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Interview with Brother Guy Consolmagno: Curator of Meteorites at the Vatican Observatory

Henry Bortman

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Dr. Guy Consolmagno divides his time between Tucson, Arizona, where he observes asteroids and Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican's 1.8 meter telescope on Mt. Graham, and Castel Gandolfo, Italy, home of the Vatican meteorites. The Vatican Observatory established a research branch in Arizona in 1981 when the growing population of Rome made the sky too bright for astronomical observations.

Selected questions...

Q. Isn't the belief that God created the universe a preconceived notion?

GC: It is. And it's a preconceived notion that in one form or another every scientist has to have. Because here's the other side: to be a scientist you have to have two fundamental assumptions, so fundamental you don't even think about it. You assume that the universe makes sense, that there really is an objective reality; there really is a logic to this; it's not just chaos; there really are laws to be found. We're so used to that assumption, you don't realize it. A lot of cultures don't have that.

And the other assumption you have to make is that it's worth doing. If your idea, if your religion is to meditate and rise above the physical universe, this corrupting physical universe, you might say, you're not going to be a scientist, you're not going to be interested in Mars. So it's a religious statement to say the physical universe is worth devoting my life to. Seeing how the universe works is worth spending a lifetime doing.

Q. Why is it a religious statement?

GC: By religious I mean that it is based on certain fundamental assumptions you have about how the universe works and what your place in the universe is. And ultimately, that's a religious assumption. Whether it's my religion or somebody else's religion, lots of people with lots of religions are looking at science. I'm not saying it's only one religion that has that assumption. But I'm saying that there are religions that don't. There are brilliant cultures throughout history who have had fabulous mathematics and glorious ethical systems - and no science. It really is an important fundamental assumption that you have to have, especially day-to-day as a scientist. It's what gets you up in the morning.

You know, one of the scary things as a scientist is that you're not punching a clock. There's probably nobody looking over your shoulder to see if you're working today. It's only after two years, when you haven't produced anything, that you don't get the next grant and then you're out of a job. But day-by-day, what gets you up, what makes you do the work? Why are you excited about this stuff? And why do you think that it's worth doing, when people are starving in the world?

Q: And what's your answer?

GC: My answer is the answer I gave before. That it's one of the things that makes us human and, for me, it's one of the things that bring me into close personal touch with God.

Read the entire article on the Astrobiology website.

Posted: 5/15/04

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