Across the Universe: Science as Story

Originally published in The Tablet in March, 2007.

The late Stephen Jay Gould, Harvard biologist and popular science writer, once described the roles of science and religion as “nonoverlapping magisteria” – they should not be in conflict because they never come in contact. I could see his point; as cases from Galileo to Dawkins have shown, authority in one field rarely translates into authority in the other.


But as those same cases also demonstrate, science and religion do overlap all the time in at least one locus: in the human being, who chooses how to live in a world that has both science and religion. Indeed, the same is true of all the worlds each of us live in: our politics, school, favorite music, social background, sports teams, family. We all have our homes in each of those fields.

I felt caught up in such a web earlier this month, as a friend of mine (an Indian, from India) at the University of Wisconsin invited me to an Indian (Native American) reservation in northern Wisconsin, to join with other invited space scientists and Native Elders in presenting science and creation stories.

The whole concept of mingling “science” with “storytelling” would have had an earlier generation of scientists foaming with rage. Once, philosophers of science insisted that our work had a truth value superior to any other form of human knowledge because it was based on the pure reason of mathematics. They called themselves “logical positivists.” But ultimately their greatest accomplishment was to show that science itself was illogical: just because the light comes on when you flip the switch a hundred times in a row, doesn’t prove that it will work the hundred and first time. Science has to assume, without justification, that a repeated pattern is evidence of a deeper law, not just a string of coincidences. But sometimes it’s wrong.

A later generation of philosophers have pointed out how strongly science has been shaped by accidents of history and the personalities of  who was doing the science. It really is a story, one that can be told around a campfire… or over a beer at a conference, late into the evening after the sessions are over.

Even the mathematics we use is a form of poetry: Newton’s equation for gravity provides a beautiful metaphor for the path of a falling rock. Like good poetry, it allows our human minds to see things in a new and deeper way. And it is judged by its elegance of form as well as its content of truth.

We choose the stories we tell for the truth we need to convey, and adapt those stories to the audience we’re speaking to. It’s the same truth, the same story teller, but a new story every time we tell it. That’s why we never tire of seeing Shakespeare performed; indeed, every performance, even of the same production by the same cast, is a new experience.

Thus we have the details of the solar nebula, the cloud of gas and dust from which the planets formed, described in very different ways by astrophysicists observing distant nebulae, and meteoriticists looking at rocks from the nebula that made our solar system.Thus we have two creation stories in Genesis in Chapters 1 and 2, which differ in the sorts of details that would drive literalists nuts if they actually were paying attention. Thus we have creation stories from other, non-European cultures, that still have a power to help us place ourselves in the universe. Someday we may even be able to trade creation stories with ETs.

To travel to this storytelling with Native American elders, I’ll be flying to a remote wilderness area in northern Wisconsin, far from the paths where I normally work. Oddly enough, though, a forty-five minute drive from there will bring me to my brother's house in Michigan. Some locations are closer to home than you might think.

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: Science as Story — 2 Comments

  1. With this mention of the “logical positivists” and Shakespeare I remembered the videos I saw from the last lecture series “Life in the Universe”, held at the University of Arizona. There, in one or two lectures, it was mentioned or shown the importance of technology within the exponential growth in the human intelligence evolution, or so I understood. With the graphs presented, I noticed that it was only taken into account the technology and science to indicate this amazing exponential growth, but not other aspects of human development, like arts, for example. So I am wondering if we can say that we have grown exponentially also in poetry and dramatic arts from the time of Shakespeare until today. And what about music and the storytelling art? I imagine that that may be so, probably in the sense that we are more opened to value the art expressions from other cultures, but I am not sure. How can we still think in that exponential growth driven just or mainly by technology without falling in some kind of that logical positivism?

  2. Wonderful comment. Yes, we only seem to be able to quantify that which is quantifiable, which is rarely that which is most important!

    I was also taken, in that video, in how short a time before we came to our most recent “plateau” and how reasonable it seemed that there could well be a stage of “life” behind where we are; perhaps that’s why we can’t recognize life elsewhere, yet. And yet, here we are.

    The series of videos we’re talking about can be reached here:

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