Astronomers Are People, Too…

Do you know this face? If you don’t, then you surely know the name – Brother Guy Consolmagno, Vatican Astronomer. Ah, I hear some bells ringing in your head! So why is he important to so many of us? Then sit back and let me tell you a tale about the halcyon days of astronomy…

Once upon a time, there were no computer driven telescopes, no easy access planetarium programs just waiting on our desktops or laptop computer screens for us to find objects in the sky. Telescopes were simply telescopes and astronomy clubs were rare. If you were just learning, you were on your own with what you could find at the library. And, for many of you (like me) Brother Guy’s famous work “Turn Left At Orion” was our teacher. Through its pages I learned what made my telescope work and how to aim at objects in the sky and find them. But even more importantly, he taught me to educate myself about what I was looking at.

Over the years I wore the covers and bindings off of three copies of “Turn Left At Orion”. My original is held together with rubber bands and still holds a place of honor on my bookshelf, for its many grass stains and coffee rings proclaim the nights I’ve spent with it under the stars. Pages have been photocopied and handed out to others who were just beginning and the legend of Brother Guy Consolmagno passed on to the next generation of stargazers. Yet for all of this time I had spent with this book, it never once occurred to me to think of its author as a person…

Until now.

guy-and-dee-in-bcoThrough the magic of the times that we now live in, we instantly communicate with people around the world – allowing us to make friends in places where we’d never dreamed we could be. One such astronomy friend of mine, Deirdre, is part of the Irish Astronomical Society, and when she told me of her visit with Guy Consolmagno? I just about fainted. He’s real? The man is real? Of course he’s real. You know he’s real. But is he really for real? And the answer is… He’s not only real – but he’s the type of person who would spend a night out under the stars with you.

So often in our hurried, modern world we forget the simple joys of life. Music, friends, starlight… We have conceptions of how we believe things should be, and not what they are. Astronomers can only listen to classical music and have to be stiff scientists, right? Wrong. Stop and visit with one of the most inspirational of all:

The next time you’re out with a telescope, why not unplug the electronics and go manual? Get out your old refractor or reflector and your book of charts. Breathe in the night around you and be curious about the things you look at. Maybe turn on some rock and roll? And when you get to Orion…

Turn left.

Brother Guy Consolmagno is the curator of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory. He has an extensive academic background and has written more than 100 scientific publications alongside numerous books. I would personally like to thank him for being part of the inspiration that made me what I am today. If you, too, owe part of what you are to Brother Guy’s work… why not tell him so here? I’m sure he’s listening.

20 Replies to “Astronomers Are People, Too…”

  1. What a delightful article and video interview! My copy of “Turn Left” is is a similar state… stained, banged up, and just holding together. And despite all the advances in computers and optics and the torrent of information from the internet, Brother Guy’s book is one of the few I turn to at least once a week.

    Thanks for this fine article.

  2. This man came to lecture at the Mars Society convention in Boulder last year. I think he was the only religious speaker that the crowd didn’t find long winded.

  3. To add to my silly comment above which I posted before reading the article, I bought “turn left” last November and haven’t regretted. Though I live in Ghana, West Africa near the equater and the book was written with the northern hemisphere in mind, it is still extremely helpful. I combine using the book with Stellarium to find objects in the sky. And I use a modest 5.1″ Newtonian reflector, so it’s all manual.

  4. Yeah, those Christians are just a bunch of benighted, uneducated rednecks. No interest in science or scholarship among THAT bunch.

  5. # John M. Says:
    April 8th, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    “Yeah, those Christians are just a bunch of benighted, uneducated rednecks. No interest in science or scholarship among THAT bunch.”

    I’ll preface this by saying that I am not really religious, but neither am I anti-religious.

    On the contrary John – I have known many Christians throughout my life, and I have found them to mostly be thoroughly considered individuals who think often and deeply about the big questions in life, including science, and are not afraid to examine their beliefs, admit that there are things that they do not know, or misunderstand. I have had many fascinating and cordial conversations with them, and I must say that such people have (surprisingly) often impressed me with the depth and clarity of their thought – they think on such things more deeply than 95% of the general population. Much like the astronomer mentioned in the post.

    However, there are an extremely vocal minority (who knows? perhaps majority in the US) who would seek to deride anything that does not conform to their particular brand of intolerance as pure evil. Since science challenges their world view, they go after it with venom. And that pisses me and most other people off, because it is a position of supreme arrogance and ignorance. Unfortunately for you, these people are drowning out more moderate voices, and they are quite rightly attacked fiercely in return. It is up to those who are more moderate to reassert themselves as a dominant force in religion, and to take command of the situation. In fact, that seems to go for most religions around the world at the moment – the extreme voices are yelling loud and beating their chests – will moderates take the battle to them and reclaim the pulpit?

    In the end, I believe science and religion can coexist, but it will always be an uneasy alliance. Science, by it’s very nature, hinges on holding the concept doubt supreme – it is science’s most cherished and central principle. Religion holds absolute faith and certainty aloft as it’s beacon. Can a person compartmentalise and on the one hand express doubt about all things scientific, and on the other hand hold another area of their lives as absolute, sacred and untouchable? I think that it is possible, but must be very hard. In fact, all I’m really doing is echoing the great Feynman’s view on this very issue.

