Across the Universe: Words that Change Reality

My columns for The Tablet often act as a diary of sorts, recording important events in science or in my own life. Such is this column, which first ran in September, 2006.

The meteorite, ALH54001, that started the whole flurry of looking for life on Mars

The meteorite, ALH84001, that started a whole flurry of arguments about life on Mars

Ten years ago last month [2006], Dave McKay and his colleagues at Nasa’s Johnson Space Center in Houston announced that a meteorite, believed to have come from Mars, showed evidence of microbial life. Their interpretations are still widely disputed by the meteoritics community. But, oddly, their announcement resulted in one major change of attitudes. Before, there were still skeptics who were not sure that those rocks came from Mars; now, as the skeptics argue about the putative biogenic grains found in it, no one doubts the Martian origin anymore! Some of us can only be skeptical of one thing at a time, I guess.

Still, what you call the meteorite doesn’t really change its nature. Either it is, or it is not, from Mars. Either it is, or it is not, full of grains that were produced by bacteria. The words we use do not change the reality. Like the small child’s response to a bully’s taunt, “Saying doesn’t make it so.”

But in the world of science, that’s only half true. The words we use to frame our questions can shape the answers we find.

One of the lessons we have learned after ten years of arguing about those Martian rocks is that we are less sure than we thought about what the word “life” actually means. What does it mean to look for “life” from another planet if we can’t draw a clean line between “complicated chemical processes” and “life”?

For that matter, how do we know that other place is really a “planet”? Those who bemoan Pluto’s loss of status as a planet insist that the IAU’s decision is mere words; in their hearts they know better. But all the petitions in the world won’t change the fact that Pluto will always be an insignificant lump of ice, roughly a tenth the mass of our Moon and a thousand times smaller than Earth, in an irregular orbit among a crowd of other similar bodies.

Call it a planet or not, it is clear that Pluto itself hasn’t gone away, and its nature has not changed regardless of the label we hang on it. But those labels can change the context in which we look at scientific evidence. Seeing Pluto, the newly-named Enis (the dwarf planet [once thought to be] larger than Pluto, formerly known as 2003 UB313), and the other icy dwarfs as bodies different from either planets or asteroids should encourage us to develop new tools for exploring their natures. And we are less likely to insist on a general theory for the origin of “planets” that has to make both Plutos and Neptunes in the same region of space.

The power of words to change reality is clearer in a human context. Some words, like “I love you” or “I’m sorry,” only have power if they are sincerely believed and acted upon. But other words have a real effect no matter whether or not the listener believes them — “we’re pleased to accept you to our University” or “You’re fired!” Among the latter group are some of the most beautiful words in the Church’s language: “I absolve thee...” and “This is my body.”

Scientists like to pride themselves on their adherence to the hard facts and the cold equations, but the heat generated around the status of Pluto is only the latest example of how science is also strongly influenced by human words. And that’s only to be expected. Science is a human activity, motivated by love and awe and joy, the emotions that science is capable of inspiring in the human soul.

This past Saturday another set of words has produced a change, real and human, in my own life. With a few dozen words, my orbit and status have been defined. I have taken my final vows as Jesuit brother.

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: Words that Change Reality — 1 Comment

  1. And most recently, another example of words that changed reality… when the Pope picked me out of a small crowd at our private audience last Friday, smiled, and said, “Ah, the New Director!”

    That’s when it finally struck me that the job really was mine…

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