Appalachian Perspective: Vatican Astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno

Hosted by Appalachian State University's Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock, Appalachian Perspective cable television program has featured prominent and interesting North Carolinians, the university's leading academic and public service programs, and other topics of statewide interest. Episodes air across the state on cable operators' community access channels. The 30-minute program is a production of the university's Office of University Communications.

Vatican Astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno has spent his entire career exploring the connections of science, religion and society. A prolific writer, he has authored numerous books including the bestseller "Turn left at Orion." Brother Consolmagno has taught at several well-known universities including Harvard and MIT. His scholarly work addresses how the move to view and emotional appreciation of the stars to a deeper understanding of reason and truth.


Chancellor Ken Peacock: Vatican Astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno has spent his entire career exploring the connections of science, religion and society. A prolific writer, he has authored numerous books including the bestseller "Turn left at Orion." Brother Consolmagno has taught at several well-known universities including Harvard and MIT. His scholarly work addresses how the move to view and emotional appreciation of the stars to a deeper understanding of reason and truth. We'll meet this intriguing scientist coming up on Appalachian Perspective.

KP: Welcome to Appalachian Perspective. My guest today is Brother Guy Consolmagno, a curator of the Vatican meteorite collection in Italy. He is visiting campus as a guest lecturer. Welcome, Brother Guy, it's good to have you here.

Brother Guy Consolmagno: It's great to be here, thank you for having me.

KP: Thank you being a part of our institution, you're lecturing the classes, it's always an honor to have you here on our campus when we can. You've had an impressive and interesting career from your early days of working and teaching at Harvard and MIT, to serving in the Peace Corps, your current position at the Vatican. Tell me how this diverse background prepared you and tell me how did you get to the Vatican. That's a big deal.

BGC: It is and it's totally by accident. It feels every step of the way like it was by accident and it's only when you look back and you see the pattern. There's a favorite phrase that one of our priests in the observatory says "God writes straight with crooked lines." And it was a crooked line that got me directly to where I'm going. As a young man I was one of these people that wanted to learn everything. You know I was fascinated by astronomy but I was also a space kid. I started kindergarten the year that Sputnik went up. I was in high school when people were landing on the moon. How could you not be in love with space? My best friend was going to MIT so I decided to just go there and read science fiction and explore the tunnels and things. Almost by accident I fell into the earth and planetary science department. I saw planets and I thought that was astronomy. It turns out it was geology, but geology of the other planets and when I found out there are rocks that actually come to us from space called meteorites, I realized right then this is something I really wanted to study. I carried on that study at Arizona and then did post-doctorate work at Harvard and MIT and I was, I was in the big leagues. I was a utility infielder but I was in the big leagues and this is great. Then I approached my 30th birthday and I would lie in bed and wonder, "why am I wasting my time wondering about rocks from space when people are starving in the world?" You know, there are so many other bigger problems. Why do astronomy when there are so many more important things to do? I didn't have an answer. So finally, I gave up my job at MIT and I volunteered for the Peace Corps and I told them I'm going to go anywhere in the world that you want me to go, I'll do anything you ask me to do. So within three months of arriving in Kenya I was at the University of Nairobi teaching astronomy.

KP: Wow.

