Transcript for Guy Consolmagno and George Coyne — Asteroids, Stars, and the Love of God

April 1, 2010

Krista Tippett, host I'm Krista Tippett. Today, "Asteroids, Stars, and the Love of God." I speak with two Jesuit astronomers who study the composition of meteorites and the life and death of stars, and Father George Coyne and Brother Guy Consolmagno — both have asteroids named after them. We experience the spacious way they think about life, faith, and the universe.

Brother Guy Consolmagno: Van Gogh, when he was drawing stars, 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.

Father George Coyne: 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.

Ms. Tippett: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.

[Announcements]

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett. This hour, we explore life, faith, and the universe with two astronomers who study the composition of meteorites and the life and death of stars. They're also both Catholic monastics of the Jesuit order.

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 mapped the moon, after all; a Jesuit was one of the founders of modern astrophysics. And four Jesuits in history, including Ignatius of Loyola, have had asteroids named after them. My guests this hour are the two living men with that distinction: Brother Guy Consolmagno and Father George Coyne. They're also good friends.

Fr. Coyne: I hardly know what an asteroid is but Guy has been instructing me.

Ms. Tippett: Well, how does that feel, to have an asteroid named after you?

Br. Consolmagno: 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.

Ms. Tippett: From American Public Media this is Speaking of Faith, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas.

Today, "Asteroids, Stars, and the Love of God: Two Astronomers and Their Faith."

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Ms. Tippett: 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. Father George Coyne was director of the Observatory when Brother Guy first came to work there and today he is president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. I spoke with them together at the University of Arizona, where the Vatican Observatory has a research center.

I wanted to hear a little as we began to speak about the beginnings of their respective religious and scientific vocations. Brother Guy was already an astronomer when he decided to become a Jesuit in his late 30s. Father George grew up in a devoutly Catholic Baltimore family, went to a Jesuit high school, and joined his lot with the order at 18 when they, as he puts it, "threw out the fishing net." His passion for cosmology and astronomy developed a few years later and was encouraged, as so many of our stories go, by a few engaging teachers.

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Fr. Coyne: 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, what, 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.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Fr. Coyne: So he'd go to the blackboard and he'd trace the ecliptic and the celestial equator. And 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 your reading."

Ms. Tippett: Oh, that's a great story.

Fr. Coyne: Each of us have our own history like that.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Fr. Coyne: You know, the serendipity things that happen.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Fr. Coyne: But enough about me. That's how I got beginning, yep, in astronomy.

Ms. Tippett: OK. Great. I love that story. OK. So Brother Guy, now you — you actually were a scientist before you became a Jesuit. You were born in Detroit? Is that right?

Br. Consolmagno: That's right.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. And did you have a Catholic upbringing also?

Br. Consolmagno: 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. You know, 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." And 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.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Br. Consolmagno: And that was so exciting.

Ms. Tippett: And asteroids have continued to be your specialty.

Br. Consolmagno: Asteroids and meteorites and basically small bodies in the solar system, how they're put together and how they evolve over time.

Ms. Tippett: And then your story has some interesting turns. You got your degree at MIT. You did post-doctoral work at Harvard and at MIT. And then you went into Peace Corps.

Br. Consolmagno: I also had my doctorate, actually, from Arizona. Don't want to forget that.

Ms. Tippett: OK. Right. All right. All right.

Fr. Coyne: While I was on the faculty.

Br. Consolmagno: Yeah. That's where George and I first met.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, in Arizona. And then you went into the Peace Corps and you 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. Consolmagno: 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.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Br. Consolmagno: And that was my first clue that maybe there was more to astronomy than just, you know, 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's as deep and 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.

Ms. Tippett: OK. I think that the two of you embody and 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 know, you're very much to me in the lineage of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, even Darwin in a sense. I mean, 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. Consolmagno: 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.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Br. Consolmagno: And it'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." It's such a surprise.

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Ms. Tippett: 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, OK, is built upon the following: I'm a scientist. I try and understand the universe. My understanding of the universe does not need God.

Ms. 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, OK? 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. Consolmagno: 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.

Ms. Tippett: Right. But, you know, 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. Consolmagno: Maybe you're talking about a science of the gaps at this point.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Exactly.

Br. Consolmagno: So that's been the temptation all along.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, that's interesting.

Fr. Coyne: That's a good expression. Science of the gaps. Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Fr. Coyne: You know, I'd like to add a word to this though, um, if I believe in God, and I do, OK, 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 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.

