George Coyne and Guy Consolmagno
Asteroids, Stars, and the Love of God
George Coyne was the Director of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory from 1978 to 2006 and author of the book Wayfarers in the Cosmos: The Human Quest for Meaning. He died on February 11, 2020, at the age of 87.
Guy Consolmagno was appointed Director of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory by Pope Francis in 2015. His books include Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist and Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?: and Other Questions from the Astronomers' In-box at the Vatican Observatory.
Krista Tippett, host: The wise and beloved Vatican astronomer Father George Coyne died last week. He studied the composition of meteorites and the life and death of stars. Like Pope Francis and most of the Vatican astronomers across history, he was also a Jesuit. Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th century founder of the order, charged his men to “find God in all things.”
Successive generations took on this charge expansively — becoming famous and sometimes infamous travelers, teachers, and explorers of terrestrial and cosmic realities. There are more than 30 objects on the moon named after Jesuits. Jesuits, after all, mapped the moon. A Jesuit was one of the founders of modern astrophysics. And ten Jesuits in history, including Ignatius of Loyola, have had asteroids named after them. Father George was one of the few with this distinction, alongside his friend, the Jesuit Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consalmagno. We revisit my conversation with them, filled with joy and laughter, and we re-experience the spacious way the two of them thought together about life, faith, and the universe.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Father George Coyne: I hardly know what an asteroid is but Guy has been instructing me.
Tippett: Well, how does that feel, to have an asteroid named after you?
Brother Guy Consolmango: It was really fun to tell my dad. You know, I’m not giving him grandkids but at least he’s got something with the family name. As long as it’s not the one that comes and hits the Earth, we’re in good shape.
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Mention the words “Vatican” and “astronomy” in the same sentence and many of us think of Galileo on trial. Yet the Vatican itself has an observatory that is one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world. It has one of the world’s largest meteorite collections, established by a French nobleman of the 19th Century. Brother Guy Consolmagno is the curator of those meteorites. Pope Francis also appointed him the director of the Vatican Observatory in 2015. Father George Coyne was director when Brother Guy first came to work there. I spoke with them together in 2010 at the University of Arizona, where the Vatican Observatory has a research center.
Tippett: I’d like to ask each of you, first of all, just a little bit about where you came from and got into this. I think I know a little bit more about Brother Guy just from the autobiographical writing you’ve done. So let’s start with Father George. You entered the Jesuit order when you were 18, is that right? Where did you grow up?
Fr. Coyne: That’s correct. I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, went to a Jesuit high school.
Fr. Coyne: They threw out the fishing net. I was 18; I didn’t know any better. So I became a Jesuit.
Tippett: [laughs] Alright. Were you also a good student of science and interested in science at an early age?
Fr. Coyne: Oh you have to talk to my teachers about that. Yeah, I did like science through high school. And I did reasonably well. I did my college education as a Jesuit, so it was only then that I did my bachelor’s degree in mathematics, actually. And had an interest in astronomy, so that’s how it all began.
Tippett: And you became captivated by that at some point.
Fr. Coyne: I did. It’s a bit of strange story because the one that really turned me on to astronomy was my teacher of ancient Greek and Latin literature, who was also an amateur astronomer —Father Hane Martin, who taught me when I was 20, 21 years old. And he would come into class and start teaching us the Greek odes and he was so enthusiastic he even danced to them. But he used to scratch his head — I think he died of lead poisoning — he’d scratch his head with a pencil and say, “Gentlemen, do you realize that tomorrow is the beginning of spring? Do you know what that means?” And of course we didn’t. So he’d go to the blackboard and he’d trace the ecliptic and the celestial equator. So one day he called me in and he said, “Every time I get distracted and talk about astronomy, you’re sitting on the edge of your chair with your eyeballs sticking out.” I said, “Father, I love it.” And he said, “Well, we’ve got to get you reading.”
Tippett: Oh, that’s a great story.
Fr. Coyne: Each of us have our own history like that. You know, the serendipity things that happen. But enough about me. That’s how I got beginning, yep, in astronomy.
Tippett: Okay. Great. I love that story. So Brother Guy, now you actually were a scientist before you became a Jesuit. You were born in Detroit? Is that right?
Br. Consolmango: That’s right.
Tippett: And did you have a Catholic upbringing also?
Br. Consolmango: Yeah. My father was Italian, my mother Irish, so it was a very Catholic upbringing. But they were both college educated as well. I was a Sputnik kid. I started kindergarten the year that Sputnik went up. And so like all boys — it was certainly boys back then in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s — you were going to be a scientist. And I got really immersed in that until I went to the Jesuit high school in Detroit. At that point, I found out the smartest kids studied Latin and Greek. So like George, I did this side view into ancient Latin, ancient Greek, and thought for a while I’d go into history, maybe journalism, maybe become a lawyer or whatever.
