Vatican's chief astronomer sees room for religion and science

George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and the Vatican's chief astronomer, has made a career of putting Earth and humanity into a very broad perspective.

For nearly three decades, the Baltimore native has directed the Vatican Observatory, the Holy See's private eyes on the Cosmos. During that time, using telescopes at the pope's summer residence in Italy and atop Mount Graham in Arizona, Coyne, 69, has developed a simple worldview based on scientific evidence.

It's his way of making sense of life in a complex universe, and he believes his experience as an astronomer and a priest can help others draw their own conclusions about why things happen the way they do.

What Coyne doesn't do is try to make science the foundation of religion or religion the foundation of science, he said in an interview. Religion and science are complementary, he said, but not dependent on each other.

"When I say God created the universe, it's not science whatsoever. Faith is a totally different dimension of human curiosity," said Coyne.

The priest said he is surprised that many people, including Catholics, are unaware that the Vatican has an observatory, much less a highly sophisticated one. Yet the Holy See has operated observatories for more than 400 years.

Pope Gregory XIII built the first tower, in pre-telescope days, for Jesuit scientists researching the 1582 Gregorian calendar in universal use today. Subsequent observatories were built in different locations in Rome.

In the 1930s, when the city lights got too bright for stargazing, the observatory was moved to Castel Gandolfo, about 20 miles southeast of Rome. In 1981, the Vatican founded a second research center in Tucson, Ariz., and, in 1993, completed a telescope with an innovative lightweight design on Mount Graham, a two-hour drive northeast of the city and possibly the best astronomical site in the continental United States.

The Vatican Observatory's 18-person staff at Mount Graham includes astronomers, astrophysicists and mathematicians, most of them Jesuits. Using the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, they study the evolution of "close-in" galaxies -- those up to 500,000 light-years away. The mountaintop telescope supplements the work of the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, whose photographs show images up to 12 billion light-years away.

One of the major discoveries by Vatican and University of Arizona astronomers, who also use the telescope, is that more and more galaxies are found to have "massive black holes" at their center, said Coyne, who divides his time between the U.S. and Italian observatories.

Many have "halos of dark matter," material that exerts gravitational force but does not emit or reflect light. The dark matter halos explain why galaxies often rotate faster than visible evidence suggests they should, he said.

Coyne speaks excitedly about such findings, often in highly technical language, but he also enjoys summarizing his fundamental principles:

-- To understand life on Earth, it's important to realize that it took at least 10 billion years for the universe -- which is 13 billion to 15 billion years old -- to evolve to the point where organic compounds, of which all life consists, were possible. Before that, the planet, its atmosphere, plants and animals, including humans, were not possible.

-- To picture the Earth in cosmic context, think of it as a "little grain of sand" in a galaxy with 100 billion stars 100,000 light-years across. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is one of 100 billion galaxies consisting of 100 billion stars each. That's 10 (1 with 22 zeroes) stars.

-- Despite recent surges in knowledge and technology, scientists still don't understand fully how Earth and life came to be. At the same time, advances in the study of star and planet formation -- about 100 planets have been identified in the past few years -- suggest that other worlds like ours are likely and that other intelligent beings are possible. How possible? No one knows.

As a scientist, Coyne said he acts on what he sees or knows to be verifiable. As a priest, he acts on faith, a "gift of God" that cannot be proved by science -- even those spectacular new Hubble deep-space images released last month.

If religion and science do intersect, it would be in understanding the dynamic nature of the universe, said Coyne, who received a doctorate in astronomy from Georgetown University in 1962, was ordained in 1965 and joined the Vatican Observatory in 1969 after holding several teaching and research positions.

He likened the birth and development of a child -- who grows physically, emotionally and intellectually to the point where he acts on his own -- to the birth and growth of the universe moving constantly toward greater complexity.

"The God who wanted that kind of universe is one who wanted us to participate in his or her dynamism," said Coyne. He rejects the idea of an autocratic God for one who created a universe that follows physical laws but allows for serendipity -- and free will on the part of thinking beings.

He also rejects creationism, the belief that God created the universe in a matter of days, as stated in the Book of Genesis. "The simple fact is that (Judeo-Christian) Scriptures, or the Koran or any holy books, are not teaching science," which is a way of looking at the world that did not develop until the 17th century, he said.

"The people who wrote Scripture had no interest whatsoever in understanding the universe the way we do now," he said. "They were trying to bring other people to accept the revelation (of the universe) as a product of God's love. That's a valid way to look at it. I look at it that way myself, but it has nothing to do with science."

He likes to quote a "cute" saying of Galileo's: "Scripture is written to tell how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go."

Part of the reason people are surprised to hear the Vatican has an observatory undoubtedly has to do with the inquisition of Galileo, Coyne said. The 17th-century astronomer who swept the night skies with a telescope decided Copernicus was right and the church's teaching was wrong: The Earth and other planets circle the sun, not the other way around.

For refusing to renounce his heretical stance, Galileo was placed under permanent house arrest. Three hundred years later, from 1981 to 1992, an interdisciplinary Vatican commission investigated the case and determined errors had been made on both sides.

Coyne, who co-chaired the subcommittee on science, said he was dissatisfied with the final report because the church did not admit what really happened: The bishops of the day "suppressed the freedom of research" of a world-renowned scientist.

"The whole mentality of the Catholic Church has been secrecy and coverup, and that's where the problem is," he said. The church "has a tendency of not wanting to admit mistakes. It's the church I love, but it's a human church, too."