Across the Universe: Limits to Understanding

First published in The Tablet in February, 2008

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a prestigious umbrella group of American scientists, convened this past weekend in Boston. At the same time, in a hotel on the other side of town, a few hundred science fiction fans were gathered to meet their friends and talk about their favorite writers. I sat on science-and-religion panels at both conventions.

The AAAS panel was concerned about “Communicating Science in a Religious America.” In spite of several legal victories by the scientific community defending the teaching of evolution in public schools, the “Intelligent Design” movement in America is still winning the public relations wars. Barely half of polled adults there say they believe in evolution, the lowest numbers of any industrialized nation. Though no one on the panel put it so crudely, the general tenor of the comments could be summarized as: “why are they so stupid, and how can we pound the truth into their heads?”

The panelists agreed that assuming “if only they knew what I know, they would agree with me,” is a failing strategy. And we also agreed that the militant evangelical atheists, Dawkins and his ilk, are only making the situation worse. But most of the discussion revolved around tactics of framing the issue, as if science could win the argument by choosing the right soundbites. Should we try to recover a sense of hope or a sense of design (if not intelligent) in nature? Does revealing ones’ own religious stance helped or hurt the discussion? Only one person suggested that we scientists might actually learn something from listening as well as talking; and that wise sage (me) didn’t do a particularly good job of getting his point across.

By contrast, the discussion at the science fiction convention was both more limited, and more revealing. Michael Flynn’s recent novel Eifelheim explored what might have happened if the first contact between humans and aliens had actually occurred during the high middle ages. In the process of writing it, he wound up researching the actual relationships between science and religion during that time. At the SF convention, he was joined John Farrell (author of a new book about Fr. George Lemaitre, the inventor of the Big Bang theory) and me on a panel about the rise of science in the middle ages.

To the general public, the history of the period from Rome to the Renaissance is as poorly known as the theory of evolution. But fantasy fans know plenty of the details, albeit in a muddled and unrealistic melange – “the middle ages the way they should have been,” to quote the motto of the medieval recreation society that quite candidly calls itself the Society for Creative Anachronism. Thus we had an audience already primed and eager to hear speculations based on real history. Could the Islamic world have had a Thomas Aquinas? What if the plague hadn’t delayed the scientific revolution, budding at the time of Oresme and Buriden, by 300 years?

The AAAS audience was undoubtedly more high-powered, and that panel more professional in their presentations. The SF panelists, by contrast, tended to ramble off topic; writers are not always the best public speakers. But on the whole, I found the science fiction convention to be a far more fulfilling experience: the participants more enthusiastic, the audience more engaged. By contrast, the AAAS panel and audience were afraid to admit that, fundamentally, we haven’t a clue about how to communicate science to religious America. We were afraid to confess our ignorance.

It’s not only more fruitful to recognize our shortcomings; it is also more fun. There’s a great relief in not pretending to be perfect. Accepting that one is a sinner can actually make Lent, paradoxically enough, the most joyful of seasons.

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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Across the Universe: Limits to Understanding — 2 Comments

  1. Great post! As I read, I am reminded of a time before seminary when I became enchanted with Intelligent Design under the rubric of, “this is the ‘science’ that includes God.” After some reading, study, and intellectual blushing, I realized it wasn’t science, but a deistic, philosophical construct with a Christian apologetic twist. Further, I blushed even more when I understood the God of the gaps issue and how ID uses what is presumed to be unexplainable parts of nature as proof for God (side note – yes I blush easy).

    This leads my second thought that is a question, “Why did I give up on evolution so easily?” I think part of it was maturity – what college student doesn’t have a moment when they think they know better than their teacher… One book that refutes everything thier teacher just taught them is gold to the disgruntled. Second, I felt my faith was pushed out of the narrative in the way evolution was taught to me – you Christians in the room who believe God created everything, I’m going to teach how things really came to be. My interior response – gentlemen, start your engines!!! In short, my early rejection of evolution had nothing to do with the Bible or science, but was more of a reaction to the egotism that can happen in both realms – we have all the answers and if you disagree with us your dumb as a bag of hammers! Okay, maybe that was a little to strong. The point being, humility does need to drive the discussion – not the cable news shouting match.

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