Two Vatican Astronomers: A Twitterscript
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Two Jesuits who work at the Vatican Observatory — Brother Guy Consolmagno, curator of meteorites, and Father George Coyne, its former director (whom you might recognize from his appearance in Bill Maher’s Religulous) — have been on our interview list for years. Yesterday, Krista was finally able to interview them, together, from a recording studio in Arizona. These two astronomers had a great dynamic between them and have a bit of different perspective from most of the “hard” scientists — usually physicists — we have spoken to over the years. Oh, and they have great sense of humor, as you can see in the video to the right of Br. Consolmagno’s appearance on The Colbert Report.
We’ll start producing this interview while Krista’s out on tour speaking about her new book, and we can’t wait to release this program! In the meantime, Colleen and I tweeted some of the lines that struck our ears. A transcript of our Twitter stream:
- For the next 90 minutes, tweets from Krista’s interview w/ two Vatican Observatory astronomers: Fr. George Coyne and Br. Guy Consolmagno.
- 68 degrees in Arizona. They’re rubbing it in since it is frigid today in Minnesota.
- Fr. George is a Jesuit who grew up in Baltimore. Tells a great story about a priest who hooked him up w/ books from the Reading, PA library.
- Br. Guy grew up in Detroit and transferred to MIT when he discovered they had the largest science fiction collection!
- Br. Guy joined Peace Corps b/c he “couldn’t see the point of studying stars when people are suffering.” Realized that all people love stars.
- Fr. Coyne: if all we do is feed and clothe people, we’re all going to be naked; what really makes us human is music, the arts, science…
- Br. Guy: you don’t find answers to theological ?s by looking through a telescope; you don’t go to the Bible to find answers to science.
- Fr. George: “the God of religious faith is a lover.”
- Fr. George: “My understanding of the universe does not need God. I don’t need God in my science.”
- Br. Guy Consolmagno: “The tragedy of Haiti is the tragedy of death. … There isn’t any answer to that.”
- Fr. George Coyne, astronomer: “To limit our human experience to scientific knowledge is to impoverish all of us.”
- Br. Guy Consolmagno, on seismic and cosmic activity in the creation of life: “The climate will change. … The Earth is not a paradise.”
- Fr. George Coyne: “To have faith is an extreme risk. ‘Rock of Ages’ is a nice hymn but…”
- Br. Guy Consolmagno: “We know our understanding of the universe is incomplete; our understanding of God is incomplete.”
- Br. Guy Consolmagno: “You have to experience something before you can react to it.”
- Fr. George Coyne, an astronomer on his science: “It’s exciting to be ignorant.”
- Fr. George Coyne, when he presents papers at scientific conferences: “I’m not dressed as a priest. It just confuses things.” Funny moment.
- The Vatican Observatory is staffed by all Jesuits, except one diocesan priest. But the observatory was not founded by the Jesuit Order.
- 4 Jesuits have asteroids named after them: Xavier, Loyola, and the 2 chaps Krista is interviewing: Fr. George Coyne + Br. Guy Consolmagno
- Br Guy on Galileo: why is it that 400 years later he’s symbol of science religion clash when that’s not what it was about at his time?
- Br Guy: Don’t just learn science from reading Newton & Galileo, but also from Plato, Shakespeare, and scripture
- Br. Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit astronomer: “Truth can sometimes only be expressed in a poetry.”
- Fr Coyne: language of universe is math; it’s a tool to understand beauty; we absract to understand
- Br Guy: Being able to do science is trying to understand how God plays with us
The Wonder of the Cosmos (through an Upgraded Lens)
by Colleen Scheck, producer
Last week NASA published pictures from the newly-refurbished Hubble telescope. Beautiful. Mysterious. Divine. And, simply, Wow. These were the words that ran through my head when I saw them. It’s worth reading the descriptions of the photos on NASA’s site for more detail on these galactic happenings. I also liked this online comment:
"These photos, and the multi-billion year life behind them make me think I’ve wasted the better part of my life looking down at my feet, instead of looking up into the sky."
I don’t have profound thoughts to add, but comments from two cosmologists who have been on SOF seem to apply. From our show "Science and Hope," George Ellis, a practicing Quaker from South Africa:
How do you — because you’re telling me that you also, I believe, you’re telling me you have concluded that there is a God and there can be a God in your cosmology. But how do you think your way around into that question?
