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Brother Astronomer, Adventures of a Vatican Scientist, by Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ, McGraw-Hill, 2000.

reviewed by Duane Dunkerson

In the Alban Hills south of Rome, there is a Jesuit who is an astronomer. He has degrees from MIT and the University of Arizona. He spent 25 years as a planetary astronomer. For the last 10 years he has also been a Jesuit brother, a student of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. For him his study is his worship. He spends half a year at the Specola Vaticana HQ in the Papal Palace at Castel Gandolfo. The other half of the year he is with the Vatican Observatory Research Group in Tucson.

His primary research interest is in the physical evolution of meteorites. The Vatican has one of the largest meteorite collections. It was a donation of the French nobleman, the Marquis de Mauroy. The collection is housed at the Pope's summer residence, a palace which is 600 years old and has two telescope domes. It was built as a villa by one who later became Pope and put Galileo on trial. The palace (and meteorites) are guarded by Italian police and the Swiss Guards.

His scientific work has dealt with the density and porosity of meteorites in relation to the weathering they undergo. There are about 15,000 known meteorites. 1,000 of these have been seen to come from the sky. Four of these have been recorded photographically so as to calculate their orbits. All four were discovered to have originated from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

He studied the rare earth element content of some meteorites. He was working with basaltic meteorites that are much like the lava of Earth. These meteorites originate from the beginning of the solar system. Little or no geochemical change has affected them since then. In particular, he worked with the rare earth element distribution in eucrites, a subclassification of basaltic meteorites that have well-formed crystals.

He had started with lunar basalts and then began to consider eucritic meteorites. He built upon the work of McCord who had done reflective spectra of solar system objects. The reflectance spectra were formed from light through a telescope that then passed into 24 filters of differing color. The filtered light was rated electronically for color. McCord then compared the reflectance spectra to laboratory spectra of known samples to find out of what the solar system object was made. McCord had mostly worked on the Moon. He compared telescopic views of the Moon with the lunar rocks returned from the Apollo program. Later he began to view asteroids.

Gaffey had found that the asteroid Vesta had a reflective spectra that, in detail, was very much like basaltic meteorites. It was the only asteroid to match up so well. Another scientist, Stolper, had originated the partial melt model for eucrites. The author found that the rare earth element distribution for eucrites was in line with Stolper's model. Also, the Lewis model of equilibrium condensation for solar system chemistry could be the possible starting point for the make-up of the source of the meteorites.

In sum, the eucrites might have originated from a good-sized asteroid of regular minerals in normal distribution and having undergone a small amount of melting. If only a small amount of melting occurred, then the asteroid is still there, in space. It should have the reflectance spectra of eucrites. Vesta is the only asteroid having a basaltic achrondrite, (eucritic) composition. Ergo, eucrites have Vesta as their source.

He became coauthor of "Composition and Evolution of the Eucrite Parent Body : Evidence from Rare Earth Elements". The article was accepted for publication and became influential because it adhered to a form of political correctness. The acceptance of this article leads the author into a discussion of how science is done. Others who have come before him think it is done by means of symbolic logic. The logical positivists think science is reality. The historicists find that human values enter in. Science is what a group of scientists say it is. The historical realists stress predictive value. Components of science can gain predictive status by the use of reason and by their level of sociability. He thinks the science he did relating to the eucrites mostly derives from historical realism.

How is science being done in regard to ALH84001? This Martian meteorite has been said to contain evidence of life. The author has his doubts. Mars had presumably had an equilibrium between its rocks and its atmosphere. A severe disequilibrium would be evidence of life. ALH84001 is severely changed. One change involves carbonate. Carbonate could have a microbial component. But Martian carbonates are chemically different from the carbonates of earth. Some have seen in the carbonate grains of magnetite which if seen in earthly rock is proof of a bacterial presence. But the scale for these Martian bacteria is very small. Mineral grains could be masquerading as bacterial evidence. Contamination of the samples is a possibility. Then, again, they could be from a Martian bacterial-like life form. If the level of evidence is in a zone of doubt where perception depends on a large element of guesswork then the outcome of judgment is prefigured by the desire to believe. What one believes can be what one sees. Lowell swore he saw canals on Mars. A few other people could also see them. The canals, as time went on, became their personal vision.

Galileo had a personal vision that came to be a part of science as we know it. If those of medieval times adopted the Ptolemaic system to demonstrate a moral order, says the author, Earth was toward the bottom of a great chain of Being and not the center of the Universe. The author devotes many pages to supplying a corrective to the mostly accepted view that the Church was only a heavy and Galileo was only a hero, as borne out by the trial of 1633. The author maintains that the "jealous, possessive attitude of Grassi and Galileo…caused the final breach."

Copernicus had published his book at the request of a churchman, Cardinal Nicholas von Schoenberg. The Church used predictions derived from the Copernican system to reform the calendar in 1582. Tycho Brahe's better later observations rendered Copernicanism obsolete, so thought the astronomers of the time. Brahe showed the Copernican system had glaring defects.

