How do you convince hundreds of Year 13 students from Catholic schools that faith and science are not opposed to each other?

You get the director of the Vatican Observatory, Br Guy Consolmago, SJ, to address them and then to answer their
questions.

With a mix of humour (mostly self-deprecating — with nerdy pictures of himself at various points in his scientific
career), social commentary, faith reflection and stunning graphics of astronomical phenomena, Br Guy spoke to year 13 students from Auckland diocese’s Catholic colleges at Sancta Maria College in Flat Bush on May 3.

Br Guy admitted later that some of his cultural references to Star Trek and the movie Animal House might have been a bit lost on his millennial audience.

But he seemed to carry the day, eliciting laughter and cheers for things like showing Pope Francis visiting the observatory and saying the Pontiff has a chemistry degree and was dressed in a “lab coat” (the white cassock).

He commiserated with the students about having to do basic science to get “the answers in the back of the book” right.

But there is a lot more to science than that.

Br Guy joked that he didn’t know any scientist who rigidly stuck to the so-called scientific method of observation, hypothesis formation and experimentation.

“What really happens is that the scientist gets a new hammer, starts banging things until they break, looks at all the pieces and goes — what was that all about, and how does it fit back together?

If this was the answer, what was the problem? And, by the way, if I can come up with a paper, I can go to that meeting in Hawaii next week.

“But what I really want to say is . . . the hypothesis comes from your imagination. And probably you can think of not one hypothesis, but half a dozen. And you only have . . . enough time in your life and enough money in your budget to test one or maybe two of them. How do you choose which ones you are going to spend the next few years on? How do you know when you have got an answer that’s good enough to publish?

“All of these decisions are . . . not on the basis of cold reason. They are made on the basis of your imagination, your experience, your hunches, your sense of — ‘I think I know how the universe works’.”

He quoted mathematician John van Neumann: “You never understand mathematics, you just get used to it.”

“I think that is true of science in general,” Br Guy said. “You never understand the physical universe, you just get used to it. That’s why they make you do all those problems in books — [it’s] part of getting used to it.”

But religion, he stressed, “in itself, is not a big book of facts. Religion has to be more than just following a bunch of rules”.

“So if you think science is a big book of facts, and religion is a big book of facts, and what happens if the facts in this book don’t fit the facts in that book, I have got to throw them away, that doesn’t understand religion, and doesn’t make you understand what science is.

“Religion is not about blind faith. It is not about closing your eyes to the universe.”

Br Guy stressed the similarities between science and religion, saying both are “a combination of the heart and the soul”.

The importance for science and for faith of having a community was stressed. “Science and religion are communities of people on the road together exploring things . . . .”

Br Guy related this to the students, using the choice of careers they might study for as an example. (He had them roaring with laughter describing his antics from his own student days and how he went from a student wanting to be a writer or lawyer, to studying to be a scientist).

This career exploration is “on the basis of what I want to do and my desires, what my community is supporting me to do and how my brain allows me to learn to do what I want to do”.

“Why do science then?” he asked in conclusion.

He showed a photo of himself in a teeshirt with Maxwell’s Equations printed on the front. The equations are the starting point for understanding a range of phenomena from electricity to the nature of light and even Einstein’s theory of general relativity, he said.

“These equations explain the light that comes to your eye from a sunset, but they don’t explain why the sunset is
beautiful.

“And yet, I would say, those equations are just as beautiful as the sunset. You get a sense of joy from the knowledge, the way you get a sense of joy from the beauty, the way you get a sense of joy from a baby or when walking down the street and suddenly feeling God is next to you.

“In all of these experiences, you get the joy and that joy is the presence of God.”

“Why does the Church want us to do science? Because science is a way that we come to that sense of joy.”

“As St Paul says in his letter to the Romans,” Br Guy concluded, “God reveals himself in the things he has made — and that is why we are scientists.”

Where are the star-gazing women

In a Q&A session following Br Guy’s talk, he fielded a question from a female student on the lack of women in his presentation and at the Vatican Observatory. He was asked if there are religious women who could work where he does.

Br Guy explained the history of a pope handing over responsibility for the observatory to the Jesuit order,
which is all-male.

“We do have a higher proportion of people of colour than do most observatories, but we don’t have any women,” Br Guy said.

“I am the director and I know that and I know there’s something wrong with that,” he said.

“So what we also have is a group of people called adjunct scholars who are astronomers at other institutions and they can be lay people . . . and some of them are women, and they have the same right to declare themselves as members of the observatory and they have the right to use the facilities we have — our telescope, our libraries, our laboratories. The only thing they don’t do is live in the same communities as us.

“So that’s how we are trying to address that issue. The world of science has changed, and it is continuing to change, and it needs to continue to change more.”

“When I was in graduate school,” Br Guy continued, “I was in a department of 10 graduate students, one of whom was a woman . . . two of whom were not white, Anglo-Saxon males. That’s not the case anymore. The field is half women. But it is still overwhelmingly white — and that’s not right.”

He stressed the importance of encouraging people who want to be scientists to pursue their dreams.

Br Guy also took questions on suffering, free will, the complexity of science, creation, forgiveness and the relationship between science and religion.

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