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Ms. Tippett: Father George Coyne. He often expounds on another feature of the universe: its fertility. Thirteen-point-seven billion years of cosmic birth, death, and replenishment. Three generations of stars, as Father George describes it, had to live and die to sow the chemical abundance that made life on earth possible. To make sense of such a vast amount of time, he scales it into a one-year timeline of which humans have existed for the last two minutes and modern science for the last second. See a chart of this and watch Father George Coyne talk about it on our blog at speakingoffaith.org.

I'm Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media — today, with Father George Coyne together with another renowned Jesuit astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno. We're exploring asteroids, stars, and the love of God.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. 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. Consolmagno: 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.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Br. Consolmagno: 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. Yeah, that's what science fictionists write about.

Ms. Tippett: You mean what are the essentials in the story?

Br. Consolmagno: In the story. And the essentials are the free will of the actors and the invitation of God. So I would assume that 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.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right.

Br. Consolmagno: But I suspect it allows us to then reflect back on the way it actually did play out in our universe, 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?

Ms. Tippett: And so this sort of 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. Consolmagno: Obviously they've never talked to a theologian.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Well, that's true.

Fr. Coyne: Or a true religious believer.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. Because how would you explain the fact that that's not an adequate account?

Fr. Coyne: Look faith is — 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, you know, fight against the arrows of outrageous fortune, et cetera. And God ran a risk, and still does. Guy was leaning towards that. You know, that's original sin. Sin of any kind is what God risked.

Br. Consolmagno: You know, 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.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Br. Consolmagno: That's not how you live.

Fr. Coyne: 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?

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Fr. Coyne: But there is within our scientific knowledge, there is an analogy to this. I mean, from the very uncertainty principle, OK, quantum mechanics leads us to know that there is built into the universe a certain minimal uncertainty.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Fr. Coyne: Right. Now, I'm not going to call that freedom but there is, you know, 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. Consolmagno: And certainly, the act of doing science and the act of being a religious believer have these same sorts of parallels.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Br. Consolmagno: 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.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Br. Consolmagno: And yet we know that our understanding of the universe is always incomplete, and we know our understanding of God is always incomplete.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Br. Consolmagno: So that, you know, 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?"

Ms. Tippett: You, Brother Guy, have also — you have a really interesting, um, 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. Consolmagno: That's true. You have to experience something before you can react to it and you're always reacting to it with insufficient data. You know, 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.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Br. Consolmagno: 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.

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Ms. Tippett: As you can hear, this conversation with Brother Guy Consolmagno and Father George Coyne was rife with poignant observations and witty one-liners, just perfect for posting on our Twitter account. Well, for those of you like myself who haven't quite opted in to the 140-character phenom, our online editor has compiled them all on our blog, Pertinent Posts from the Speaking of Faith Blog, and he's paired them with gorgeous images. Visit our Web site and see a collection of historical and contemporary images of the Vatican Observatory sites in Rome and Arizona and view their telescopic photos of asteroids and the expanding universe.

And some of our richest, most engaging discussions about science and religion are now taking place on our Facebook fan page. Here we share our many interests, provide updates about each week's show, and ask you to help us navigate this adventure of important discussion and real relationship online and in person. Visit our home page to find links to this community, this show, and all our past shows at speakingoffaith.org.

After a short break, the virtue of ignorance in science and religion and the fascinating history behind what one U.K. paper called "the Jesuit hit squad of astronomers" inside the Vatican.

I'm Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.

[Announcements]

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Ms. Tippett: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I'm Krista Tippett. Today, "Asteroids, Stars, and the Love of God."

We're exploring the thought and the faith of two Jesuit astronomers who've spent their lives studying the composition of meteorites and the life and death of stars. Brother Guy Consolmagno is the curator of one of the world's largest collections of meteorites at the Vatican's astronomical Observatory. Father George Coyne is Director Emeritus of the Vatican Observatory and president of its foundation.

Ms. 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. Consolmagno: Hmm. Oh, that'll be easy.

Fr. Coyne: How it relates to Catholic theology and tradition.

Ms. Tippett: Or resonates. Like, 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. Consolmagno: Right. I remember when I wrote that I'm thinking, "Oh, it's going to come back and haunt me."

Ms. Tippett: 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 that — and culture that has been defined by Catholicism.

Br. Consolmagno: And 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, you know, 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. You know, I one time — I'll give you a story, very quickly, which says better and kind of talking philosophically about this.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Fr. Coyne: 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 there a 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? You know, it just confuses things.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right.

