The Pope's Astronomer: NASA Keeps 'Discovering' Water on Mars

Talking NASA flackery, climate change, string theory, and Shakespeare.

Saint Xavier

This September before Pope Francis went on his U.S./Cuba tour, he tapped Detroit-born “meteor nerd” and Jesuit brother Guy Consolmagno as the new head of the Vatican Observatory.

Founded in 1891, the observatory’s original mission was to show that the church embraced “true and solid science,” a mission statement that seems more a part of the church’s mission than ever in an era where the pope gives a speech on climate change on the White House lawn.

It’s been a busy few weeks in the heavens for a scientist who once said he’d happily baptize an alien. Consolmagno took some time to talk to Inverse about the theological implications of water on Mars, the perks of being a research scientist for the Almighty, and why God won’t protect us from climate change.

Shortly after the discovery of water on Mars, you spoke to Vatican Radio. What do you personally feel are the theological implications of life on other planets?

In one sense, there are no theological implications. The universe is the way that it is, and our job — indeed our duty — as scientists is to learn as accurately as we can just how the universe works.

Rather than learning something theologically new, what I take from my discoveries is a more general sense of the “personality” of the creator. It might be compared to discovering a trove of old manuscripts where you think one of them might be some unpublished play of Shakespeare. You’d be excited because it might be a wonderful new work, or even just a window into what he was thinking while he was writing. But you also need to be sure it really is Shakespeare that you’re reading, not some other writer.

If I was hanging out with you and your colleagues when NASA made this announcement, what would I be hearing?

Mostly we’d be joking about how NASA seems to keep “discovering” water on Mars, over and over again. It’s a nice little new discovery, and it adds a little more panache to what we’ve always suspected, but it is not a major breakthrough; calling it a major discovery is just another bit of NASA flackery.

In fact, if you want to know what planetary scientists are saying about this or any other discovery, all you have to do is hang out with the right crowd on Twitter. A good place to start there is @elakdawalla who blogs for The Planetary Society.

The fact that most journalists (or their editors) can’t get is that “breakthroughs” rarely happen in science. The way we change how we understand Mars (or any place else) is slow, almost “organic,” like watching a tree grow and change. Growth happens; but there’s rarely one sudden moment that makes you say, “this changes everything!” Even when you are confronted with remarkable new evidence you must hold onto a bit of skepticism; half the time, it turns out to be misleading. By comparison, the stuff that in retrospect you recognize as crucial is rarely recognized as such at the time.

You’ve spoken about how the Vatican Observatory has some unique strengths in that you don’t have to worry about your next grant or funding. Is there a strong contingency in the Catholic Church that specifically wants to see the Observatory get more resources? If so, what research is getting those people excited? What breakthrough would the church want to own?

We don’t look for breakthroughs in science … any more than we do in our religious lives. The relationship between a scientist and the universe, or a believer and God for that matter, is much more like that of lovers … it’s like a married couple, who spend years learning all about their beloved in slow but steady ways.

And that takes time. What actually is important in science is to have stable resources, so that we can plan long-term. Such long-term support is what is lacking, for political and legal reasons, in the way NASA gets funded; even three-year grants could be terminated, mid-grant, at the whim of a new Congress. And so what we appreciate most at the Vatican Observatory is the constant reassurance that the Vatican finds us worthy of continual funding at the modest level we have now.

Vatican Observatory Telescope on the roof of the Ponticial Palace in Castel Gandolfo

By Rb85 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

What advantages might you have at the Vatican to explore space, as opposed to other institutions? Is it access to technical equipment? Scientific expertise? Institutional culture?

Institutional culture is definitely the most obvious advantage we have over secular institutions. Because we are not tied to short-term projects, our astronomers can pursue goals that take a long time to reach, such as survey work, or which might have an uncertain chance of “success,” such as research into string theory.

We know that even negative results can be useful, but most people at traditional institutions shy away from research where there’s a good chance of a negative result. We aren’t concerned that way; we aren’t doing the work for fame or headlines. Thus, for instance, Father Chris Corbally has spent several years looking for evidence to support or rule out a particular theory in the evolution of peculiar stars. The fact that he could not find the evidence where the theory predicted it, is really useful science; but it’s not something you could write a press release about!

Another advantage is our international position. With astronomers from four continents and worldwide collaborators, we have more chances for contact with researchers who might be working in the same field but who otherwise would not know about each others’ work. Thus Father Rich Boyle does spectroscopy in connection with astronomers in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Vilnius, Lithuania. And we recently hosted scholars from the Middle East comparing the historical role of astronomy in Christianity and Islam.

And the fact that we are not in competition with other astronomers for funding means that we are often called upon as referees to judge proposals to NASA or other national funding sources in Europe or elsewhere. It also results in Vatican astronomers serving on a number of committees and working groups within the International Astronomical Union. For instance, I chair the IAU’s Mars Nomenclature Task Group, the group that confirms proposed names for craters and valleys and the like, on Mars.

What is the Vatican Observatory currently investigating?

We currently have 10 active full-time researchers on our staff, and each is working with his own network of collaborators around the world on his own topics. There is no single program that the whole Observatory works on together, though two of us might work together on a particular project.