BGC: Yeah the very thing I thought was worthless. But the Kenyans taught me why it matters. That every weekend I would go up-country where my other Peace Corps friends were—the ones who are really into the Peace Corps, you know in the rural areas—and I had a little telescope and I'd set up and everybody in the village would go and want to look at the moons of Jupiter, they'd want to see the craters on the moon and they want to see the rings of Saturn and they were just as excited as I was to see these things, as excited as whenever I would set it up the telescope back home in Michigan, and suddenly it hit me—you know. A well-fed cow doesn't bother looking through a telescope. My very clever cat never wanted to see the rings of Jupiter. This is something that only human beings do. This desire to see the universe, to be amazed by the beauty of the sky, to wonder about who we are and where we come from and to recognize there is more to life than what's for lunch. This is a human experience and if you deny it to somebody just because they were born on the wrong continent or with the wrong income, you're denying them their humanity. But when you can provide this to people, you are enriching their humanity. Just as much as theater or art or music or dance are things that only human beings do, wondering about the universe and looking at the stars, it's a very human activity. And that's why you do astronomy, because you need more than food to live, you know. I read some place, you know, man does not live by bread alone. It's literally true. I was really bringing some part of humanity to people who had been hungry for it and with that in mind I was able to come back to the United States and I got a teaching job at a small college—smaller than Appalachian State—a little college called Lafayette College up in Pennsylvania and I loved it. I loved teaching. I loved bringing the excitement of astronomy to my students. But it was missing one thing and that was what I had in the Peace Corp that standing for something bigger than just myself. And then the thought hit me, which I had had all my life really since I was a little kid growing up as an Irish Catholic kid, Irish Italian Catholic kid, maybe I could join the Jesuits who had taught me in high school and do this teaching at a Jesuit university. So it would mean giving up research and be just teaching but that was fine I was happy doing that. I entered the Jesuits in 1989. I did my two years of novitiate, a couple of years of studies. I entered as a Brother—I'm not ordained, I can't lead prayer, I don't hear confessions and things like that, I'm just a member of the community doing the work of the community—and I was ready to find out - alright where do they want to send me next, would I go to Georgetown or Loyola or Boston College one of the many Jesuit universities in this country. And when I asked where do you want to send me, they said "don't bother, we just got a letter from Rome, you've been assigned to the Vatican observatory." How do they even know I exist in Rome, yes, but they do. They knew my background. They knew I had a doctorate in astronomy and so instead of teaching, which is what I thought I'd entered to do, under obedience I had to go to Rome, look at that terrible scenery, eat that awful food and, oh yes, do any research I wanted to do with a thousand meteorites. In fact, it's been the time of my life and nothing I ever could have planned.

KP: When we first learned you were coming to campus and I was reading about this and it's a great honor and I saw "an astronomer for the Vatican" and I thought I didn't even know they had that. So that was a great surprise to me and I've learned a lot from this and having you here. So why do they have an astronomer at the Vatican? What's the role?

BGC: Well there's two roles really. There's a simple one—which is just to be a sign that the church supports science—it not only is not afraid of science but it embrace science. It says the study of the natural universe is the study of God's creation and it's a beautiful way to get to know God, to see how God created the universe. There are a lot of ways God could have done it, but to find out the ways God chose to do it tells us something about God's personality. And we want to encourage people, if they've got the scientific bent, to go ahead and embrace it and not be afraid of the truth that you are going to learn in science, recognizing there is more to life than science, but certainly science is an important and wonderful part of it. There's a deeper message underneath it all, and that deeper message is—the beauty the elegance of the universe, that is God speaking to us. So while there is the practical side we want to show the world that the church embraces science and in some sense I'm an ambassador to remind the scientists that the church supports them and also to remind the church people that science is not their enemy, it doesn't have to be their enemy. That's a very practical sense, but there's a deeper sense to recognize that this is the one way we can hear God speaking to us and you find that in Paul's letter to the Romans, Chapter 1—from the beginning of the universe God has spoken to us through the things he has created.

KP: So sometimes we hear about conflicts between science and religion, but you're saying that's not necessarily so, that there is a deeper way of viewing this.

BGC: Not only is it not necessarily so, historically it has never been the case.


BGC: Science began in the universities. Who invented the universities? The church. Who supported the universities? The church. Who is the father of geology? Albert the Great, who was a monk. Who is the father of chemistry? Roger Bacon, who is a monk. Who is the guy who developed genetics? Gregor Mendel, who is a monk. Who was the first person to classify stars by their spectrum? Angelo Secchi, a Jesuit priest. Who was the fellow who developed the big bang theory? It was Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest. Not only have there been priests and monks but you can go to the philosophical transactions of the royal society from the 17th century, the 18th century. Who is doing science in 1795? You look in the book and you realize it's nobleman, it's medical doctors and it's clergymen. You know a lot of science is just taking data, writing it down and putting it on 3x5 cards, sorting and classifying—oh this plant has three leaves this plant has four leaves. What do we call that kind of work? It's clerical work. Why is it called clerical? Because traditionally it was done by clerics. Science used to be done by clergymen, and it's only in the last hundred years, it became a profession where you could make money at it, that the non-clergy that came in and I think some of them were a little jealous of the clergy and maybe started to invent—oh we're better than them because we're not tied down by their church, where in fact it's not the case at all. I'll tell you another funny story. When I became a scientist most of my friends didn't know I was religious. In the culture of science and the culture of the North where I come from you don't normally talk about your religion, you consider this very private so most people didn't know my religion. When I put on the collar for the first time, showed up at a meeting as a Jesuit brother, I'd been a scientist for fifteen or twenty years by then, I was wondering what kind of reaction am I going to get from my friends. I was not prepared to hear everybody saying, that's so wonderful, that's great, but even more people who I had no idea what their background was they came up and started telling me about the churches they belonged to. And I realized, in my field of astronomy at least, the proportion of scientists that belong to a church pretty much mirrors the culture they come from. You know in the Midwest I'd say half the scientists I know are church-goers. In England it's maybe 10% because not too many people in England go to church anymore, you see culture to culture. It's nothing to do whether you are scientists or not. So it kind of makes you wonder where does this idea of science and religion at war even come from, cause I don't experience it. I have never experienced it.

