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An astronomer-priest explores a ‘fertile’ universe

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A 78-year old Jesuit priest and astrophysicist has spent most of his life gazing at the stars, pondering the universe and asking such questions as: Are we all created in the image and likeness of God? Or is God created in the image and likeness of us?

In other words, the Bible teaches us that man was created in the image and likeness of God; science teaches us that the universe was created in a Big Bang and man evolved from earlier life forms.

For more than 50 years the Rev. George Coyne, retired director of the Vatican Observatory, has passionately talked about the relationship between science and religion. He argues that nothing learned through science should threaten one’s faith. It should only enrich and deepen it.

“Although I am a Jesuit, I am a religious believer,” Coyne said jokingly to a full house at the Priory Auditorium on Nov. 17.  His talk, the annual Albertus Magnus Lecture, was entitled “Children of a Fertile Universe: Chance, Destiny and a Creator God.”

Coyne, who earned an undergraduate degree from Fordham University and a doctorate in astronomy from Georgetown University, ran the Vatican Observatory for 28 years, leaving in 2006. The observatory, which is south of Rome, was formally established in 1891 and entrusted to the Jesuits in 1934.

As an astronomer, Coyne described his role as “actively pursuing the truth of the natural world.” His main interest is in the fertile universe. By “fertile,” he means a universe that is constantly giving life to new stars from the chemical reactions occurring from the by-products of a previous star’s death. The universe has been expanding this way since the Big Bang, he said.

The universe then is very old and huge, he said. Scientists estimate it to be 14 billion years old and containing hundreds of sextillions of stars.

To get your mind around that, he said you develop the notion of a self-conscious universe or “the ability to put the universe in our head,” Coyne explained.

But the question remains: Did God do this? “I don’t know,” Coyne said.

“God established the laws of nature, but there is a freedom within the universe that God respects, just like a parent with his or her child,” he said. There is a process of “continuous creation…not all is predetermined,” he said.

Basically, perhaps it was chance that the Big Bang occurred, which created our solar system and living organisms on earth. But was God responsible for predetermining how all this happened? Coyne believes all this happened and life was created by chance, not necessity.

“I look at science as a religious believer, and ask what can the science mean beyond the science?” Coyne said.

For Coyne, science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. It is a matter of faith, and faith and science don’t have to be reconciled, he believes. His passion, but also his mission in life, is to understand how we came about. That, he has said in the past, “enriches and gives a deeper meaning to my faith.”

Agata Kubinska, Contributing Writer


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