The Grateful Astronomer

And then I wrote… in 2013 I was invited to give a talk at the Jesuit parish in central London, and then the British online site Thinking Faith invited me to adapt it for one of their postings. They wanted a shorter version to fit their format; here is the original text, about twice as long, divided into two bits for this week and next. I wound up reusing a lot of this stuff in later things I wrote…

I once caused a stir in a church in Hawaii by announcing that I was “an observer from the Vatican.” But it’s true; I was in Hawaii to use the telescopes there, just as I also observe with the Vatican’s own telescope in Arizona. That’s my job with the Vatican Observatory. 

Why does the Vatican have an observatory? Its history actually goes back to the reform of the calendar in the 1580s, even before Galileo. 

People often think that after the Galileo trial, all science ended the Catholic Europe. But that is a rather foolish thing to say, if you’ve ever heard of “volts”, named for the 18th-century Italian scientist Alessandro Volta; or the Cassini mission to Saturn, named for the late 17th-century Italian, Giovanni Domenico Cassini; not to mention hundreds of other Catholic scientists of that era. In fact, the map of the Moon we use today was devised by a couple of Jesuits, Giovanni Batiista Riccioli and Francesco Grimaldi, who published it in Italy only twenty years after the Galileo trial. Their nomenclature is still in use today; and they named the most prominent crater on the moon “Copernicus”.

(They also put their own names on the craters, and the names of 35 other Jesuits. It’s handy to have friends in high places.)

The modern Vatican Observatory dates from 1891. Pope Leo XIII wanted a national observatory in order to demonstrate that the Vatican was still an independent nation, following the unification of Italy. But the end of the 19th century is also when the myth first arose that somehow science and religion were eternally opposed. It’s a Victorian-era notion, not something that goes back to Galileo, and certainly not something that you can find in the history of science. If you look through the Transactions of the Philosophical Society of London, the world’s first scientific journal (which we just happen to have a complete set of in our library – it’s nice to work at the Vatican) you find that the people doing science in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were either noblemen, medical doctors, or clergymen. After all, who else in those days had the education and free time to do science?

And, actually, what is most of science? It’s gathering data, gathering notes. It’s collecting leaves of every sort, sorting them, filing them, classifying them, seeing if you can find a pattern among them. It’s the kind of work we use computer spreadsheets for nowadays, but back then you might have used little 3 x 5 cards; it’s what we call clerical work. And why is it called “clerical”? Because it was done by clerics. 

The origins of science are found with the monks of the middle ages at the universities of the middle ages. The “father of geology” is Albert the Great, the Dominican who also taught religion to Thomas Aquinas, and the “father of chemistry” is the Franciscan, Roger Bacon. Even in more modern times, the father of genetics is the Augustinian, Gregor Mendel, and the Big Bang theory was devised by a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître – and criticized by atheist cosmologists for being “too religious”, this idea that there was a beginning to the universe. 

My own personal history of doing astronomy, however, reflects the other question that comes up even when one knows the history of astronomy and the Church: why should the Church even care about astronomy? Aren’t there more important things to do than look at the stars? More than once I’ve been asked, what possible good comes out of our work? I am reminded of the story when Michael Faraday was working on electricity in his laboratory here in London, and Disraeli came to visit. Disraeli asked him, “Of what possible use is electricity?” And Faraday is said to have answered, “some day, Mr. Prime Minister, you’ll be able to put a tax on it.”

I didn’t have that kind of answer. I was thirty years old, five years a postdoctoral fellow at MIT and Harvard. I was in the big leagues of science; but I was only a utility player. I didn’t have a permanent job. I was beginning to despair if I would ever get a permanent job. (This was long before I was a Jesuit, you understand.) And worse, I would lie in bed at three am, wondering, “why am I wasting my time worrying about the moons of Jupiter when there are people starving in the world?”

I had no answer. 

And so I quit my job, I quit science…

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…and I joined the US Peace Corps. I told the Peace Corps people, I’ll go anywhere you ask me to go, I’ll do anything you ask me to do; I just want to help people. The sent me to Africa, to Kenya. I would be teaching in a school up-country, they told me, where there were no windows in the windows, no black on the blackboards. So I started training myself to live in a beautiful, remote area of the country. But after a couple weeks of training, they changed their minds and said I would be going to a better school, supported by the government; and I said, “whatever you want, I’m here to give you whatever you need.” By the end my training I was assigned to the Starehe Boys’ Center, one of the top schools in Kenya; even in 1983 it had a separate building full of computers, and lasers in their A-level physics labs. I was there for about a month when they moved me to a new posting: teaching graduate students at the University. Teaching astronomy.

