Vatican astronomer speaks at UMD on communicating science, religion in changing times
Brother Guy Consolmango presented at the Sieur du Lhut Creativity Conference, which invites speakers from different viewpoints to address a topic.
DULUTH — Science and religion have gone hand in hand for Brother Guy Consolmango. He grew up attending a Jesuit high school while reading science fiction books under the covers at night.
"I was a Sputnik kid," Consolmango said. "I was in kindergarten when the satellite first went up and I was in high school when the first people landed on the moon."
But how does a space-race-obsessed science fiction fan growing up in northern Michigan become the director of the Vatican Observatory? And how can faith and science work together?
You have to get them to unlearn what we have learned, in the words of Yoda.
Consolmango answered both of those questions in a conversation with the News Tribune as he prepared to speak at the Sieur du Lhut Creativity Conference at the University of Minnesota Duluth on Wednesday. The conference invites speakers from different viewpoints to campus to address a single topic. Consolmango and Jad Abumrad, creator of the "Radiolab" podcast, spoke about communicating science in changing times.
"I wanted to share my own experience of talking about faith and science to people who already have a lot of preconceptions. It's a challenge, but for that reason, it's also fun, because challenges are fun," Consolmango said. "Any teacher will tell you that the hardest thing to teach a student is a topic that they think they already know because they're not going to hear it. They're going to fit it into the system they've already developed. You have to get them to unlearn what we have learned, in the words of Yoda."
Consolmango learned and unlearned many things in his path to director of the Vatican Observatory. He originally studied planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in part "because they had a great science fiction collection" in their library. He completed his doctorate in planetary science at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and worked in research until he was 30.
"And then I thought, what good is astronomy when people are starving in the world? So I joined the Peace Corps," Consolmango said. "And I discovered that people, even in the most remote parts of rural Kenya, wanted to look through my telescope and hear about the NASA missions. That told me the answer: This is what feeds our souls. This is what makes us more than well-fed cows. We have a duty to feed curiosity among people."
Taking this duty seriously, Consolmango then moved to teaching astronomy at a college in Pennsylvania, but still found himself wanting more. He knew he "didn't have the vocation to be a priest," but he knew Jesuits have brothers and universities across the U.S. where he could teach.
"I thought this was ideal. I forgot about the vow of obedience," Consolmango said. "That's the hard one. Poverty I was used to because I'd been a grad student. Chastity I was used to because grad student. But obedience?"
One day, out of the blue, Consolmango received a letter instructing him that he was being transferred to the Vatican Observatory. Within 15-20 years, he found himself running it and serving as president of its foundation.
"So the three things I thought I could avoid — dealing with money, talking to people and running administration — God had other plans. I can hear him laughing from here," Consolmango said. "But the fact is, I'm enjoying all of it. I love being a director and bringing resources to the other dozen astronomers in the observatory and making sure they can do the science they need to do."
An aspect of his work he appreciates most is that the brothers at the observatory don't have to keep reapplying for three-year grants to keep their research programs running.
Why we do science is because we get great joy in understanding a little corner of nature. And for me, that joy is evidence of the presence of God.
"For example, back when NASA was paying my bills, I realized I needed data on the properties of meteorites that had never been measured," Consolmango said. "Now at the Vatican Observatory, we have a collection of 1,000 meteorites, a little bit of every type, ideal for making the measurements we want to make. I took 15 years to do a really systematic measurement of the kinds of properties we were looking at. That wouldn't have happened otherwise."
He said that this has also shaped the kinds of science he does and his measurements for success.
"We're never going to get a Nobel Prize. It's not going to make you famous. That's not why we do it," Consolmango said. "Why we do science is because we get great joy in understanding a little corner of nature. And for me, that joy is evidence of the presence of God."
Consolmango said one area where he sees crossover between religion and science is in communication and community.
"One of the funny things that sometimes people forget about science is that it's done as a group and I find a parallel there with religion," Consolmango said. "You can be very spiritual and encounter God through prayer, but the community of other people in a church is what makes that experience so much richer. You need that community in science as well. No one person could build a rocket to go to the moon."
He continued that both science and faith are about searching for more and more questions.
"At the end of the day we're doing religion because we want to love God and we're doing science because we love the natural world. And love means continuing to learn new things," Consolmango said. "Science is not a closed book of facts; it's an open book of questions. It's like a crossword puzzle book. When you finish every puzzle, you throw the book away because it's not the answers that matter — it was the fun of figuring out the answers."