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Draper Journal

Vatican Astronomer Mixes Religion With Science At Juan Diego

May 05, 2016 01:15PM ● By Kelly Cannon

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Draper - The Director of the Vatican Observatory shared his observations and experiences in astronomy to a packed auditorium at Juan Diego Catholic High School.

Guy Consolmagno’s March 13 talk included how the Vatican became involved in astronomy and telescopes.

“The Vatican has a telescope at Mt. Graham, Arizona, which helps astronomers see a tiny dot in the sky,” he said. “It’s still a tiny dot, but it makes the faint things brighter.”

Consolmango said it came about when in an abandoned synagogue, Roger Angel built a short focal length mirror, then went to the Vatican to see if there was any interest in sharing the telescope in some of the world’s darkest skies.

“So it’s true, the Pope has a telescope that has a mirror made by an angel in a synagogue,” Consolmango said, jokingly.

In 1891, they built a telescope on the wall of the Vatican, which was one of 18 nations who were asked to help photograph the sky. 

“The Pope asked me to explore and discover what is out there. As the Hebrew Bible states, ‘God decided to make the universe and this is good.’ And it’s pretty amazing,” he said.

Consolmango used the Pope’s summer residence as his office, with the observatory the floor above the Pope’s home.

“God gave us the sky and the astonishing sight of the Milky Way. It’s sacrilegious to put lights up that blocks this astonishing and free sight. It’s sad when people say they’ve never seen it,” he said.

Consolmango said the Vatican also helped discover gases found in a meteorite that was identified as coming from Mars.

“We looked carefully what the meteorite was made of and put together so we can understand what planets are made of and how they are put together. We measured density, kind of like when I was little and opened presents before Mass. I determined presents by density — if it weighed a lot for the size, then it’s a good gift,” he said.

However, then they realized using water to measure the density would miss measuring cracks water couldn’t penetrate. They developed a method using helium that would account for the gaps. They also used liquid nitrogen to determine thermal properties by measuring the heat capacity.

“The Vatican not only has scientists. The Vatican has mad scientists,” he said, joking.

Although he always had a passion for astronomy, Consolmango questioned it as a career. After a brief experience as a reporter — and missing the story of a train derailment that was literally outside his window — he thought about becoming a Jesuit priest.

“I realized that when my dorm friends failed classes since they were drunk and poured out their troubles on me, that I felt like saying, ‘life is tough when you’re stupid.’ But then when I realized that priests deal with people’s problems for a living, I figured I wouldn’t offer good pastoral advice,” he said.

At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, instead he became a “nerd” and wrote for the science fiction magazine. After graduation, he taught at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. After a break-up with a girlfriend, he joined the Peace Corps.

“I was thinking, ‘why am I wasting my life on astronomy when people are starving?’ Then, they assigned me to teach astronomy to graduate students at the University of Nairobi. So even as I tried to get away from it, I was doing the same thing,” he said.

Three months later, homesick, he decided to leave, but as he looked at the Southern Cross and moon for one last time, he realized that he was looking at the same moon he’d see back in the states and realized the miracles in seeing its craters and the rings on Saturn.

“I realized I am home; the universe is my friend,” he said.

After traveling the world three times, including Antarctica, and meeting three Popes and helping the president of Kenya design his dream spaceship, Consolmango realizes that he is living his dream.

“Never deny a dream. We spend our lives dreaming as kids, it’s just important that as grown-ups, we allow ourselves to pursue them and allow kids to keep dreaming,” he said.

Physics teacher Alison Bulson said that she appreciated how Consolmango mixed science and spirituality and added humor.

“He gave a strong message,” she said. “I hope students can take the inspiration from a real scientist who doesn’t disconnect deep faith and science.”