KP: I remember as a child, it was almost like magic to go out and lay on the ground and look up and just look at the stars. Why does one have that attraction? I think a lot of people feel that way and the beautiful area which we live here in Boone, North Carolina, I mean you look up at night on a clear night and it is, it's magical what you're looking at and honestly at times, I'm looking, I'm not sure what I'm looking at, but you find yourself attracted. Is that speaking to something in me, inner person. Why is it that way?

BGC: St. Ignatius, the fellow who founded the Jesuit order that I belong to, says exactly the same thing you said in his autobiography. He said, "I used to just go out and look at the stars and feel the call of God." And it's something that no dog or cat is going to be able to do. It's only human beings do it. I think it's an expression of what the theologian Karl Rahner refers to as the desire for the transcendent, that when we look at the immensity of the universe and at the beauty that we recognize in the universe, we feel this desire for something outside ourselves, this desire that points us in the direction of God. And we also have to ask where is that desire coming from because God is also within us heeding that desire. And this is his way of trying to speak to us. And the great thing about astronomy is you don't have to have an education to have that marvelous feeling, but if you do have an education, if you do study the stars, if you do learn how to use a telescope, you get it even more, and you get it even deeper. It's not just that the light of the stars is beautiful but Maxwell's equations that describe how that light works that's also beautiful and just never stops.

KP: Tell me about this type of research, your area of specialty in meteorites. How did you get interested in that and tell me about some of your research there?

BGC: Well I started with a professor. You know everybody can look back to one really great professor they had and this one guy who taught me meteoritic by the name of John Lewis at MIT, he was such a dynamic professor that I would wake up every Tuesday and Thursday and say I get to go to class today. It would get me out of bed get me moving. Not many professors will do that. I'm sure beyond that I began to realize how this was a way I could touch outer space, to realize that blue sky is not some impenetrable barrier that separates me from the universe but that puts the universe, come through it to a place where I can hold them. When I got to the Vatican I discovered they had a collection of a thousand meteorites and it was a private collector's collection. It was not big samples of one but a little bit of everything. And I was trying to think what's the kind of things I can do with a collection like that. One of the questions I'd always had with my theatrical research before then was modeling how planets, how stars, how asteroids change with time. I needed to know the density of the material that went into them to calculate how much stuff was there. Nobody had measured densities of meteorites so I developed what I thought was a pretty clever way of measuring it. You know, what's a density, you know when you're having Christmas and there are a bunch of presents, I remember being a little kid at Christmas time I was allowed to open one present before we went off to church. I wanted to make sure it had candy and not a pair of socks in it, so you pick it up—the light one were socks the heavy ones, the dense ones, that's candy. The same thing you do with a Christmas present I want to be able to do with planets. I want to tell what they are made up by dense they are by how much is packed inside the box. So you've got to weight it to know how dense, how heavy it is, and then you have to measure the size of the container, the size of the meteorite. The way I do that is by taking a cup with known volume and fill it with glass beads. I got the idea from sugar you put into a cappuccino—it's a benefit you get by living in Italy. So I use little white glass beads, fill up the cup, weight it and then you put the meteorite in and then you fill it up with the same beads. The meteorite and the beads will weigh a little bit more and you can use a little bit of mathematics to calculate how much more. What is the density of the rock compared to the density of the beads. And the beads don't hurt the rock, you brush them off when you're done and you've got a wonderful answer. So it's so simple and so fast that we have measured thousands of different meteorites. Alright, we've got all these densities so what good is that? You can compare that against the asteroids out in space, out beyond Mars where they come from, and you discover that the asteroids are only half the density of the meteorites. We used to think asteroids are just big rocks. They're not. They're piles of rubble, very loose piles of sand and rock, and this raises all sorts of new questions as to how they got that way, what they're made out of, what things happened while they were being formed. Also if someday you want to go up to those asteroids and start mining them for minerals this is useful to know, you're not going to have to take TNT with you but just a shovel and a bucket. Basically, it allows us to see the objects in our own solar system in a new way, a deeper way, than we've ever thought of them before, you get to know just a little bit better.

