Guy Consolmagno: Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist

(New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001)

Brother Astronomer is a interesting book, written on many levels. The opening is charming and engaging. Brother Guy draws the reader into his own story, and the new world that he found as a Jesuit Brother at Castel Gondolfo, which is both the Pope's summer palace and the headquarters of the Vatican Observatory. He begins with a fascinating insider's tale of what life there is really like. By the time he takes a more serious turn and becomes absorbed in explaining the science of meteorites, the reader has been drawn in. We are sitting at the feet of a favorite uncle, and hesitate to interrupt. At this point, I was reminded of Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time, which starts out on a very elementary level, but engulfs most readers before they are through. However, one cannot help being impressed by the depth of a Vatican scientist, and his passion for doing "good science."

But Brother Guy is not about to lose his reader! He resurfaces, and returns to the level of an informal fireside chat. Like a good preacher, he re-engages his audience before taking off to new depths. His discussion of the philosophy of science is fascinating. I have only heard it discussed before with such passion by atheists like Fred Hoyle and Carl Sagan. I may have heard more carefully nuanced discussions, but not such enthusiasm!

Another chapter takes us into the history of Galileo and the Church's involvement in science, expounded with all the verve of a good Italian lawyer. Somewhere around this point, I became mystified. It is always interesting to read or hear the story of someone else's vocation, and exploring the Antarctic as a scientist would be an interesting adventure, but I found myself focusing more on the book's unusual structure. It kept swinging between a rollicking good tale, told by a writer whose way with words would make him a good apprentice for writing The News from Lake Wobegon, to the writings of a philosopher/scientist trained at Boston College and MIT and who can drop casually into back-of-the-envelope calculus and heat equations! The mystery wasn't solved until I reached the Afterword, and learned that some of the discourses had been prepared for scientific conferences or publications, or audiences such as the St. Albert the Great Forum at the University of Arizona. These are threaded together with a personal tale much more interesting than the average story in Lives of the Saints. 

Now that my curiosity is satisfied, and I know where the author is coming from, I look forward to re-reading the book over spring break. There are more adventures than I have mentioned yet to read a little more slowly, including the learning experience of teaching in Africa in the Peace Corps, but they are all described by a man who knows God and knows life, and is worth hearing. One doesn't need to be a scientist to enjoy this book. Anyone whose curiosity has been piqued so far will enjoy it! -- Natalia Zotov, Mentor '00