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Everyday science

Pope's astronomer hits the bar

17 Sep 2010 James Dacey

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By James Dacey, Birmingham

This is the Pope’s astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno. And yep, those are the Maxwell equations printed on his t-shirt with the punchline: “and there was light”.

Consolmagno was answering questions tonight in the informal setting of a student union bar as part of the British Science Festival, which is currently taking place in Birmingham.

He was a lot more candid than I expected, describing the Pope as “a really great guy” who reminded him of Ludvig von Drake, the Walt Disney cartoon duck that is fascinated by knowledge.

On the customary question of how he squares his religious belief with the pursuit of rational scientific facts, Consolmagno jokingly compared it to separating his nationality from his favourite football team.

On a more serious note later in the evening, Consolmagno said that he sees no reason for conflict between science and Catholic teachings, which interpret the Bible rather than taking it literally. He was keen to distance the Catholic church from creationist views, which he described as a “much more modern idea”.

Consolmagno is one of 12 scientists working within the Vatican observatory where he also has the task of curating the Vatican’s meteorite collection. His own research involves studying the physical properties of meterorites, in particular how they form from dust in the absence of water and significant pressures.

When asked whether he thought there could be life on other planets he said is comfortable with the idea. He says the notion that liquid water beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa could offer habitable conditions for life is one of the most fascinating questions in physics.

On the question of whether he would baptize an alien, Consolmagno says “yes, but only if they asked”.

Consolmagno says it is coincidence that his appearance in Britain is at the same time as the ongoing papal tour, which will also be visiting Birmingham this Sunday.

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