But it was my freshman year at Boston College that my best friend was going to MIT, and I discovered that MIT had weekend movies and pinball machines and the world’s largest science fiction collection. So to take advantage of all of that, I transferred to MIT. And I had to pick a major. I saw as one of the choices “earth and planetary sciences.”
I thought planets, and I thought, “That must be astronomy. I’ll do that.” When I got there, when they finally let me in, I discovered I’d signed up for geology. And, boy, if I had known that I was going to be studying rocks I would never have done that. Until I discovered that some of the rocks are meteorites. They’re rocks that actually come from outer space. And that was so exciting.
Tippett: And asteroids have continued to be your specialty.
Br. Consolmango: Asteroids and meteorites and basically small bodies in the solar system; how they’re put together and how they evolve over time.
Tippett: And then your story — it has some interesting turns. You got your degree at MIT. You did postdoctoral work at Harvard and at MIT. And then you went into the Peace Corps.
Br. Consolmango: I also had my doctorate, actually, from Arizona. Don’t want to forget that.
Fr. Coyne: While I was on the faculty.
Tippett: Oh, in Arizona?
Br. Consolmango: Yeah. That’s where George and I first met.
Tippett: And then you went into the Peace Corps and you’ve said that you couldn’t see the point of studying stars when people were dying of hunger. So I want to ask you how you saw the point of studying stars differently when you went back to astronomy after Kenya?
Br. Consolmango: Well, I joined the Peace Corps with the attitude I’ll go wherever they ask me to go because they know better than me where they can use me. And after looking at my record, within two months I was at the University of Nairobi teaching astronomy to graduate students.
And that was my first clue that maybe there was more to astronomy than just looking at the stars for your own pleasure. But even deeper than that was that I would go up country every weekend to my fellow Peace Corps volunteers’ places, and I had a little telescope with me and I had a package of slides that I would show. Do you realize there are slide projectors that work on car batteries? They had these all over Kenya because there wouldn’t be a whole lot of electricity, but people still wanted to see the slides I had of the stars and the planets. And everybody in the village would show up for the talks, and everybody in the village would show up to look through my telescope. And they would show exactly the same “oohs” and “aahhs” looking at the craters of the moon or the rings of Saturn, exactly the same as when I would set this up back in Michigan. And it suddenly dawned on me, well, of course. It’s only human beings that have this curiosity to understand: What’s that up in the sky? How do we fit into that? Who are we? Where do we come from? And this is a hunger that is as deep and as important as a hunger for food because if you starve a person in that sense, you’re depriving them of their humanity. And being able to feed this, being able to make a person more human or make them welcome into the great adventure of the human race for the 20th century — going to the moon, things like that — that was really important to them and really important to everybody I talked to. And suddenly — oh, that’s why we do this.
Tippett: I think that the two of you embody — I don’t even want to say the relationship — I’d say the interrelationship between science and religion across history that has been forgotten or misremembered. The way in which you just ask a number of questions that some of them, science and theology, are asking in different ways. You’re very much, to me, in the lineage of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, even Darwin in a sense. Galileo said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same god who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forego their use.” Those classic scientists believed that understanding the natural world was the best way to understand the mind of its maker.
Brother Guy, now, you’ve written, “As I see the pattern of creation unfolding, over and over, complexity from the simplest of rules, beauty from the surprising interplay of basic forces, I begin to get a closer appreciation of the personality of the creator.” Tell me about that personality that you discern.
Br. Consolmango: Well, certainly, whoever’s responsible for this universe has a great sense of humor because whenever you’re expecting something, you get what you expect but from a very, very different angle than the way you were expecting it. You know, the center of all humor. We are constantly being surprised and delighted by the surprise. Also, a creator who loves beauty: It’s not enough that the universe makes sense and we can come up with equations for them, but the equations themselves are beautiful. I can remember, I was teaching a few years ago and Fordham University. I was teaching Maxwell’s equations, and there’s a great thing where suddenly you can use Maxwell’s equations — Maxwell did this — to come up with the fact that electricity and magnetism acts like a wave that moves at the speed of light. And that’s light waves and that’s what makes radio possible. And I remember getting to the point where I had just written that equation down when a student in the front of the class goes, “Oh, my god. It’s a wave.” And he also had gotten that sense of, “This is beautiful. This is wonderful.” That sense of surprise.
Tippett: And Father George, it seems to me that it feels important to you in your writing to stress that science and religion are separate pursuits and that science, in fact, is neutral. It doesn’t have theistic or atheistic implications in and of itself.
Fr. Coyne: Correct. My take on the relationship, my personal life is built upon the following: I’m a scientist. I try and understand the universe. My understanding of the universe does not need God.
