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God and the Astronomers at the Paranal Observatory in Chile

January 4, 2011

In 2009, after speaking at a conference in Santiago on the occasion of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday celebration, I had the opportunity to visit the Paranal Observatory in the Atacama desert in Chile. My host was Professor Massimo Tarenghi, who orchestrated the design, construction, first light, and full operation of the VLT (Very Large Telescope), which houses four 8.2 meter telescopes and four smaller meter-size telescopes, plus the architectural-award winning hotel, restaurant, and living quarters for the astronomers, staff, and guests, featured in the latest James Bond film, Quantum of Solace. After my appointed rounds in Santiago, Massimo and I flew two hours north to the dusty coastal town of Antofagasta, then drove two hours inland through the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on Earth, turning off the main (actually only) highway cutting north-south through this narrow strip of a country and onto the road that snakes up the mountain to this stunning cluster of buildings and domes. The long drive to and from Paranal gave us ample opportunity for reflective conversation.

When Massimo was fourteen he had a thriving stamp collection for which he was so dedicated that his grades collapsed, so his mom put the collection away and gave Massimo a book to read and told him it was time to get serious about learning. The book was on astronomy and he’s never looked back, coursing through his education at the University of Milan with a doctoral degree in theoretical astrophysics, completing his dissertation on gamma radiation from the core of the Milky Way galaxy. He then moved to Arizona where he participated in the first attempts to map the large-scale distribution of galaxies throughout the universe—those spidery/soap bubbly models of galaxy distribution you’ve seen on countless science shows. Massimo then returned to Europe to co-found the European Organization for Astronomy in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and began scouting for a location high enough and dry enough to look at the heavens.

Astronomers need height to get above atmospheric interference from wind, dust, smog, and pollutants, and especially water vapor, but it interferes with millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum. This is important because half the stars in galaxies are hidden behind intergalactic dust that makes them invisible to optical telescopes, all but blinding us to half the universe, plus organic molecules such as carbon and sugar are only detectable in the submillimeter wavelength, and it is here where the origins of life in space may occur. Enter Chile and the Atacama desert, the highest desert in the world where humidity hovers around 5% and it never rains. This place is truly in the middle of nowhere. It looks exactly like Mars, except it has a blue sky and a paved road. (Just Google Earth “Paranal Observatory” and you’ll see what I mean…or watch Quantum of Solace.)

How technologically sophisticated are these telescopes? The astronomers are not even allowed in the domes at night! These telescopes are so technically complicated that they are run by engineers trained to do nothing else. (Analogy: observing a solar eclipse from a Boeing 747 does not qualify you to fly a 747.) These telescopes are at least as complicated as a jumbo jet, with hundreds of computers that micro-adjust the mirrors and coordinate one, two, three, or even all four of the 8.2-meter telescopes at once. How big are these mirrors? The Hooker telescope at Mt. Wilson where Edwin Hubble discovered that the Milky Way galaxy is just one of billions of galaxies that are all expanding away from one another from a Big Bang origin is 100 inches in diameter. Each of the VLT mirrors are 8.2 meters, or 322.8 inches, over three times the size of the Hooker (increasing the resolution power of each one by orders of magnitude over what Hubble could see), and there’s four of them!

The photographs taken by these monsters are Saganesque in cosmic stir-worthiness. There are no eyepieces on these telescopes—the photons of light collected by the mirrors are focused on and collected by spectroscopes, CCD cameras, and other devices for analyzing the data that is then downloaded onto computers and reviewed by the astronomers in the warmth of a heated control room adjacent to the domes. But if they did put an eyepiece on one of these telescopes, and you pointed it at the moon where Apollo 11 landed 40 years ago, just before you were blinded by the light you would be able to see the bottom of the lunar landing module. Now that’s a telescope!

Since the man who organized, designed, implemented, and built this staggeringly marvelous monument to human reason, logic, and ingenuity was sitting next to me in the car during our hours of isolation traversing this Martian-like landscape, given my propensity to ask anyone and everyone the Big Questions in Life our conversation soon turned to matters theological. Before I knew it Professor Massimo Tarenghi—the very embodiment of a scientifically-savvy, rationally-calculating, steely-eyed logician—was telling me that he believes in God. And not just the gossamer-fleeting pantheist-like god of Einstein and Spinoza found in the wonders of the workings of nature, but Yahweh, the God of Abraham, and his son Jesus, who was, mysteriously, fully God and fully human, whom Professor Tarenghi believes came to earth to atone for our sins, was crucified and resurrected, and will one day return. Why would a man so solidly grounded in the material world of math, science, engineering, and technology also believe in something that is seemingly the very antithesis of scientism? Given his profession Massimo’s initial answer did not surprise me: as a professional astronomer he has been continually struck by the remarkable beauty and magnificent grandeur of the cosmos that, he confessed, both his reason and his intuition tell him could not have come about through natural forces alone. It was Immanuel Kant’s “starry heaves above” argument, which for Massimo consists primarily in the origins of the universe and the finely tuned properties of the laws of nature that give rise to stars, planets, life, and intelligence. (The Kant quote is inscribed on his tomb and comes from his section on The Moral Law in his 1788 book Critique of Practical Reason:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not merely conjecture them and seek them as though obscured in darkness or in the transcendent region beyond my horizon: I see them before me, and I associate them directly with the consciousness of my own existence.

Since we had got on so well to this point I thought it not too impertinent to counter with the multiverse argument, noting that perhaps our bubble universe is just one among a near infinite number of bubble universes all with varying laws of nature, and thus by chance and the law of large numbers some will have properties that give rise to stars, planets, life and even intelligence. (Interestingly, Massimo is convinced that virtually every star we will be studying with the upcoming space-based and ground-based telescopes will have planets, and thus there is very likely intelligent life elsewhere in our galaxy; however, contrary to many of his fellow religionists, he does not believe that this will pose a threat to traditional theology or religion.) But Massimo was quick on the draw to gun down my riposte as pure speculation, barely distinguishable from his own assumption that a God outside of our space-time created our universe and the laws that gave rise to us.

Round and round we went until we arrived back to where we began (which is how most such debates go), with the conversation ending as all such conversations should, with two friends finding mutual respect for differing positions, agreeing to disagree because life is too short for anything less than an amicable dénouement. Oh, and by the way, at some point during our drive—probably when I asked him—Massimo mentioned that he was raised Catholic and is still a devout Catholic. Um.

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