KP: What about the discussions we hear sometimes from, again television, that one is going to hit us one day, it's going to take out the Earth and it's on target now and if thing is as loosely formed as I sort of understand from what you're saying, does it have that much force that it could actually take out the Earth?

BGC: Well, it's not going to take out the earth but it could take out life on the earth. What are the odds that it's going to happen? The odds aren't certain. What are the odds it's going to happen tomorrow? Oh, one in a hundred million. So if you're really worried about asteroids killing, there are two things you can do. Stop smoking and wear your seat belt, because, trust me, those are much more dangerous than any asteroid. Beyond that, we are learning where the asteroids are so that if one is coming close to us we can figure out what to do about it. By knowing how they're put together we can come up with better strategies for deflecting it a little bit, and if you have a long enough lead time you'll be able to slowly move it out of the Earth's path. I don't think it's going to happen any time soon, but fifty years, one hundred years from now we may find one that's coming close enough, you know. The more that human population covers the earth, the more targets we're providing to the asteroids. Sooner or later, one is going to hit and probably won't be a big one, probably won't end all life on Earth, but it may be a ding in somebody's city. We know from observing the last hundred years we've had a couple big impacts in the Earth. Tunguska in Siberia in 1909 and there was one over Russia in 1948. Either of these, if they had actually landed where people live, we'd know about it. So, so far it hasn't happened, we've been lucky. But God has given us the intelligence to track these things and figure out what to do about them, so we ought to use that intelligence.

KP: A question that I read a little bit about you that I understand that you like to be asked and you've been asked pretty quite a few times here, and so I don't want to disappoint you and I certainly want the viewers to hear this. Because you're a fan of science fiction and a question that you have entertained many times is, would you baptize an alien? So Brother Guy, would you? Would you?

BGC: Well the best short answer is, only if they ask.


BGC: And I think it's a real answer because the whole question is not really one that has a simple yes/no. It's one of these mysteries you contemplate. It makes you wonder, what is the point of baptism? What does it really mean to be baptized? Why do I ask if something has a soul? How would I know? How would I know if they were asking? What is the nature of the soul? Thomas Aquinas says "freewill and intellect." So that a soul is an entity that is aware of it's existence, aware of other existences, can chose to love or not love or close the doors and ignore. Thinking about that makes you realize that could be true of creatures other than us. On the other hand, what's the point of baptism? Something to do with original sin, something to do with the need for salvation. Would other creatures need salvation? I don't know. And that's why science fiction is so much fun because you can play with the ideas saying right up front, this is fiction, I'm not claiming this is true, but if this was true how would it work out? What would happen and then what would happen and then what would happen? And do I think that's likely or not? And then you say, alright, well maybe something else is true and you play it out in that direction. In that process of doing that, I doubt that I've ever come across an alien in my lifetime, but I am going to come across human souls. I am going to come across my own soul. And by asking these wonderful games, this wonderful "what if" game, I'm allowing myself to think a little bit more to think about what it means that I have a soul, what it means that I have been baptized and to appreciate it in a new and different way that I might not have appreciated it before.

KP: Before we went on the air I was asking you a question and you gave me an answer. I really wasn't expecting the answer I received. I just kind of want to share that because there was a great... I guess a lot of people in this area seem to really focus on the horoscope and it's in the paper every day. It's there, there you are. So a two-point question. First of all, what do you think about the horoscopes? And then recently, and you educated me on this, there's been discussion about another category, and I was sharing with you, that impacted my own horoscope, and so, but you said that has been discussed there for a long time, but I just saw it in the newspaper a few weeks ago and I heard.

BGC: Yes people are talking about it sure.

KP: I've heard a lot of conversation about it since then. Somebody said that upsets my whole schedule because I thought I was and now I'm something else. What do you think about all that?

