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Thinking about religion and science, Thursday through Sunday afternoon

In this April 15, 2011, file photo, Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican's Observatory, right, shows to visitors the Globe of planet Mars from the collection of the Specola Vaticana during an exhibition celebrating the 400th Anniver
In this April 15, 2011, file photo, Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican's Observatory, right, shows to visitors the Globe of planet Mars from the collection of the Specola Vaticana during an exhibition celebrating the 400th Anniversary of demonstration of Galileo's telescope on the Gianicolo hill, at Rome's American Academy in Rome.
Gregorio Borgia, Associated Press

I first became aware of the Jesuit astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno when I encountered some comments of his about Mormonism.

Talking with various scientists and engineers about the relationship between science and religion, he said, they almost always identified two specific religions — Scientology and Mormonism — as “obviously wrong,” he writes in his book “God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion."

His own personal experience, however, suggested an important distinction between the two: “No scientist of my acquaintance,” he remarked in his book “God’s Mechanics,” “has ever had something good to say about Scientology — rather ironic, given its name. But as it happens, I know a number of techies who are Mormons, including my thesis advisor at MIT.”

This advisor was John S. Lewis, who joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Boston while a tenured faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and who later served as a professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona. Lewis spoke at the Interpreter Foundation’s first conference on science and Mormonism in 2013.

Now, Brother Consolmagno will speak Saturday at the foundation’s second conference, on the Utah Valley University campus in Orem. (For specific information, see mormoninterpreter.com and click on "Events" and then "2016 Second Interpreter Science & Mormonism Symposium: Body, Brain, Mind, and Spirit".) The title of his presentation is “Astronomy, God and the Search for Elegance.”

Appointed director of the Vatican Observatory in September 2015 by Pope Francis, Brother Guy (as he’s often called) is an actively contributing research astronomer who specializes in meteorites, asteroids and the origin and evolution of small extraterrestrial objects within our solar system. (In that capacity, he played a role in Pluto’s recent “demotion” from full planetary status.) He’s also a noted scientific popularizer, for which, in 2014, the American Astronomical Society awarded him its Carl Sagan Medal.

Along with “God’s Mechanics,” mentioned above, Brother Guy is the author of “Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist” and the co-author of “Worlds Apart: A Textbook in Planetary Sciences” and “Turn Left at Orion: Hundreds of Night Sky Objects to See in a Home Telescope — and How to Find Them,” now in its fourth edition.

In their very accessible book “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? ... and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory,” Brother Guy and his colleague Father Paul Mueller, of the Society of Jesuit, a historian of science, engage in a series of accessible and witty but insightful conversations about the Big Bang, the fate of Pluto, Galileo’s trial, the star of Bethlehem, the end of the world and, yes, whether they would baptize E.T. (Their answer? Definitely, if E.T. understood what baptism meant and genuinely wanted it.)

On Thursday, March 10, Brother Guy will deliver the Summerhays Lecture for the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences on the campus of Brigham Young University, titled “Encountering God’s Personality in Creation” (see cpms.byu.edu/summerhays-lecture/ for information). On Sunday, March 13, he’ll recount “Adventures of a Vatican Astronomer” at Juan Diego High School in Draper (see mormoninterpreter.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/160215-BroGuyRelease-jb.pdf).

In other news related to Saturday’s conference, and as has been posted on the Mormon Interpreter website, we at the Interpreter Foundation, where I serve as the chairman, were deeply saddened to learn of the unexpected passing of our dear colleague the Catholic philosopher and theologian Stephen H. Webb, on March 5. Among other things, we had looked forward to spending time with him this weekend; he was one of our scheduled speakers.

Stephen was a warm friend of the Latter-day Saints, both intellectually and personally. Among his many publications are "Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints" (Oxford, 2013) and, with Alonzo L. Gaskill, "Catholic and Mormon: A Theological Conversation" (Oxford, 2015).

His presentation on “Why Mormon Materialism Matters,” delivered at the August 2015 FairMormon conference, is available online at fairmormon.org/perspectives/fair-conferences/2015-fairmormon-conference/why-mormon-materialism-matters, as is a video of his remarkable discussion with Margaret Barker at the Interpreter Foundation’s August 2015 birthday party. (See, too, my earlier column “Materialism isn’t what it used to be” from Aug. 13, 2015, on deseretnews.com).

We had hoped and expected to hear much more from Stephen. More importantly, though, we’re heartsick at this terrible loss. We pray that God’s comfort and blessing will rest upon his wife and their five children, and upon the many people who knew and loved him. And we look forward to the day when “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.