Across the Universe: What good is God?


This column first ran in The Tablet in February 2014

“What Good is God?” was the title of the 2014 Bannan Institute Program at Santa Clara University, the Jesuit school in California’s Silicon Valley. This month they invited me ask: why does science need God? I proposed that the answer is found in a different question. Why do we do science?

Can you believe I entrusted my whole future life to that goofy looking Guy on the right? (Yes, that's me, the one with the bad hair and no beard) When I was graduating from MIT in 1974, what did I really expect to get out of being a scientist? Why did I choose that path? 


What do we hope to achieve when we decide to be a scientist? What counts as success? Tenure, prizes, citations in the literature… are those the ultimate goal of science? And what motivates us personally to choose to do science, instead of going into banking or selling neckties? Maybe it’s the pleasure in finding patterns and solving problems; doing science is like being paid to solve jigsaw puzzles. But is that our ultimate goal? Would we give up tenure for the chance to work on a really fun puzzle? Certainly science is a search for truth. In real life, however, it’s never that simple. Truth is too abstract, and too elusive, to actually get you up in the morning and head into the lab.

I suspect, instead, that what really gets us up in the morning is something more immediate: joy.  Anyone who’s ever seen a Hubble image of a nebula, or a spacecraft’s Martian landscape – search the internet – has tasted that joy. But joy is deeper than eye candy.

A few years ago, teaching university physics, I was going over Maxwell’s Equations… I had written them on the blackboard, and we’d begun the mathematical manipulations that Maxwell had first done back in 1865… here was the equation for how electricity gives rise to magnetism, and there how magnetic fields give rise to electric fields… and then if you take a derivative here, and put in a substitution there… As I wrote down the result of this derivation, the final equation, a complicated scrawl of E’s and t’s and del’s and mu-sub-zeros, before I had a chance to turn around and explain to the class what it all meant, my brightest student in the front row suddenly gasped aloud: “Oh my God! It’s a wave!”

Well, yes. The result is indeed the wave equation. In fact, every bit of science we can extract from Hubble’s glorious pictures starts with Maxwell’s equations, and the fact that (oh my God) it’s a wave. The fact that it’s a wave gives us radio; power lines transmitting alternating current; everything electronic; eventually, Einstein’s Relativity. Now, it takes a few years of studying physics, but when you get there, take my word for it – take my student’s word for it – it’s an Oh My God moment.

In my forty years of research, I’ve had a handful of those moments. Nothing as big as Maxwell’s, of course. But it’s not publishing the final paper that I remember; it’s the gasp of amazement the first moment I suddenly saw an unexpected pattern in nature.

Where is God in Science? Science is about the universe – every thing – and God is its Creator, immanent everywhere. Science is about Truth; as Christians, we follow a God who has told us He is “The Way, the Truth, the Life”. But most immediately, science is a source of satisfaction and joy. And Ignatian spirituality tells us that God is the source of consolation, often without cause – the joy that surprises.

This is not a sort of pantheism. God is not the same thing as the laws of nature. But everything that makes science worth doing, desirable to do, everything that gets us out of bed in the morning to do it, is a pointer toward God.

The part of us able to breathe “oh my God” is the human soul: the image and likeness of God. Science needs its “Oh, my God” moments. Science wouldn’t happen, without it.

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: What good is God? — 2 Comments

  1. Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ PhD

    Your 1974 MIT picture reflects the mood of those times.
    and the thought that discovering laws of nature
    and in particular the laws of the cosmos is pure joy.

    Those were trying times for young people
    perhaps equaling those of the present young generation.
    For example: the year 1968 had some extreme events
    to which people had to respond:
    -Tet Offensive in Vietnam
    -Chicago Democratic Convention Riots
    -Martin Luther King Assassination
    -Robert Kennedy Assassination

    In 1968, I graduated from Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa
    with a Chemistry degree learned in St Josephs Hall of Science
    under the spirit of Monsignor George Schulte PhD.
    All science classes began with the Our Father,
    so faith naturally blended into all science concepts
    including Maxwell equations.
    I was accepted into the Iowa State PhD Physical Chemistry program
    but the 1968 outside events redirected my course.
    So, I was drafted (not by choice) into the Vietnam War
    and subsequently used a Navy enlistment option.

    I took every exam the Navy had and advanced from E-1 to O-3 within 5 years.
    I ended up a Patrol Plane Navigator/Tactical Coordinator
    looking for Soviet submarines in the Pacific.
    In retrospect, it may have been God’s plan.
    Growing up in the 1950-60’s, the communist fear gripped everyone.
    My Holy Trinity parish prayed for the Catholics and all the faithful
    being persecuted under the Soviet dominance.
    So this Catholic mid-western farm boy was used by the Navy to go after them,
    and quite successfully I might add. (My wife was extremely supportive on the home front)

    Within this context, Navy celestial navigation stands out as a mystical, joyful experience.
    We would take celestial shots from within a P-3 Orion fuselage at typically 10,000 ft altitude
    over the Pacific Ocean using a Bubble Sextant with a WWV Greenwich Mean Time reference.
    Calculations were done on a slide rule and visual representations on paper charts
    with dividers and rulers to fix our triangulated position with three Lines of Position
    about 120 degrees from each other. Celestial mechanics work.
    (This was before GPS, using methods not much different
    than Captain James Cook used 200 years prior)
    So there we were, with the heavens above, the Soviet submarine below and a thousand miles from land.
    The Soviet submarine was also triangulated by sonobuoy listening among the whale echoes and snapping shrimp.
    This was a truly joyful and mystical experience.
    (As an aside, the Naval Academy at Annapolis has resumed celestial navigation courses
    after being dismissed for many years as archaic and unnecessary)

    As an engineer, it is acknowledged that the triangle is necessary for everything
    from bridge trusses to visual image finite element analysis.

    Triangles naturally flow from dimensional analysis of universal constants G, h, H, c & k
    within their measured accuracies.

    So triangles are important, as faithfully expressed in Catholic Holy Trinity representation.

    In this context,
    I am particularly struck by Pope Francis’ Encyclical LAUDATO SI’,
    On Care Of Our Common Home,
    Paragraph 239: “For Christians, believing in one God
    who is trinitarian communion
    suggests that the Trinity has left its mark on all creation.”

    I have come to believe through scientific/engineering analysis
    that God has directly expressed His creative mark
    in His Son’s Vilnius Divine Mercy image (with characteristic ray angles)
    as evidence for His creation mechanism
    from the Big Bang to the present
    and from the sub atomic to cosmic scale.

    All the best,

    Richard D. Saam Civil/Environmental Engineer PE- TX & CA, LCDR USNR Ret
    525 Louisiana Ave
    Corpus Christi, Texas 78404 USA
    Tel: 361 855 1265
    Parishioner at Corpus Christi Cathedral since 1990

  2. Pingback: Across the Universe: What good is God? – Astrónomos Jesuitas del Observatorio Astronómico del Vaticano

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