Tippett: I think you’re also suggesting — you also suggest that to talk about God in that way, in some sense, is to diminish God and also to diminish the capacity of human intelligence that drive science, that is connected with God in your mind.
Fr. Coyne: That’s very true. I think to drag God in when we find that our science is inadequate to understanding certain events that we observe in the universe, we tend to want to bring in God as a god of explanation, a god of the gaps. And we constantly do that. Newton did it, you know? If we’re religious believers we’re constantly tempted to do that. And every time we do it, we’re diminishing God and we’re diminishing science. Every time we do it.
Br. Consolmango: What you wind up doing is turning God into a pagan god, you know, god of thunder, god of lightning, god of crops. And the Romans thought the Christians were atheists because they refused to believe in that kind of god.
Tippett: Right. But, I think whereas in other centuries, the god of the gaps idea worked for people, I really do feel like in the 21st century we feel that our science will answer all the questions. Right?
Br. Consolmango: Maybe you’re talking about a science of the gaps at this point.
Tippett: Right. Exactly.
Br. Consolmango: So that’s been the temptation all along.
Tippett: Yeah, that’s interesting.
Fr. Coyne: That’s a good expression. Science of the gaps. Yeah. You know, I’d like to add a word to this though. If I believe in God — and I do. I really, truly believe I have this relationship of love with God, OK? If I do, why shouldn’t I use my knowledge of the universe that I know from science — Why don’t I say, if God created this universe — ”if,” a big I “If” — why don’t I use my scientific knowledge to reflect upon what kind of god would make a universe like this that I know as a scientist? And when I do — and Guy just expressed it in his own way — I marvel at this magnificent god. He made a universe that I know as a scientist that has a dynamism to it. It has a future that’s not completely determined. We know that as scientists. The evolutionary process — if you want to take evolution in a very broad sense of cosmological, physical, chemical, biological evolution, this is a magnificent feature of the universe.
Tippett: I know that neither one of you is removed from the complexity of life on the ground. I just want to preface the question I’m going to ask with that. But I wonder if, as astronomers in these fields of cosmology and astronomy — you’re both using words like “marvel” and “beauty,” and we all — I just have an inkling of what you’re talking about from my pedestrian views of the night sky. But I wonder if it’s easier to be in that place as astronomer than, for example, an evolutionary biologist. You’re dealing with the life and death of stars. [laughs] So, Brother Guy when you said a minute ago — when you talked about working with science and that you do this because of the beauty of the creation — somebody in this conversation, one of us mentioned [the 2010 earthquake in] Haiti, as well. So there are these specters of — well the opposite of beauty, right? So how do you factor that in, or does that — I mean, and I don’t want to force that — but those are not questions of astronomy and cosmology, but where do they come in for you?
Br. Consolmango: It’s actually, I think for me, a really important question because I am originally an earth scientist. And so earthquakes and hurricanes are all part of the science that I’ve studied that explain how “the world,” planet earth, actually works. And yes, it’s destructive. And yes, it causes this terrible human tragedy. And at the same time, I can marvel at volcanoes, even as I know volcanoes kill people. I can marvel at space images of hurricanes and then also remember that, yeah, that’s destroying cities underneath those hurricanes. And the tragedy of Haiti is the tragedy of death. So, you have half a million people dying in a tsunami in the south seas. You have how many thousands of people dying in Haiti. But we all die. And that death is equally tragic whether it happens a million at a time or one-by-one-by-one because each of dies individually. The issue of why is there evil in the world, and why is there suffering, is one that we’re never going to have a final answer to. The only answer that does work is: it’s part of human freedom. It has something to do with free will.
Fr. Coyne: You know Krista, you mention that we’re passionately interested in the life and death of stars. And it reminds me of the fact that it’s true, but it’s not adequate, because my knowledge of the life and death of stars leads me also to know that there’s a unity in the whole universe with respect to life and death. If stars were not being born and dying, we would not be here. The sun is a third generation star. It was only after three generations of stars that we had the chemical abundance to make an amoeba, to make primitive life forms, and then through that to come to ourselves. So there is a unity in our scientific knowledge if we search for it. Human life is so rich with life and death, with suffering, with music, and art, and love, and hatred. To limit our human experience to our scientific knowledge is to really impoverish all of us. And I’m afraid many scientists do that. Science is the only way to true and certain knowledge; a kind of scientism. And I think that really impoverishes all of human culture.
[music: “Paral.Lel” by Near the Parenthesis]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, remembering Vatican Astronomer Father George Coyne who died last week. I spoke with him, together with another renowned Jesuit astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno, about asteroids, stars, and the love of God.
