Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Jim Davis - Florida Catholic
MIAMI | Brother Guy Joseph Consolmagno was sitting in the courtyard at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School when a preteen boy approached.
"I hear you do science," the boy said with a shy smile.
Brother Guy returned the smile. "Yeah, I do."
"I like science," the boy said.
"That makes two of us! Keep it up!"
He's certainly taken his own advice. Brother Guy, a Jesuit, is director of the Vatican Observatory, with telescopes in Italy and Arizona. He's worked with schools like MIT, Harvard, Fordham and Loyola.
And he recently spent a day at the Belen school: rubbing elbows with astronomy students, fielding questions about the profession, sparring politely about faith and science, peering through the school's 16-inch telescope.
He found it rather nostalgic.
"I was just like them at that age — bright, challenging borders, asking good questions," he said in an interview. "What's impressive is that they stop to listen to the answers."
Brother Guy's day at Belen actually began the previous night, with 20 members of the school's astronomy club. They looked at the moon, Venus and the Orion Nebula through its telescope, which school officials say is the largest of its kind at an American high school.
Next morning found Brother Guy addressing the whole 1,500-student body, followed by a tour of the school complex. He spoke again at lunch with students, supporters and school personnel. Then he did a meet-and-greet with Science Department faculty.
Most of the luncheon talk offered tips on careers in science. Two surprising suggestions: Study poetry to sharpen your analytical skills; and go into physics — the latter, because physics departments are often short on students and will work hard for your success.
Student Esteban Guio, president of the Science National Honor Society, said he especially enjoyed the advice.
"I loved the fact that he was prepping us for real life," Guio said. "Like when he said that to be a good scientist, you need to be able to present. If you only have a good idea and don’t sell it, you're not going to get out there."
During lunch, Brother Guy also took questions, which led to a bit of friendly parrying with a student over such heady concepts as determinism and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Finally, Brother Guy wrapped up the dialogue: "God is not deterministic. God has freedom, and he gives it to each of us. He doesn't play with us."
For the "why" of his work as a Vatican astronomer, he ran a five-minute video of "someone who can explain it better than I can" — drawing laughs when the speaker turned out to be Brother Guy himself.
"Both science and religion are conversations about the universe," he said in the video. "Looking at the sky reminds you that there is more to the universe than what's for lunch. What's more, if you believe in a universe that God so loved that he sent his Son, then not only are you going to want to study the universe because it's kind of cool — it's an act of worship."
Sebastian Suárez, president of the astronomy club, said later that he admired Brother Guy's humility.
"I'm not personally religious, but my viewpoint is similar to his — I don’t think science and religion clash," said Suárez, who says he plans to study astronomy in college. "I don’t insist my belief is true. I believe the universe can be explained both ways. I won't argue with someone over it."
Also in the video was a timeline of the Church's involvement in astronomy, starting with Pope Gregory XIII ordering its study in 1582. At various times since Pope Leo XIII established an observatory in 1891, the Vatican has set up telescopes in Vatican City, then atop the papal palace in Castel Gandolfo, 15 miles southeast of Rome. The latest addition, in 1993, was the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, an optical-infrared instrument atop Mount Graham in Arizona.
Brother Guy has worked as an astronomer with the Vatican Observatory since 1991, including two years as an adjunct. He has been director since 2015.
He has written or co-written six books, including a textbook, a popular astronomy book, and four science and religion books — one with the playful title of "Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?"
His Feb. 1 visit came as Belen was celebrating its 160th anniversary. Founded in Havana, the school moved to Miami in 1961 after the Castro regime confiscated its property, along with all other schools in Cuba. Nowadays, Belen has more than 6,000 alumni.
Father Guillermo Garcia-Tuñón, president of Belen, arranged the visit after a mutual acquaintance got him in touch with Brother Guy. He said he welcomed the chance to remind students that "the Church is very much vested in the sciences. There's no conflict between being a man of faith and a man of science.
"I also liked how he emphasized that to deepen your understanding of science will eventually lead you to God," added Father Willie, as many at the school call him. "He said that God is the way, the truth and the life. So if you discover the truth, you'll eventually discover God."
However, Brother Guy said he doesn't try to change minds. "Most of what I do is reassure people of science and faith that they are not alone. I don’t want to hear 'You changed my mind,' but 'You said what I've been thinking.'"
But he was unapologetic in arguing for the credibility of a spiritual approach to science. Most scientists themselves feel much the same, he said.
"As a Jesuit, I have permission to talk about what most scientists already thought," Brother Guy said. "Most are deeply religious, but they shy away from talking about it.
"By itself, science is useless for proving or disproving God," he added. "But if you believe in God already, then science can show you the personality of the Creator. And for me, my belief is the best reason to do science: as a way of getting to know the Creator better."