The Earth lies some 26,000 light years distant from the center of our home galaxy, a roiling, hot region dense with stars and shrouded in gas. A supermassive black hole – millions of times heavier than the sun – lurks there. “We see it flaring as it chomps down on stars,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“No, the God Particle has nothing to do with God…” I must have repeated that a dozen times last week, to casual friends and inquisitive reporters, following CERN’s announcement of the possible detection of the Higgs boson… the so-called “God Particle”. I am an astronomer, not a particle physicist, but answering questions about anything new in science that might have a connection to religion is one of the unofficial tasks of anyone who works at the Vatican Observatory.
Yes, I am an astronomer at the Vatican. A lot of people are surprised to hear that the Vatican supports a fully functional astronomical observatory. We are a dozen priests and brothers, coming from four continents, mostly Jesuits with advanced degrees in astronomy and related fields from universities around the world, including Padua, Oxford, and MIT. Our research covers the gamut of astronomy – string theory and the Big Bang, galaxies and stellar evolution, meteorites and meteor showers.
We attend the same meetings and publish in the same journals as any other astronomer; after all, we studied alongside those other astronomers, we collaborate with them on our projects today, and many of them are our students. We participate in the same scientific societies; indeed, several of us have been elected to leadership positions in the International Astronomical Union and American Astronomical Society.
Our history goes back to before Galileo. In 1582, we helped develop the Gregorian Calendar that the world uses today. We made the first accurate telescopic maps of the Moon, with the nomenclature system still in use (including 35 craters named for Jesuits; it helps to have friends in high places). In the 19th century, we were the first to recover comet Halley and were pioneers in stellar spectroscopy. In the 20th century, our astronomers established an astrophysical spectra laboratory and founded the journal Spectrochimica Acta, which was actually produced at the Vatican in the years following World War 2. And today our telescope in the Arizona desert, built in collaboration with the University of Arizona, is a test bed for 21st century astronomical techniques.
This history should raise two questions. Why, with such a history of supporting astronomy, do people still believe that our religion is somehow anti-science? And on the other hand, why does a religious institution continue to support astronomers even today?
Certainly, the answer to the second is tied to the prejudices of the first; the observatory is a living witness against those who want to believe the worst of the church. (I live in the church, and know it well, faults and all. There are enough things we do badly; why do our critics still insist on making up stuff?) And we work closely with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, who advice the papacy on scientific issues. (The president of that academy in the mid 20th century was Father George Lemaître, the astrophysicist who came up with what we now call the Big Bang theory. Alas, we can’t claim him for the observatory; he was a diocesan priest teaching at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium.)
But the real reason we do science is in fact related to the reason why so many people ask us about things like the God Particle. The disciplines of science and religion complement each other in practical ways. For example, both are involved in describing things that are beyond human language and so must speak in metaphors. Not only is the “God Particle” not a piece of God, it is also not really a “particle” in the sense that a speck of dust is a particle. In both cases we use familiar images to try to illustrate an entity of great importance but whose reality is beyond our power to describe literally.
The mysteries revealed by modern science are a constant reminder that reality is bigger than our day-to-day lives. But while particle physics can seem unimaginably remote, anyone can see the stars and be moved to contemplation. As Pope Pius XI said in 1935, dedicating our telescopes on the roof of the papal summer palace, “from no part of creation does there arise a more eloquent or stronger invitation to prayer and to adoration.”
One aspect of that contemplation is to recognize both how limited our human understanding is, and yet how privileged we are to be able to learn as much as we have. One astonishing thing about the universe is that it can be, at least in part, understood. It follows laws that we can deduce, laws which are rational but also elegant and beautiful. In them we find expressed the personality of the one who fashioned those laws.
Br. Guy Consolmagno SJ, writes in advance of a workshop on “The Nature of the Evolving Universe,” sponsored by INCAI, the International Network of Catholic Astronomical Institutions, to be held at the Catholic University of America July 16-20.