[music: “Paral.Lel” by Near the Parenthesis]
Tippett: Anyway, we were talking a minute ago about not needing God to explain science. But I wonder, talking about, say, Christian doctrines like the Fall of Genesis or the Easter account of death and resurrection — how do they work together with or alongside? How are they informed by — or do you live them differently because of the work you do with the natural world?
Br. Consolmango: Well, certainly being an astronomer and aware of the great possibility that there are other intelligences, other races, makes you then reflect, what does the salvation story of the human race mean in a cosmic sense? And it doesn’t mean that, ah, well, it didn’t really happen. It means that there’s more to it than you would have been aware of if you thought that we were the only creatures out there in a relationship to God. So that I think it allows you to see it in greater depth, that allows you to see that there is more to original sin than just the Adam and Eve story. That the Adam and Eve story is a way of trying to come to grips with it. But in a cosmos that’s bigger than that, you can say, ah, what are the essentials? What is the reality? How is it possible? We can speculate. And that’s what science fictionists write about.
Tippett: You mean what are the essentials in the story?
Br. Consolmango: In the story. And the essentials are the free will of the actors and the invitation of God. So I would assume if there are ETs anywhere else, that would continue to be the story. Now, does it mean that they had to have another Jesus and another crucifix? I’m not there. I don’t know. But I suspect it allows us to then reflect back on the way it really did play out with our race, and realize God didn’t have to do it that way. But he chose to do it this way with us. And isn’t that interesting?
Tippett: This evokes a question that I’ve heard raised in discussions about science and religion. People will say the difference between a scientific perspective and a religious perspective is that scientists are asking questions and open to having every idea disproved. OK? And they’ll say religion does not have that flexibility.
Br. Consolmango: Obviously they’ve never talked to a theologian.
Tippett: [laughs] Right. Well, that’s true.
Fr. Coyne: Or a true religious believer.
Tippett: How would you explain the fact that that’s not an adequate account?
Fr. Coyne: Look, to have faith is to run an extreme risk. It’s not, you know — “Rock of Ages” is a nice hymn and I’m not contesting it, but my faith is not a rock upon which I stand and fight against the arrows of outrageous fortune, et cetera. And God ran a risk and still does. Guy was leaning towards that. That’s original sin. Sin of any kind is what God risked.
Br. Consolmango: Whenever you’re starting a friendship or falling in love, you’re putting yourself on the line and you’re running the risk that the other is going to reject you and maybe reject you in the worst possible way. And, you know, we were all teenagers; we all ran into that one way or another. And throughout our lives we run into friends who disappoint us. It doesn’t mean we stop loving those friends and when we disappoint them, we hope they can forgive us too. But that’s part of being alive and the alternative is to be a rock, like the old Simon and Garfunkel song. That’s not how you live.
Fr. Coyne: [laughs] Yeah, true. You know, science has some parallels to this. This is kind of risky in its own way too, to say, but other than ourselves, spiritual beings, self-reflected beings, I don’t think we can truly attribute freedom to a rock, to a star, to the universe as a whole. Right?
But there is within our scientific knowledge, there is an analogy to this. From the very uncertainty principle, quantum mechanics leads us to know that there is built into the universe a certain minimal uncertainty. Now, I’m not going to call that freedom, but there is a growing knowledge from the study of nonlinear dynamical systems, chaos and complexity, that even on a macro scale the universe has in it a certain indeterminism. Now, indeterminism you cannot equate with freedom, but what I’m trying to say is that even the physical universe that we examine by scientific methods is kind of a basis for this whole notion of freedom. It participates at a much lower level in this whole risk of God, of making a universe that has these qualities about it that we know as scientists. And making human beings — and that’s the most serious risk God ran — human beings who can resist God, can turn away from God.
Br. Consolmango: And certainly, the act of doing science and the act of being a religious believer have these same sorts of parallels — that the science that will be done 200 years from now will look really different from what George and I do, and all of our results will be forgotten. But they couldn’t have gotten there without the few bricks that we’ve added to the edifice. And yet we know that our understanding of the universe is always incomplete, and we know our understanding of God is always incomplete. The classic definition of “theology” is “faith seeking understanding.” I’ve got this faith; now what the heck do I do with it? How do I make sense of it?”
Tippett: You, Brother Guy, have also — you have a really interesting definition of faith. I mean, it may sound simple but it’s something that people have a hard time defining. You’ve written, “Christianity does not start with faith but with experience. Faith is our reaction to that experience.” And you also point out that science ultimately does not begin with logic but with intuition. Or at least a lot of science.
