Brother Guy Consolmagno is the director of the Vatican Observatory and president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. Raised in Detroit, Michigan, he studied Earth and Planetary Sciences at MIT for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and at the University of Arizona for his doctorate. During a break in his studies he spent two years teaching astronomy in Narobi for the Peace Corps. Having attended a Jesuit high school, Consolmagno contemplated joining the church at several points in his career before joining the order in 1989. Two years later, he was called to serve at the Vatican Observatory where he has been ever since. Consolmagno’s research has always focused on the smallest bodies in our solar system and his work at the Vatican has allowed him to make significant contributions to this field over the past several decades. In 2014, he was awarded the Carl Sagan Medal by the American Astronomical Society for outstanding communication of planetary science to the public.
* The following text has been slightly edited and excerpted from the full interview, which may be viewed here or by clicking on the video thumbnail image below.
Would you be nice enough to list some of the most significant contributions historically of Catholic men and women to science?
Sure, we could of course go back all the way to the Middle Ages and you know, so Albert the Great, was considered by many to be the first scientist, or the father of science. The idea of rational inquiry into the universe was a part of the medieval universities. I’ll give you a name that may surprise a number of your listeners as a great honored Catholic scientist, and that’s Galileo Galilei. Yes, he got in trouble with the church he wouldn’t be the first good Catholic to get in trouble with the church. But he remained a devout Catholic even through the unfair trial that he went through and when you read the transcript of the trial, which is available in English, you find it’s not what you think. It’s not some big debate between science and faith. He was caught up in the politics of the day and the exact details are still a point of great argument among historians, but we all agree, all the historians agree, had nothing to do with faith and science. Because at the same time that Galileo was working there were a number of other great Jesuits and other priests who were working in the field of science. I mentioned the Jesuits because I’m a member of the Jesuit order. We always got to brag. Just a few years after that trial, Giovanni Battista Riccioli put together the first telescopic map of the moon using the nomenclature that we use to this day and he started the tradition of naming craters on the moon for great scientists like Copernicus, like Galileo, like Kepler, like himself, and other Jesuits all the way to the present time.
You can also think of Gregor Mendel, the inventor of genetics who was, of course, a monk. Your phone probably has a charger listing things in volts and amps. The volt, Volta, and Ampere were both devout Catholics. And into the 20th century, you’ve got George Lemaitre, who we’ll be talking about today. The fellow who came up with the idea of the Big Bang, and there was a historian of science, John Hilburn, who says through the Middle Ages and into the Enlightenment, the Catholic Church probably supported science more than any other institution, just in terms of sheer numbers and money. When people want to say that there’s a conflict, they always bring up Galileo because they don’t have any other example to bring up.
To what do you attribute this anti-Catholic attitude in the science community?
Well, there’s a lot of anti-Catholicism out there in general and you know there’s plenty of reasons. If you want to get mad at the church, there are better reasons to get mad at the church than because of science and religion. That’s not something the church has gotten wrong. I think it comes from the late 20th century. There was tremendous prejudice against immigrants from the Catholic parts of Southern and Eastern Europe who are coming to America.
At the time, people like my great-grandfather, there was also this idea at the end of the Victorian era that science and technology was going to solve all of our problems. Who needs religion anymore, and in particular the idea of eugenics, in the idea that scientifically we could improve the human race. The church was one of the few groups to speak out against it, mostly because it was immoral, even if it worked. It turns out it’s terrible science as well, but you know more sadly in the 20th century we discovered that science and technology can be used for evil every much as it can be used for good. You know, Nazi Germany following eugenics had the world’s most technically advanced death camps. So, I think that has woken up a lot of people to the sense that it’s not a simple “science good, religion bad.” There’s one other thing though: too many people learn science until they’re about 15 years old, and for them, science is getting the answers in the back of the book. Science is a big book of answers. And too many people really learn religion only until they’re about 15 years old, and religion is memorizing Bible quotes or getting the answers to the catechism. Neither science nor religion are big books of answers. If the books of anything, they’re books of questions. And when you understand that science doesn’t have all the answers, when you understand that we’ll never understand theology completely, we’ll never understand God, who is beyond our understanding, then you realize that in the gray areas where we don’t understand the differences, that’s where the excitement is.
Can you tell us about the recent discovery of the last recorded interview with George Lemaitre and its significance?
My understanding is the interview was done by Dutch television, and uh, maybe a year or two before his death. So, this would have been the early 1960’s. As I’ve mentioned, there was this meeting in the late 1920’s at the Vatican at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences where Hoyle and Lemaitre first met, and the issue was the nature of the universe and how it is evolving in time.
Hoyle was of the idea that goes back to Copernicus, that the universe is the same everywhere and at every time, the laws of physics don’t change. The you know, the laws of physics that are true in one part of the universe are true in a different part of the universe that are true in one time or true at a different time. And there was both this philosophical comfort of an infinite universe that was always the same, because then you didn’t have to worry about where it came from, but also (which, of course, is not true), you still do have to worry about where it came from. But also, this was a conversation I once had with Sir Martin Reese, the Royal astronomer in Britain, that he wanted to be comfortable in knowing that whatever he was studying would be valid everywhere and every when.
