2006.05.09: May 9, 2006: Headlines: COS - Kenya: Vatican: Religion: Catholicism: Astronomy: Science: The Guardian: Guy Consolmagno enjoys a rare academic freedom as papal astronomer

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Library: Peace Corps: Science : Science and the Peace Corps: 2006.05.09: May 9, 2006: Headlines: COS - Kenya: Vatican: Religion: Catholicism: Astronomy: Science: The Guardian: Guy Consolmagno enjoys a rare academic freedom as papal astronomer

By Admin1 (admin) (pool-151-196-188-104.balt.east.verizon.net - 151.196.188.104) on Friday, May 19, 2006 - 5:19 pm: Edit Post

Guy Consolmagno enjoys a rare academic freedom as papal astronomer

Guy Consolmagno enjoys a rare academic freedom as papal astronomer

For the past 13 years, Kenya RPCV Guy Consolmagno has held one of the most secure and prestigious posts in the planetary sciences, as one of the Pope's 12 personal astronomers, dividing his time between the Vatican's observatory at the papal summer palace at Castel Gandolfo in Italy and a giant telescope in Tucson, Arizona. The idea that the Pope has his own hit squad of astronomers may come as a surprise, but Consolmagno laughs off any suggestions of a hidden agenda to spot God hiding behind Alpha Centauri. "The Vatican observatory was first set up in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII to provide a bridge between religion and the sciences," he says. "In many ways, it was just a coincidence that the Pope decided to show an interest in astronomy - but a very happy coincidence. Looking at the stars not only combines the human with the transcendent, it has no financial value. Nothing I discover will ever require patent lawyers, so there's no danger of compromising mine or the church's integrity."

Guy Consolmagno enjoys a rare academic freedom as papal astronomer

Knocking on heaven's door

No form-filling, no committees - the papal astronomer enjoys a rare academic freedom, finds John Crace

Tuesday May 9, 2006
The Guardian

When a leading astronomer tells you it could all end at any time, your first reaction is likely to be to say your goodbyes and head for home. As it happens, though, Brother Guy Consolmagno is talking about his job, rather than the chances of Earth being hit by a meteorite. "As a Jesuit, I've taken a vow of obedience," he says. "If the Father General tells me to pack my bags and go and work in a soup kitchen, that's what I'll do."

One of the other vows Consolmagno has taken is poverty: he doesn't own the jeans he's wearing, he had to get permission to buy an iPod, any money he earns from his work is given away to charity and all his expenses have to be agreed in advance. So one can safely assume that any job swap won't leave him in a worse financial position.

The reality is that the chances of Consolmagno getting his marching orders are virtually nil. For the past 13 years, he has held one of the most secure and prestigious posts in the planetary sciences, as one of the Pope's 12 personal astronomers, dividing his time between the Vatican's observatory at the papal summer palace at Castel Gandolfo in Italy and a giant telescope in Tucson, Arizona.

Pure science

"It's my dream job," he says. "I get to do all the things I've always wanted to, with none of the commercial pressures that affect other scientists. I can take on research projects that have only a 30% chance of success and pursue ideas that have no financial benefits. It really is science in its purest form.

"I don't have to waste any time filling in grant applications or sitting on endless, boring committees. And, better still, because we have a reputation for independence, all sorts of doors have opened up because people want to work with us. The third vow I took was one of chastity and many of my collaborators reckon it's a small price to pay for avoiding all the hassle they have to go through."

The idea that the Pope has his own hit squad of astronomers may come as a surprise, but Consolmagno laughs off any suggestions of a hidden agenda to spot God hiding behind Alpha Centauri. "The Vatican observatory was first set up in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII to provide a bridge between religion and the sciences," he says. "In many ways, it was just a coincidence that the Pope decided to show an interest in astronomy - but a very happy coincidence. Looking at the stars not only combines the human with the transcendent, it has no financial value. Nothing I discover will ever require patent lawyers, so there's no danger of compromising mine or the church's integrity." Consolmagno acknowledges the Vatican and science may seem to be uneasy bedfellows. "There's no doubt the Vatican screwed up over Galileo and everyone remembers a good screw-up. But the dispute only lasted for a couple of years. Up till 1631, Galileo's work was praised by the church and then he was suddenly put on trial. Reading through the court transcripts provides no real insight into what problems the church had with Galileo or why he was found guilty. But, in any case, he was back in favour by 1663."

