Vatican astronomer sees meteors as part of divine plan
Bob Donaldson/Post-GazetteVatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno in the Angelo Taiani planetarium of the Dupre Science Pavilion at Saint Vincent College in Unity.
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Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno has a new neighbor.
Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus, has taken up temporary residence at Castel Gandolfo, outside Rome, which is the official headquarters of the Vatican Observatory.
Pope Benedict, who resigned Feb. 28, will stay at the palace there while Catholic cardinals meet in Vatican City to choose his successor.
The palace at Castel Gandolfo also serves as the papal summer residence. Brother Consolmagno, who delivered a lecture this week at Saint Vincent College, recalled a conversation he had with the former pope during a visit the pontiff made to the observatory.
"He laughed at my jokes in English and Italian," Brother Consolmagno, a Detroit native, said during an interview this week. "His English was better than my Italian."
Brother Consolmagno's visit was part of an open-house celebration on Monday for the $39 million Sis and Herman Dupre Science Pavilion at the Catholic liberal arts college.
Brother Consolmagno, one of a dozen Vatican astronomers, is an expert on meteors and meteorites. He is curator of the observatory's collection of meteorites, which are pieces of space debris that have survived their high-speed journeys through the Earth's atmosphere.
He and his fellow astronomers, who have come from four continents, are encouraged to do long-term basic science projects that may take 20 years to produce publishable results, Brother Consolmagno said. His work with the Vatican's collection of rocks from outer space is providing information about how the planets and sun that make up our solar system came to form 41/2 billion years ago, he said.
Meteors, like the one that exploded on Feb. 15 over Siberia, appear to arrive without warning or order. Does their existence suggest randomness, rather than a divine design, in the universe?
Randomness is part of God's plan, Brother Consolmagno said. "The universe is not a wind-up toy," he said. "I think God designed chance and freedom into the universe and into us."
Brother Consolmagno, 60, studied earth and planetary sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received a doctoral degree in planetary science from the University of Arizona. After stints teaching with the Peace Corps in Kenya and at Lafayette College, north of Philadelphia, he entered the Jesuit Order in 1989. He became a Jesuit brother in 1991, and he was assigned to the Vatican Observatory in 1993.
Jesuits take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Brother Consolmagno said he found it easy to obey when he was ordered to Rome. "I would be forced to eat terrible Italian food," he joked. "I would work with one of the world's largest collections of meteorites."
His talk at Saint Vincent was part of the college's Threshold Series. Previous speakers have included astronomer Carl Sagan, science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov and Neil deGrasse Tyson, the host of PBS science programs and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.
First Published March 14, 2013 12:00 am