And each Jesuit may have two or three different such topics that they are following up. So at the end of the day, there’s quite a wide variety of subjects we are exploring, and easily a 100 other scientists from outside the observatory whom we’ve written papers with over the past few years. It takes dozens of pages of our annual report to summarize what we’ve been up to in a typical year.

Here’s a run-down of some of the work we’re doing. Father Gabriele Gionti is our expert in quantum gravity and string theory. Father Alessandro Omizzolo studies galaxy clusters. Father David Brown explores stellar evolution with both computer models and telescope observations. Father Richard Boyle measures the photometry of stellar clusters, while Father Chris Corbally works on the spectroscopy of peculiar stars. Brother Robert Macke measures the physical properties of meteorites, Father Jean-Baptiste Kikwaya observes near-Earth Asteroids, and I have been working on modeling asteroid structure. Father Paul Gabor is an expert in the search for extra-solar planets, and Father Paul Mueller writes and teaches on the history and philosophy of science.

There was a time — albeit centuries ago — when religion advocated a heliocentric view of the universe. In more recent centuries, the Catholic Church has been much more current with theories, and has also stated that evolution is not intrinsically contradictory to the hand of a creator. Could you see the Vatican at some point employing an evolutionary biologist?

Actually, let me make a subtle but important correction to that assumption. It was never the case that religion advocated the heliocentric view, but rather that the best philosophy of the day advocated such a view … for reasons that made perfect sense, given the state of their knowledge at the time. Religion simply accepted what the scientists of their day were proposing.

'Galileo before the Holy Office', a 19th-century painting

Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury

Everyone cites the Galileo affair, but that’s because it’s the only example they’ve got in our long history when the Catholic church got caught up in such a scientific dispute. And modern historical scholarship suggests that the motivations behind the pope’s involvement probably had more to do with local personalities and politics than in any fundamental divide between science and religion. (The myth that says otherwise grew out of anti-Catholic political movements at the end of the 19th century.)

Furthermore, the evidence available to 17th-century astronomers, including those like Robert Hooke who had no connection with the Church, did not favor the heliocentric system. It wasn’t until Newton’s Laws, around 1700, before that system finally made sense; and the observational evidence for the Earth’s motion actually was not obtained until the 19th century. By then, the Church had long accepted the heliocentric system; indeed, Vatican astronomers helped obtain some of the crucial observational evidence in its favor.

There are no plans for the Vatican to sponsor a biological institute per se, in parallel with its astronomical observatory. It’s simply a matter of resources and logistics.

There are any number of excellent evolutionary biologists with close ties to the church, working in universities and institutions around the world including church-sponsored schools. The most prominent is Kenneth Miller at Brown University, but the biology departments at every Catholic university in the world could give you countless more examples.

The Vatican does sponsor the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a group of advisors from all fields of science who are not limited to any particular religion but selected only for their expertise in their fields.

What’s in store for the future of the observatory?

There are some young Jesuit astronomers still doing studies whom we hope will be joining us in the next few years. (One is already ordained and now getting his doctorate in astrophysics in Germany; another has a Ph.D. in cosmology from Princeton, and is now studying for ordination.) My task is to be sure all our astronomers have the resources they need to do the science they want.

The one big development I hope to achieve in the next few years is to make it easier for members of the general public to follow the work that we’re doing at the Vatican Observatory. To that end, in the U.S. we have begun to organize “Faith and Astronomy” workshops to bring parish educators to Tucson and show them how astronomy is done, and we’re starting a number of different programs to bring our work into the classrooms of Catholic high schools. Ultimately we’d want to bring the resources we develop in these programs online, and available in many languages for use in schools around the world.

When Pope Leo XIII founded the Vatican Observatory, 125 years ago, it was to show the world that the Church supports good science. We’ve been doing the good science; we need to do a better job of showing it to the world.

Consolmagno and Pope Francis.

Pope Francis has spoken out on the need to address climate change. Still, there are Christians in positions of power in the United States who have quoted scripture as evidence that climate change could not and is not happening. Where are the deniers differing in their interpretations of the Bible?

Ask them … I have no idea what motivates such people. But, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the devil is very skilled at citing scripture!

Frankly, I think it is crazy to deny climate change at this point. The real debate ought to be, what are the best steps to take to counter that change? To say that a certain approach is a bad idea, is different from denying the problem exists. Some times the people who most clearly see the problem are not necessarily those who come up with the best solutions … as the cynic H. L. Mencken once said, every problem has a solution that is simple, obvious, and wrong!

We need to work towards solutions that will actually work, that we can afford as a society, and that do not put a heavy burden on the poor or the underdeveloped world, the very people who are most likely to suffer if we do nothing.

What advice would you give for trying to find common ground, and fostering a more productive conversation when it comes to science and religion

We have to stop looking at people who disagree with us as if they were stupid, evil, or enemies who must be defeated. That is true about any topic.

It’s important to realize that fundamentalism in all its forms — including science fundamentalists, those who insist that science is the only source of truth — usually are acting out of fear. And so it’s important to try to understand the source of those fears.

There’s a reason why we constantly hear in scripture the injunction, “do not be afraid!” People who are afraid that science will hurt their faith, have no faith in their faith.

(And people who think science has no room for faith, don’t know much about how science works!)

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity by Inverse.

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