Many of you have read - or have a copy of - Turn Left at Orion by Guy Consolmagno, an entertaining and instructive guide for amateur astronomers with small telescopes. No less entertaining is his book, Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist, in which Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno tells his life story in brief, and in more detail discusses Mars rocks, Antarctica adventures, and science/religion issues.
With grace and good humor he tells of his becoming curator of the Vatican's collection of meteorites, one of the oldest collections in the world, mostly amassed in the nineteenth century by French nobleman Marquis de Mauroy. Consolmagno and his associates devised a method to determine the mass, the density, and the porosity of meteorites, which lead to theories on where meteorites come from - asteroids and other planets. He calls them his outer space "aliens" at the Vatican.
His real adventures are recounted with good-natured wit in the section titled "Wide Wild Whiteness", a meteorite-hunting expedition with other scientists on the bottom of the world in Antarctica. He makes the vast, cold continent seem to come alive in its bleak expanse and extremes of cold and wind. The personal interaction among the small group of individuals forced to spend six weeks together in that harsh frigid environment is insightful, at times poignant and other times hilarious. Everyone on the team has a specialty, and he often wonders, "Why am I here?" They bring home a treasure trove of 390 meteorites. It is fascinating to learn how they go to great pains to preserve the pristine condition of the space rocks. To collect them without contaminating them is a real challenge, especially under subzero temperatures, where the cold dulls the mind and freezes the fingers.
Perhaps most enlightening and enjoyable are Consolmagno's discourses on science and religion. He reminds us that only recently, in our popular culture, has there been an apparent schism between science and religion; that indeed, the great thinkers of ages gone by were men of renown in the church, men of great religious faith. The search for truth is and always has been the goal of both good religion and good science. "God gave us brains; He expects us to use them," he says.
"To understand why" science and religion are thought to be opposed, says Consolmagno, "we need to look not at science, nor at religion, but at the popular culture." He explains that science in school is often a turn-off for kids, and many leave the church as teenagers, "before they are old enough to appreciate it." The result is a childish view of both science and religion.
The popular media - news, TV, movies - present a distorted view of both science and religion as well, he contends. If there is no action, no drama, no conflict, it doesn't make good copy or good video. Scientists are often portrayed as "mad", and preachers are stereotyped as extremists. Fear and confusion of the roles and relationships of science and faith are the result. "It's a fundamental misconception of how both science and religion work." He goes on to say that Christianity does not start with faith, it starts with experience; and that science does not begin with experiment or logic, it begins with intuition.
He recounts the timeworn story of Galileo and the Church, and contends that that situation was largely a matter of pride and politics, not strictly religion and science. The ill-feeling produced by Galileo's trial set back science for years, and sparked the thinking that the church was anti-science, though the Church has since repeatedly admitted the mistakes it made there almost 400 years ago.
In his "Confession of a Vatican Scientist" section of the book, Consolmagno presents many wise arguments explaining the deep connections between science and religion. You'll have to read it to appreciate it. He says, "Good science is a very religious act. The search for Truth is the same as the search for God." Of the "unexplainable", he says, "Our theology prepared science to accept the seeming contradictions of quantum theory, for instance; just because something doesn't seem to make sense, is no proof that it must be false."
He sums it up by saying, "The desire for truth and understanding, including understanding the truth of the natural world, was given to us by God, in order to lead us to God. It is the desire for God. It is why I am a scientist; it is why the Vatican supports me."