Br Guy and the sky – the ways of the Vatican star man

Pope francis accepts a gift from Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, during a May 12 scientific conference at the Vatican titled "Black Holes, Gravitational Waves and Space-Time Singularities." (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano) See VATICAN-OBSERVATORY-CONFERENCE May 12, 2017.

Part II of NZ Catholic’s interview with the director of the Vatican Observatory, Br Guy Consolmagno, SJ. In one of the anecdotes he related while talking about his work at the Vatican Observatory, he spoke of going to Mass at a time when he was doing research in Hawaii. Tourists made up one-third of the congregation. Naturally, the priest asked the tourists where they were from. The priest came up to him and asked, “where are you from, sir?” He replied “I’m an observer from the Vatican”.

NZC: When did you decide that you wanted to be an astronomer?

Br Guy: When I was a kid, I had many things I wanted to be. I wanted to be a newspaperman. I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to be an astronomer. I wanted to be a chemist. All these little kid ideas. I wanted to be a priest. Most of your adult life, I’ve discovered, is fulfilling the dreams you had as a kid. So, it’s really important that kids have a chance to dream.

My route to becoming an astronomer was very convoluted. When I went to high school, I studied classics. I didn’t think I was going to do science anymore. I thought science was sort of a cliché. Everybody was doing science. I wanted to do something different. When I went to university, I happened to be studying history at a different university in Boston, where I had a good friend from high school who was studying at MIT (The Massachusetts Institute of Technology). When I visited him, I just fell in love with that place. I fell in love with that sense that wonderful things were happening here and I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to be there. To my amazement, when I applied to transfer and start a whole new course of study, they accepted me. They let me do it. That was amazing.

My first semester, in terms of classes, was difficult. I had a hard time. I was struggling with the math, struggling with the physics. Yet, I was just so happy to be there that I didn’t care about the struggles. In fact, I almost enjoyed the struggles because it meant it was a kind of commitment, that I am really here and I am really engaging with stuff that is hard. [He paused.] I’m talking about this in ways I’ve never thought before.

When I entered the Jesuits, I wanted to teach. I did not want to join the observatory. When they asked me to join the observatory and do stuff that I didn’t want to do, I was delighted, because I was so happy to be doing something hard. One of the ways that you love somebody is to do the hard things for them. There is a joy even in the difficulty. That’s how I felt starting my scientific work. I loved it because it was hard.

NZC: Why astronomy?

Br Guy: A part of it was . . . of course, one of the attractions of going to the MIT was they had a wonderful science fiction collection. I was enthralled by stories and storytelling. My father was a great storyteller and I loved not only the stories he told, but seeing how he would tell them, how you construct the stories. Science fiction stories are adventures that take place on planets. So, it was completely natural to study ‘what were planets like?’ Because planets were places where people can have adventures.

NZC: Does the day-to-day get tedious? Do you look at the sky and not get awed?

Br Guy: When the work becomes routine, then you look at the sky, because you never take it for granted. The more you know about the sky, the more you have to be amazed that the computer program that I’d been struggling to make work is talking about that dot of light up in the sky. It’s not something so totally abstract that I can’t see it. Eventually, I go back and
say, those are the planets, these are the stars. This is the real thing, not just a representation. That is what gives me back the joy and the energy and reminds me why I am doing this. So, it is precisely looking at the sky that resurrects the desire and the awe and the love to make me go back and face that computer program again. I never get bored by the sky.

NZC: What do you do in your free time?

Br Guy: Free time. What a concept! It’s different now that I’m the director. I don’t do that much science anymore. On a few occasions, I get to play a little bit. But most of the time, I’m building up the observatory. I’m making sure that the members have the resources they need to do the science and have the fun that I was able to do for so many years. It’s my turn to make sure that they get to do what I was able to do.

And to go out and show the world what it is we’re doing. Because, at the end of the day, when Pope Leo XIII founded the observatory in 1891, it was to show the world that the Church supports good science. We have got to have the good science, but we also have to have somebody to show the world. These talks that I’m giving in New Zealand are essential to the life of the observatory. It’s really important to us that I have this venue and share the fun.