The mystery deepened in 1992 when the church apologised for bringing Galileo to trial without specifying what charges he faced, but Consolmagno is at pains to point out that the Vatican has always accepted Galilean science. "We've been teaching good science in Catholic schools for more than 300 years," he says, "and it certainly hasn't been based on the Ptolemaic system."

The need to believe

There is, of course, one prerequisite for a papal astronomer: a belief in a creator God. This is not to say Consolmagno is a young earth creationist. He happily goes along with the theory that the universe started with the Big Bang some 13.7bn years ago and that life has evolved since; what he does add to the mix is the idea that there was an all-powerful God who planned the whole thing, finds his creation good and is so in love with it that he chooses to become incarnate.

This puts him at odds with those scientists who view the same data and remain atheists. "Most of those who argue there is no God are evolutionary biologists who are locked into a 19th-century Newtonian cause-and-effect belief system, which thinks it has all the answers," he says. "This was a completely understandable response to a religious belief system that had previously thought it had all the answers. The fact is, though, that biology has not developed as quickly as physics. Quantum physics has meant that we have had to unlearn many of the things we previously regarded as certainties, and I'm sure biologists will face similar challenges in the future.

"In the same way, we astronomers may have to rethink quantum physics in several hundred years' time. There are so many things we don't know and that we don't even know we don't know. But one thing of which I am certain is that everything we do discover about the universe brings us closer to understanding God's creation. Religion gives you the confidence to do science and the reason to do it."

The title "papal astronomer" is not quite as hands-on as it sounds. In the 1920s, the Pope delegated the running of his observatory to the Jesuits and has no real influence over the selection of his astronomers. Consolmagno met Pope John Paul II only once. He has had no contact with Pope Benedict XVI and nor does he expect to. "We're pretty much left to our own devices," hesays, "though from time to time our director reports back to the Vatican Pontifical Academy of Sciences."

He says it was a total surprise to get the letter from Rome summoning him to join the observatory just four years after becoming a Jesuit - "I guess they were short of youngish astronomers" - but to almost everyone else who knew him, it seemed the obvious next step on his career path.

"I grew up in Birmingham, Michigan, where my father was a first-generation Italian immigrant working as a PR and journalist for the auto trade, and my mother was an Irish-American teacher," he says. "They were both very religious and I was brought up with both a strong Catholic faith and an understanding of the importance of education. I was just eight years old when the Russians launched Sputnik and I spent hours looking up at the skies with a telescope."

His obsession with astronomy grew in tandem with the US manned space programme, but was almost killed off when he was sent to the University of Detroit high school in 1965. "It was a Jesuit school, which believed children were far better off studying the classics, debating, literature and history rather than the sciences," he says. "Science was seen as something you could come back to later when you had mastered the other subjects and the upshot was that at 19 I was all signed up to be a history major at Boston College."

It was chance that decided otherwise. "I had a friend who was going to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and I took a look at the pinball machines, the weekend movies and the science-fiction library and wanted a part of it. So I signed up to do earth and planetary science just because it had the word planet in the title. I had no real idea what it involved."

In 1971, most US undergraduates were focused on sex, drugs and rock'n'roll with a bit of anti-Vietnam protesting on the side. But Consolmagno concentrated on the science. "MIT had a ratio of nine men for every woman, so there wasn't much sex," he laughs. "I was stupid enough without taking drugs. Unlike Clinton, I didn't even get round to not inhaling. And I was never that political, as I could always see both sides of any argument. I did have long hair, but then everyone did."

On the course, he worked on a computer model of the moons of Jupiter, based on the assumption they were half-rock and half-ice and that radioactive elements could melt the ice. "It was exciting stuff," he says. "Atone time, I was ahead of astronomers working at the cutting-edge Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Ten years later, they eventually managed to send a probe to Jupiter and found all my predictions were accurate, although my reasons were wrong. I had overestimated some things by a factor of 10 and underestimated others by a similar amount and they had all somehow cancelled each other out. It was a good lesson in humility for any scientist."

