Sunday, January 29, 2012

Astronomer for the Vatican says U.K. a star

Brother Guy Consolmagno, a staff astronomer and the curator of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory, travels about 100,000 miles each year, splitting his time between Tucson, Ariz., and Rome. 

The planetary scientist also gives 40 to 50 talks annually at universities, schools and parishes around the world.

"Virtually all the cost of my travel is covered by the people inviting me to talk," said Guy, 59. 

"And whenever possible I stay in local Jesuit communities, at one of our schools or parishes, which also certainly cuts down the cost of travel. Because I am a brother, people sometimes mistakenly call me a monk, but that is not technically correct. A monk takes a vow to stay within a monastery, but Jesuits live 'in the world.' Indeed our founder, St. Ignatius, once said that our vocation is to travel. Certainly, I do!"

The author of several books, including "The Heavens Proclaim: Astronomy and the Vatican" and "God's Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion," Consolmagno has an asteroid named for him: 4597 Consolmagno.

Q: For those making a trip to the Vatican, what would you advise them to visit?

A: Well, everyone knows to see St. Peter's and the Vatican Museum. But most people, when they go to the museum, rush ahead to see the Sistine Chapel and miss out on some wonderful artwork on the way. In particular, I recommend that when you first get into the museum, where the signs all point to the left, turn right instead. This gets you to the coffee shop and the Pinacoteca, the small but wonderful collection of paintings. I find the series of musical angels by Melozzo da Forli are particularly charming. But the best part is a series of eight astronomical paintings by Donato Creti, made in the early 1700s, which show the planets as seen through a telescope. They include the first color depiction of the great red spot on Jupiter. Another wonderful sight, which requires advance reservations, is to explore the Scavi, the excavations underneath St. Peter's. (

Q: I understand you served in Kenya with the Peace Corps. What are some of your memories of that time?

A: That was 30 years ago, and I know that Kenya has changed a lot since then. What I remember most was how wonderful the people were and how much the countryside reminded me of a Tolkien painting — odd volcanic mountains and glorious but very strange vistas.

Q: What are your five favorite cities?

A. I am quite partial to the United Kingdom, so I would have to start with London, Liverpool and Glasgow. Tokyo is fascinating and continually surprising. I lived many years in Boston and I still love to visit there because it's full of history, great museums and great food — and you can walk to nearly all of it. But lately my heart has been stolen by New York. As a Jesuit, I get to stay in parishes built to serve immigrants of the 19th century that are now in neighborhoods that are just wonderful to wander around. And, yes, I know that's six cities.

Q: When you go away, what are some of your must-have items?

A: One trick I have never heard anyone else describe is that for long overnight flights, I put myself to sleep by listening to favorite audio books. Because I know the book well, it doesn't keep me awake. And when I realize that I have skipped a few chapters, it relaxes me by letting me realize I really have gotten some sleep.