    Anyway, I love thinking about this stuff – ironic that we can only approach towards a level of certainty about nature by turning away from certainty entirely and embracing doubt.

  6. There’s nothing quite like using a filter of religious superstition to peer at the cosmos, rather than seeing the cosmos as they are, filterless.

    The Church once banished science and killed heretics for proposing evidence that contradicted biblical teachings. Now the Church wants to usurp science as if it is a conduit to better understand God.

    Science explains natural processes while remaining open to new evidence. Religion dictates and feigns authority, using scientific discovery to rationalize scriptural irrationality.

    When it comes to meaning, purpose, morality, we humans made it all up. Nature is grander and far more astounding than the petty imaginings of our ancestors.

  7. “Turn left at Orion” is one of those books that will remain a favourite for a long time.

    Those of us that write about astronomers in history must be aware that they have descendents who read every thing they can about their ancestor. So be careful and accurate and not personal.

    It is a shame however that the Utube interview was not done in a better location.

  8. Also worth remembering that Georges Lemaitre, a priest, was the man who came up with the ‘primeval atom’ theory – The forerunner to the Big Bang.

    He maintained that scientific endeavour should stand isolated from the religious realm, saying (of the Big Bang theory) “As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question”.

  9. @ Astrofiend, a great exposition of the complex relationship between science & faith. I, too, find many deeply spiritual people finding no contradictions with current cosmological and physical theory and their personal faith. I, myself, remain agnostic on the the issue and see no reasons that peaceful coexistence can not exist between the two fields of thought. The problem arises when some (fundamentalists, creationists, etc) attempt to use science to ‘prove’ religious claims. Science (based on fact) can never be used to prove religious matters (based on faith, since faith is not open to scientific scrutiny).

  10. Dave,

    Although I’m not fond of the attitude of the Vatican leadership towards science (particularly evolution), I don’t believe there is any way they can usurp science. Any scientific contributions will be considered on it’s scientific merits, including those from Brother Guy Consolmagno.

  11. Dave,

    You don’t like evolution? Interesting. You said you are not fond of the Vatican’s position on evolution. The Vatican recently endorsed evolution.

    The only dispute between science and religion is between the radicals on both sides. Religion answers the question “why”, which science is not equipped to answer. Science answers the question “how” which religion is ill equipped to answer. An honest look at science and religion quickly shows that not only is there no conflict, they are complimentary.

  12. Marco: I don’t like evolution? From where are you getting this?

    You say that science isn’t equipped to answer questions of “why.” Simply saying such a thing doesn’t make it so.

    And why is religion any more qualified to answer such questions? It’s much more difficult, and thereby more satisfying, to create meaning for one’s self than it is to easily accept it from a manufactured narrative written by people who were ignorant of the natural world and our place within it.

    The more we learn about the natural world the less need we have to insert the gap-filler that is the idea of God. Do you need God to explain gravity? Do you need God to explain photosynthesis? aerodynamics? etc. These insights and processes occur by natural explanation, and there is no reason to believe that such explanations can’t extend outward to explain the entirety of existence.

    It’s true that God might exist; but it’s also true that there could be 198 gods, or that an invisible drum set is circling your head. All claims without evidence are equally invalid, that is until evidence outside “it’s true because, um, I believe it to be true” arises.

  13. Marco, one other thing: The Vatican “recently endorsed” religion. Is this supposed to impress me?

    Science has contributed enormously to the advancement of knowledge, and many times has corrected blatantly incorrect religious claims. Tell me, exactly how many scientific claims have been reversed by religion?

  14. I’m sure Guy Consolmagno is a super chap but why call him ‘Brother’? He’s just an ordinary person like you and me. If his religion doesn’t get in the way of his science, that’s fine but on the whole the divergence between science and religion is immense. Science is based on proving facts and rejecting theories that don’t conform with the facts. Religion is concerned with dogmatic statements which have no authenticity or basis in fact. We should call the resurrection of Christ or his divinity, for example, only theories, awaiting external proof

  15. Religion becomes parasitic for its own stupid knowledge. No one has the right to mix science and religion. Religion is illogical and a lie.

  16. Dave,

    I am not trying to impress you. I also do not try to impress tree stumps. Your blindness is impenetrable. The only time science has corrected religion is when religious practitioners strayed out of their area and into science’s. The reverse is equally true. Also, there are idiots on both sides of the equation and thank you for proving that point.

  17. Marco: Let me get this straight. Remaining open to evidence and basing conviction only on facts is blindness? The bleating sounds that are emitting between your sentences are deafening.

    And you need to get over yourself, by the way. I said the Vatican didn’t impress me; it had nothing to do with you. But nice job on throwing out a personal insult: it’s the first step toward creating a distraction away from the actual discussion, which reveals an inability on your part to sustain a counterargument.

    NOMA is rubbish.

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