Guy Consolmagno and George Coyne — Asteroids, Stars, and the Love of God
March 10, 2011

Four Jesuits in history have had asteroids named after them. Our guests are the two living astronomers with that distinction. Brother Guy Consolmagno and Father George Coyne study the composition of meteorites and the life and death of stars. They share their observations of life, faith, friendship, and the universe from their seats in the Vatican Observatory.

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Live from the studio, we captured Brother Guy and Father George's best lines and paired them with a video of The Colbert Report's interview with Brother Consolmagno.

Comments from two cosmologists and NASA's images from a refurbished Hubble.

A minute-long time lapse film of the Milky Way taken in Mauna Kea, Hawai'i will surely spark your sense of wonder.

13.7 billion years scaled into one year helps makes sense of the universe's massive scale in this video + chart.

About the Image

The Vatican Observatory is located in Castel Gondolfo, Italy and was originally established as the site of the papal summer residence by Urban VIII, the pope who took Galileo to task. The two domes house the Vatican Observatory's telescopes.

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When I hear the two notions, there is a synonymous resonance that strikes a cord with me. In certain media of past and now, the notion of God is portrayed as an anthropomorphic figure and the universe as a cold, thoughtless expanse. As modern science and modern religion compliment each other more and more, the two will eventually will become the same expression. We will come to know that what we call a cold universe, with our limited knowledge of existence, might just be God's indiscriminate love for all.

We hardly qualify as informed spectators in this interplay; nor do we contribute greatly to it; yet could we be the quintessence of this interplay?

Unfortunately the speaker lost credibility early in the discussion when he commented that he thought his early teacher had died from lead poisoning as the result of scratching his head with a pencil. Surely, as a scientist, he knows that wooden pencils never contained lead! I hoped he was joking but he sounded serious.

I'm not interested in a God I can understand with my feeble brain. I appreciate and understand the Jesuits' comment that faith grows out of experience.

I'm a "cradle Catholic" and one of my dearest friends several years ago was a Congregational minister. His wife had passed and he became a surrogate grandfather to our children.

One "Good Friday" afternoon when Will was in his late seventies he and I were sitting at his kitchen table next to a window in his small apartment and talking about a number of things. The sky became very dark and it started to rain, and there was only a dim light from the window illuminating his face. Will became very quiet for a few minutes, and then he said; "Mike, I've been a minister for over fifty years, and I always though that by this time in my life I would have no doubts [about my faith]. But sometimes I think I have more doubts now than ever." I then had this overwhelming sense that I was in the presence of a very holy man. This experience has helped shape my faith for over twenty years.

Thank you for one of your most illuminating programs!

The only way "religious scientist" is not an oxymoron is if the person is as full of curiosity, doubt, questions, fidelity to rigor and personal fallibilism regarding religion as she is regarding science. The two Jesuits interviewed for this program came close, but I was offended at their jocular dismissal of the Catholic Church's persecution (including torture and execution) of scientists and curtailing of scientific investigation (which continues today) as "history always makes jokes" and "God's sense of humour." No, these were shameful decisions by specific Catholic rulers. Ms. Tippet's too-affable tone with them, especially on this topic (why does she so often sound as though she is on the verge of laughing?) made it worse. Being affable shouldn't preclude asking tough, critical questions when topics like this arise in the interview.

I think Brother Guy and Father George will make good rivals to Click and Clack - Car Talk Brothers. They are as funny, wise and insightful as Tom and Ray :-)

I am glad Krista and her team worked hard to get them on the show. I think this is easily one of the best shows for Speaking of Faith. I just finished reading an excellent book "The Edge of Physics -www.edgeofphysics.com" that explores the current experimental work being done to detect dark matter and your program just complemented the book.

I always think of God as a wise old woman watching the religious conservatives battle out the atheists and agnostics with a big smile on her face. I am touched by Br Guy and Fr George's hunger for knowledge and understanding of this complex universe. Like me, they are in awe of the majesty of the Universe that we are such a tiny part of. I think of all the Jesuit explorers who worked in remote parts of the world and admire their curiosity and perseverance in doing "God's work" - nothing of regular politics of the Catholic church affected them.

Thanks Krista! I hope to listen to this program many times in my blackberry.

This was an interesting interview. I wish SOF would do a segment on St. Pavel Florensky.

