The Vatican Astronomer

Posted on: February 20th, 2013 by sjorda2

On Monday, February 25, Br Guy Consolmagno, SJ, PhD will give the Ignatius of Loyola Lecture at 4:00 p.m. at the Crown Center Auditorium. Brother Consolmagno is a research astronomer and physicist at the Vatican Observatory.

This is an occasion to give some thought to the deep connections between mathematics, astronomy, and religion (and the Catholic Church in particular).

For ancient history, the scholarly life intertwined astronomy, religion, philosophy, and mathematics.  “Motions of the heavenly bodies” was part of the public conscious as is today our focus on when is the next holiday.  Spherical geometry was one of the most powerful and seminal developments in mathematics – more so than Euclidean geometry of the plane!

The great historian of mathematics, Neugebauer, showed how the ancient “Babylonian” tablets were astronomical calculations.  See his The Exact Sciences in Antiquity.  

Ptolemy’s star catalog was actually composed of the spherical coordinates of the stars, and his table of chords was a preface to the Almagest, which modeled the motions of the stars, moon, and planets in the night sky.  ISBN-13: 978-0691002606.


And the Chinese (Needham, Science and Civilisation in China), and the Indian cultures valued knowledge of the heavens and mathematics as part of the path to truth.


For Christianity, the study of the heavens has been a priority.  In particular, church scholars, religious courts, stewards of the church, and orders invested their time, emotion, patronage, and scholarship to master their understanding of the celestial world that God created and to codify an accurate calendar for observance of the moveable feasts.  See the photo of the

It is only recently, that “Mathematics” and “Astronomy” have been cousins; until 1900 they were sisters.  Note a few of the efforts of our great thinkers:

  • Archimedes’ The Sand Reckonner modeled the universe while developing a telescoping system of ordinals
  • Clavius and Pope Gregory settled on the appropriate algorithm reconciling the solar calendar.  Gauss refined the perpetual calendar.  In fact, Gauss’ motivation for the “Gauss map” to measure curvature of surfaces came from looking up at the heavenly sphere.  Of course the Gaussian gravitational constant is studied by high school physics students today.
  • Today is the 540th anniversary of the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus.  See the scholarly article in The Catholic Encyclopedia that brings out his connections with the Church as well as Ptolemy, Galileo, etc.
  • Isaac Newton united cosmology, the “Fundamental Laws” of physics, calculus, etc. etc. etc.
  • Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity creates the curved geometry of space-as a model for gravitation etc.
  • And for a nice break from platitudes, check out this video on Von Neumann .




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