This column first appeared in The Tablet in August, 2005
[During a weekend in August, 2005] while over a million young people were gathered in Germany to celebrate World Youth Day with the Pope, a hundred and thirty kids from Detroit were taking part in a parallel camp-out organized by the Archdiocese on the grounds of a small farm in the Thumb of Michigan.
(The lower peninsula of my home state, Michigan, is shaped like a mitten, and I grew up on the peninsula jutting into Lake Huron that makes up the mitten’s thumb. Readers of a certain age may remember a British pop band who found a town at the Thumb’s base by sticking a pin into a map and thereby called themselves the Bay City Rollers.)
“Turn left onto a dirt road, and look for a pond and a red barn,” read my directions. Every barn in Michigan is red, and nearly every farm has a pond. But I really didn’t need the directions. I had lived and worked in this area thirty five years ago, during my summer breaks from MIT, while trying to choose between a career in journalism or one in science.
I came this evening expecting to give a little talk about the Star of Bethlehem and maybe point out a few constellations once the sun had set. When I arrived, I learned from the label on my name-tag that I was to be the Keynote Speaker. “You’ll be talking at nine o’clock,” I was told. That gave me 90 minutes to gather my thoughts.
The local astronomy clubs had come out in force, too, setting up a number of beautiful small telescopes designed to entice me, and distract my attention from the looming talk. While the teens were out in the woods, hearing talks about God and Nature, I chatted with the local organizers and admired the telescopes.
I had forgotten, in the intervening 35 years, how beautiful this part of the world looked. The low rolling hills, the swaying willow trees and pine woods, and the fading sunset on puffy cumulus filling the sky this warm, humid summer evening, brought me back to my youth.
What would today’s kids be wanting to hear from me?
As darkness fell, the last stragglers gathered in the light of a bonfire as I climbed onto a farm-trailer-turned-stage. I spoke a little about the Vatican Observatory, and our work studying a universe named Good by its Creator, made sacred by His Incarnation. I spoke about the Star of Bethlehem, and astrology, and how God finds us even in our foolishness. I spoke about how astronomy and religion both pull us out of our daily lives but stay present with us no matter where we find ourselves.
The kids, in their turn, had their questions: How big is the universe? Why didn’t the Jewish scholars notice the Star of Bethlehem? Where was the best place I ever saw the stars? Is that new-found object, bigger than Pluto, a new planet?
Simple, profound, and mostly unanswerable, they were the questions of minds full of life, of possibilities, of uncertainties. They were working out for themselves the same questions I had faced in this place: do I become an astronomer, or a writer? A religious, or a layperson? Head in the clouds (alas, growing thicker as the evening went on) or feet on the ground?
A scientific experiment or theory that’s never written up and published is worse than the tree in the forest that no one hears fall. We scientists must share what we do with our peers. More, we must share it with the folks back home who supported us when we were growing up nerdly, and who now pay the taxes that pay our bills. Scientist, journalist, Jesuit, layman? It is never either/or. It is all of the above.