People ask me, ‘Do you believe in life on other planets?’ And I say, ‘That’s exactly the right way to ask it, “Do I believe?’” said Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., an astronomer who serves as director of the Vatican Observatory.
“I have no data,” Brother Consolmagno said. “I won’t have data unless I look. And I won’t look unless I believe before having the data that the data could be there, and that it’s worth looking for the data.”
Faith, certainty and science were among the themes examined by Brother Consolmagno in “The Catholic Scientist” symposium March 3 at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie.
Brother Consolmagno, who also is the president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, was the keynote speaker and one of the conference’s three panelists who spoke from a Catholic perspective about faith and science.
His presentation, “Why Do We Look at the Heavens?” addressed the deeper question of why individuals choose to spend their lives in pursuit of pure knowledge.
Dr. Daniel Davis, a professor and chairman of the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University, presented, “If I Didn’t Believe It, I Never Would Have Seen It.” Dr. Michelle M. Francl, a professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College, examined the common work of science and religion in contemplating creation and the ways science might be a spiritual practice in “Science Is Not a Synonym for Secular.”
The daylong conference drew more than 160 attendees, which included seminarians, college professors, a contingent of students from Regis High School in Manhattan and Auxiliary Bishop James Massa of Brooklyn. Msgr. Peter Vaccari, rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary, began the conference with a prayer and remarks.
The question-and-answer portion of the forum addressed the confirmation by astronomers of the existence of at least seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a red dwarf star just 40 light years away. The new discovery around the dwarf star, TRAPPIST-1, was named after one of the many telescopes that detected the planets. The study’s results were published in February.
“It’s a marvelous piece of work,” Brother Consolmagno said. “But what’s exciting to me isn’t so much (that) there might be life there—I don’t think there’s life there because it’s a really unstable star…but who am I, it’s probably worth looking—but it tells us something about how planets are formed, that you can have that many planets next to a star that’s not all that bigger than Jupiter…
“Only by discovering other planets, do we have a really good idea of understanding what it is to be a planet. Only by discovering other solar systems can we compare what’s essential to a solar system, what’s unusual to ours. Only by discovering life elsewhere will we really understand what makes life, life…
“I’m not afraid of finding other intelligences out there—I’m thrilled,” Brother Consolmagno said. “I’m not afraid when something in my science challenges something I’d assumed all along in my faith, because I’ll tell you what happens all the time in my science—this bit of science challenges that bit of science, and I don’t throw up my hands and say, ‘The heck with science,’” but say instead say, “‘Wow,’ or at the very least, ‘That’s funny,’ which we know is the first step to a scientific breakthrough…to be able to say, ‘I thought I understood God, but now I see something that makes me realize my picture of God was way too small.’”
Referring to a video about the Vatican Observatory that was shown before Brother Consolmagno’s talk, Michal Kozlowski, a junior at Regis, asked Brother Consolmagno about “the need for Catholics to go out on the frontier of science.”
“In my opinion, there’s no greater frontier than biomedical engineering,” said the 17-year-old Kozlowski, who inquired about the ramifications of the future possibility of genetically programming children. “Do you have any advice,” he asked, “if I found myself in 10 years with a prospect of (genetically) modifying a baby? Or is there a point where a frontier ends, or we shouldn’t pursue a frontier?”
Brother Consolmagno emphasized the difference that exists between science and technology. “The science of how the genes work is always going to be, I think, a way of understanding of how God made the universe and, I think, worth pursuing. The technology of how I’m going to use that knowledge—whether it’s to make a bomb or to try to make a ‘superkid’ or to say, ‘No, I’m going to use this to reduce human suffering by reducing disease’—that’s an ethical choice. And the science can’t help you there.
“The role of the Church is to say just because something is possible doesn’t mean necessarily it’s good,” continued Brother Consolmagno. “Human beings can’t be graded on a scale of 1 to 10…
“We can’t use science to avoid sin, to avoid original sin—we’re born with it—what we can do, is make sure that the science we do is open to the world.
“Physics had its atomic bombs, and its Chernobyl,” Brother Consolmagno said. “Biology is getting there. It’s scary. Biology is still in the 19th century in a lot of ways. It still sees the universe as cause and effect, and gears and levers—push that and that will happen, and it’s all programmed in your genes.
“It’s not all programmed in your genes,” Brother Consolmagno continued, “any more that it was programmed in your astrology.”
“DNA is a marvelous thing to study,” Brother Consolmagno said, “but…human beings are more complicated than that.”
Dr. Davis, who has co-authored with Brother Consolmagno the stargazers’ guide, “Turn Left at Orion,” took conference-goers on an “imaginary trip to Manhattan,” citing such landmarks as St. Patrick’s Cathedral in a lesson about the relationship between different directions—those that are complementary, not conflicting—along avenues and streets, including Fifth Avenue and 50th Street and environs. “They’re not the same directions, but between them they give you greater richness of where you can go.
“What about where our minds and souls can take us?” he posed.
Dr. Francl, who also serves as an adjunct scholar at the Vatican Observatory, illustrated that science and viewing and exploring creation “is indeed part of the Catholic tradition.”
“Science” she said, “is just another door into the sacred” but qualified her statement by acknowledging that “they are not the same.”
She showed a picture of doors that grace a church at Castel Gandolfo, outside Rome. “These doors have science on them; they also have (a depiction of) Pope Benedict on them. Science and faith together in one space, a door opening into the sacred.”