A Jesuit's guide to the galaxy

Brother Astronomer
April 21, 2000

The Jesuits are an institutional refutation of the theses that science and religion have nothing to say to, or are at war with, each other. A religious order with an unusually long and rigorous novitiate that promotes retreats based on the imaginative method of founder St Ignatius Loyola, the Society of Jesus has, in its 450-year existence, been a hive of intellectual activity, not least in the natural sciences.

The society is responsible for running the Vatican observatory, a scientific institution of international repute. In addition to its small observatory at Castel Gandolfo, the pope's summer residence where the "seeing" is no longer very good, the observatory also works with a large telescope in Arizona. Summer schools on astrophysical subjects are regularly held at Castel Gandolfo, to which students from all over the world, and from all religions or none, are welcomed (and paid for) by the Jesuits.

In the minds of many, the 17th-century Jesuits are sinister figures who worked against Galileo. In that confusing and contentious time - as contentious scientifically as it was religiously - the right was never wholly on one side. Galileo certainly gave as good as he got in the exchange of criticism and invective. With hindsight, we can see that the Jesuits were on the losing side in espousing Tycho Brahe's compromise system, a half-way house between Ptolemy and Copernicus. But Horatio Grassi, their leading mathematician in Rome, had the better of the argument with Galileo about the nature of comets, believing them to be luminous bodies beyond the Moon and not the optical effect of tenuous terrestrial vapours as his opponent had suggested.

Guy Consolmagno is an American Jesuit lay brother. He had a secular career as a planetary scientist before joining the order. He is now the curator of the extensive collection of meteorites held at Castel Gandolfo after a bequest to the society by a 19th-century French marquis.

His book is a cheerful ramble through a variety of topics and experiences relating to his life in science and in religion. Consolmagno's thoughts on the nature of science and its relationship with religion will not surprise those who have thought about such matters from the point of view of Christian belief.

Like many of us, he considers the question of truth to be paramount for both science and for religion. He sees this common truthful quest as providing the basis for friendly relations, though obviously the two disciplines are concerned with different levels of inquiry into human experience.

As is the case with many physical scientists, Consolmagno is profoundly impressed by the wonderful order of the universe, as a religious man seeing the "mind of God" behind the deep patterning of the cosmos. The most interesting chapter is the one in which he appeals to the writings of St Athanasius in the 4th century and John Scotus Eriugena in the 9th century. They stress the value of the physical world as a manifestation of the work of the divine Logos.

Much of the rest of the book is a chirpy account of the author's experiences, including the path that eventually led him to his vocation to the religious life. We learn of the rigours of a tough expedition to Antarctica to gather more meteorites.

It all makes for a lively and not too demanding read, at the end of which one has come to know as much about the geochemistry of meteorites as any non-specialist might care to take on board.

Revd John Polkinghorne was formerly president, Queen's College, Cambridge.

Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist

Author - Guy Consolmagno
ISBN - 0 07 135428 X
Publisher - McGraw-Hill
Price - £15.99
Pages - 256

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