Br. Consolmango: That’s true. You have to experience something before you can react to it, and you’re always reacting to it with insufficient data. If you’re going to fall in love and marry somebody, you don’t know how it’s going to work for the next 50 or 60 years. You have to take that leap. And that’s the same way in pursuing a scientific theory — that when you have a great idea you don’t know if after two years you’re going to realize, “Boy, did I make a mistake. I just wasted two years chasing down the wrong path.” Though it’s never totally a waste. Certainly you could guess wrong, you could guess right. And we all do. So it’s this marvelous interplay between our intuition and then our logic, and that’s why it’s such a human experience. It’s something you could never program a computer to do.
[music: “Battuto” by Turtle Island String Quartet]
Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Brother Guy Consolmagno and Father George Coyne through our website, onbeing.org.
Coming up, Brother Guy and Father George on the virtue of ignorance in science and religion; also, the fascinating history behind what one English journalist called this “Jesuit hit squad of astronomers” inside the Vatican.
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Battuto” by Turtle Island String Quartet]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, we’re remembering the wise and beloved Vatican astronomer Father George Coyne who died last week. He spent much of his life studying the composition of meteorites and the life and death of stars. He was the former director of the Vatican’s astronomical observatory and I spoke with him together with Brother Guy Consolmagno, who Pope Francis named director of the observatory in 2015.
Tippett: I’d like to hear from both of you about how your take on life, which is very much informed by your science — how that resonates with Catholic theology and tradition in particular.
Br. Consolmango: Oh, that’ll be easy. [laughs]
Fr. Coyne: [laughs] How it relates to Catholic theology and tradition.
Tippett: Or resonates. So I think Guy you wrote somewhere that “Catholic intellectual achievement” — this is very intriguing — “has human fallibility with all the accompanying richness and pathos at its center.”
Br. Consolmango: Right. I remember when I wrote that I’m thinking, “Oh, it’s going to come back and haunt me.”
Tippett: [laughs] I think it’s fascinating. And what you were drawing — you weren’t necessarily talking about theology, but the world of literature and art and poetry and culture that has been defined by Catholicism.
Br. Consolmango: It is that sense of not knowing ahead of time where it’s going to go, that it’s not all pat. And yet, you can approach it intellectually. I think one of the joys of being a Catholic is that we’ve got this rich intellectual tradition at the same time that we’ve got the smells and bells, and the hymns and all of the other emotional part, that are all responses to the awareness that there is this god and I want to do something about it.
Fr. Coyne: I would add just a little note. I think it’s exciting to be ignorant. And I think our ignorance in pursuing science has something to do with this whole idea of the uncertainties involved in a relationship of love with God that I call faith.
I’ll give you a story which says better and kind of talking philosophically about this. I gave a paper at a scientific meeting on the uncertainties and our determination of the age of the universe. There’s several methods we use for determining the age of the universe and their degree of uncertainty involved with each of them. Well, whenever I’m at a scientific conference or so, I’m not dressed as a priest because it just — why? It just confuses things.
But I had just given a talk in a church or something, so I gave this talk and I was wearing my Roman collar. So a gentleman stood up — the discussion period, question period, and the first thing he said, he said, “Father.” And I trembled at the thought that he had, first of all, called me Father, but then he proceeded to build upon that and he said, “Father, it must be wonderful that with all the uncertainties we have in our scientific pursuits that you have this faith, this rock of faith to stand upon.” So what I did is I took off my Roman collar and faced him down and said, “Who told you that my faith was kind of a rock?” I said, “Every morning I wake up, I have my doubts. I have my uncertainties. I have to struggle to help my faith grow.” Because faith is love. Love in marriage, love with friends, love brothers and sisters, is not something that’s there once and for all and always kind of a rock that gives us support. And so what I want to say is ignorance in doing science creates the excitement of doing science. And anyone who does it knows that discoveries lead to a further ignorance.
Br. Consolmango: The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.
Tippett: And you feel the same way, that that’s true with faith as well?
Br. Consolmango: Oh, well, exactly. I keep going back to this wonderful phrase that Anne Lamott came out with a few years ago: “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.” If you’re sure about something then you don’t need faith. It’s when you have the doubts that faith kicks in. And that’s true in science as well as anything else.
Tippett: Didn’t she also say, “Faith is a verb, not a noun?”
Br. Consolmango: Oh, very good. Yes. But what George is saying about the joy of ignorance — this is, of course, an old tradition that goes back — well, Socrates himself, he says, “I’m wiser than everyone else because I know I don’t know.” And Nicholas of Cusa who wrote about extraterrestrial beings in the 14th century, did so in a book that basically is — The Book of Ignorance is one way of translating the title.
