O my stars!

Vatican astronomer visits Binghamton

By Deacon Tom Picciano
SUN contributing writer

BINGHAMTON — It’s hard not to look at the skies after meeting Brother Guy Consolmagno. The Jesuit brother has an infectious enthusiasm for the heavens. As one of the Vatican’s astronomers, Brother Guy follows a long line of members of the Society of Jesus who were scientists.
Brother Guy noted that the study of science got its start as the church founded universities in the Middle Ages. At that time, he said, people looking to study theology or philosophy were required to study astronomy first. Most of the astronomers at that time  were clerics. By the 18th century, he said, a quarter of the observatories were run by Jesuit priests.

“The map of the moon that we all use today has the names of 35 Jesuits as craters, because the guy who made the map was a Jesuit. I happen to be part of the tradition continuing on studying the stars just as we have all along,” he said.
Brother Guy visited Binghamton on Nov. 7 to speak at a fundraiser for the Kopernik Observatory. His topic, “The Heavens Proclaim: Astronomy and the Vatican,” was based on a new coffee table book which he edited.

One of the misconceptions about science, Brother Guy said, is that the church and scientists “butted heads” over the centuries.  “My goal as much as anything is  to tell people who belong to a church, any church, but certain Catholics, that science is a fantastic way of getting to know creation and in that way getting to know the Creator.”

The church raised a lot of questions of the scientist Galileo in his time. “This is the international year of astronomy which celebrates Galileo and Galileo was unjustly criticized during part of his life by the church. The church has recognized that and apologized for that many times,” Brother Guy added.
“As Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out, Galileo was a role model. He was a good Catholic, a great Italian, and someone who combined his faith in God with his desire to understand the universe through scientific means. And in that sense he has gone from being someone who was tried who we now hold up as a hero,” he said.

The original Vatican Observatory built in the 1890s is located at Castel Gandolfo, the summer home of the pope. Brother Guy finds that interesting, given that the palace was originally built by Pope Urban VIII, who was the first to criticize Galileo. When light pollution became too great in the 1980s, another observatory was built in Arizona.

That facility and a neighboring observatory are open to public tours each Saturday. Both have binocular or double mirror telescopes. “Our telescope and the LBT are this modern idea of making a telescope mirror out of molten glass in a spinning oven. We were the first ones to come up to that idea.” Brother Guy said. “It’s wonderful. The guy who invented it was named Roger Angel, so we can say we have a telescope made by an angel.”

A native of Detroit, Brother Guy obtained his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in Earth and Planetary Sciences from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He holds a doctorate in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona.

Brother Guy splits his time between the Arizona observatory and Castel Gandolfo, where he is curator of the Vatican meteorite collection. There he researches the connections between meteorites and asteroids and the evolution of small bodies in the solar system.

And Brother Guy has an asteroid named after him, for his studies of meteorites and asteroids. His colleagues at the International Astronomical Union awarded that honor in the year 2000 with “asteroid 4597 Consolmagno.”

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