Brother Guy Consolmagno (Kenya 1983-85) was appointed Director of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory by Pope Francis in 2015. His books include Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist and Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?: and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory.
He is known as “The Pope’s Astronomer.”
In a radio interview on NPR recently he spoke of his Peace Corps experience and astronomy:
And then you went into the Peace Corps and you’ve said that you couldn’t see the point of studying stars when people were dying of hunger. So I want to ask you how you saw the point of studying stars differently when you went back to astronomy after Kenya?
Well, I joined the Peace Corps with the attitude I’ll go wherever they ask me to go because they know better than me where they can use me. And after looking at my record, within two months I was at the University of Nairobi teaching astronomy to graduate students.
And that was my first clue that maybe there was more to astronomy than just looking at the stars for your own pleasure. But even deeper than that was that I would go up-country every weekend to my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers’ places, and I had a little telescope with me and I had a package of slides that I would show.
Do you realize there are slide projectors that work on car batteries? They had these all over Kenya because there wouldn’t be a whole lot of electricity, but people still wanted to see the slides I had of the stars and the planets. And everybody in the village would show up for the talks, and everybody in the village would show up to look through my telescope. And they would show exactly the same “oohs” and “aahhs” looking at the craters of the moon or the rings of Saturn, exactly the same as when I would set this up back in Michigan.
And it suddenly dawned on me, well, of course. It’s only human beings that have this curiosity to understand: What’s that up in the sky? How do we fit into that? Who are we? Where do we come from? And this is a hunger that is as deep and as important as a hunger for food because if you starve a person in that sense, you’re depriving them of their humanity. And being able to feed this, being able to make
things like that — that was really important to them and really important to everybody I talked to. And suddenly — oh, that’s why we do this.