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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Vatican Astronomer Wins Top Science Prize

Michigan-raised Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno will become the first clergyman awarded the prestigious Carl Sagan Medal. (Vatican Observatory)

Michigan-raised Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno will become the first clergyman awarded the prestigious Carl Sagan Medal. (Vatican Observatory)

On Thursday, Michigan-raised Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno will become the first clergyman awarded the prestigious Carl Sagan Medal “for outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public.”

Consolmagno co-authored the new book “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?,” which came out last month. His short answer to his book’s title question is, “if she asked.”

He speaks to Here & Now’s Sacha Pfeiffer about the Vatican Observatory, why the Vatican has astronomers, and the effect of the Vatican’s 1633 persecution of the astronomer Galileo Galilei.

Interview Highlights: Guy Consolmagno

On the history of Vatican astronomy

“In 1891, Pope Leo XIII decided that he wanted a national observatory for the Vatican. And it served two functions: one was political to show that the Vatican was an independent country with its own observatory, but the other was to show the world that the church supports science. It’s interesting that this came up in the end of the 19th century because that’s when the myth began that the church was against science. Before then most people realized that either you’re a nobleman or you’re a clergyman because who else has the education and free time for science.”

On the church supporting science

“I find today that most scientists understand that the church supports them and indeed when I became a Jesuit, I sort of ‘came out of the closet’ as a churchgoer, I discovered so many of my friends and fellow scientists were also churchgoers. To me, the big mission we have is to convince the people in the pews that science is good. If I’m a missionary of anything I’m a missionary of science to the religious.”

On his research

“The asteroids and meteorites are the junk pile of the solar system. By studying them we can see what’s inside the planets and you even get a feel for what conditions were going on when the planets were being formed. The one thing that we’ve contributed at our work at the Vatican observatory is that we’ve done a survey of measuring physical properties so that if you’re interested in doing a model of how planets form and you want to know ‘well what’s the typical density of this kind of meteorite or that kind of meteorite,’ you look it up in our tables, you want to know their magnetic properties, you look it up in our tables. It’s taken 20 years to make the tables we’ve come up with so far—this is the kind of work that no one else could do because no one could get funded for 20 years to do this, but since we don’t have to worry about funding, we just saw this is the kind of work we can do that we can contribute to the field.”

Video: A public lecture by Br. Consolmagno

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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