The trouble is that, first of all, around a fellow named Slipher in Flagstaff discovered that galaxies and clusters of galaxies had their spectra red-shifted, so that lines that you thought would be at one frequency or it’s actually a slightly shift to the red of where they ought to be. And all clusters of galaxies were shifted as if they were moving away from us. It was a while before Hubble was able to put together the idea that there was a correlation between where they were in space and how fast they were moving. Slipher just noticed that they were moving, so you’ve got a universe that’s expanding. Then people were discovering that stars had different chemical compositions where you would expect that the old stars that had time to make chemicals would have more metals in them, and that the young stars that were freshly made out of hydrogen would you know be poor in metals. But it’s exactly the opposite. That the oldest stars look to be significantly different, in metal-poor, and it’s the younger stars that look to be a new generation of stars that were rich in metal, implying that the universe was changing.
Lemaitre and Hoyle met in each with their own theory. Lemaitre, back in the 1920’s, had suggested mathematically (he was a great mathematician) that the universe itself was actually expanding. And if this were the case, then the galaxy clusters farther away would be moving faster than the ones closer in. This was confirmed by Hubble about a year after Lemaitre proposed it, and that’s why it’s now called the Hubble imager law. The other thing was that if this is true, then there ought to be a time in the past when the universe was very dense, and everything was all at one point. And he called this the cosmic seed.
Fred Hoyle didn’t like this because it meant that there was a time that was different, where physics was different in the past than it is now. And he made fun of it by calling it you know, “the Big Bang Theory”. He still had to deal with the fact that the universe was expanding, and that you had new stars being formed. So, he proposed that there would be atoms of hydrogen spontaneously occurring in the space as between the galaxy clusters and new stars would constantly be forming out of this. So, that at any time it would look just like it looks now, but you know, we can see things extending because there’s new evidence.
Surprisingly, there are conservative aspects to Lemaitre’s approach to science. Didn’t he correct the Pope, who was perhaps over-enthusiastic about connecting the Big Bang to religion?
That’s true. There is a temptation, always, it’s called concordism, to try to take what we’ve learned now and say, “Oh, it was in the Bible all along.” Um, that’s bad theology. We know that doesn’t work, uh, because you know if you can bring the Bible into perfect congruence with science, it’s going to be out of congruence by 3023… we hope, because we hope that science will continue. Lemaître himself started out as a young man with this idea but recognized that it doesn’t work, that it’s bad theology.
And there’s three stages here that I want to bring up. First of all, the idea that the science that Lemaître was coming up with was radical, and was more in keeping with a godless universe. Lemaître, in this interview that is available online, and now our guys have translated, points out that the idea of mystically creating hydrogen’s atoms out of nothing is far less scientific than the idea of a universe that operates under laws of physics, which just happened to be more complicated than we thought they were, that give us a big bang. Because really, the laws of physics of the big bang are the same laws of physics that we are working under, just under different boundary conditions.
The second was the point that Lemaître wanted to make with the Pope. Just because the current science of the day says that there is a beginning, this is neither a confirmation nor a denial of creation in Genesis. Pope Francis, in “Laudato Si,” his encyclical about the environment and about science, makes the nice point that there’s a difference between creation and nature. This is sometimes a subtle point. The beginning of the universe at the big bang, billion years ago, as best we understand it now, is not the same thing as the creation of the universe in Genesis. How do we know that? Because the creation of the big bang is still according to the laws of nature. Where do the laws of nature come from? Who created the laws of nature? It occurs in a space-time that includes space and time. Where did space come from? Where did time come from? Why is there something instead of nothing, as Leibnitz once asked? Why is there an is and that’s what the creation of Genesis is about. You know, the opening words in the beginning, “God said.” Well, God’s already there before there’s a universe. If you’re positing God as the creator of the universe, you’re positing God as the one who gives us the laws of physics that make a big bang possible.
And the third point of course is, in a thousand years, we hope, if science progresses, the questions that scientists will be asking about the origin of the universe will be so different from even the questions we’re asking now that this sort of debate is going to look rather odd. But I’ll add one final kicker. A lot of people do confuse those two ideas of creation. Stephen Hawking was one. He worked out a way where he could spontaneously create the big bang as a fluctuation in space time. And he points out, a bend in the space-time continuum is what we call gravity. And therefore, if you wait long enough, there would spontaneously be a fluctuation in the space-time continuum that would look like a big bang.
Where can people learn more about your activity?
We’ve got a website of course, who doesn’t? It’s called “Vatican Observatory,” all one word, “dot org.” If you go there, you will find not only discussions of topics like this, but a large online resource of articles and videos organized by various questions on the larger topic of faith and reason, faith and science. So, I think people have a fun time exploring that, vaticanobservatory.org.