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“Science, Religion, and the Art of Storytelling” with Brother Guy

What do astronomy, religion, and science fiction all have in common? Well, that’s the exact question Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, director of the Vatican Observatory, posed to a packed Nucor Auditorium, Lyon Business and Economic Building, on Thursday, March 9. Whether it’s good storytelling in a medical lab, between the pages of a comic book, or even among the pews of a church; how do they all connect?

“They are all interested in the big questions; and they also all depend on the art of storytelling to present their strange and wonderful ideas in ways that people can understand, appreciate and evaluate,” said Dr. Consolmagno.

The year was 1970, Dr. Consolmagno had yet to enter the world of astronomy, nor had he joined the Jesuits. Instead, he found himself, “a wannabe science fiction writer.” A storyteller. 

“I was a freshman at Boston College as a history major,” said Dr. Consolmagno. “My creative writing instructor told us, ‘the way to learn how to write good fiction is to read stories that were well written.’ He suggested that I read the Narnia books.”

The Chronicles of Narnia series, authored by C.S. Lewis, is set in the fictional realm of Narnia, a fantasy world of magic, mythical beasts and talking animals. The book narrates the adventures of various children who play central roles in the Narnian world.

“Now, mind you, when I was a kid I didn’t care for fantasy,” said Dr. Consolmagno. “I was only interested in books with facts, kind of like poor Eustace in the series.”

The idea of reading fantasy and fiction books was such a novel idea, Dr. Consolmagno had never even heard of the Chronicle of Narnia books before that moment, but, much like the children of Narnia, the books themselves would play a central role in Dr. Consolmagno’s life.

“My best friend from high school was a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, and he was a member of the MIT Science Fiction Society, or MITSFS,” said Dr. Consolmagno. “So one weekend I was visiting him and he asked me, ‘Do you want to go find the Narnia books in the library?’”

So they set off, much like Pevensie children of the first Narnia tale, into an unknown land in search of a story.

“He took me to the MITSFS, the largest open shelf library of science fiction in the world,” said Dr. Consolmagno. “And I discovered Narnia for the first time when I was 18.”

During his first read through, Dr. Consolmagno mentioned that he was concentrating on the author’s technique more than the content of the story.

“I was completely unprepared for the unexpected that the books would have on me. It’s not just that the books were overtly Christian, I was a practicing Catholic,” said Dr. Consolmagno. “And I wasn’t particularly surprised to be caught up in the adventure stories, as that’s what a kid’s book is supposed to do. But it was the confluence of those two different threads that did something world shattering to me.”

He continued, “They showed me that my Christian faith was in fact an adventure. In fact, they showed me how fantasy is true. You get more truth out of a fantasy story than you can get out of a lot of the “pot boilers” that are supposedly set in the real world.”

This revelation of ideas and perception of humanistic values had a profound effect on Dr. Consolmagno. Once introduced to the MITSFS library, he said, “to heck with history, I’m going to MIT.” With his new goal in mind, Dr. Consolmagno figured out how to make the transfer.

“I changed colleges, I changed majors, I even wound up changing vocations so I could read adventures set on other planets,” said Dr. Consolmagno. “Which is why I became a planetary scientist.”

Ultimately, instead of reading and writing stories set on other planets Dr. Consolmagno wound up reading and writing stories about the planets themselves. Going from reading science fiction to writing it brought Dr. Consolmagno to the crux of what he had been looking for: what is it that makes a good story?

“What do I want when I pick up a book?” said Dr. Consolmagno. “Three things; show me something I haven’t seen before, make me turn the pages, and be honest.”

These aren’t just the properties he looks for in a good book.

“Those are precisely the things I look for when I read or write a scientific paper,” said Dr. Consolmagno. “And what I’m looking for when I want to get closer to God.”

For Dr. Consolmagno, “novelty is essential,” as if there is no novelty, there is no novel.

“Likewise, one of the worst crimes in science is publishing work that’s already been done,” said Dr. Consolmagno. “But finding something unexpected and new hidden among the mundane is also the pattern of how we experience God in the world.”

Once originality has been established, the next key to a great story is making it a page-turner.

“Like the Narnia books, there has to be an underlying sense of joy even if the story is a tragedy,” said Dr. Consolmagno. “That’s what gets you to turn the pages. That sense of joy is what C.S. Lewis noted as the ‘sign of God’s presence,’ and it’s what makes scientific work interesting enough to make me want to do it every single day.”

And the final major ingredient to good storytelling is being honest. Be truthful in the actions that people take, the feelings that characters feel, and the messages you leave the readers.

“Even if you’re an atheist, a storyteller, or a scientist, your goal is to find the truth,” said Dr. Consolmagno. “It’s not necessarily going to be a story about people whose choices I agree with, because real life means people that we love doing things that we somehow wish they hadn’t done.”

He continued, “A story that shoves its characters around to fit some preconceived outcome, it’s not honest. A story that shows reasonable outcomes to understandable, even though sometimes regrettable, choices is one that lets me evaluate the implications of the decisions. That’s one that makes me evaluate the philosophical assumptions that the characters made when making those decisions.”

Ultimately, these evaluations and insights into the characters allow the reader time to understand and sympathize with decisions and actions that they may not agree with.

“Our philosophy, our ethics, and our religion exist in a lived context. That means story, that means narrative,” said Dr. Consolmagno.

Dr. Consolmagno’s full convocation can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/event/3086494.

A native of Detroit, Michigan, Dr. Consolmagno earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona. He was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989. At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, Pope Francis appointed Dr. Consolmagno director of the Observatory in 2015.

Dr. Consolmagno’s research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids and the evolution of small solar system bodies. He has observed Kuiper Belt objects with the Vatican’s 1.8-meter telescope in Arizona, and measured meteorite physical properties to understand asteroid origins and structure. Along with more than 250 scientific publications, he is the author of a dozen popular books including “Turn Left at Orion” (with Dan Davis) and “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?” (with Paul Mueller). In 2000, the International Astronomical Union named asteroid 4597 Consolmagno in recognition of his work. In 2014, he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences.

Posted by Colton Strader at 10:16