Fr. Coyne: I mean, we have examples of it in science down through history but take just in most recent times, the past two decades. We knew the universe was expanding. We marveled at the fact that it was expanding at just such a rate that it was on the borderline of expanding forever or collapsing. Right on the borderline. Now, that itself is a marvel. Of all the possibilities, expanding so fast at the beginning that nothing could come to be, there could be no self-gravities so that galaxies and stars formed or expanding so slowly that it collapsed in upon itself almost as soon as it began to expand. Of all those possibilities, it was right on the edge. So we were delighted with that and marveled at that until within the past — at most 10 years, I suppose, with very accurate observations of distant quasars, we know now very well that the universe is not only expanding, but it’s accelerating in its expansion.
Br. Consolmango: To the point where 75 percent of the universe, we now calculate, is made up of stuff we didn’t even know existed 10 years ago.
Fr. Coyne: How more ignorant can you be? So what we called this …
Tippett: And yet, you’re right, it’s thrilling, isn’t it?
Br. Consolmango: It is.
Fr. Coyne: It is, because we call it dark energy. You know why we call it dark energy? Because…
Fr. Coyne: … our brains are dark.
Br. Consolmango: We’re in the dark about it.
Tippett: [laughs] Let me ask you this. Yeah …
Fr. Coyne: I mean, that’s as ignorant as you can get. OK? I mean, it challenges gravity, which is very fundamental to all of our understanding, always has been, since Newton.
Tippett: But I think you’re saying that ignorance in this sense is something to take delight in.
Fr. Coyne: Educated ignorance.
Br. Consolmango: The awareness that we don’t know.
Fr. Coyne: Right. Right.
Br. Consolmango: You know, if we had all the answers, boy, we’d have nothing left to do. It’d be a terrible universe.
Tippett: So Father George, were you the head of the Vatican Observatory when you, Guy, originally came there? Is that true?
Br. Consolmango: That’s right.
Fr. Coyne: That’s correct.
Fr. Coyne: Yeah. And he’s held it against me ever since.
Tippett: And is it also right that all the cosmologists and astronomers of the Vatican Observatory research group are Jesuits?
Br. Consolmango: With one exception. There is a diocesan priest, Alessandro Omizzolo, who works in the study of quasars and galaxy clusters. He’s a diocesan priest.
Tippett: So what is that about? What is it about Jesuits and astronomy?
Br. Consolmango: The Observatory was founded in its modern form in, what, 1891?
Fr. Coyne: 1891.
Tippett: So this really became part of the identity of the Jesuit order, you’re saying, this …
Fr. Coyne: Now, you must know that history is history. So the first director of the Vatican
Observatory at its formal founding in 1891 was a Barnabite priest. There were no Jesuits on the staff at that time. It was only in 1906 that the pope asked the boss of the Jesuits to assign Jesuits to staff the Observatory.
Br. Consolmango: And basically, I think it was 1930s before the entire Observatory was just handed over to the Jesuits.
Fr. Coyne: That’s correct. Yeah. So it’s entrusted to us now. I mean, there’s a long tradition — I’m proud of it — from the 1580s or so in there of a group of renowned mathematicians, scientists, if you wish, astronomers, because everybody did everything in science in those days, within about 40 years after the founding of the Jesuits at the Roman College in downtown Rome. The Jesuits there were the first to corroborate Galileo’s telescopic observations, to say that, yes, what Galileo saw we see with our own telescope, etc. Some of them were friends of Galileo, some not so friendly, by the way, but nonetheless.
Br. Consolmango: But like any other group. Christopher Clavius has a crater in the moon named for him. You probably know it from the movie 2001 Space Odyssey. But the interesting thing about Clavius is he was involved in the reform of the calendar in the 1580s, and he wrote a letter of recommendation for a very young Galileo who was looking for a teaching job.
Fr. Coyne: That’s right. Yeah. By the way, speaking of Jesuits on the moon, there are about 26 features on the moon, I believe — may vary slightly — named for Jesuit scientists of those days.
Br. Consolmango: And that’s easy because it was a Jesuit who made the map and stuck the names on there. Very easy to do.
Fr. Coyne: People ask me, Krista, “Well, how many Jesuits are on the moon?” I say, “I think there are about 26. There are another 126 we’d like to send there, but we can’t get permission.”
Tippett: Now, don’t both of you have asteroids named after you? Is that right?
Br. Consolmango: It’s very embarrassing. I know of four Jesuits who have asteroids named for them. One is our founder, Loyola; one is our greatest saint, Xavier; and the other two are George and me.
Tippett: Well, I am honored to be sitting …
Br. Consolmango: But that’s because we’ve got friends.
Fr. Coyne: And I hardly know what an asteroid is, but Guy has been instructing me.
Tippett: Well, how does that feel, to have an asteroid named after you?
Br. Consolmango: It was really fun to tell my dad, you know? I’m not giving him grandkids but at least he’s got something with the family name.