Fr. Coyne: 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, you know, in 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, you know, with all the uncertainties we have in our scientific pursuits that you have this faith …

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right.

Fr. Coyne: … 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. Consolmagno: The more you know, the more you know you don't know.

Ms. Tippett: And you feel the same way, that that's true with faith as well?

Br. Consolmagno: 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.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, yeah. Right.

Br. Consolmagno: It's when you have the doubts that faith kicks in. And that's true in science as well as anything else.

Ms. Tippett: Didn't she also say, "Faith is a verb, not a noun?"

Br. Consolmagno: 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, you know, 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.

Ms. Tippett: Really?

Br. Consolmagno: Yeah.

Fr. Coyne: I mean, in modern times, I mean, we have examples of it in science down through history but take just in most recent times, the past two decades, OK? 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. OK? Right on the borderline.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right.

Fr. Coyne: 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. Consolmagno: 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.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right. Right.

Fr. Coyne: How more ignorant can you be? So what we called this …

Ms. Tippett: And yet, you're right, it's thrilling, isn't it?

Br. Consolmagno: It is.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Fr. Coyne: It is, because we call it dark energy. You know why we call it dark energy? Because …

Ms. Tippett: Why?

Fr. Coyne: … our brains are dark.

Br. Consolmagno: We're in the dark about it.

Ms. Tippett: Let me ask you this. Yeah …

Fr. Coyne: I mean, that's as ignorant as you can get. OK?

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Fr. Coyne: I mean, it challenges gravity, which is very fundamental to all of our understanding, always has been, since Newton.

Ms. Tippett: But I think you're saying that ignorance in this sense is something to take delight in.

Fr. Coyne: Educated ignorance.

Br. Consolmagno: The awareness that we don't know.

Ms. Tippett: Yes. Yes.

Fr. Coyne: Right. Right.

Br. Consolmagno: You know, if we had all the answers, boy, we'd have nothing left to do. It'd be a terrible universe.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: Brother Guy Consolmagno. I'm Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Pubic Media, today exploring "Asteroids, Stars, and the Love of God" with Brother Guy and another astronomer who's also a Jesuit, Father George Coyne.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: So Father George, were you the head of the Vatican Observatory when you, Guy, originally came there? Is that true?

Br. Consolmagno: That's right.

Fr. Coyne: That's correct.

Ms. Tippett: OK. OK.

Fr. Coyne: Yeah. And he's held it against me ever since.

Ms. Tippett: And is it also right that all the cosmologists and astronomers of the Vatican Observatory research group are Jesuits?

Br. Consolmagno: With one exception. There is a diocesan priest, Alessandro Omizzolo, who works in the study of quasars and galaxy clusters.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Br. Consolmagno: He's a diocesan priest.

Ms. Tippett: So what is that about? What is it about Jesuits and astronomy?

Br. Consolmagno: The Observatory was founded in its modern form in, what, 1891?

Fr. Coyne: 1891.

Ms. 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.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Fr. Coyne: 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.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Br. Consolmagno: And basically, I think it was the 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, et cetera. Some of them were friends of Galileo, some not so friendly, by the way, but nonetheless.

Br. Consolmagno: But like any other group.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Br. Consolmagno: Christopher Clavius has a crater in the moon named for him. You probably know it from the movie 2001 Space Odyssey.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Br. Consolmagno: But the interesting thing about Clavius is he was involved in the reform of the calendar in the 1580s …

Ms. Tippett: Yes. Right.

Br. Consolmagno: … 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. Consolmagno: And that's easy because it was a Jesuit who made the map and stuck the names on there.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Fr. Coyne: Yeah. Why not?

Br. Consolmagno: 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."

Ms. Tippett: Now, don't both of you have asteroids named after you? Is that right?

Br. Consolmagno: 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.

Ms. Tippett: Well, I am honored to be sitting …

Br. Consolmagno: But that's because we've got friends.

Fr. Coyne: And I hardly know what an asteroid is, but Guy has been instructing me.

Ms. Tippett: Well, how does that feel, to have an asteroid named after you?

Br. Consolmagno: 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.

Ms. Tippett: Something more enduring.

Br. Consolmagno: 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.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. You know, 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. You know, the Protestant congregations are growing. And Ignatius founds this religious order on 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 a 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.

