LACEY – Science and religion complement each other, because like science, “religion is a conversation,” the Vatican’s head astronomer told students during the inaugural STEM lecture at Pope John Paul II High School.
“If you never have your beliefs challenged, you will never believe in anything,” said Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory and researcher at observatories in Italy and Arizona.
As his understanding of the universe grows through his scientific work, his understanding of his faith also grows, Brother Consolmagno told students during his April 28 visit to the Lacey school.
Freshman Annika Dawley, an aspiring veterinarian, said she appreciated hearing that religion and science don’t have to be in opposition. Listening to Brother Consolmagno, Dawley said, she learned that studying science is “learning what God is able to do.”
Getting the Vatican’s astronomer — who gives lectures all over the globe — to launch the school’s new lecture series focusing on science, technology, engineering and math was a gift from students to their principal and school president, Ron Edwards.
Edwards met Brother Consolmagno several years ago while working at Portland’s Central Catholic High School, and long had him on his radar as a possible speaker here. So last year, when Edwards missed several months of school while undergoing cancer treatments, a group of students wrote to the astronomer, inviting him to speak at their school as a gift to their principal.
“The group worked so hard to get him here,” said Edwards, who is now healthy. “It was an incredible gift.”
Some 110 people attended Brother Consolmagno’s lunchtime lecture, including all 90 members of the JPII student body, according to Megan Farrell, the school’s advancement director. The next day, he spoke at the school’s annual Light & Truth Gala at St. Martin’s University. (Both events were sponsored by two local businesses with ties to the school and nearby St. Michael Parish in Olympia.)
Edwards said future STEM lectures will allow experts in science, technology, engineering and math a chance to tell students about their careers, what they are researching, and current findings in their fields.
Students at Pope John Paul II High School in Lacey wear T-shirts emblazoned with “4597 Consolmagno,” the asteroid named in honor of Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory. The students presented Brother Consolmagno (third from left in the first row) with his own T-shirt after his STEM lecture at the school April 28. Photo: Courtesy Pope John Paul II High School
The path to astronomy
Brother Consolmagno’s road to discovering his passion for astronomy began as a college freshman — when he decided he wasn’t being called to the priesthood and transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
After choosing to major in earth and planetary sciences, he realized he was going to be spending four year studying rocks, instead of planets as he had thought. But during a class on meteorites, he realized some rocks that fall out of the sky came from places like Mars. He realized “you can hold outer space in your hand,” he told the students.
However being successful as a scientist requires more than a passion, he said. Science “is a conversation about facts,” Brother Consolmagno said, so a scientist needs to be skilled at writing, finding out what other scientists are doing, and telling people about his or her own findings. “Good speakers can get people to pay attention to the science you did,” he said.
It turns out that he learned many of these skills during high school, where he was exposed to art, languages and public speaking, Brother Consolmagno said.
‘The sheer joy of it’
After the lecture, audience members asked Brother Consolmagno about a range of issues, from global warming to his views on the existence of extraterrestrial religions.
Senior Ross Brooker, who wants to go into medicine, said he appreciated hearing Brother Consolmagno talk about the process of learning who he is. Sophomore William Coppernoll, who wants to help set up a permanent colony on Mars, said Brother Consolmagno was a good choice for the lecture series because he is “near the top in religion and science.”
His favorite part of being a Vatican astronomer, Brother Consolmagno said, is the freedom to do the scientific research he wants to do.
“I’m not doing it for money, fame or glory but the sheer joy of it,” he said. “Plus I get to meet a lot of cool people like popes.”
Connect with Brother Consolmagno
Read Brother Guy Consolmagno’s book (co-authored with Jesuit Father Paul Mueller) “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? … and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory.”
Access Brother Consolmagno’s astronomy classes (for Catholic schools) through the Jesuit Virtual Learning Academy.