It’s a very valid question, and it’s one for which we haven’t got any clue to the answer. But that is the same for every attempt to understand the foundations of the universe. Science runs into that and religions run into that. My colleagues are producing theories of what they call creation of the universe out of nothing. But when you probe them, you find they’re not producing theories of creation of the universe out of nothing. They are assuming a huge machinery of quantum field theory and fields and particles and interactions, which generates universe, not creation of the universe out of nothing.
Which had to come from somewhere.
Yeah, it had to come from somewhere else….And in the end, we run into a metaphysical blank, whether you pursue it scientifically or religiously, and you simply have to give up in wonder and awe and say, ‘I don’t know the answer, and it’s just marvelous the way things are.’
And, Janna Levin, a novelist and professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College, spoke with Krista for our program "Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth":
….What are you working on that also, you know, starts to reshape the way you see the world around you and the way you move through it?
Well, it’s funny, people have often asked, when I’ve been describing the work that I’m doing, they’ll say, ‘Well, who — why should I care about that?’ I’m telling something about extra dimensions and maybe the universe isn’t three-dimensional, but maybe there are extra spatial dimensions. It is very abstract. We could do a whole show hammering that out.
But supposing we grasp the notion of multidimensional space and spaces and finite, people say, ‘Why should I care about that? You know, my taxes are high. We’re on a war in Iraq.’ And these are fair questions, but my feeling is that it changes the world in such a fundamental way. We cannot begin to comprehend the consequences of living in a world after we know certain things about it. I think we cannot imagine the mindset of somebody pre-Copernicus, when we thought that the Earth was the center of the universe, and that the Sun and all the celestial bodies orbited us.
It’s really not that huge a discovery in retrospect. In retrospect, so we orbit around the Sun, and we take this to be commonplace, and there’s lots of planets in our solar system, and the Sun is just one star out of billions or hundreds of billions in our galaxy, and there are hundreds of billions of galaxies. And we become, you know, little dust mites in the scheme of things. That shift is so colossal in terms of what it did, I think, to our world, our global culture, our worldview, that I can’t begin to draw simple lines to say, ‘This is what happened because of it’ or ‘That’s what happened because of it.’
We see ourselves differently, and then we see the whole world differently. And we begin to think about meaning — and all of these questions that you’ve brought up — completely differently than we did before. And I’d feel the same way if we discovered that the universe is finite or if we discovered that there are additional spatial dimensions, if these things will impact us, I think, in ways that we can’t just draw simple cause-and-effect arrows.
A Three Pound Brain, Contemplating Galaxies
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
[Online editor’s note: For a better, more immersive experience, I recommend filling the screen by clicking the outward-facing arrows icon in the lower-right hand of the video. And, for good measure, put on a set of headphones.]
Science was never my best subject in school, but as an adult I’ve become a total science geek. And our recent program with novelist Mary Doria Russell was full of topics, from Neanderthals to alien communication, that got my geek juices flowing. I especially loved what she said about looking at a recent diagram of the universe, showing how it might expand and contract over time.
I thought, “It’s the breath of God.” That God breathes in and God breathes out. And when he breathes in, the universe is contracting, and when he breathes out, the universe is expanding. And I immediately was charmed by the metaphor…. God is the largest, most complex, most inclusive, most explanatory idea that human beings are capable of imagining. Now, that said, we’re primates and our brains are like two and a half to three pounds. You know, we’re doing the best we can. But I would hate to say that we’ve got a lock on the universe and deity at this point.
I was reminded of an interview with astrophysicist Howard Smith that we’ve had on the shelf since the summer of 2008. Our production schedule is such that we’re sometimes unable to use every interview that we do. But there were parts of Howard Smith’s interview have stayed in my mind for months. He is a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the author of Let There Be Light: Modern Cosmology and Kabbalah, a New Conversation Between Science and Religion. I loved how he described what it’s like for him to stare into the heart of a galaxy and discover something that no one else knows. That moment, he says, is a spiritual moment.
I wanted to see Howard Smith doing that work, peering out at the universe through the tiny window that is his computer screen, using his three pound brain as best he can to understand what he sees. So with help from Howard Smith, NASA, and Flickr, my colleagues and I gathered images to create this slideshow, exploring how we can find spiritual meaning in the stars.