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Brother Guy Consolmagno ’74, SM ’75

Vatican astronomer mingles religion and science
December 21, 2009

“A lot of religious people are suspicious of science,” says Brother Guy Consolmagno ‘74, SM ‘75, an astronomer at the Vatican. “My job, when I speak publicly, is to show people what science is all about.” Science and faith, he says, are not mutually exclusive if you believe God initiated the Big Bang. “Science is fantastic in and of itself as a human experience, and for me … it’s also a religious experience.”

In 2000, the International Astronomical Union honored Consolmagno’s work by naming an asteroid 4597 Consolmagno. The 20-kilometer-wide rock orbiting near the sun is casually referred to as Little Guy.

As curator of the Vatican meteorite collection (which is one of the world’s largest), Consolmagno conducts research on the nature and evolution of small bodies in the solar system, attends scientific assemblies where he serves on numerous committees, and delivers lectures at universities, churches, and science fiction conventions. In fact, he credits science fiction–he was a librarian for the MIT Science Fiction Society–with helping advance his career. In 1979, a Hal Clement story suggesting that sulfur on a warm planet would be a gas prompted research leading him to conclude that sulfur was the driving force behind volcanic pulses on Jupiter’s moon Io. He published an article about it in Science–one of more than a hundred scientific publications he’s penned, along with numerous books, most recently God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion (Jossey-Bass, 2007) and The Heavens Proclaim: Astronomy and the Vatican (Our Sunday Visitor, 2009).

Raised near Detroit, Consolmagno followed a scholarly path to the Vatican. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at MIT in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences. “My MIT role models taught me that science is not for power or prestige but that sense of love, just having fun with the equations,” he says. “To me, that’s the heart of being a scientist.” After receiving a PhD in planetary science at the University of Arizona in 1978, he was a postdoc and lecturer at Harvard and MIT. His work in the 1970s on the moons of the outer solar system predicted many of the features later discovered by the Voyager and Galileo spacecraft, including the first published suggestion of Europan subcrustal oceans with the possibility of life. And, he pioneered the field of gravito-­electrodynamics, the behavior of dust subjected to both gravitational and electromagnetic forces. Consolmagno also taught in Kenya with the Peace Corps and at a Pennsylvania college before entering the Jesuit order at age 36.

His job is fun, he says, affording him opportunities to do such things as visit the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and collect meteorites in Antarctica. But he especially enjoys being able to share his passion for science and religion. “For me,” he says, “it’s about telling a good story and having a good story to tell.”

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