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
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
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
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
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?