I really love this quote from evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme, "The Story of the Universe," EnlightenNext interview:

“This is the greatest story of the scientific enterprise. Here’s the whole story in one line: you take hydrogen gas, leave it alone, and it turns into rose bushes, giraffes and humans. The reason I like that version is that, you see, hydrogen gas is odorless and colorless. The Western civilization prejudice is that it is just material stuff; there’s not much there. The reason I love it is that you just take hydrogen, leave it alone, and it turns into a human. That’s an interesting bit of information. The whole point that it is trying to say is that if humans are spiritual, so is hydrogen. It’s an incredible opportunity to escape the traditional dualism. You know, spirit is up here, matter is down here. But, in reality, matter is all the way through. Spirit is all the way through.
Here is the longer version. The universe comes into existence 13 billion years ago-- the most recent guess. And so it comes forth as elementary particles, screaming hot. It is not only trillions of degrees hot, it is also a million times denser than lead. So, the universe doesn’t begin as fire; it begins as this incredibly dense, hot… we can’t even imagine it, and then it begins to expand. And then after 300 thousand years, it cools enough to form atoms, hydrogen atoms. So the hydrogen and helium atoms form about 300 hundred thousand years after the beginning, and then it continues to expand, and then the early galaxies form. When the universe is about a billion years, we have all these galaxies fluttering into existence. It is an incredible time, because it is the only moment in the history of the universe when galaxies can form. Before that it is too hot and dense; after that it is too thin and spread out. Do you get the implication there? The universe itself has its own timing of creativity. The way scientists talk about it is the universe “flutters into galaxies,” like snowflakes forming. Later on the galaxies complexify as the stars themselves, to burn and transform the elements in their cores. The hydrogen is transformed into helium, and later on it gets alot hotter and the helium is transformed into carbon and so forth. All of the elements are created in the middle of the star, which then explodes. The next star is formed out of these elements. Then you have the possibility of planets. It is then an amazing insight that all of the elements of our bodies are forged out of a star.”

I don't know what God is, or what the universe is. It seems that this life is given to us to explore, approve, and glorify these great unknowns.

This is a beautiful podcast. I am an artist and have spent over thirty years painting the universe of interior prayer. As I see images that have been published of our universe, I can not help but see the commonality of images of our micro and macro perspective of our interior and exterior universe. I have found that God is the greatest artist of all. www.angelicasotiriou.com

Dear Ms. Tippett,

I'm a regular listener of "On Being" (and before that "On Faith") on WAMU-FM. I really enjoyed your your last week's guest. She had a very refreshing and inspiring approach to yoga, spirituality and life.
I was surprised, however, to hear that one of your next week's guests will be Father George Coyne. You may not be aware of Father Coyne's role in the Mt. Graham telescope project and controversy and what many of us consider to be a direct attack on Native American beliefs and spirituality, not to mention the telescope complex's impact on an Apache sacred site and precious high mountain ecosystem.
In a statement titled "Personal Observations on the Mount Graham International Observatory," Coyne wrote, "Nature and the Earth are just there, blah! and there will be a time when they are not there...It is precisely the failure to make the distinctions I mention above [between Nature, Earth, cultures, human beings] that has created a kind of environmentalism and religiosity to which I cannot subscribe and which must be suppressed with all the force that we can muster."
It is hard to ignore the ominous tone of the above words, given the historic and often brutal suppression of Native American spiritual leaders and practices by Europeans and Americans, with the direct or tacit complicity of many Christian churches and their representatives.
While I imagine that your show is already taped and thus you will not have the opportunity to question Father Coyne about these matters, I urge you to look into the subject more closely and to consider having someone on your show (a Native American elder or spiritual leader) to talk about sacred site protection, including Mt. Graham.
Beyond the specific issue of the Mt. Graham Observatory vs. Apache culture and religion and its long and acrimonious history (going back over 3o years now), I think the question of a fundamental clash of world views that Coyne's attitude demonstrates is something worth taking seriously. It goes well beyond "science vs. religion" (in fact, in the Vatican and Coyne's narrative of the reconciliation of the two, there seems to be little place for certain excluded religious perspectives). I believe it has to do with a spiritual relationship to and grounding in place and the primal matrix of our terrestrial home, in contrast with a universalizing and abstract spirituality (and science) that tends to overlook the precious particularity of life and consciousness embedded in the mysterious interplay of forces, elements and species here and now.
There is much written on the Mt. Graham story. I would refer you to one article, by Peter Warshall, "The Heart of Genuine Sadness--Astronomers, politicians and federal employees desecrated the holiest mountain of the San Carlos Apache." It's easy to find on the Internet.
Thank you for taking the time to read and reflect on this rather long message. I would welcome an occasion to discuss it further. I will also post something to your blog for your consideration.

Respectfully,

Paul Roland

When this piece first aired Japan had not just been decimated by earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. It is a bit odd to hear this intellectual frolic in a metaphysical fantasy land today. If God is directly involved with planetary, cosmological events, does He or She have, in addition to the "sense of humor" postulated in this discussion, a pretty strong terrorist streak? It's time for religion to allow humanity to grow up, please.

