Across the Universe: All of the Above
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in August, 2005

[During a weekend in August, 2005] while over a million young people were gathered in Germany to celebrate World Youth Day with the Pope, a hundred and thirty kids from Detroit were taking part in a parallel camp-out organized by the Archdiocese on the grounds of a small farm in the Thumb of Michigan.

Croswell, Michigan... in the Thumb, where I grew up and pondered a life of astronomy or a life of journalism

Croswell, Michigan... in the Thumb, where I grew up and pondered a life of astronomy or a life of journalism

(The lower peninsula of my home state, Michigan, is shaped like a mitten, and I grew up on the peninsula jutting into Lake Huron that makes up the mitten’s thumb. Readers of a certain age may remember a British pop band who found a town at the Thumb’s base by sticking a pin into a map and thereby called themselves the Bay City Rollers.)

“Turn left onto a dirt road, and look for a pond and a red barn,” read my directions. Every barn in Michigan is red, and nearly every farm has a pond. But I really didn’t need the directions. I had lived and worked in this area thirty five years ago, during my summer breaks from MIT, while trying to choose between a career in journalism or one in science.

I came this evening expecting to give a little talk about the Star of Bethlehem and maybe point out a few constellations once the sun had set. When I arrived, I learned from the label on my name-tag that I was to be the Keynote Speaker. “You’ll be talking at nine o’clock,” I was told. That gave me 90 minutes to gather my thoughts.

The local astronomy clubs had come out in force, too, setting up a number of beautiful small telescopes designed to entice me, and distract my attention from the looming talk. While the teens were out in the woods, hearing talks about God and Nature, I chatted with the local organizers and admired the telescopes.

I had forgotten, in the intervening 35 years, how beautiful this part of the world looked. The low rolling hills, the swaying willow trees and pine woods, and the fading sunset on puffy cumulus filling the sky this warm, humid summer evening, brought me back to my youth.

What would today’s kids be wanting to hear from me?

As darkness fell, the last stragglers gathered in the light of a bonfire as I climbed onto a farm-trailer-turned-stage. I spoke a little about the Vatican Observatory, and our work studying a universe named Good by its Creator, made sacred by His Incarnation. I spoke about the Star of Bethlehem, and astrology, and how God finds us even in our foolishness. I spoke about how astronomy and religion both pull us out of our daily lives but stay present with us no matter where we find ourselves.

The kids, in their turn, had their questions: How big is the universe? Why didn’t the Jewish scholars notice the Star of Bethlehem? Where was the best place I ever saw the stars? Is that new-found object, bigger than Pluto, a new planet?

Simple, profound, and mostly unanswerable, they were the questions of minds full of life, of possibilities, of uncertainties. They were working out for themselves the same questions I had faced in this place: do I become an astronomer, or a writer? A religious, or a layperson? Head in the clouds (alas, growing thicker as the evening went on) or feet on the ground?

A scientific experiment or theory that’s never written up and published is worse than the tree in the forest that no one hears fall. We scientists must share what we do with our peers. More, we must share it with the folks back home who supported us when we were growing up nerdly, and who now pay the taxes that pay our bills. Scientist, journalist, Jesuit, layman? It is never either/or. It is all of the above.

Br. Guy Consolmagno

About Br. Guy Consolmagno

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director of the the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and masters' degrees from MIT, and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona; he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989.

At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, observing Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican's 1.8 meter telescope in Arizona, and applying his measure of meteorite physical properties to understanding asteroid origins and structure. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of a number of popular books including Turn Left at Orion (with Dan Davis), and most recently Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? (with Father Paul Mueller, SJ). He also has hosted science programs for BBC Radio 4, been interviewed in numerous documentary films, appeared on The Colbert Report, and for more than ten years he has written a monthly science column for the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Dr. Consolmagno's work has taken him to every continent on Earth; for example, in 1996 he spent six weeks collecting meteorites with a NASA team on the blue ice regions of East Antarctica. He has served on the governing boards of the Meteoritical Society; the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (of which he was chair in 2006-2007); and IAU Commission 16 (Planets and Satellites). In 2000, the small bodies nomenclature committee of the IAU named an asteroid, 4597 Consolmagno, in recognition of his work. In 2014 he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences.

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Comments

Across the Universe: All of the Above — 2 Comments

  1. Hello Brother Guy. Here goes my first post on the site:)

    I didn’t know that you had considered a career in journalism, although it makes perfect sense given your gift for communication and outreach. It makes me feel better for being “just the writer”- no background or particular gift in science but a love and appreciation for it all the same. I have often found a rather peculiar irony that I am not “wired” to understand something that I love but I trust that there is a reason for it:)

    I enjoyed your rendering of your evening with the teenagers and hearing about their questions. As you say, it is important to keep asking the questions and just as important – ( and perhaps more so ) to awaken the wonder. I see wonder in the eyes of my 5 year old granddaughter every time I show her something in the night sky or tell her about the other planets in our solar system and how someday we will be able to go there. ( she wants to go to Mars.. ) And I want to keep that wonder alive and make sure that it doesn’t get lost in the world of the IPad, Frozen or the dreaded Barbie, not that there is anything wrong with any of those things. But wonder and true awe are in short supply in today’s fast paced world and I worry that we will lose our connection with nature and the natural rhythms of our world.

    You are so right that the scientists and the researchers and the explorers need to share their work with the every day people and be careful to not continuously preach to the choir so to speak. My column on space exploration has only a small audience in my home town but these are are exciting times of discovery and as I tell readers about the Dawn and New Horizons mission ( Pluto has a giant heart! ), the Kepler Mission discoveries, possible organic life on Europa and so much more, I am often amazed by people who stop me on the street and comment on how much they appreciate hearing about these things—often starting out with..” I didn’t know that..” These are the folks who are not reading Sky News, Astronomy Today or other science magazines and I am thrilled that they are taking an interest because of something that they read in my small column.

    You had said that it is important to start the conversation. It seems that we are moving closer to ever more exciting discoveries and I think it is inevitable that we will find “life” in my lifetime, God willing. Of course, life is a broad term and that will no doubt open up another discussion but when we do, it will have profound societal implications. For some of us, finding out we are alone in the Universe will be consistent with our spiritual beliefs—didn’t one of the Popes say–“who are we to limit God’s creation?”— and something we can easily integrate into our world view, but for others–it will be a direct contradiction of their doctrine and it will most certainly be disruptive, perhaps even frightening. Which is why I think that it is so important to start a dialogue at the grass roots level now.

    Dr. Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner just announced the 100 million dollar “Breakthrough Listen” project which will generate even more interest in this topic, judging by the amount of media coverage. For many people outside of the scientific field (I know because I hear the comments from people ) this conjures up visions of looking for the proverbial “little green men” and can feed on the feeling of many, and not just the conspiracy theorists, they “they” have already been in touch with us. So the importance of meaningful, responsible and informed dialogue on this topic seems to be more important than ever. For the record, I am personally very excited about this project and feel that it is really great news—I’m just concerned about folks who may take it out of context.

    So let’s keep talking. As you can see by the length of this post, I have no problem with that ( 🙂 ) and conclude with a sincere apology for the length of this post.

    Maureen Nadin

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