we don’t talk about.” I think we all think we’re the only one, and to dis­cover that there’s someone else who goes to church as well is reas­suring. After a while, though, it became silly, since everybody goes to church, and we were all keeping it quiet thinking we were the only ones… It’s not true in all fields, and I have friends who are atheists or agnostics, but even there, to be an atheist is to have a very clear idea of the god it is you know you don’t believe in, and I believe in only one more god than Steph en Hawking. Most of the ideas of God we have come across over the years don’t work, aren’t right. We’re still looking to improve the vision we have, but in terms of par­tic­i­pating in a religion, it’s been amusing to see that I have friends who belong to every religion you could imagine and some you couldn’t, and the pro­portion of sci­en­tists who also are people of faith pretty much matches the pop­u­lation of the culture they come from. In the Midwest, I’d say 50 percent of the sci­en­tists I know are church-goers because that’s typical of the Midwest. In England, maybe 10 percent. Oddly, there’s absolutely no cor­re­lation between how good you are as a sci­entist and whether or not you go to church. There are won­der­fully devout people who are pretty awful sci­en­tists and won­der­fully devout people who are great sci­en­tists. There are fero­cious atheists and people with ter­rible lifestyles who do good science and others who don’t. It’s a com­pletely dif­ferent dimension of one’s life. But if you think about it, that shouldn’t be sur­prising.