World Limit

By Joseph Wakelee-Lynch

The Jesuit contribution to the sciences can be gauged by 35 Moon craters named for scientists and mathematicians of the Society of Jesus.

The Jesuit contribution to the sciences can be gauged by 35 Moon craters named for scientists and mathematicians of the Society of Jesus. One of the four Jesuits who has an asteroid named in his honor, Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., told a story in March that was one part science fiction, one part science practice and one part faith.

Consolmagno gave a lecture to mark the establishment of LMU’s Academy of Catholic Thought and Imagination, which was announced in 2014 and serves as a hub for scholarship, interdisciplinary research, pedagogy development and outreach.

For this astronomer, how one tells a story is crucial to a novel, a scientific paper and living a life of faith. A story must be plausible, even as an invention, Consolmagno said. The characters must face important decisions and make choices that have consequences. A good scientific paper should be about something “consequential,” he suggested. If it first produces an unexpected, puzzling result — “Hmm, that’s funny …” — it may be more significant than one evoking a shout of “Eureka!” Last, both novels and research papers are sublimely satisfying when they “show the unexpected hidden in the ordinary,” he said. “That’s also how we find God in this world.”

During his lecture, Consolmagno told the tale — a story within a story — about discovering a crucial error in his own work, a mistake that had led him and other scientists to conclude that Vesta, the second-largest asteroid in the solar system, is a proto-planet that had not been broken up in the early formation of the solar system. That conclusion had held for 40 years until 2007 when NASA sent a research craft to orbit Vesta. New data indicated that Vesta had most likely broken apart and been reformed over time instead. Its prominence in understanding the early formation of the solar system was altered. The scientist who brought forth these new conclusions? Consolmagno himself.

To the Jesuit astronomer, the lesson learned was that real life is messy and the unexpected is opportunity: Interesting characters make surprising choices, science sometimes discovers what it isn’t looking for, and God is present in unlikely places.

BIOGRAPHY

Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., is an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory and president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation in Tucson, Arizona. He earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from MIT and a Ph.D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona. His research includes exploring connections among meteorites, asteroids and the evolution of small solar system bodies; observing Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican’s 1.8-meter telescope in Arizona; and applying his measure of meteorite physical properties to understand asteroid origins and structure. Consolmagno, who received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society in 2014, is the author of “Turn Left at Orion” and “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?” Follow him @specolations.

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