That’s So Second Millennium

Episode 030 - Br. Guy Consolmagno: Galileo and Carl Sagan

October 22, 2018

Br. Guy starts with a brief bio of himself as the meteorite curator and now director of the Vatican Observatory. If you aren't familiar with his life and career, I cannot suggest strongly enough to go find a copy of Brother Astronomer. Paul takes the opportunity to geek out a bit about the VO's collection of Martian meteorites, which includes pieces of varying size of the three flagship members of the three great classes of Martian meteorites: Chassigny, Shergotty, and Nakhla. We discuss the romance and suspense of finding meteorites in the dry deserts.

Paul then poses the question of the recently discovered Galileo letter. Br. Guy defuses a bit of the noise surrounding this letter, likening the situation to scientists down to this very day putting out provocative theses and then pulling them back under criticism from their peers.

(My dog Riley starts barking at UPS personnel sometime between 13:00 and 13:30. This was an eventful session.)

Galileo in his time was rather like Carl Sagan in his time: a popularizer and a controversialist. Br. Guy, who met Carl Sagan a few times, recognizes the value that both of these controversial figures brought to the field. He goes on to discuss the travails that Sagan faced in his own life, dealing with fame and the risks he ran to get his message out (the massive debt he incurred in making Cosmos) and notes his own fraught relationship with his own faith.

Carl Sagan was a serious scientist, in the 1960s one of the first to grapple with the unexpectedly, incredibly hot temperatures the first Venus probes reported and to link it with the very thick carbon dioxide atmosphere Venus has.

Br. Guy talks a little about his experience "coming out" as a religious believer, and the opposition he _didn't_ receive in publicizing his decision to become a Jesuit. He moves on to discuss the romance of science, why we're attracted to it, and why it's important to steer a middle path (that Aristotelian mean again) in both science and faith between "I already know everything worth knowing" and "God / the universe is so big I can never understand it." Of course you won't learn it all, but of course you'll be able to learn and love something. He likens it to a good friendship or romantic relationship, in which you rejoice in both the known and the unknown.

Paul probes Br. Guy on whether Sagan influenced him in his own popular books. Br. Guy professes that not only did Carl Sagan influence his confidence in being able to discuss the wonders of planetary science and astronomy with a popular audience, as well as his colloquial tone, but even his wardrobe served as a good precursor (compare Carl at https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0755981/ with Guy at https://www.radiokerry.ie/portraits-of-gc36-delegates/ and for good measure another great Italian scientist who wore the collar well https://www.torinoscienza.it/personaggi/giuseppe-mercalli).

Image courtesy Robert Macke (wikimedia Commons)