Across the Universe: Traveling Light
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A slightly different version of this column first appeared in The Tablet in January, 2009

Last year [2008] was a leap year: 366 days. [So is 2016, by the way.] According to my calendar, I spent 166 of them at home. That’s counting two homes, in fact: my room in Castel Gandolfo at the Vatican Observatory headquarters, and another in Tucson where we have our telescope.

Two hundred days last year I spent on the road; and that was not unusual. For more than ten years [nearly 20 now!] I have been living at least 50% of my life out of a suitcase. Monks may take a vow of “stability” to stay in their monastery, but a Jesuit’s vocation, according to our founder St. Ignatius, is to travel.

So, I’m often asked, when do I ever get my work done? Of course, part of my work is why I travel. The Vatican Observatory was founded so that the world could see the Church supporting science. Being seen is the main reason I am away from home so much. But I’m supposed to be seen doing science; when do I do that?

In a larger sense, of course, when you are an astronomer you are never far from home. I haven’t really had a place that felt like “home” since I went off to university and my parents packed up and retired to Florida. But from Africa to Antarctica, my quickest cure for homesickness has been to look at the familiar sky. It’s all the same familiar universe, and this is the same planet Earth.

The photographs here are from the 2007 school, courtesy of Tijl Kindt, one of the VOSS students.

The photograph is from our 2007 summer school, courtesy of Tijl Kindt, one of the VOSS students. Students come from many different cultures, religions, and countries, all living under the same skies.

Indeed, astronomy is a common meeting place for all people. Soho and Soweto share the same universe. The stars are ours, regardless of how, where, or when we live. The students of Winchester College, where I spoke [in 2009], have the same curiosity as the students I taught in Kenya thirty five years ago.

You could see that commonality during the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), which was celebrated in 2009 to honor the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first telescope. Attending the opening ceremonies at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, our Roman collars sat alongside the scarfs of young Muslim women astronomers. “What are you doing here?” one student challenged me. “Because astronomy is for everyone,” was my answer.

A Dawkins can insist that somehow only atheists do science (with a typical ignorance of history – why do they call data sorting, “clerical” work?) But Catholics and Muslims want to look at the stars, too. Just try to stop us!

All of which, of course, is avoiding the original question. When do I actually get my work done?

Heading to that opening ceremony… I got up early in the morning at the headmaster’s house after my Winchester talk, to plot data points on my laptop. I exchanged ideas via e-mail using the wi-fi while waiting for the Eurostar at St. Pancras, and I read over a colleague’s papers while going through the chunnel. I spent a rainy Sunday in Paris re-writing a report.

And the ideas come, of their own volition, at any time… listening to music; reading science fiction; during Mass. They never stop. Am I praying while I work, or working while I pray?

If everywhere is my home, everywhere is also my office. Thank God, the office is beautiful. And the work is joy.

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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