Jesuit astronomer oversaw the classifying commission
Was Pluto's 2006 reclassification to dwarf planet a "Vatican plot?" Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, SJ, of the Vatican Observatory, joked that it was, but in fact the Vatican just oversaw the change.
The famous astronomer, who once appeared on TV's "Colbert Report," spoke to a sell-out crowd at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre Feb. 25. The lecture, "Pluto and the Vatican," sponsored by St. Mark's and Corpus Christi Colleges, The Newman Association, and the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre, focused on how science and religion handle change.
Brother Consolmagno started with a history lesson about Pluto, and he talked about the political process of classifying and naming planets, something handled by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).
Brother Consolmagno joined the IAU as a member of Vatican City State, which has its own National Observatory.
"One of the reasons the Vatican has an observatory is that, yes, the Church supports science, and, yes, the Vatican is a nation and not just a part of Italy."
Brother Consolmagno showed a slide of the Vatican Observatory, which, he joked, was described in great detail in the book The Da Vinci Code. "I can say his description of the observatory is accurate as everything else in The Da Vinci Code."
He identified some of the windows showing in the slide so that he could point out, "When the Pope was in residence and I was in my office, I could claim to be the only guy in the Church to be above the Pope."
Because the Vatican sat on the IAU, Brother Consolmagno got to head the Planetary Commission from 2003-06. It was then that the commission decided Pluto's fate.
He was appointed because the IAU had wanted European representation when they drew up a list of potential commission leaders 10 years earlier. Most of the IAU members were American or Russian.
"The executive committee said we had to have at least one European on this list," Brother Consolmagno recalled. "They looked around the room and could not find a European, until someone looked at me and said, 'You're from the Vatican. That's Europe. Get on the list!'"
The Jesuit split up his new commission into several sub-committees, which did not come to consensus on a definition for planets. The committees discussed geology, mass, and orbit, which led to the reclassification of some 22 planets.
Dynamicists then entered the conversation, reporting that Pluto was tied to Neptune's orbit around the sun, and therefore not an independent entity.
However, "If you take the earth, which I would think of as a planet, and move it up into the orbit of Neptune, then the earth wouldn't be a planet," Brother Consolmagno said.
After further discussion the three planetary groups re-classified objects in Neptune's orbit in three separate categories: the earth remained a planet, but Pluto fell into category two, a dwarf planet.
"The IAU president knows there's going to be a problem with this new definition, and this will not play well on TV," the Jesuit said. "Little kids will make a lot of noise."
Brother Consolmagno said he has explained Pluto's classification story many times, and kids still come up to him and ask, "What have you done to Pluto," because they think it's warm and fuzzy.
"Pluto is neither warm nor fuzzy. It's very cold and hard, and it reminds me of someone I used to date before I became a Jesuit," he joked.
After the main lecture, Brother Consolmagno took questions from the audience that focused on the relationship between religion and science.
Andrew Senay, a UBC student, was actually surprised how little "religion" had been mentioned in Brother Consolmagno's lecture. A self-described atheist and former Catholic, Senay actually came to the lecture to hear more about the relationship between religion and science.
Brother Consolmagno stated that the two are very intertwined.
"Religion is truth seeking understanding, and science is understanding seeking truth. That's why they're so similar, and that's why neither is a good substitute for the other."