What do I do in my spare time? For a while, especially when I moved back to America and thought I was going to be spending more time there, it turns out I’m not. But I got a Netflix account to watch movies. I discovered that I would watch ten minutes of the movie and go ‘no, this is boring’, I find another one and find another one and after two hours, go to bed having never seen a movie till the end. What’s worse, I discovered that I stopped reading books. So, I just cancelled my Netflix account, turned off the TV and just started reading books. Now, I read books. Sometimes, it’s rereading books that I haven’t read for ten years. Nothing wrong with that, because you go back and see things that you haven’t noticed the first time. Sometimes, it’s reading new books. I’m much pickier about whether I’ll finish a book . . . My book has to do three things: it has to show something I haven’t seen before, it’s got to make me turn the pages and it’s got to tell the truth. It’s hard to do all three in a book, but once you do, you come away richer.

Years ago, I was in Munich. I had a free afternoon and I went to the art museum. It’s a fine arts museum, but not one of the famous ones in the world. There were a lot of paintings of cityscapes. As soon as I stepped out of the museum, I realised, I was in the city. Seeing the paintings of the cityscapes made me pay attention to the city I was in. Seeing stories about people then suddenly makes me recognise that these stories may be fiction, but they are also true. It’s a way of pulling me out of the fog of myself and my desires and ‘do I want a candy bar?’ and ‘do I want to go back and stare at the computer some more’ and break out of that and look at the world of trees turning colours and mothers with small children and clouds in the sky that gives you dramatic and scary moments. That sense of pulling yourself out of yourself is something especially, I think, in our modern culture we need to do more. Stop looking at the telephone screen and look at reality.

NZC: What’s new with the Vatican Observatory?

Br Guy: New people are coming in all the time. We have a couple of young scientists who have joined us and/or are planning to join us. An Indian fellow named (Fr) Richard D’Souza (SJ) has just published a paper in one of the big scientific journals, Nature Astronomy, on the evolution of galaxies, especially our neighbour galaxy Andromeda. It’s very exciting and I can’t possibly go into all the details, but it’s a whole new way of seeing how galaxies grow. He seems to have the evidence behind it and it’s a lot of fun on top of everything else.

We have a young scientist, the fellow who took over the meteorite lab from me, Br Bob Macke, who is now one of the scientists on a NASA mission to go to an asteroid by Jupiter and measure a kind of asteroid we never went to before. So, that’s kind of exciting. He, himself, is not going. The spacecraft is going, but he is part of the scientific team that will plan the experiments they do and interpret the results. That’s an opportunity that I don’t think we’d ever had on a spacecraft mission before.

We’ve got a group of scientists, two of them now working with a team in Germany. It’s really funny. We have a telescope in Arizona and nearby is one of the largest telescopes in the world, a large binocular telescope. A German group has built an enormous spectrometer that sits in the basement of the big telescope to use the light from the big telescope. But lots of other people want to use the big telescope. What are they going to do with their big instrument (spectrometer)? They (German group) have run an optic fibre cable from our telescope to their instrument. That means that our modest little two metre telescope has one of the best spectrometers in the world and it’s being used now to characterise planets surrounding their stars. This (characterising planets) is a project that has been in development for a couple of years and it’s now . . . underway big time. These are just three things off the top of my head that I find exciting with people I’m working with.

NZC: What do you pray when you look up in the sky?

Br Guy: Nobody’s ever asked it that way before. That’s a wonderful question. I have to say [that] my prayer to God is always to help me open myself up, to be ever more aware of what is there and what is here. To have, not only in my brain, but in my heart, that sense that I’m on this lovely planet, (not only just when I’m thinking about it, but all the time. . . even when I’m not thinking about it) in this lovely planet around this lovely sun and this wonderful collection of stars. I pray to be open to experience that beauty and the joy that is the presence of God. And I pray that the neighbour down the street will turn off his lights so I can do that.

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Rowena Orejana

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