Ms. Tippett: Something else, especially in your writings, Brother Guy, you describe how actually the building in which the Vatican Observatory is housed, just 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. Consolmagno: Well, there's a whole history for the gardens in Castel Gandolfo where our headquarters is.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Br. Consolmagno: These gardens are the papal gardens. They have been part of the pope's summer home going back to 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, Matteo Barberini built a summer home. Matteo Barberini became Pope Urban VIII.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Br. Consolmagno: Who was of course the pope who called in Galileo. And his summer home now has two telescopes on the roof, thanks to, you know, 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.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Br. Consolmagno: And for about 75 years, right next to that plaque was a Jesuit community. So the idea is what goes around, comes around.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Fr. Coyne: Oh, history always has its jokes.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Fr. Coyne: Yeah, yeah.

Ms. Tippett: I guess that that's personality of God with a sense of humor that you mentioned earlier on.

Fr. Coyne: Yeah.

Br. Consolmagno: Absolutely.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: You know, 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.

Ms. Tippett: Well, 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. It strikes me — 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. I know I'm just curious about that.

Br. Consolmagno: Well, first of all, you have to remember that to Galileo mathematics meant primarily geometry.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Br. Consolmagno: So it was a very visual science.

Ms. Tippett: It was very visual and spatial. Yes.

Br. Consolmagno: 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 …

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Br. Consolmagno: … spheres and things like that. So everything is a reaction against what came before.

Fr. Coyne: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Br. Consolmagno: The third and most wonderful thing was that after the Galileo affair, and 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. Consolmagno: 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.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Br. Consolmagno: 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."

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Fr. Coyne: Yeah, true.

Ms. 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. Consolmagno: 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.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Br. Consolmagno: 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.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

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, you know, 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.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right.

Fr. Coyne: Tries to abstract in order to further understand the beauty. And I think — I can't talk to Galileo now, but I think that was the idea that Galileo had when, you know, that famous phrase of mathematics is the language of the universe.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Br. Consolmagno: 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?

Ms. Tippett: Don't most people think it's discovered?

Br. Consolmagno: 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.

Ms. Tippett: And so …

Br. Consolmagno: One of the issues …

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Br. Consolmagno: 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.

Ms. Tippett: I mean, did Einstein discover or invent the laws of physics? He discovered them, didn't he?

Fr. Coyne: Ohhh. You know, this is debatable, Krista.

Br. Consolmagno: Because of course his laws of physics aren't the final answer.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Br. Consolmagno: 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.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Fr. Coyne: I mean, that's even worse than making God an engineer, like the Intelligent Design movement does. Right?

Ms. 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. Consolmagno: Well, depends if you're a mathematician or not. I'll put it in a different way. When I was a little kid, nine years old, I remember a rainy Sunday afternoon and 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, you know, "Son, I love you," because I'm nine 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.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

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. Consolmagno: 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.

Ms. Tippett: You know, 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. Consolmagno: Thanks for having us.

Fr. Coyne: Bye for now.

Br. Consolmagno: Bye-bye.

Fr. Coyne: Good, Guy.

Br. Consolmagno: I don't think either of us is going to be excommunicated for that one.

Fr. Coyne: I don't think so.

(Sound bite of song, "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star")

Ms. Tippett: George Coyne is Director Emeritus of the Vatican Observatory and president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. His books include Wayfarers in the Cosmos: The Human Quest for Meaning. Guy Consolmagno is curator of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory. His books include Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist and The Heavens Proclaim: Astronomy and the Vatican.

I recommend you check out some things we've posted on our Web site this week. A fun clip of Brother Guy Consolmangno's chat with Stephen Colbert is worth a few minutes of your day. Also, my entertaining 90-minute unedited conversation with Brother Guy and Father George is available as a free downloadable MP3. For automatic delivery, subscribe to our podcast and e-mail update, or get it straight from our show page. Look for the links in the main navigation bar at speakingoffaith.org.

Also, during the month of April, I'll be doing some live events on the East Coast, evenings of ideas on the interplay between science and the human spirit, echoing the conversation you just heard and those at the heart of my new book, Einstein's God. We'd love for you to attend in person or online. Check out our SOF Live page, which has more details about buying tickets and streaming video. The week of April 5th I'll be with NPR's Michel Martin in Washington, D.C., and then in New Haven, Connecticut, and later in April on to Boston and Philadelphia.

We'd love for you to participate in one way or the other. Submit your questions about the intersection of science and religion and we'll try to bring them into the discussion. Look for the Share Your Story link and links to Einstein's God, the book, on our home page at speakingoffaith.org.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: This program is produced by Colleen Scheck, Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Shubha Bala. Our producer of all things online is Trent Gilliss, with Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I'm Krista Tippett.

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is director emeritus of the Vatican Observatory and president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.

is curator of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory.