Gionti and Galaverni, priests and astrophysicists: science and faith are not opposed, “their planes do not intersect”

On April 30, 2022 the ANSA agency entitled: “Researchers of the Vatican Observatory [la Specola] publish a new study on the Big Bang and indicate a new technique to understand how gravity behaved in the first moments of the universe“. The columnist concluded by noting that the study, published in physical reviewof the two scientists, the father Gabriele Gionti and Don Matteo Galvernicould lead to “a revolution in our understanding of the early Universe.”

Francesco Agnoli has interviewed the two protagonists of this new discovery in the Italian monthly of apologetics Il Timone. They are aware that, as the Nobel laureate in Physics has declared Giorgio Parisi“science has an answer to the world in the world, but it does not explain the why of the world”.

-Two scientists with “cassock”: how do love for experimental science and faith in God agree?

-We can say that, in a certain way, we are following in the footsteps of many other religious scientists and priests. Think, for example, in the last century, of the Belgian priest George Lemaitrewho worked on the ideas of Einstein and that he was the first to propose the theory that we know today as “theory of big Bang“. His ideas were later confirmed by the observations of the American astronomer Edwin Hubble, which confirmed a law that links the speed of recession of galaxies with their distance. In fact, it is called the “Hubble-Lemaître law”.

»We follow the position of Monsignor George Lemaître, who considered that religion and science were two parallel planes that do not intersect. In a famous interview he declared: “There were two paths to the truth. I decided to follow both. Nothing in my work, nothing that I have learned in the studies of science or religion has changed my opinion. I have no conflicts that I have to reconcile Science has not changed my faith in religion and religion has never hindered the conclusions reached by scientific methods” (New York Times MagazineFebruary 19, 1933).

Jesuit Gabriele Gionti (left), doctor in Theoretical Gravitational Physics, and priest Matteo Galaverni, doctor in Astrophysics, work together at the Vatican Observatory.

“Religion and science are independent of each other and therefore not in opposition, as is commonly thought. Theology and science are two disciplines with two methods and different and separate research arguments. A person can be a good scientist and a good believer at the same time without there being any contradiction.

-However, in the collective imagination…

-In reality, the problem arises when science is intended to have a reading key so that it can understand all of reality on its own. This is an extremism called scientism. As people of faith, we believe that the universe was created by the Love of the God of Jesus of Nazareth. The study of the universe and its laws tells us about this God of Love.

In fact, as a famous scientist emphasized, Stephen Weinbergthe universe appears harmonious and orderly and, if we do not start from an assumption of faith, it is not understood why this is so. The person of faith rediscovers, in this harmony, the imprint of God’s Love, so doing science becomes almost an act of prayer. However, this is not, and cannot be, a Test of the existence of God, but a finding a posteriori.

»The relationship between science and faith can be understood starting from the magisterium of the holy Pope John Paul II. His words are illuminating when he states, for example, that “science can purify religion from error and superstition, religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can help the other to enter a wider world, a world in which both can thrive” (letter to father george v. CoyneJune 1, 1988).

-What does it mean for you to work at the Vatican Observatory, the place where, among others, Father Angelo Secchi, from Reggio Emilia, considered the founder of astrophysics, worked?

-La Specola, with its activity as the Vatican astronomical observatory, is located in continuity with the observatory of the Roman College directed by Father secchi from 1850 until his death in 1878. In his observatory, located above the church of San Ignacio, in Rome, this great Jesuit scientist laid the foundations of modern astrophysics. In fact, before him, astronomy was limited only to recording and calculating the movements of the celestial bodies, but it was considered impossible to determine its chemical-physical properties. With his revolutionary classification of stars – the first based on emission and absorption spectra – he took the first step towards recognizing the chemical compositions of celestial bodies. The figure of Secchi, with his ability to open up new perspectives, certainly continues to be a source of inspiration in astronomy, but not only.

A RAI report on the Vatican Observatory on the occasion of the publication of the article by Gionti and Galaverni, which offers an alternative to the mathematical equations used up to now to describe the behavior of gravity in the first instants of the Universe.

»Today, for us, working at the Vatican Observatory means having much freedom in choosing our research topics. Elsewhere, in Italian and international academic environments, the choice of line of research is often dictated by career or economic issues. Here at Specola, we don’t have this kind of pressure.

-Can you explain in simple words what the discovery that has made you “famous” consists of?

-It is well known that in order to describe the Big Bang theory well, it would be necessary to have a quantum gravity theory. This theory should be able to combine the gravitational force (the Einstein gravitywhich dominates at great distances) with quantum mechanics (which studies physical phenomena at the atomic and subatomic level).

»To make the approximate calculations of quantum gravity, “extensions” of Einstein’s theory of gravity (effective theories) are used. To study in detail the implications of these new theories, they are usually transformed into another theory that is mathematically easier to study. Our work studies in detail the mathematical properties of this type of transformations. This is the first step, now we need to investigate further in this direction. Our research is part of a broader line of research being carried out by the Vatican Observatory in collaboration with other members of the international scientific community.

-Is experimental science a discipline that gives answers or generates new questions?

-The more one advances in the study of the universe, more questions are discovered. We can say that the investigation of the universe helps to keep alive the fundamental questions that each one carries with him. This is a very valuable gift that must be shared.

»As the Pope reminds us Francisco: “Only a very small part of the world’s population has access to such knowledge, which opens the heart and mind to the great questions that humanity has always asked itself: Where do we come from? Where are we going? What is the meaning of this universe? of hundreds of billions of galaxies?… The search for answers to these questions predisposes us to an encounter with the Creator, the good Father, because ‘in Him we live, move and have our being’ (Acts 17,28)” (26 June 2014).

“Perhaps we can say that, in a certain sense, this aspect of continuous research unites science with faith: “You, eternal Trinity, are like a deep sea in which I seek more and find more, and the more I find, the more I find.” the thirst to look for you grows in me” (Saint Catherine of Siena, Dialogue of Divine Providence).

-For Pascal, but also for Newton, Einstein and many others, the last step of reason is to recognize its limits, also in the natural field. Centuries later, is it still like that?

-Personally we believe that science, if carried out honestly, recognizes that it cannot explain the world in which we live only with its inductive-experimental method. There are dimensions of reality that science does not touch and on which can’t say anything.

Translated by Verbum Expensive.

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Gionti and Galaverni, priests and astrophysicists: science and faith are not opposed, “their planes do not intersect”