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Brother Guy Consolmagno holds a meteorite at Castel Gandolfo, 2007. Photo by Annette Schreye
Brother Guy Consolmagno holds a meteorite at Castel Gandolfo, 2007. Photo by Annette Schreye

Haverford Conversation: The Cosmic 'Why'

 

The heavens—both the celestial and spiritual kind—are Brother Guy Consolmagno’s forte. An astronomer at the Vatican Observatory since 1993, Consolmagno curates the Vatican’s extensive meteorite collection and studies connections between meteorites and asteroids, as well as the evolution of small bodies in the solar system. He is the author of numerous scholarly publications and books, and serves on the governing boards of several astronomical societies.

Consolmagno visited Haverford in April to give a talk called “The Cosmic ‘Why’”.   Prior to the visit, Haverford spoke with Consolmagno about his research, his interest in astronomy, and what he sees as the connection between religion and science.

Haverford College: What inspired you to pursue astronomy as a career? How did you end up at the Vatican?

Guy Consolmagno: I was a Sputnik-era baby boomer; I started kindergarten the year Sputnik was launched, and the summer before I became a high school senior, men landed on the Moon. How could I not be space-crazy? In addition, we spent our summers under dark skies by the shores of Lake Huron where my dad taught me the constellations; he was a navigator in B-17s during World War Two.

I decided to study at MIT because a friend was going there, and they had a large science fiction library; I chose “Earth and Planetary Science” as a major thinking ‘planets’ meant astronomy when in fact it was really geology. So by accident I wound up studying the geology of planets. Some 20 years and several degrees later, I decided to enter the Jesuits in part hoping to teach at a Jesuit university like St. Joe’s or Boston College; instead, the director of the Vatican Observatory noticed my degree in planetary sciences and without my knowledge asked that I be assigned there. The observatory had a large meteorite collection; I had a background in meteoritics; and the people who assigned me knew neither of those things.

HC: What are some of the highlights of the Vatican’s meteorite collection?

GC: There are some lovely samples in the collection, including a 20-pound etched slab of the iron meteorite called Sacramento Mountains and several decent-sized pieces of Martian meteorites. But what really makes the collection special is the breadth of samples. It is based on the private collection of a 19th century French nobleman whose widow gave the samples to the Vatican, and as such it has an example of virtually every kind of meteorite.

HC: What’s the focus of your research?

GC: With such a broad collection, I realized that the best thing to do scientifically would be to make non-destructive survey measurements of physical properties like density and porosity or thermal and magnetic properties. Our density measurements are now the standards used by researchers around the world.

By comparing the density of our meteorites with the density of asteroids, as measured by spacecraft for example, we have been able to show that most ordinary stony meteorites come from asteroids that are 20 percent less dense than the meteorites: bodies riddled with extensive fractures. More startlingly, we have shown that the darker asteroids in the outer asteroid belt, thought to be the source of the rarer carbonaceous chondrites (meteorites rich in water, carbon and oxygen) may be 50 percent empty space: They are probably piles of rubble. This has revolutionized our ideas of how asteroids (and meteorites) formed and how these bodies have physically evolved over the age of the solar system.

In addition to the asteroid work, I am also collaborating with astronomers using the Vatican’s 1.8 meter Advanced Technology Telescope in southern Arizona to characterize the colors and shapes of bodies in the ring of material lying beyond Neptune. I have also gotten involved in the “politics” of astronomy, serving on a number of governing bodies for organizations like the Meteoritical Society, the American Astronomical Society, and the International Astronomical Union. Yes, I was involved in the decision to give Pluto and bodies like it the new classification of “dwarf planet.”

HC: In your talk, you’ll discuss the “symbiotic relationship between religion and science.” How do you refute the notion that the Catholic Church has an antithetical stance towards science?

GC: Well the fact that I exist, along with another dozen Jesuit astronomers like me at the Vatican Observatory, doing cutting-edge science funded by the Church, ought to be refutation enough that somehow the Church is anti-science. But, in fact, the whole history of science depends on active support from religion. Science dates from the original medieval universities, founded by the church. The teachers there, like Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon, were the first scientists. The Church has supported the world-wide network of observatories run by the Jesuits ever since the 17th century—Jesuit missionaries discovered the first double stars in the southern hemisphere, and set up the first seismic networks to measure earthquakes and map the interior of the earth. And the involvement of religiously-motivated scientists has continued into modern times, with astronomer priests like Georges Lemaitre, who first proposed the Big Bang theory.

To me, the most important mission of the Vatican Observatory is to remind religious people that science is good, that studying the universe is a way of getting to know its Creator.

Interview conducted by Brenna McBride.

The Strawbridge Observatory at Haverford College houses 12-inch and 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes which are actively used by students in Haverford astronomy classes.

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