Grassi asked why comets had so far not shown retrograde motion, as Copernicus would have it. Orbital motions of comets, if known to be in elliptical orbits, had already been addressed by Kepler, but not many were paying attention and Galileo opted for circular orbits and no Keplerian laws, perhaps because he may not have understood Kepler's Latin.

Galileo was pushing some hot buttons that fired up the political scene and put points of debate before the Dominicans and the Jesuits. Religion was a serious business then. Science was an oddity pulling off some grandstand plays that could upset many an apple cart.

Galileo replied with a demand for experience and not the authority of the ancients. This is seen as a laudatory position to take up, but he also, says the author, sarcastically lied and put off those who might have aided him later. At Galileo's trail, the Jesuits stayed silent. The author maintains Galileo's trial of 1633 has served the purpose of bigots - antireligious and antiscientific.

The petard upon which to hoist the Church by science-as-religion adherents is the trial of Galileo. The author states that the trial was unique in Church history. The Church attempted to put science in a Biblical straightjacket. Yet Origen, St. Gregory, St. Augustine, and St. Aquinas taught the Bible as of God, not Nature. The Bible is transcendant poetry. Science is not of transcendance, nor are the religious fundamentalists.
Galileo truly committed the sin of popularization. What was properly understood by the Church and not by the commoner was where Galileo ventured. His official crime was disobedience.

Galieo's pop science, in his day, was far more useful than today's brand that craves spilt second entertainment. Not learning, entertainment. Not seeking, it's a give-me. At least one component must be free. Gnosticism for the masses. Astronomy has been called upon to answer questions regarding the end, the beginning, and a good deal in-between. The astronomers' answers aren't about human beings. Human beings are ultimately, decidedly not rational. Ultimately science is based on a nonrational concern for what-is. Religion subscribes to what-is-not, rationality need not be employed. Knowledge proceeds by asking. If we didn't need to ask, we wouldn't need answers. All rational knowledge is incomplete and forever will be. No rational knowledge is good, it only exists. Within religion is a good God creating a good Universe, says the author.
St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation is mentioned by the author as ratcheting further along the scale of good, a progressive trajectory while an evil, if it would be so, Creation ends in itself. Humankind partakes of Nature as a participatory element of a concern for what-is-not.

Some of humankind, a powerful group of planetary scientists, had blocked his research. A set of petty acts had become a vicious feud. Shades of Dominicans and Jesuits circa Galileo! The first spreadsheet program was being produced, he could get involved at a very lucrative salary. And there was a librarian. She was fun and attractive. He called the Peace Corps. On weekends, in Africa, in upcountry Kenya, he showed the natives what their countryside and the stars looked like through a small telescope. No ETs were seen.

ETs, if found, do not, in general, mean the end of religion in general. The author believes that as for Christianity, the ETs may make a contribution to theology, to expanding it. He regards alien contact as an opportunity for learning. We are to learn from our cosmic "cousins".

He closes his book with an account of his 1996 adventures in Antarctica hunting for meteorites. The blue ice fields of this southernmost region yield a great number of extraterrestrial rocks. His team got the biggest pile of clothes since they would be on the windy plateau. No sundown for months. Air like at 10,000 ft. but they had no vegetation at this sea level locale to cover smells of engines and mildew.

He was confronted with questions about the theological and philosophical significance of reports of fossil life in the Antarctican Allan Hills meteorite NO. 84001. Most people down there at the scientific base , like adolescents, were hostile to religion.

What was big, heavy, sturdy, and painful to steer? - a meteorite search team snowmobile. You don't sit at the controls of their snowmobiles. You faced sideways to see ahead and behind. Obstacles encountered in the path of a snowmobile were best taken straight on. He once became disoriented as he piloted around a valley-like bowl of snow. He was heading up the side, the engine was sputtering so he gunned it and went airborne, straight on past the rim of the bowl. A seagull flew under him as the plot of War and Peace played out in his mind. No problem, he had to come back down. How? He landed on the landed snowmobile. The engine died, his tailbone never recovered, and the search went on.

The not now unknown Antarctic plateau scared the hell out of him. They journeyed to a blue lake, a blue so very deep and bright. There by the lake they would collect OCs (ordinary chondrites) by removing a glove and letting their fingers freeze to a collection bag - the better to open the bag.

Tent days were those days when the snow was blowing. They were at close quarters, going nuts, engaging in private revenge, dirty looks, and swapping life stories. In a red bag were the artifacts of his religion, observed at 2 AM when all others were asleep.

It was a tiny human environment hemmed in by insular scientists investigating an astronomical connection between a few cold, cold rocks and what's-out-there. Three small tents and an empty horizon. But the religion he was doing and the science he was doing put humankind into a scale for things, if not infinite, close to it. Meanwhile he walked on ice for weeks, rarely not feeling useless. Sunrise came from every direction.

Without faith in a Creator God, a Universe declared good, how, asks the author, can you justify the belief that this Universe is worth studying? Any sense, then, to studying it at all?








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