Across the Universe: Jesuit Science

This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2014

[In 2014] Heythrop College celebrated its 400th anniversary. Originally founded in Belgium to educate British Jesuits, it moved back to England during the French Reign of Terror. Located since then at various locations, it finally moved to London in 1970, becoming a part of the University of London in 1971. An anniversary like this calls for a party, of course. On June 19-20, hundreds of scholars gathered at Senate House to reflect on Jesuit scholarship. Among the celebrants were Lord Williams and Jesuit Father General Adolfo Nicholas. I was invited to talk on Jesuit science.

[The link above is the recording of my talk, and runs about 55 minutes; in my opinion, it's more entertaining than this column was!]

What has been the particular Jesuit mark on science? One thing that struck me was how entering the Jesuits order gave young men the chance to be a scientist regardless of family wealth or status. Athanasius Kircher, the youngest of nine children from a clerk’s family, became one of the most educated men of the 17th century; James Macelwane dropped out of high school to work on the family farm, but as a Jesuit he became a key figure in modern geophysics.

These well trained men were often missioned to exotic frontiers. In the late 1500s Fr. José de Acosta was able write the first detailed study of the natural and social history of South America because he had been sent there – a trip as rare then as traveling into space today. And being a Jesuit provided instant credibility, opening doors in certain circles that other contemporaries could not access. Thus in the mid 1700s Roger Boscovich was to change the Church’s stance on the heliocentric system.

But every advantage has its matching cost. That Jesuit education is also is quite lengthy, taking more than 12 years toward ordination, not counting the time needed for a PhD. Likewise, while a Jesuit scientist may be sent to wonderful places, he is also under obedience to leave them behind; after his pioneering work in South America, Fr. Acosta wound up sent back to Spain as the rector of a Jesuit university community.

A Jesuit scientist, supported by the order, is often not tied to a three-year funding cycle or six-year tenure review. Thus we have the time – it may take decades – to catalogue double stars, seismic velocities, or patterns in climate or terrestrial magnetic fields. Jesuits, for instance, invented the basic taxonomy of the plants of India. But this sort of science often meant that their work was unappreciated by their immediate peers. Famously in the 19th century the Whig historian and politician Thomas Macaulay sneered that the Jesuits “appear to have discovered the precise point to which intellectual culture can be carried without risk of intellectual emancipation” and that being a Jesuit “has a tendency to suffocate, rather than to develop, original genius.”

The unspoken assumption of someone like Macaulay is that one does science for the glory it brings upon the scientist. But Jesuits do science (or at least, we ought to) not for personal advancement, but for the love of the truth that science can reveal.

The glory that comes from the science ought to be reflected on the Author of creation, not on the person who happens to have revealed some detail of that creation. And our scientific scholarship contributes to the good reputation of the Jesuit order in particular, and the Church in general. I have had Jesuits in the faith and justice apostolate tell me that the credibility they have as Jesuits from our accomplishments helps them in their work, just as their work gives credibility to us.

Father General Nicholas emphasized this very point in a letter issued just last month. “Whether we work in universities, periodicals, social centers, retreat houses or research laboratories,” he wrote, “…the intellectual dimension is part of all our ministries.”

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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