Astronomy for all

For the next 10 years, Consolmagno continued to play in the scientific big leagues, doing a doctorate in Arizona before returning to the east coast, to Harvard and MIT, where he was employed as a research post-doc. By the time he reached 30, he decided astronomy wasn't enough - "I couldn't see the point of studying the stars when so many people were dying elsewhere in the world of hunger." So he joined the Peace Corps.

"I was all ready to go wherever they sent me and to do whatever they wanted," he says. "So I was initially mortified to be sent to the University of Nairobi to teach astronomy. But my experiences taught me that poor people have as much interest in the stars as those of us living in the west, and this reconciled me to the idea that astronomy belongs to us all."

He returned to the US and continued teaching and writing until he hit another milestone. "At 40, I was happy but not content," he says. "I had a good job, but I was lurching from one unsatisfactory relationship to the next without ever believing I was going to find the person with whom I wanted to settle down and have kids. And then it just seemed right for me to become a Jesuit. It wasn't a decision I took lightly, but it was one that everyone who was close to me supported. Even my ex-sweethearts rather insultingly told me they always knew I'd end up a priest."

It's a journey that is not yet complete- he will take his final vows in September -but he has had no doubts along the way. And he has also got to do some exciting science. "Some projects have gone wrong and fizzled out," he admits, "but I've also had the opportunity to do things that no one else had ever bothered with.

"The Vatican has a fantastic collection of meteorites and I decided it would be interesting to measure their density.

Through this, I discovered that asteroids were half the density you might expect - which meant they weren't solid, as we had previously thought, but were made up of gravel instead. This has significantly added to our knowledge of the formation of our solar system."

Consolmagno is now working on the density of objects in the Kuiper belt beyond Neptune but, for all his scientific desire for certainty, he is happy for some things to remain a mystery. Such as what happens when we die. After all, if anyone should know it's the Pope's astronomer. He looks up and laughs. "When I've got the data, I'll be happy to let you know."

Curriculum vitae

Name: Brother Guy Consolmagno
Age: 55
Job: Vatican astronomer; curator of the Vatican's meteorite collection; member of the division for planetary sciences of the American Astronomical Society
Books: Turn Left at Orion; The Way to the Dwelling of Light; Worlds Apart
Likes: chocolate, Harry Potter
Dislikes: chewing gum, know-it-alls





When this story was posted in May 2006, this was on the front page of PCOL:


Contact PCOLBulletin BoardRegisterSearch PCOLWhat's New?

Peace Corps Online The Independent News Forum serving Returned Peace Corps Volunteers
Help Peace Corps get its full Appropriation Date: May 12 2006 No: 892 Help Peace Corps get its full Appropriation
Senators DeWine, Feinstein, Santorum, and Durbin are asking their colleagues to join them in signing a letter to Senate Appropriations leaders to fully fund the President's FY07 request for the International Affairs Budget, including a full appropriation for the Peace Corps. Forty-five Senators have already signed on. Here's how you can help. Please make your call by May 16.

Top Stories and Breaking News PCOL Magazine Peace Corps Library RPCV Directory Sign Up

The Peace Corps Library Date: February 24 2006 No: 798 The Peace Corps Library
The Peace Corps Library is now available online with over 40,000 index entries in 500 categories. Looking for a Returned Volunteer? Check our RPCV Directory. New: Sign up to receive PCOL Magazine, our free Monthly Magazine by email. Like to keep up with Peace Corps news as it happens? Sign up to recieve a daily summary of Peace Corps stories from around the world.

PC evacuates East Timor, hopes to return Date: May 9 2006 No: 890 PC evacuates East Timor, hopes to return
Volunteers serving in East Timor have safely left the country as a result of the recent civil unrest and government instability. Latest: The Peace Corps has informed us that they are monitoring the security situation on a daily basis and that it is the intention of the Peace Corps to return to East Timor if the security situation improves.