Tippett: Something more enduring.
Br. Consolmango: Well, I don’t know about that. As long as it’s not the one that comes and hits the Earth, we’re in good shape.
Tippett: Father George, you wrote this, which I thought was very intriguing, that “a Jesuit’s vocation is to travel. Our study is our worship. Our charism is to find God in all things.”
Fr. Coyne: Yeah. That’s very Ignatian, by the way. Ignatius founded the Jesuits, and one of his principal, spiritual, let’s call it slogan — but it’s more than a slogan — was precisely what you said, “finding God in all things.” This is the Reformation period. Christianity is breaking up. The Protestant congregations are growing. And Ignatius founds this religious order saying to the popes, “I want to found a monastic order but a different kind of monastic order.” He had a very difficult time establishing this principle, that Jesuits will be monks but they will not have cells in a monastery building. Their cell, their monastic cell, is to be where they are, in the classroom, in the laboratory, at a telescope, in a nursing home helping people — that their cell was to be there where they were working. In other words, they were to find God where they were in their apostolic work.
Tippett: Something else, especially in your writings, Brother Guy, you describe how, actually, the building in which the Vatican Observatory is housed, that piece of architecture, that piece of land, tells some of this story of the drama of the relationship between the Church and science across the centuries.
Br. Consolmango: There’s a whole history for the gardens in Castel Gandolfo where our headquarters is. These gardens are the papal gardens. They have been part of the pope’s summer home going back quite a ways. But the original area, it’s a beautiful area by Lake Albano, was originally the site of a palace of the Emperor Domitian — the Roman emperor around the year 100. He was the first Roman emperor to systematically persecute Christians, and his palace became the pope’s gardens.
Now, when the Barberini family got a hold of the Castel Gandolfo, in the late 1500s, Maffeo Barberini built a summer home. Maffeo Barberini became Pope Urban VIII, who was of course the pope who called in Galileo. And his summer home now has two telescopes on the roof, thanks to Galileo.
The final bit is that there was a plaque in this home dedicated to Clement XIV, who was the pope who, from this place, actually wrote the writ that stopped the Jesuit order from existing for 46 years. And for about 75 years, right next to that plaque was a Jesuit community. So the idea is what goes around, comes around.
Fr. Coyne: Oh, history always has its jokes.
Tippett: Yeah. I guess that that’s personality of God with a sense of humor that you mentioned earlier on.
Fr. Coyne: Yeah.
Br. Consolmango: Absolutely.
[music: “Entre Amor” by Inti Illimani]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, remembering Vatican Astronomer Father George Coyne who died last week. I spoke with him, together with another renowned Jesuit astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno, about asteroids, stars, and the love of God.
[music: “Entre Amor” by Inti Illimani]
Tippett: I’ve actually spoken with more physicists across the years than astronomers, and now — I know mathematics is at the heart of it.
Fr. Coyne: Lucky you.
Tippett: So, coming back to Galileo. He said “mathematics is the language in which the universe is written.” And I know physicists in particular talk a lot about the beauty and elegance of mathematics. I know that’s important to both of you too, but it strikes me that as astronomers there’s also this visual aspect to what you do. And I’m just curious about that.
Br. Consolmango: Well, first of all, you have to remember that to Galileo mathematics meant primarily geometry. So it was a very visual science.
Tippett: Right. So it was visual and spatial. Yes.
Br. Consolmango: Secondly, what he was doing by saying that was controversial, precisely because Aristotle had tried to back away from using too much mathematics in science for the very good reason that before him people were trying to explain everything in terms of magic numbers. There could only be seven planets because of the numbers of spheres and things like that. So everything is a reaction against what came before.
The third and most wonderful thing was that after the Galileo affair — before Galileo people had been using the physical world as a model of the metaphysical world, that you have the spheres of the planets representing the spheres of the …
Fr. Coyne: Kepler in particular, yeah.
Br. Consolmango: And Kepler was very, very guilty of this. The Church said you couldn’t do that anymore, and you certainly couldn’t do that with the Copernican system, which was quite true. So the study of astronomy, including the study of the Copernican system, continued in Catholic schools, the Jesuit schools, but no longer in the natural history classroom or the natural philosophy classroom. Instead, it was in the mathematics classroom. And this historical accident has all given great impetus to using mathematics as a way of describing the universe.
But it’s certainly not the only way to describe it. I come from an earth science background. And while there’s a lot of places where we can put measures and write equations, an awful lot of it is still being able to look at a road cut and saying these layers came before those layers, and I can see it. And either you see it or you don’t. There’s a geologist friend of mine who came back from one of these trips saying, “You know, if I hadn’t believed it, I’d have never seen it.”
Tippett: [laughs] OK.
