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The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science

Jesuits, science and a Pope with a chemistry degree: A productive pairing?

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The new Pope Francis who has a degree in chemistry (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

In 1915, an exceptionally bright Italian youngster walked the two miles from his home to the Campo dei Fiori in Rome to hunt for science books in the weekly market fair. His step was determined and his face was grim. His countenance hid the fact that he was trying to recover from a great tragedy, the sudden death of his brother who had been his closest companion. Science would provide respite from his grief.

The Campo dei Fiori was the same place where the 16th century friar Giordano Bruno had been burnt for his heretical beliefs regarding multiple universes and Copernican astronomy. The boy mostly found books on theology and other topics which did not interest him, but tucked away in the heap was a two-volume compendium on physics by a Jesuit priest named Andrea Caraffa. Written in 1840, the volume expounded on all the classical physics that had been known until then. It was better than nothing and the boy bought it with the meager allowance he had saved. Taking it home he devoured it, not even noticing that it had been written in Latin.

Thus was launched Enrico Fermi's momentous career in physics. There is something exceedingly poignant about the fact that Italy's most famous scientific son found his life's bearings in a book written by a member of the Catholic Church, the same institution which three hundred years earlier had sent a scientific heretic to his death in exactly the same location.

They have just elected a new Jesuit pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, who has taken the name Francis. In the coming days the media will undoubtedly scrutinize his views on everything ranging from women in the church to the recent sex scandals. On my part I would be interested in his views on science and on evolution and cosmology in particular. I do not know what Pope Francis specifically thinks about these topics. But the story of Andrea Caraffa inspiring young Enrico Fermi gives me hope that the new Pope will look kindly toward science. Something else makes me even more hopeful: the new Pope has a master's degree in chemistry.

Wikipedia has a list of Jesuit scientists going back to the 17th century. These Jesuits delved into topics across the spectrum of science, although astronomers seem to be especially prominent among them. There's Giovanni Zup who discovered the orbital phases of Mercury, Giovanni Saccheri who wrote on Non-Euclidean geometry, Benito Vines who was known as 'Father Hurricane' and Pierre Chardin who was involved in the discovery of Peking Man. Among the most prominent recent Jesuits is Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno. Many of these Jesuits studied at prominent universities and later occupied faculty positions themselves. Their contributions to and study of science would be consistent with the Jesuit emphasis on scholarship. In their missionary work Jesuits often took the message of science to people on other continents. For instance it was a Jesuit who helped found the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science. Jesuits also introduced Western astronomy to China during their travels there and in turn brought back original Chinese research back to the West. Most prominently, Jesuits have founded many influential schools and colleges - including Georgetown University and Boston College - which emphasize teaching and research in science. Compared to other members of the Church, Jesuits' record on science is not bad at all.

The long Jesuit association with science demonstrates that it is very much possible for science and religion to co-exist in harmony and for one to inspire the other. Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno sees both science and religion as instruments allowing us to explore the universe and our role in it. Both spark debate and dialogue, and both shed light on human nature and thought. The website of the Jesuit society of the United States says that

"From the early days of the founding of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits have been engaged in various intellectual enterprises. These have included teaching, research, and writing. The Jesuit thrust to "find God in all things" has had the result that these efforts were not solely confined to the more "ecclesiastical" disciplines (like philosophy and theology), but were extended to the more "mundane" or "secular" disciplines. In the areas of science and technology many Jesuits have made, and continue to make, contributions. These contributions range from astronomy and algebra to natural history and geography."

In their quest to "find God in all things" the Jesuits are voicing an opinion similar to what Newton voiced when he said that for him, God was in the essential nature of the universe. For Newton God was the name of the entity that sowed the deep mysteries of the cosmos for us to reap. You don't have to believe in any kind of supernatural God to appreciate how such a view might not just be consistent with scientific inquiry but might even greatly encourage it, obsessively so in Newton's case. Einstein too used God as a metaphor for the mysteries of the universe that could be uncovered through playful inquiry. Einstein and Newton both shared the Jesuits' emphasis on finding their chosen objective in scientific investigation and they both saw scientific inquiry as a great game. It's a view that Consolmagno clearly relishes:

"Doing science is like playing a game with God, playing a puzzle with God. God sets the puzzles and after I can solve one, I can hear him cheering, "Great, that was wonderful, now here's the next one." It's the way I can interact with the Creator."

Consolmagno seems to have perfectly reconciled his scientific and religious views.

It is likely that the new Pope's views on science would be refreshingly modern and thoughtful, but it is also likely that they would be perfectly consistent with those held by his predecessors. For all we know, his views on abortion or evolution might be contrary to everything we know about science. The new Pope is a Jesuit and a chemist but he is also a human being who has to conform to the opinions of more than a billion of his followers around the world. We will have to wait to hear his opinions on the various scientific topics with which the Church has wrested and partially reconciled over hundreds of years. But whatever the new Pope has to say, I find satisfaction in the fact that a Jesuit and a chemist in the Vatican - an intellectual descendant of Andrea Caraffa and Pierre Chardin - is far from the worst that the Church can do when it comes to science.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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