[Mr. Gillis - (I can't type!)the web form had my old email, this corrects it.]

When this piece first aired Japan had not just been decimated by earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. It is a bit odd to hear this intellectual frolic in a metaphysical fantasy land today. If God is directly involved with planetary, cosmological events, does He or She have, in addition to the "sense of humor" postulated in this discussion, a pretty strong terrorist streak? It's time for religion to allow humanity to grow up, please.

For me Cat Faber summed it up perfectly in her song _The_Word_Of_God_ (http://www.echoschildren.org/CDlyrics/WORDGOD.HTML): "So turn and look where best you think the story is unfurled. Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote the world."

Nothing wrong with religion as a way of understanding what the universe means. But if you want to understand what the universe _is_, that's science domain. Paraphrasing one of the popes: "Those who believe science and religion are at odds either make science say that which it never said or religion teach that which it never taught."

I took particular notice of the comment about "dark energy" - we call is dark because we do not understand it. I've come to think of it as "God energy" since it permeates everything... and we don't understand it.

The juxtaposition of today's discussion of God and the actual physical universe with the current news of the earthquake/tsunami/meltdown destruction that Japan is reeling under is too much for me, I have to tell you that more voices that do NOT claim to know how it all works need to be heard. May God Bless Chris Hitchens.

Cosmology is a subject that became a thorn in the flesh of church leaders precisely during the time of Galileo. Many church leaders did not agree with his findings and this issue landed him in trouble subjecting him to house arrest. Besides all this Galileo was proven right by the discovery that ensued in seeing the large picture of what human beings did not know beyond earth, sun and stars. Theology teaches us that the universe came into existence by not happenstance by God's word on day one. Skeptics will dispute this for reasons that they believe are genuine. On March 13th, 2011 Krista Tipett interviewed Brother Guy and Farther George Coyne, Jesuists astronomers based in the Vatican Observatory. Their argument was that we are surprised by the creation of the universe, its beauty and state of being. I could not disagree more with them that it is the human mind that is curious to know what encompasses the universe. There is too much information that has been discovered since the time of Galileo and there is much more that is yet to be unlocked. Human beings have turned to science and the knowledge therein to understand God's work. Take the sun for instance. Scientists have determined that the energy from the sun is used by plants during a process called photosynthesis. The sun as we know is a good source of vitamin D. Scientists also have found out that it causes skin cancer. The unanswered query is why God created the sun and yet it causes skin cancer? Galileo once remarked that mathematics is the language that revolved around the knowledge describing the earth. God thus, created the universe in a way that he understood things to work and human beings use science to play games with God but God is ahead of the game. The state of being of tectonic plates has been found to cause earthquakes and volcanic activites as a result of tidal forces from the moon. This is something human beings(scientists) always find themsleves at odds with God's work. Many people have lost lives and sufferings of biblical proportions have been experienced thus far. From the book of genesis we learn that God gave man a directive to live on earth and use the earthly possessions for his own good. I can't tell you how much money has been used to find if life exists in other planets. It ranges from billions to trillions of dollars. Each time man has sent a satellite or robots to other planets for life explorations, results have always turned negative. We will try to study God and his cosmologic endeavors but we will always find ourselves whence we started. Translation: wait for God to tell us why he created the universe the way he did and for what purpose. Is it for beauty or other unknown purpose that man cannot extrapolate?

I don't know what God is, or what the universe is. It seems that this life is given to us to explore, approve, and glorify these great unknowns.

These two gentlement were a pleasure to listen to! I really admired the humility that came across, as well as the humor! This was an excellent interview! Very fascinating!

Watching the Persiod meteor shower and listening to these two wonderful, brilliant men. Thank you, Krista!

I second what Paul says below. Any response?

This is indeed a disturbing quote:
"Nature and the Earth are just there, blah! and there will be a time when they are not there...It is precisely the failure to make the distinctions I mention above [between Nature, Earth, cultures, human beings] that has created a kind of environmentalism and religiosity to which I cannot subscribe and which must be suppressed with all the force that we can muster."

Voices on the Radio

is director emeritus of the Vatican Observatory and president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.

is curator of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory.

Production Credits

Host/Producer: Krista Tippett

Managing Producer: Kate Moos

Associate Producer: Nancy Rosenbaum

Associate Producer: Shubha Bala

Associate Producer: Susan Leem

Technical Director/Producer: Chris Heagle

Senior Editor: Trent Gilliss

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Funding provided in part by the John Templeton Foundation.