Adventures Of A Vatican Astronomer
Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno offered an intimate look into the adventures of a Vatican astronomer during a Sept. 25 presentation at St. Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad. Brother Guy took attendees back to the beginnings of the Vatican Observatory and led them through a history of its operation. He also carried folks from Antarctica to Kenya and America – and, finally, to Castel Gandolfo near Rome in recounting his own personal adventures.
Known to many as the summer home of the popes, Castel Gandolfo also has been home to the Vatican Observatory since the 1930s. The first observatory was within sight of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Brother Guy explained that the impact of light pollution from greater Rome caused the Holy See to move the observatory to the darker skies of Castel Gandolfo, roughly 16 miles southeast of Vatican City, in the 1930s.
“By the 1980s, light pollution had become a problem in Castel Gandolfo,” Brother Guy said. “It was then that the Holy See built the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope on Mount Graham in southeastern Arizona. The telescope is expandable; it can grow as technology grows.”
Calling himself a “Sputnik kid,” Brother Guy took his audience pretty much around the world as he talked about the journey that led him to the directorship of the observatory.
A native of Detroit, Mich., he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in planetary science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He earned a doctorate in planetary science from the University of Arizona. He began his career teaching and doing research at Harvard and MIT.
“I would walk from my home to work in the morning, walk back home in the evening and found myself thinking, why do astronomy when people are starving?” he recalled. “So I quit and joined the Peace Corps.” That was in 1983. “I told them I would go wherever they wanted to send me, and do whatever they wanted me to do,” he added. “They sent me to Kenya, and I ended up teaching astronomy and physics at the best high school in the country.”
When he returned to the U.S., Brother Guy taught at Lafayette College for a few years before entering the Jesuits. He professed his final vows as a Brother in 1991 and received his first assignment – to serve as an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory.
“I was given a very simple mission when I arrived – do good science,” he said.
His work has included serving as curator of the observatory’s meteorite collection – one of the largest in the world. He also spent six weeks adding to the collection in “the best place (on Earth) to search for meteorites – Antarctica.”
Three years ago, Pope Francis appointed Brother Guy as director of the observatory. He works with almost a dozen researchers on the observatory staff who come from five nations on four continents.
“Living in the Vatican is an adventure,” he said, “and it is like living in an adventure story.
“The Jesuits gave me the theology education I needed to reflect on what I was doing with science, and why,” Brother Guy said. “Religion gives me the reason to do the science. Recognizing the universe and wondering about it all … that is a phenomenal human adventure.”
For more information on the Vatican Observatory, visit the website of its foundation at www.vofoundation.org.