First Amendment Watch Date: May 4 2006 No: 883 First Amendment Watch
Maine Web Report hit with Federal Lawsuit
Website wins trademark suit against Jerry Falwell

It's Official: Vasquez nominated to FAO Date: April 25 2006 No: 881 It's Official: Vasquez nominated to FAO
Exactly one week ago we predicted that Director Vasquez would soon be receiving a major ambassadorship. Today the White House confirmed that Vasquez will be the new Representative to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture replacing Tony Hall.

PCOL Comment: Director Vasquez, let us be the first to thank you for your service to the Peace Corps, congratulate you on your new appointment, and wish you good luck in your future endeavors. Although we have had our differences over the years and we opposed your nomination in 2001, we think you are leaving a solid legacy of accomplishment and have served the Peace Corps well.

Initiatives and Accomplishments: Vasquez's major initiatives and accomplishments since becoming Peace Corps Director include: an agreement with Mexico in 2003 to host volunteers, sending RPCVs to work domestically in Hurricane relief after Katrina, emphasis on recruitment of minorities and of community college graduates, upgrading Peace Corps' infrastructure especially IT upgrades in the online application tracking process and the Volunteer Delivery System, an emphasis on safety and security of volunteers including the creation of a Situation Room at Peace Corps Headquarters, modifying Peace Corps' "Five Year Rule" for employment, and the expansion of the Peace Corps to its highest level in 30 years. He is the third longest serving Peace Corps Director after Loret Ruppe Miller and Sargent Shriver.

Interview with a Hit Man Date: April 25 2006 No: 880 Interview with a Hit Man
RPCV John Perkins says that for many years he was an "economic hit man" in the world of international finance whose primary job was to convince less developed countries to accept multibillion dollar loans for infrastructure projects that left the recipient countries wallowing in debt and highly vulnerable to outside political and commercial interests. In this exclusive interview for "Peace Corps Online," Colombia RPCV Joanne Roll, author of Remember with Honor, talks to Perkins about his Peace Corps service, his relation with the NSA, "colonization" in Ecuador, the consequences of his work, why he decided to speak out, and what his hopes are for change.

PC Program in Chad temporarily suspended Date: April 14 2006 No: 872 PC Program in Chad temporarily suspended
Director Vasquez announced the temporary suspension of the Peace Corps program in Chad on April 14 and that all 29 Peace Corps volunteers have left the country. With a program dating back forty years (See Page 4 of the April 1966 "Peace Corps Volunteer"), RPCVs hope that volunteers can return to Chad as soon as the situation has stabilized. Congratulations to the Peace Corps for handling the suspension quickly and professionally.

Peace Corps stonewalls on FOIA request Date: April 12 2006 No: 869 Peace Corps stonewalls on FOIA request
The Ashland Daily Tidings reports that Peace Corps has blocked their request for information on the Volkart case. "After the Tidings requested information pertaining to why Volkart was denied the position on March 2 the newspaper received a letter from the Peace Corps FOIA officer stating the requested information was protected under an exemption of the act." The Dayton Daily News had similar problems with FOIA requests for their award winning series on Volunteer Safety and Security.

PCOL readership increases 100% Date: April 3 2006 No: 853 PCOL readership increases 100%
Monthly readership on "Peace Corps Online" has increased in the past twelve months to 350,000 visitors - over eleven thousand every day - a 100% increase since this time last year. Thanks again, RPCVs and Friends of the Peace Corps, for making PCOL your source of information for the Peace Corps community. And thanks for supporting the Peace Corps Library and History of the Peace Corps. Stay tuned, the best is yet to come.

History of the Peace Corps Date: March 18 2006 No: 834 History of the Peace Corps
PCOL is proud to announce that Phase One of the "History of the Peace Corps" is now available online. This installment includes over 5,000 pages of primary source documents from the archives of the Peace Corps including every issue of "Peace Corps News," "Peace Corps Times," "Peace Corps Volunteer," "Action Update," and every annual report of the Peace Corps to Congress since 1961. "Ask Not" is an ongoing project. Read how you can help.

