Vatican space observatory wants to see stars and faith align: NPR

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A view of the telescope domes on the roof of the Vatican Observatory, at the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo, in 2015.

Andreas Solaro / AFP via Getty Images


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A view of the telescope domes on the roof of the Vatican Observatory, at the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo, in 2015.

Andreas Solaro / AFP via Getty Images

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy – In a time of growing mistrust of certain new scientific discoveries, the Vatican’s one and only institution that does scientific research recently launched a campaign to promote dialogue between faith and science.

It is the Vatican Observatory, located on the grounds of the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, a medieval town in Alban Hills 15 miles southeast of Rome.

The director, Brother Guy Consolmagno, offers this journalist a guided tour of the site. We drive along a cypress-lined road, admiring majestic gardens and olive groves nestled near the remains of a palace of Roman Emperor Domitian, before reaching a field with farm laborers and animals.

“This is the end that has the papal farm, so you can see the cows that the papal milk comes from,” Consolmagno says, pointing to the working farm that supplies the Pope in the Vatican with vegetables and dairy products.

(Pope Francis, known for his frugality and his habit of not taking vacations, decided not to use the papal summer villa, which he deems too luxurious. But he ordered the estate to become an open museum. to the public.)

For most of its history, the Catholic Church has rejected scientific findings that conflicted with its doctrine. During the Inquisition, he even persecuted scientists such as Galileo Galilei.

In the Middle Ages, it became evident that the Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar and established in 46 BC, had accumulated many errors. But it was not until 1582 that the The Vatican Observatory was born with the reform of the Gregorian calendar (named after Pope Gregory XIII) which, based on the observation of the stars, fixed fixed dates for religious festivities.

Consolmagno strives to refute the anti-science image of the Catholic Church. He quotes the Italian priest of the 19th century Angelo Secchi as a pioneer of astronomy and of the 20th century Belgian priest Georges Lemaître, known as “Father of the Big Bang Theory”, which argues that the universe began in a cataclysmic explosion from a small, primitive superatom.

Astronomical textbooks in Latin are on display at the Vatican Observatory.

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Astronomical textbooks in Latin are on display at the Vatican Observatory.

Sylvia Poggioli / NPR

Run by Jesuits, the Observatory settled in this bucolic setting in the 1930s, when light pollution in Rome hampered celestial observation.

A domed building in the Papal Gardens houses a huge telescope dating from 1891. It is called Carte du Ciel – chart of the sky – and it stands under a curved ceiling which opens by sliding. Consolmagno says: “It was one of 18 identical telescopes set up around the world to photograph the sky, and each national observatory received its own piece of sky to photograph.” He adds that it was “one of the first international astronomy projects”.

A native of Detroit, Consolmagno studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, volunteered with the Peace Corps in Africa, and taught physics before becoming a Jesuit brother in his forties. He has been at the Observatory for three decades. His passion for astronomy began with a childhood love of science fiction.

“I love the kind of science fiction that gives you that sense of wonder, that reminds you at the end of the day why we dream of being able to go to space,” Consolmagno says.

A fan Star wars fan, he proudly tells this reporter, “even Obi-Wan Kenobi came to visit” the Observatory, pointing to the signature of actor Alec Guinness, who played the role in the film’s original trilogy, in a 1958 guest book.

The best scientists teach at the Observatory’s summer school. And scientists and space industry leaders came for a United Nations-sponsored conference on the ethics and peaceful uses of outer space. It cooperates with NASA on several space missions and it operates a modern telescope in partnership with the University of Arizona.

Left: A guest book signed by actor Alec Guinness in 1958. Law: A photo of a prelate decades ago stretched out to view the telescope.

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Left: A guest book signed by actor Alec Guinness in 1958. Law: A photo of a prelate decades ago stretched out to view the telescope.

Sylvia Poggioli / NPR

“But where we still have to work is with the rest of the world,” says the director of the Observatory, “the people of the benches, especially nowadays. There are too many people in the pews who think there is a choice between science and faith. . “

To reach these people, the Observatory recently launched a new website and podcasts explore issues such as meteorites hitting Earth or how to live on the moon.

And one in line shop sells merchandise – hoodies, caps, tote bags and Milky Way posters.

In a few months, says the director, the number of visitors to the website has doubled.

As to how the culture wars between faith and science can be resolved, Consolmagno says most importantly that he wears a necklace – he is a deeply religious person who also considers himself an “orthodox scientist. “. “This fact alone shatters stereotypes,” he says.

Brother is another American at the Observatory who breaks stereotypes Robert macke, curator of the collection of meteorites – rocks formed in the early days of the solar system.

Holding a dark rock a few inches long, he says it formed 4.5 billion years ago, providing clues as to how the solar system formed.

“To understand the natural world,” he says, “you have to study the natural world. You can’t just close your eyes and ignore him or pretend he’s different than he is. You have to study it and you have to come to appreciate it. “

Consolmagno – asked how studying the stars interacts with his faith – says astronomy doesn’t provide answers to theological questions and the Scriptures don’t explain science. “But astronomy is the place where I interact with the Creator of the universe, where God sets up the puzzles and we have a lot of fun solving them together,” says the director.

And he believes the recent dark period of the pandemic has weakened the arguments of those who are skeptical of science.

“Because people can see science in action, science doesn’t have all the answers,” he says. “And yet science is always with all its mistakes and with all its stumbles, it’s always better than no science.”

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