Why We Stargaze

By Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ

Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ is the director of the Vatican Observatory, Specola Vaticana. His book, Would you Baptize an Extraterrestrial?, written with Father Paul Mueller, SJ, is available now.

There are three topics that every astronomer is used to getting questions about: The Big Bang, Black Holes, and Aliens. But as the director of the Vatican’s own astronomical observatory, the Specola Vaticana, I usually get one more question: why does the Vatican have an astronomical observatory in the first place?

To explain that, it’s useful to know that there are two parallel “Vaticans.” One is the organization that runs the Church; the other is the Vatican City State, the tiny independent nation that surrounds St. Peter’s. They’re both under the Pope, but otherwise work pretty independently of each other.

The Vatican Observatory is funded by the Vatican City State. Our budget is about half of one percent of its total budget, which mostly comes out of ticket sales to the Vatican Museums. However, my position as Papal Astronomer dates from 1891, before the city state itself was established, and I’m appointed directly by the Pope. I’m one of a dozen Jesuit scientists assigned there from around the world, working in fields like cosmology, stellar spectra, and meteors.

So, why does the Vatican support an observatory? The official reason is to show that the Church supports science. I find that most astronomers, even non-believers, have no trouble understanding how our faith supports the science we do. But sometimes the faithful need to be reminded that science was invented in the Church’s universities during the middle ages; that notable scientists up to the present have been people of faith; that knowing creation is a divinely ordained way of getting close to the Creator (as St. Paul says in Romans 1:21).

(And, incidentally, as a Catholic of Italian heritage I am at pains to point out that Galileo, as well as being a great astronomer, was both a good Italian and a good Catholic! After all, his two daughters both became nuns. He wouldn’t be the first Italian Catholic to have loud arguments with jealous enemies within the Church. But the idea that his troubles came from his science is a quaint Victorian-era conceit, devised by people who wanted to keep Italian Catholics – like my grandfather – out of America.)

There is a deeper aspect to that question, however. Why does anyone do astronomy? What makes even a casual amateur go outside to look at the stars, tracing out the constellations or spending hours with a small telescope? Why? Because it’s fun!

It is worth spending a moment considering that undeniable fact. Looking at the stars doesn’t feed your stomach or make you powerful. But it feeds and empowers your soul.

Astronomy puts your own life into a wonderful perspective. The more I learn about how stars and planets work, the more I am simultaneously delighted in the insights that my God-given talents have let me see, and humbled by the immensity of this beautiful universe that God has given for me to understand.

It also reminds me forcefully that I could not do it alone. Of course, looking at the stars on a summer night requires no formal training. But knowing those stars by name and knowing their hidden stories, where I really find my deepest joy, is only possible by listening to those who have gone before me… hoping that in turn I can add a few new insights for the next generation of star gazers.

There was a time, long before I joined the Jesuits, when I questioned the value of all my astronomical studies. Why was I writing scientific papers about the moons of Jupiter when people were starving in the world? And so I left my postdoctoral research fellowship at MIT to join the Peace Corps. But when I got to Africa, the people with whom I lived there wanted nothing more than to hear what I could tell them about space probes, and to have a chance to look at Saturn and the Moon through my small telescope. Curiosity about the universe and our place in it is an integral part of being a human being. The hunger to know, is the hunger for God.

And meanwhile, about those other questions… The Big Bang theory was devised by a Belgian priest, Father Georges Lemaître, who had degrees in astrophysics from MIT and worked with Eddington and Einstein. A recent image of a Black Hole shadow was made by an international team led by a German astronomer, Heino Falcke, who studied at the Vatican Observatory summer school and now teaches at a Catholic university in the Netherlands; he himself is a lay preacher in the Evangelical Church. As for aliens… a fellow Jesuit, Father Paul Mueller, and I have written a whole book that asks, “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?” To find the answer, you’ll have to read our book!

COMING UP: “The heavens declare the glory of God…”

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In his Life of St. Augustine, the 5th-century bishop Possidius tells us that the greatest of the Latin Doctors of the Church, knowing that his earthly end was near, had four penitential psalms copied and hung on the walls of his room.  “From his sickbed,” Possidius writes, Augustine “could see these sheets of paper…and would read them, crying constantly and deeply.” It was an act of deep piety that we all might ponder ways to emulate.

Were I to do something similar, however, I might add Psalm 42 (“Like the deer that years for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God/My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life; when can I enter and see the face of God?”) – and a few color prints from Astronomy Picture of the Day, an extraordinary project of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, available for free at apod.nasa.gov. NASA has come in for a lot of (justified) criticism in recent years. By contrast, Astronomy Picture of the Day is a service for which I’m delighted to pay federal taxes. Every day, it provides me a preview of what I hope to see post-mortem: the glory of God declared in a display of astronomical wonders that vividly illustrate the extravagance of the divine creativity.

Astronomy Picture of the Day lifts my spirits, which is why I try to accompany morning prayer with a visit to the site. For a brief glimpse of the visual feast that awaits anyone similarly inclined, let me suggest four recent gems, available at the “archive” tab at apod.nasa.gov.

On April 25, APOD and the Hubble Space Telescope offered a brilliantly-hued panorama of the “Cosmic Reef” within the Large Magellanic Cloud, 160,000 light years away. On May 15, APOD featured two dancing galaxies 12 million light years away, which, as the brief explanation following the striking image notes, “have been locked in gravitational combat for a billion years” – a dance that “in the next few billions years” will lead to a cosmic merger. On June 1, APOD introduced me to the “whirlwind of spectacular star formation” happening within the Lagoon Nebula, captured in resplendent magenta by Hubble at a distance of 5,000 light years.

And then there was the most extraordinary of this lot: Hubble’s dazzling color portrait of the “Porpoise Galaxy,” which APOD posted on May 10. The description of how this fantastic phenomenon came about is worth quoting: “Just a few hundred million years ago, NGC 2936, the upper of the two galaxies shown, was likely a normal spiral galaxy – spinning, creating stars – and minding its own business. But then it got too close to the massive elliptical galaxy NGC 2937…and took a dive. Dubbed the porpoise galaxy for its…shape, NGC 2936 is not only being deflected but also being distorted by the close gravitational interaction. A burst of young blue stars forms the nose of the porpoise….while the center of the spiral appears as an eye. Alternatively, the galaxy pair…look to some look to some like a penguin protecting an egg.”

Whatever. Porpoise or penguin, it’s breathtakingly beautiful.

The marvels archived at APOD suggest more than the possibility of a post-mortem galactic Grand Tour, however. They suggest that the burden of proof ought to be on those who insist that all this grandeur is mere randomness: the accidental by-products of a Big Bang from which what we now know as “the universe” was born. Really? Just an accident, if a happy accident? But while we’re on the subject, how did the Big Bang, so to speak, bang? And if what we know as “the universe” evolved from that primordial eruption, what accounts for the high-density, high-temperature primal material that burst into an expanding universe? To suggest that it, too, was an accident, something that just happened, begs a host of questions: beginning with, how can something come from nothing?

The notion that we live in an accidental universe, one that need not be, has had ugly effects in modern history. It suggests that we’re accidents, too, mere embodied stardust. That dumbed-down notion of the human has underwritten a lot of the awfulness of the last two centuries. Astronomy Picture of the Day hints at a different story: none of this is accidental and thus ultimately meaningless. And that includes you, me, and all those who study the heavens and give us the gift of their work.