The Astronomy Club at Starehe Boy’s Center, Nairobi, 1984… a display we set up in honor of the visit of President Moi

Now, we all know that there are lots of problems with a technological society like ours in the West… pollution, consumerism, the alienation of people from nature. These are real problems we all have to deal with. But living in Kenya I had learned that there’s a word for people at the other end of the spectrum who live “close to nature”: that word is, “starving.” For all its real problems, a technologically sophisticated society is the only kind we’ve been able to develop so far that is capable of feeding its people on a regular basis. Now, to have such a society you need and educated populace; you need schools. Schools need teachers. The graduate students I was teaching had jobs waiting at the Kenya Science Teacher’s College, to teach the teachers to teach the students so that one day Kenya could feed its population better.

But that’s not why they wanted to learn astronomy.

One the weekends, I would go up country to visit my fellow Peace Corps volunteers at the schools where they were teaching. In the evenings I would set up a little telescope I had brought with me, and everyone in the village would come out to look through the telescope. And they would go “wow” when they saw the rings of Saturn, the Orion nebula, the craters on the Moon… exactly like my family and friends back in Michigan. Everyone who’s ever looked through a telescope goes “wow” at those things.

Now, at that time I had a very clever cat. But my cat had never asked to look through my telescope. (And no cat ever says “wow” about anything.) Saying “wow” is something only human beings do. Looking at the stars and wondering, what are they about? How do we fit in? That’s something that human beings do, that makes us different from well-fed cows.

The twentieth century will be forever remembered as the century when human beings went to the Moon. And everybody can take credit for that. The astronauts who walked on the Moon; the engineers who built the rocket; the teachers who taught the engineers; the people who cooked the meals that fed the teachers; our entire society, together, participated, and we all can take pride that we sent people to the Moon. 

If you don’t think that’s the most significant thing we’ll be remembered for, think on this… everyone here knows Galileo’s name, and you probably know that he got in trouble with the Pope; how many people here remember the Pope’s name? Can you name a single king who was alive during that time? Did you realize that the Thirty Years’ War was going on during that time? Can you name any of the nations involved in that war, or the names of any of the generals? Five hundred years from now, people will have forgotten who was president or prime minister when people landed on the Moon. Maybe they’ll be surprised to know that this happened at the same time as the Beatles, just as people today forget that Galileo overlapped with Shakespeare and Milton. 

The astronomy we do, from landing on Mars to discovering Dark Energy, is something that every human being alive can take pride in. And to deny that pride because someone was born on the wrong continent, or the wrong gender, or the wrong socio-economic group, is to deny them their humanity. But to remind them that you, too, can look through a telescope and go “wow”, and dream? That means that you, too, are a part of this big community that is more than just a bunch of people looking for bread. We do not live by bread alone.

Astronomy is how we experience the universe as creatures who are interested in more than just, “what’s for lunch?”

After two years in Kenya and once again filled with enthusiasm for astronomy, I got a job back in America teaching at a small university. Trying to figure out what to do next with my life, I eventually felt the call to be a Jesuit brother. I thought that if I joined the Jesuits, I would be teaching at one of the Jesuit universities in America. And I also assumed I would certainly meet some resistance from my fellow scientists, for being a publicly religious person. 

To prepare myself for a future at a Jesuit university, I started going to meetings again and doing scientific research. At one point I went to visit a fellow meteorite scientist, one who’s brilliant but tough as nails, the kind of guy who’s sure to call you out if you make a mistake. He asked me what I was up to nowadays, and I mentioned that I was studying to be a Jesuit. I could feel the temperature in the room drop by ten degrees – just as I had feared. But as I was making my polite excuses, about to leave, he suddenly asked me, “have you always been a Catholic?”

“Of course,” I answered. Italian father, Irish mother, it came with the territory. And suddenly he was friendly again; and soon he was inviting me to come and give a talk to his synagogue! Then I realized… with my curly hair and beard (which was red, back then) he had thought I was a fellow Jew who had turned my back on Judaism. It’s not that he was anti-religious; he was very much devoted to his religion, and once he knew I hadn’t rejected it he was delighted with my choice of life.

Over and over, as I encountered other scientists, the fact that I was a Jesuit gave them permission to talk to me about the churches they belonged to. Probably the fraction of scientists in my field who are churchgoers matches the fraction in the population where they live. So in the Midwest, where a lot of people go to church, a lot of scientists go to church; in other parts of the world, the proportions are less. But there is nothing about being a scientist that makes you more religious or less religious than anyone else.

(Second part next week!)