The Catholic University of America

March 25, 2015

University Hosts Vatican Observatory Foundation Seminar

  (From Left) Rev. José Funes, S.J., Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, Brother Guy Consolmagno, Duilia de Mello, and Very Rev. Mark Morozowich

Scientific discoveries can be made by those who are not afraid of making mistakes.

That was the message given to a room of astronomers and members of the Catholic University community last week when CUA hosted an astrophysics seminar organized by the Vatican Observatory Foundation.

In his keynote address, “Discarded Worlds: Astronomical Ideas that were Almost Correct,” Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, spoke about the mistakes and false conclusions astrophysicists have made throughout the history of scientific thought. He gave examples ranging from the ideas of Copernicus and Galileo to his own 1975 master’s thesis.

Brother Consolmagno is the author of more than 200 scientific publications and a number of popular books, including Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? He was awarded the Carl Sagan Medal in 2014 by the American Astronomical Society for outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public.

“Science does make mistakes, but if you wait long enough, it will correct them on the way to making new mistakes,” he said. “Science only works when you’re willing to say, ‘We screwed up. Let’s do it differently.’

“Science is too often presented to the public and its students as a rigorous, logical, march toward the truth, but in fact science depends enormously on imagination, on inspiration, on wild guesses,” Brother Consolmagno said. “I’m reminded of that famous statement on faith: The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite and enemy of faith is certainty.”

The evening seminar also included a lecture by associate physics professor Duilia de Mello, a specialist in galaxy evolution using the Hubble Space Telescope who was recently featured among the 100 most influential Brazilians by Epoca Magazine. De Mello’s talk, “The Extragalactic Universe,” discussed how galaxies were discovered, how we know the Earth is in a galaxy, how galaxies are formed, and what happens when they collide.

Using images gathered from various telescopes around the world, she gave examples of the various classifications of galaxies, including elliptical nebulae, normal spirals, barred spirals, and irregular galaxies. She closed her lecture by discussing the future of astronomy, in which scientists will use the new James Webb telescope — the successor to the Hubble, which is scheduled to be launched in 2018 — to study the farthest reaches of the universe, where galaxies date back to the Big Bang.

Brother Guy Consolmagno, president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, gives a presentation during a recent astrophysics seminar held in Hannan Hall.  

Other parts of space, including the dark matter that surrounds stars and galaxies, and the dark energy that propels motion, also remain mysterious. As science progresses, de Mello said it is likely that new discoveries will shake up information scientists believe to be true today.

Quoting astronomer Vera Rubins, de Mello said, “Science progresses better when observations force us to alter our preconceptions.”

Rev. José Funes, S.J., the director of the Vatican Observatory, spoke at the beginning of the evening and said the mission of the observatory is to “explore the universe while bearing witness to the Catholic Church’s commitment to dialogue with the sciences.”

Catholic University participates with the Vatican Observatory in the International Network of Catholic Astronomy Institutions, whose members include universities and observatories not only in Europe and the United States but also in Chile and Brazil. Among the guests attending this year’s event was Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the papal nuncio to the United States.

“It is very significant that this seminar is held at The Catholic University of America, which is dedicated to advancing the dialogue between faith and reason,” Father Funes said.

Very Rev. Mark Morozowich, CUA interim provost, also gave an introduction, after joking that he thinks of himself as a “part-time astronomer — very part time.”

Speaking with pride on the research offerings of the University, including the Vitreous State Laboratory and the Institute for Astrophysics and Computational Sciences, Father Morozowich said, “Oftentimes from the outside, people don’t even realize the riches and wonders of the scientific program here at The Catholic University of America.

“We, as The Catholic University of America, owe it to our students, we owe it to our Church, we owe it to our country to be a place that is leading in the dissemination of this great intellectual knowledge that we have,” he said.

Father Morozowich also paraphrased the words of Pope Francis who wrote in Evangeli Gaudium that “faith is capable of both expanding and enriching the horizons of reason.”

“In this dialogue, the Church rejoices in the marvelous progress of science, seeing it as a sign of the enormous God-given potential of the human mind,” Father Morozowich said. “Delving into the mysteries of the world beyond our known world, it’s such a lofty goal and such a wonderful goal.”




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