PC announces new program in Cambodia Date: March 29 2006 No: 849 PC announces new program in Cambodia
Director Vasquez and Cambodia's Deputy Chief of Mission Meng Eang Nay announced a historic new partnership between the Peace Corps and the Kingdom of Cambodia that will bring volunteers to this Southeast Asian country for the first time. Under King Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodia has welcomed new partnerships with the U.S. government and other U.S. organizations.

Peace Corps suspends program in Bangladesh Date: March 16 2006 No: 827 Peace Corps suspends program in Bangladesh
Peace Corps Director Gaddi H. Vasquez announced the suspension of the Peace Corps program in Bangladesh on March 15. The safety and security of volunteers is the number one priority of the Peace Corps. Therefore, all Peace Corps volunteers serving in Bangladesh have safely left the country. More than 280 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Bangladesh since the program opened in November 1998. Latest: What other newspapers say.

Invitee re-assigned after inflammatory remarks Date: March 21 2006 No: 839 Invitee re-assigned after inflammatory remarks
The Peace Corps has pulled the invitation to Derek Volkart to join the Morocco Training Program and offered him a position in the Pacific instead after officials read an article in which he stated that his decision to join the Peace Corps was in "response to our current fascist government." RPCV Lew Nash says that "If Derek Volkart spoke his mind as freely in Morocco about the Moroccan monarchy it could cause major problems for himself and other Peace Corps volunteers." Latest: Volkart reverses stance, takes new assignment in Paraguay.

RPCV admits to abuse while in Peace Corps Date: February 3 2006 No: 780 RPCV admits to abuse while in Peace Corps
Timothy Ronald Obert has pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a minor in Costa Rica while serving there as a Peace Corps volunteer. "The Peace Corps has a zero tolerance policy for misconduct that violates the law or standards of conduct established by the Peace Corps," said Peace Corps Director Gaddi H. Vasquez. Could inadequate screening have been partly to blame? Mr. Obert's resume, which he had submitted to the Peace Corps in support of his application to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, showed that he had repeatedly sought and obtained positions working with underprivileged children. Read what RPCVs have to say about this case.

Military Option sparks concerns Date: January 3 2006 No: 773 Military Option sparks concerns
The U.S. military, struggling to fill its voluntary ranks, is allowing recruits to meet part of their reserve military obligations after active duty by serving in the Peace Corps. Read why there is opposition to the program among RPCVs. Director Vasquez says the agency has a long history of accepting qualified applicants who are in inactive military status. John Coyne says "Not only no, but hell no!" and RPCV Chris Matthews leads the debate on "Hardball." Avi Spiegel says Peace Corps is not the place for soldiers while Coleman McCarthy says to Welcome Soldiers to the Peace Corps. Read our poll results. Latest: Congress passed a bill on December 22 including language to remove Peace Corps from the National Call to Service (NCS) military recruitment program

Why blurring the lines puts PCVs in danger Date: October 22 2005 No: 738 Why blurring the lines puts PCVs in danger
When the National Call to Service legislation was amended to include Peace Corps in December of 2002, this country had not yet invaded Iraq and was not in prolonged military engagement in the Middle East, as it is now. Read the story of how one volunteer spent three years in captivity from 1976 to 1980 as the hostage of a insurrection group in Colombia in Joanne Marie Roll's op-ed on why this legislation may put soldier/PCVs in the same kind of danger. Latest: Read the ongoing dialog on the subject.


Read the stories and leave your comments.






Some postings on Peace Corps Online are provided to the individual members of this group without permission of the copyright owner for the non-profit purposes of criticism, comment, education, scholarship, and research under the "Fair Use" provisions of U.S. Government copyright laws and they may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owner. Peace Corps Online does not vouch for the accuracy of the content of the postings, which is the sole responsibility of the copyright holder.

Story Source: The Guardian

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Kenya; Vatican; Religion; Catholicism; Astronomy; Science

PCOL32707
44


Add a Message


This is a public posting area. Enter your username and password if you have an account. Otherwise, enter your full name as your username and leave the password blank. Your e-mail address is optional.
Username:  
Password:
E-mail: