Some time back, I saw Brother Guy Consolmagno talk at Boskone, and said “You know, I should invite him to campus.” For those who don’t recognize the name, he’s an SF fan and an astronomer (well, planetary scientist) who also happens to be a Jesuit brother. He works at the Vatican Observatory, where he is the curator of the Vatican’s meteorite collection.
After we were on a panel together last year, I asked him if he’d be interested in giving us a colloquium talk sometime, and he said yes. We exchanged a few emails, and settled on October 9, namely, this past Thursday, when he was going to be in New York for a AAS meeting anyway. He agreed to do both a scientific colloquium in our usual lunchtime slot, and a dinner talk on science and religion issues.
Meanwhile, completely unbeknownst to me, the Dudley Observatory, originally based in Schenectady, was planning their own astronomy event for Thursday evening, kicking off their celebration of the International Year of Astronomy a few months early with a lecture by Dava Sobel on “Galileo and the International Year of Astronomy.” Happily, the two didn’t quite overlap, and we were able to push Guy’s talk up a half-hour for the sake of people (like me) who were interested in both.
As many people noted, there’s a certain irony to having a talk by an astronomer who works for the Pope on the same night as a lecture about Galileo. It’s more common than you might think, though. This turned out the be the second time in a week that the two of them had spoken in the same place at the same time– both were speakers at a conference last weekend, too.
Brother Guy’s evening talk talk was titled “Astronomy, God, and the Search for Elegance,” with the abstract:
Scientific theories must do more than merely satisfy the data; they must do so in a way that is (to use a term much favored by mathematicians) “elegant.” Kepler, Maxwell, and Einstein are examples of scientists who found that a sense of esthetic “rightness” helped them to direct their scientific intuition toward theories that could then be expressed rationally, mathematically; theories that could then be tested against nature. By looking closely at a handful of astronomical images, we’ll explore the way that one proceeds from an emotional appreciation of the beauty of the stars and planets, to a deeper understanding that satisfies both reason and emotion. Ultimately, this link between “elegance” and rational truth has profound theological implications.
The basic theme was that scientific and religious worldviews are not necessarily in conflict, but even have some elements in common. This almost isn’t worth blogging about: the argument and conclusion will seem obvious and sensible to everybody who isn’t an asshole; for the rest, there are glib responses already in place. There were some good bits, though.
I particularly enjoyed the way he opened the talk with a short exercise to show the non-scientists in attendance what the scientific mindset is like. He put up a picture of Africa from space, noted that it was pretty, and then asked a bunch of questions that can be answered from looking at the picture: What time of day is it? What time of year is it? When was the picture taken?
Regarding this last, he noted that you can get the date of the picture within a week or so by drawing on outside knowledge. This might seem like “cheating,” but he noted that there is no cheating (of this sort) in science– if you have knowledge of some subject, you will inevitably end up using it. This is true even when it’s knowledge you’re not really supposed to have– facts gleaned from reviewing grant proposals, say, or data copied from cell-phone pictures of slides shown at a conference. Which is an interesting ethical question.
He also showed a picture of Mars similar to what Percival Lowell would’ve seen, and showed how Lowell was able to construct a perfectly consistent, rational, scientific hypothesis regarding his observations that was, nevertheless, utterly wrong. This is an important thing to remember as we practice science– the mere fact that some theory is consistent and rational does not make it correct.
These were interesting and useful exercises, and I’ll have to keep them in mind for future cribbing. The Earth thing in particular was a nice way of showing a general audience how scientists look at the world.
The science-and-religion stuff, heavily paraphrased: He noted that in order to even do science, you need to accept at least three unprovable propositions:
- The existence of objective physical reality– the world we see is not an illusion, and you are not a butterfly dreaming it is a scientist.
- The universe is an orderly place– physical reality is subject to consistent rules, whose nature we can deduce or discover.
- Science is a worthwhile activity– that figuring out the rules governing the behavior of reality is a good way to spend your time.
These seem obvious, but various people and groups throughout history have chosen to reject one or more of them. The modern scientific worldview is not inevitable or inherently privileged.
He also argued that a good deal of science involves making judgments that are not entirely rational. Quasi-scientific principles like “Occam’s Razor” or looking for mathematical elegance in physical theories inherently involve aesthetic judgments, and there’s nothing terribly objective or rational about aesthetics. One man’s elegant, simple explanation is another man’s kludgey ad hoc mess.
The claim, then, is that this is not so different from a certain sort of religious thought. Not modern fundamentalist beliefs, of course, but as he pointed out several times through the course of the day, biblical literalism is a modern Protestant heresy, not anything the Catholic Church had anything to do with.
As I said, nothing too shocking, for either side of the religious wars in blogdom or out. He presented the argument well, and in a slightly different form than you usually see, and for both of those reasons, I think it was a good talk to have on campus. I wish more students had shown up, but then, that’s always the way.
Dava Sobel, a little later that evening, spoke about “Galileo and the International Year of Astronomy.” This was a multi-media presentation, including PowerPoint slides (something the theater staff had not been told about far enough in advance, as they didn’t have a computer on the lectern for her, so she had to keep saying “next slide, please” to someone in the projection booth) and poetry readings by members of the audience– at various points, people read a selection from Frost’s “The Star-Splitter,”, Diane Ackerman’s “We Are Listening,” and something whose name I didn’t catch that included a line about “The Sea of Tranquility lapping at the shores of chaos.” Most science-themed poetry doesn’t do much for me, but then poetry in general has a high Sturgeon Fraction.
Her lecture didn’t include all that much new, but did feature some nice pictures from Galileo’s notebooks, as well as a good story about the danger of anagrammatic publishing. It seems that Galileo, like many other early scientists, published some of his crucial results as Latin anagrams, so as to be able to claim priority without actually revealing secrets he could use to make new discoveries.
He sent these anagrams to several other astronomers, inviting them to unscramble the code and guess his discoveries. The only person to take him up on this challenge was Kepler. In one case, Galileo took a somewhat poetic allusion to seeing phases of Venus, and rendered it as “Haec immatura a me jam frustra leguntur oy.” The “oy” is not Yiddish, it’s just that Galileo wasn’t all that good at anagrams, and couldn’t work those two letters in.
Kepler unscrambled this to a much more direct Latin sentence than Galileo’s actual statement, saying that he had seen a red spot on Jupiter. Which turns out to be there, though it would be a couple hundred years before anybody actually saw it.
The second anagram was just an unordered string of letters, which was supposed to resolve into a statement that Saturn had three bodies. This reported an observation of the rings of Saturn, which Galileo was unable to completely resolve with his telescope. He thought he was seeing two very large moons that for some reason remained fixed in place.
Kepler unscrambled this to a completely different sentence announcing the discovery of two moons around Mars, again 200 years too soon. Kepler evidently really wanted there to be two Martian moons, as Earth has one and Galileo had discovered four around Jupiter. Two moons for Mars would make a nice, orderly geometric progression, which would’ve suited Kepler’s love of numerology.
Sobel remarked of the two incidents that “This probably explains why Galileo and Kepler didn’t correspond all that much.”
(If you want to tie the two talks together, somebody did ask Guy about Galileo at one of his talks. His answer was basically that the Church gets bad press on this for the wrong reasons. The real story of Galileo’s trial, he said, is all about politics and the Thirty Years’ War. The Church doesn’t end up looking any better, but they look like idiots for a different set of reasons than are generally assumed.)
All in all, a pretty good night of talks. It added up to an exhausting day, though, and now I’ve come down with a cold. Expect cranky, pseudoephedrine-addled blogging for the next couple of days.