Fr. Coyne: Yeah, true.
Tippett: You also used the Van Gogh painting as an illustration of sometimes what’s lacking in the way we talk about science and religion, and that just struck me also because that’s, again, visual. It’s something you can see.
Br. Consolmango: It is. And it reminds us that Van Gogh, when he’s drawing stars, he is not trying to give us the same information that George is trying to get when he’s taking spectra of the stars with the telescope. But he is trying to communicate information, and there’s more information in those stars than what’s in the spectrum. But there’s plenty of information in the spectrum, as well as what’s in Van Gogh.
Fr. Coyne: You know, my take on mathematics, and I think it’s faithful to what Galileo said, I mean, the language of the universe is mathematics. Language is a tool, right? It’s a tool whereby we express to one another what we know — always in a limited way. Mathematics abstracts from a lot of the beauty, a lot of the complication of the real world, but it is an attempt to understand the beauty of the world. It doesn’t disassociate itself from the beauty — tries to abstract in order to further understand the beauty. And I can’t talk to Galileo now, but I think that was the idea that Galileo had when he — that famous phrase of mathematics is the language of the universe.
Br. Consolmango: We have a mathematician on our staff among the dozen Jesuits, and he’s pointed out this marvelous argument that mathematicians have: Is a mathematical truth discovered or invented? Was it there before a mathematician realized it, or is it something that is a product of the human mind?
Tippett: Don’t most people think it’s discovered?
Br. Consolmango: There’s an awful lot that’s invented too.
Fr. Coyne: Depends on what you mean by post. It’s a classical and still enduring debate as to whether mathematics is intrinsic to the universe or whether the human brain is such that it imposes — it’s too strong a word — imposes mathematical structure on the universe.
Br. Consolmango: One of the issues we always have as scientists when we’re trying to extract a generalization from the data is, is the generalization really there, or is it just us finding faces in the clouds? And sometimes it turns out that we get fooled and we see generalizations that aren’t there.
Tippett: I mean, did Einstein discover or invent the laws of physics? He discovered them, didn’t he?
Fr. Coyne: Ohhh. This is debatable, Krista.
Br. Consolmango: Because of course his laws of physics aren’t the final answer. And we’re never going to have a final answer.
Fr. Coyne: But the last thing we want to do is make God a mathematician. I mean, that’s even worse than making God an engineer, like Intelligent Design movement does. Right?
Tippett: OK. Tell me what you mean by that.
Fr. Coyne: I mean, God is a god of love. Mathematics is not the language of love.
Br. Consolmango: Well, depends if you’re a mathematician or not. I’ll put it in a different way. When I was a little kid, 9 years old, I remember a rainy Sunday afternoon. You couldn’t go out to play, and you were stuck in the house. And my mom came out with a deck of cards and dealt them out, and we played rummy together. Now, my mom can beat me in cards because I’m nine years old. That wasn’t the point of the game. The point of the game was this was her way of telling me she loved me in a way that she couldn’t just say, “Son, I love you,” because I’m 9 years old. I’m going to squirm and go, “Aw, Mom,” and run away. In a way, being able to do science and come to an intimate knowledge of creation is God’s way of playing with us. And it’s that kind of play that is one way that God tells us how he loves us. So is it invented? It’s as invented as the card game. But is it an act of love? It’s as much an act of love as the card game.
Fr. Coyne: I like that. Playing games with God. Or God playing games with us. That’s true. Made a universe that has that fascinating attraction about it. Which, doing science to me is a search for God, and I’ll never have the final answers because the universe participates in the mystery of God. If we knew it all, I’d sit under a palm tree with my gin and tonic and just let the world go by.
Br. Consolmango: Which is not a bad thing to do every now and then.
Fr. Coyne: Well, every now and then, but it’d get kind of boring.
Tippett: [laughs] Well this has been a fantastic conversation, and I want to thank both of you so much. I’m so glad I could get you together in the same room as well.
Fr. Coyne: OK, Krista.
Br. Consolmango: Thanks for having us.
Fr. Coyne: Bye for now.
Br. Consolmango: Bye-bye.
Fr. Coyne: Good, Guy.
Br. Consolmango: I don’t think either of us is going to be excommunicated for that one.
Fr. Coyne: I don’t think so.
[music: “Fok” by Olafur Arnalds]
Tippett: Father George Coyne died in Syracuse, New York, on February 11, 2020. His books included Wayfarers in the Cosmos: The Human Quest for Meaning. He was the director of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory from 1978 to 2006. Brother Guy Consolmagno was appointed Director of the Vatican Observatory on September 18, 2015 by Pope Francis. His books include Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist and Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ Inbox at the Vatican Observatory.
[music: “Three Sides of a Coin” by El Ten Eleven]
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