Papal stargazers reach for heaven

Society Materials 2 October 2007 07:32 (UTC +04:00)

( BBC ) - For the second time in seven years the Vatican is hosting a scientific conference for astronomers.

More than 200 scientists from 26 countries including the United States, Britain, Italy, Germany, Russia, and Japan have gathered in Rome for a five-day meeting on disc galaxies.

At the Papal University in Rome, normally frequented by Catholic theologians studying the Bible, the scientists, including Jesuit priests who work at the Vatican's own astronomical observatory, will be grappling with abstruse formulae and mathematical simulations about the physical origins of the universe, involving concepts such as cold dark matter and black holes.

Father Jose Funes, the head of the Vatican Observatory, said exciting new discoveries have been made with the help of space telescopes since the Holy See's last meeting on galaxies in 2000.

"Disc galaxies are a hot topic," he said.

Father Funes has a small full-time staff of only 13 scientists, most of them Jesuit priests, to run his astronomical research programmes, but co-operates with many prestigious universities around the world.

Why does the Vatican fund astronomical research after centuries of public dispute over the relative roles of science and religion?

Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, a member of Father Funes's team and curator of one of the world's most important collections of meteorites, kept at Castelgandolfo (the Pope's summer residence), explains.

"They want the world to know that the Church isn't afraid of science," he said.

"This is our way of seeing how God created the universe and they want to make as strong a statement as possible that truth doesn't contradict truth; that if you have faith, then you're never going to be afraid of what science is going to come up with.

"Because it's true."

The conference kicked off with a discussion about our own galaxy, the Milky Way, before proceeding to more abstruse concepts of space and time involving how galaxies, stars and planets came to be formed and evolve.