Brother Astronomer

“Brother Astronomer”, Guy Consolmagno, 2000: 007135428X (Blackwell’s, amazon.com, amazon.co.uk).

The cover of this book is the colour of old parchment, with suitably antique-looking scientific images and a photograph of the author in front of a fresco, dressed as a clergyman, with a reassuring beard and with light shining off his glasses so that you can’t see if he has a mad glint in his eyes or not. He seems to have short legs. The name “Consolmagno” is exotic so that you can’t mix it up with anyone else’s, without being actually unpronounceable. The words “Vatican” and “scientist” in the subtitle give you an intriguing feeling of paradox, enough to make you open the book and perhaps even buy it. The word “Jesuit” is omitted from the outer cover, so that opening the book feels safe.

Is it unfair to judge a book by its cover like this? Perhaps not as unfair as you might think. In one of the essays Consolmagno explains why one of his papers (Consolmagno, G.J., and Drake, M.J. (1977) Composition and evolution of the eucrite parent body: evidence from rare earth elements. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 41, 1271-1282) gained acceptance over rival theories. Roughly paraphrased, the reasons were:

  1. At a Meteoritical Society meeting in October 1976, Consolmagno presented the paper in perfect, fluent English immediately after a more obscure and complex paper, also about rare earth elements, had been presented by a graduate student whose first language was not English.
  2. It was so neat, everyone felt it ought to be true.
  3. It was the first such theory in print in a widely read and prestigious journal, well written and well illustrated.
  4. It used and vindicated pet theories of both Harvard and MIT scientists, used crucial data from southern California scientists, made Houston happy by showing the wider application of lunar science techniques, and Oregon, the source of a rival and in some ways better paper, were content because Consolmagno’s co-author had originally studied there.

None of this is to say that the theory was untrue. But it does show that what actually made the theory successful didn’t have all that much to do with its truth, and so provides interesting perspectives on the old question of How Science Works. The notion of the “good scientist”, patiently observing phenomena, evolving theories to fit them, experiments to test the theories, patiently observing the results of the experiments, and so on for ever – incarnated for me in poor Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, measuring the conductivity of very cold metals one after the other until one day he tries mercury and discovers superconductivity – is a myth, an ideal, and dull to boot. The reality is much more fun. As in mathematics (indeed, as in most intellectual pursuits) you think about something, you suddenly know the answer, and then you set about finding proofs of what you know, and, a little half-heartedly, set tests to challenge your theory. This is why science has to be a social endeavour: I’ll try and kill your babies if you try and kill mine, and the ones that survive have some chance of being really true.

The essays about actually doing science are among the more enjoyable in this book. There is a long story of meteorite-hunting in Antarctica as well: I didn’t regret the time spent reading it, but if it had been in a magazine I don’t think I’d have kept it in a pile of things I wanted to read again. Similarly I read with only half an eye the story of Consolmagno’s own spiritual journey: unless they resonate strongly with one’s own experiences, there is only limited interest in watching strangers taking off their clothes in public.

The core essays, which in my copy now have marginal marks indicating “remember this”, “quote this”, “follow this up”, are in the section entitled Confession of a Vatican Scientist. “Precursors of Evil” covers the Galileo affair from a scientific point of view. Which of Galileo’s theories actually made sense in the context of the time? Did he have any evidence for them? How did the Church’s structures get hijacked by Galileo’s enemies for their own purposes? The answers are surprising to those of us who know what “everyone knows” about the matter, and can only have come from a practising scientist who knows how science works from the inside. This essay alone is worth the price of the book. It would have been worth twice the price if it had footnotes so that one could follow the references further.

The other really splendid essay is “The Rift of Popular Culture”, which looks at how What Everyone Knows about science and religion is the exact opposite of the truth. It is a characteristic of a really enduring myth that no amount of contradictory evidence will unseat it, but nevertheless the evidence is in this essay. It is strange that an institution that risked inflaming an already divided Europe by reforming the calendar in obedience to scientific principles should be so regularly portrayed as the enemy of truth, while a discipline that regularly persecutes its members if they reach conclusions that are deemed inappropriate (applying the rule “the greater the truth, the greater the crime”), not hesitating to use criminal sanctions if it can, should be seen as the highest and most noble of form of human endeavour.

This is not a book but a collection of essays, some of them specially written and others recycled from previous articles and talks. Such a collection, with something for everyone, can be like Winston Churchill’s pudding (“Waiter, take this pudding away: it has no theme”). And indeed the suet in Brother Astronomer is plain unremarkable suet; but its raisins are gems.

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