Across the Universe: Relish the Red Planet
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An edited version of this article first appeared in The Tablet in January, 2004. It was the first column I wrote for them. I spent Christmas morning [2004] with my brother Edwin, amid the snow and frigid winds whirling across Lake Superior and around the tiny city of Marquette, Michigan. Between Christmas Mass and Christmas dinner, I kept an eye all day on my computer, checking the BBC web site every few hours, hoping to hear news of the British Mars lander, the Beagle II. Alas, though the Beagle had landed, we never heard it bark. I felt for my friends on the science team, Colin and Ian and the others, watching with ever fainter hope as the dream they’d pursued through the years of planning and fund-raising, constructing and testing, launching into space and guiding to the surface of the planet, finally at the last minute failed. Landing a probe successfully on Mars is a very difficult proposition; the … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Being Asked the Right Questions
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(This column first ran in The Tablet in November, 2007) I have a new [in 2007] book just published, and so I have been on “book tour” for the past month. The audiences have ranged from a friendly group at the Thomas More Center of Yale University, to a lively group who’d come for an argument at the New York City Public Library of Science, Industry, and Business. The highlight so far has been a three-hour interview on a popular American radio program, “Coast to Coast.” It broadcasts live from 2 am to 5 am (east coast time), which meant I had to stay up with a telephone at my ear during the wee hours of the morning. That was in fact no problem, since I did the interview while observing trans-Neptunian objects with the Vatican’s telescope in Arizona. While my colleagues kept track of our targets, I spoke to America’s insomniacs. The show is infamous for treating in utter … Continue reading

Across the Universe: The Ethics of Extraterrestrials
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This article first appeared in The Tablet in April, 2004 Astrobiology, so the joke goes, is like theology: an academic discipline where highly educated people argue for years about a subject no one can prove exists. It’s been around a long time under a variety of different names – exobiology, bioastronomy – but only when NASA decided a few years ago that the search for life was a winning strategy to get funding did the field start to get more than begrudging respect. And so, the last week of March [2004], I joined more than 700 scientists gathering at the NASA Ames Research Center for the fourth Astrobiology Science Conference. The setting was both inspiring and cautionary. NASA Ames is located at the old Moffett Field Naval Air Station in California’s Silicon Valley: our meeting was in a large tent in the shadow of the enormous hangers built in the 1930s to house dirigibles. One could not help but wonder just how … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Tending Towards Paganism
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For reasons I do not know, an interview I gave in 2006 bubbled back to the top of the Internet recently. Following that interview, I wrote this column for The Tablet, which ran in May 2006 “Believing that God created the universe in six days is a form of superstitious paganism,” proclaimed a Scottish newspaper earlier this month, citing as its authority no less than “the Vatican Astronomer, Guy Consolmagno.” I was as surprised as anyone; though I do worry that creationism can tend towards paganism, I don’t remember being so blunt. Well, he was careful not to put those words into quotation marks. But even if it is an accurate statement of what I believe, does it qualify as news? I’m not a theologian, much less a spokesperson for the Vatican. I’m an astronomer who happens to be a Jesuit, who happens to work at the Vatican. Of course, I have my opinions on matters of theology, but are … Continue reading

Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? An Excerpt From Brother Guy and Father Paul’s Latest Book
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Brother Guy Consolmagno and Father Paul Mueller have written a new book: “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?: . . . and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory” Guy: Would you baptize an extraterrestrial? That is one of the questions people ask us all the time here at the Vatican Observatory . . . along with questions about the Star of Bethlehem, the beginning and end of the universe, Galileo, Pluto, black holes, killer asteroids, and all the other topics astronomers always get asked about. What is it about questions of this sort that raises such interest—and sometimes suspicion and fear—among so many people? Let’s face it, most people know we’re not likely to be running into any ETs anytime soon; nor is the exact nature of the Star of Bethlehem essential to any catechism or creed. But people care. They keep asking us. Why? This book is about what’s behind those questions. Paul: And this book … Continue reading