Across the Universe: Heavenly Visitors
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This column first appeared in The Tablet in December, 2006.

The Tagish Lake meteorite fell in northern Canada during the winter; pieces are still kept, as they were recovered, frozen in ice, at the University of Alberta

The reporter from the BBC was surprised that I wasn’t shocked: Could the seeds of life have come to Earth from outer space?

He was interviewing me about a new discovery published this past month [2006] in Science. In a meteorite retrieved from a frozen lake in northern Canada, researchers found chemical compounds that could be the precursors of life in small round voids that could have served as the templates for early cells. Meteorites are my business, and the scientists cited are colleagues and friends of mine, but even so I couldn’t understand why a BBC reporter in London was trying to interview me. The data are new and intriguing, yes, but it’s hardly a new idea. For more than 150 years, meteorites have been known to contain organic chemicals.

“But doesn’t the stuff of life coming to us from off the Earth contradict the Church’s teaching that only Earth is the centre of life?” asked the innocent reporter. Apparently he thought we Catholics were still clinging to a medieval, Earth-centered cosmology.

Amazed by the number of fallacies embedded in his question, I was struck in particular by his common misconception that the medieval Church, in supporting Aristotle’s geocentric universe, did so in order to place humanity at the Centre of the Universe.  In fact, as C. S. Lewis describes lucidly in The Discarded Image, the medieval model had humanity not at the centre, but at the bottom of the universe: only one step above hell, with an unbridgeable gap between us and the celestial spheres.

The Humanists of the Enlightenment elevated Earth and its residents to a status of “just as good as any other planet.” But in fact, they were far more anthropocentric than the medievals; for example, they rejected any possibility of angels or other higher beings. They adopted as their cosmological principle the assumption of uniformitarianism, that all places and all times in the universe are equally unremarkable. This principle of uniform blandness so denied any possibility of the “remarkable” in nature, that they even disbelieved the notion that meteorites could fall from space and land on Earth. Thomas Jefferson, for one, famously attributed reports of meteorite falls to “the exuberant imagination of a Frenchman.”

It is only in our lifetime that we have truly understood how much the rest of space does impinge on planet Earth. Sunspots affect climate, and solar storms can cause electrical surges and blackouts. Ancient round depressions on Earth are evidence of meteorite impacts; a crashing comet caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, and we recognize the real possibility of future catastrophic impacts.

The Earth itself was accreted from meteorites at its birth; more recently, iron meteorites provided the Iron Age with its first working material. In this context we happily accept that the chemicals of life -- maybe even living spores themselves -- could also have originated off-planet and arrived via meteorite. (My own work shows that cracks in meteorites are just the right size to contain many common microbes.)

We’ve advanced past both medieval and Enlightenment conceptions. Space is no longer an alien place; we’ve been there, ourselves. We know that the cloudy sky over our heads is not an impenetrable barrier sealing us off from the rest of the universe.

But even this is no new idea. It can be found, foreshadowed in every ancient pagan tale of the Avatar, brought to reality in a lowly manger.

This Christmas season, we celebrate the arrival on Earth of a different heavenly visitor, just as real as any meteorite but far more shattering. By such arrivals, our own narrow world view is disrupted and we are forced to recognize a universe bigger than our mundane lives. Both natural science and homely religion inform us: the remarkable does occur.

This electric comet in Rocca di Papa can be easily seen across Lake Albano in Castel Gandolfo every Christmas. (from www.trekearth.com)

This electric comet in Rocca di Papa can be easily seen across Lake Albano in Castel Gandolfo every Christmas. (from www.trekearth.com)

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: Heavenly Visitors — 1 Comment

  1. I am BLOWN AWAY by the fact that organic molecules, including glycine, have been found in meteorites, comet dust, and in the interstellar medium. The organic precursors to life suffuse the very clouds that stars and their planets condense out of; They did not need to develop on Earth – They were (and are) everywhere to begin with!

    I mention this during my Asteroids lecture when I talk about the solar system’s formation.

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