BGC: Well, first of all, it's an important thing to remember, there is nothing in the Bible that specifically talks about evolution that says it's good or bad. But there are specific places in the Bible that forbids horoscopes and forbids astrology. You can find it in a number of places in the Old Testament. And that's because the idea that the stars control our destiny, or control who we are and what we're like, is forbidden. It violates God's power and it violates our freewill. So to hold that this horoscope is somehow going to control your life, that's really a cop out. It's saying I'm not going to do what I need to do. So there's something just wrong, morally, about it to begin with. Beyond that it doesn't work. One of the great things you can do in astronomy classes, and I hope I'm not giving away secrets to kids coming in to astronomy class, the professor will say, everybody in the class write down your birth date and the time of day and we'll work out your horoscopes for you. And he comes in the next class and he gives each student their name and a description of "you're born under the..." and so on. What the kids don't realize as they're all reading it and saying "oh yeah that's me, boy that's me" he says how many people think this is right? They all raise their hand. Trade with your neighbors and they discover they've all been reading the same piece of paper. It's a charlatan's trick. You can write things that are so general that if you want to believe it you'll read in to it, "oh yeah, handsome, that's me whatever I don't know the tricks. Horoscopes... they're immoral and they don't work. Other than that if you still want to go along with it... Now what the horoscope was based on was the position of the sun and the planets as they are moving through the sky, and of course that's real. There is a sun, there are planets, there are constellations. The constellations are given names, mostly by the people who can see the pattern of stars and there's a way to remember them all. Oh, that reminds me of a lion. That reminds me of two stick figures they look like twins. About 80 years ago the International Astronomical Union, the group that has to make these arbitrary decisions, decided OK, if we're going to have constellations as a way of keeping track of what stars are where for naming the stars, here's where we are going to draw the boundaries. It's very arbitrary. As it happens those boundaries so overlap that the constellation Ophiuchus actually has the sun going through it for a couple of days. Doesn't mean there is now a new zodiac constellation of Ophiuchus. It was an arbitrary place where they drew the lines. Not only that, but all of the astrology that people like to use dates from two thousand years ago, but the stars have slowly shifted compared to the sun's position over those two thousand years. That's why we had to form the calendar in 1582. And so when your horoscope says that the sun was in Gemini, in fact the sun hasn't been in Gemini in that month for a thousand years. If you remember the sixties, those of us with gray hair will remember it, you know that old song about the age of Aquarius, that is exactly about the shifting of the constellations. This is nothing new, we've known about this for hundreds and hundreds of years, but every now and then this gets on the internet and everyone gets excited for a week and then they forget it.

KP: So when my horoscope says a close friend will come and share some wonderful news with me that day, I shouldn't wait with bated breath expecting for that person to come.

BGC: Because you would hope that you have close friends visiting you every day and you hope that you get wonderful news every day.

KP: True.

BGC: Why not?

KP: As we get close to the end I wanted to ask you if you got a chance to visit some of the facilities here at Appalachian State. The wonderful Dark Sky Observatory that we have, and then Rankin Science the rooftop the roll back roof to it. Have you seen that?

BGC: Oh my yes, I just was there about an hour ago, and it's jaw dropping. It's so beautiful. I only wish that I had had that kind of stuff while I was studying astronomy. The facilities that the kids have now, and the ability to do real science with these telescopes, you know it's not just playing around, but with these facilities... Of course, you're blessed to be in a dark part of the world. Light pollution is killing astronomy in so many parts of the world and it's really important to keep the lights down here, so you can see the sky that God gave us rather than the lights that the local electric company is giving us. We're not going to worship the local electric company, as nice as they may be. But yeah, the fact that the kids can now see... it's just astonishing anybody who has not been to a star night here should come visit because it is so beautiful and it is a wonderful thing that you don't need a full education to appreciate what it looks like to see Saturn through a telescope. But once you've seen Saturn through a telescope, maybe you're going to want a little more of that education.

KP: Brother Guy that means a lot to hear that from you—the astronomer for the Vatican—to say we have great facilities here at Appalachian to explore this wonderful world that we have.

BGC: Well, great facilities and great astronomers here as well. We've got Richard Gray who has collaborated with us at the Vatican at our telescope in Arizona many times and it was that personal connection of knowing his astronomy connected to—you know he's world-wide famous, himself— and the other astronomers here in the department, it's the attraction of having them here that made me eager to come and visit.

KP: Well I don't want you to leave Appalachian, but the time will come and when that comes do you go back to Arizona, do you go back to Italy?

BGC: Well I've got a few more talks to go and I'll be at one or two more institutions. I'll have a week to visit my parents in Florida. My dad is going to be 93 in April and he's doing great. And then I go back to Europe and I'll be working with the meteorites for a few more months.

KP: Great.

BGC: But I tend to hop back and forth.

KP: OK. Well it's been wonderful having you on the show and in fact it's been great having you as part of Appalachian State. Come back, it's a tremendous honor to have you here.

BGC: It has been a delight.

KP: I appreciate your presence on our campus and your classes that you've taught. We've worked you hard, I've seen your schedule, so we don't give you any free time because we are so proud to have you here. We want to just get every bit of information from you that we possibly can.

BGC: Well every moment I can be with the students and teachers here it has been a joy.

KP: Well thank you Brother Guy, thank you for being a part of Appalachian.

BGC: Thank you.