2018-07-26 08:21:54 UTC
By Justin Paul George July 25, 2018 13:15 IST
PHOTO: A collage of the Milky Way and Fr. Richard D'Souza (via
Space: the final frontier...
More than being immortalised as
the opening monologue of Star
Trek by William Shatner, these
four words also describe one of
the fiercest battlegrounds
between the worlds of faith and
reason. The unknown expanse of
the cosmos and its origins have
long fascinated, intrigued and
terrified mankind and often
pitted the clergyman against
However, lost in the din of rationalist criticism of religion
is the fact that several clergymen have taken lead roles in
furthering research into the unknown. For instance, Belgian
Catholic priest and astronomer Georges Lemaitre was the first
to propound what later became known as the 'Big Bang Theory'
when he was pursuing his PhD at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology in the 1920s. And one of the people who
initially opposed Lemaitre's theory of the universe expanding
was a certain Albert Einstein!
Now, a Jesuit priest-scientist, Richard D'Souza,
could well be the next to follow the path of
Lemaitre. D'Souza, a post-doctoral researcher at
the University of Michigan made headlines recently
as he was the lead author of a study that sheds
light on our galaxy, the Milky Way, having a
"long-lost sibling" galaxy. This sibling galaxy was
"devoured" by Andromeda, the major galaxy that is
nearest to the Milky Way, about 2 billion years
ago. The study, led by D'Souza, is expected to
alter our understanding of how a galaxy evolves.
Forty-year-old D'Souza has an Indian connection. He hails
from Goa and grew up in Kuwait. After joining the Jesuits, he
began his college education at St Xavier's College in Mumbai,
which eventually led him to earn his PhD in astronomy from
Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich, in 2016. D'Souza, who
works with the Vatican Observatory, is currently pursuing his
post-doctoral studies in Michigan. In a conversation with THE
WEEK, D'Souza gave insights into his work, what motivates him
and the science-faith debate:
Q: Can you explain what the nature of your research in astronomy is?
I study the growth and evolution of galaxies.
Galaxies grow either by forming their own stars or
by merging with other smaller galaxies. In the last
few years, I have been focusing on the latter
process. In particular, I am interested in studying
what mergers do to galaxies. Do the properties of
the main galaxy change after an impact with a
smaller galaxy? By using a combination of computer
models and observations, I tried to reconstruct the
merger history of a particular galaxy.
Q: ... As a Catholic priest, what made you choose astronomy?
Is it to show faith and science can be harmonious and prove
God does exist?
I have always been interested in science, and as a
person of faith, I believe in God and in his
creation. For me studying the universe helps me
learn more about its creator. Hence for me,
studying astronomy, the stars and the galaxies is a
form of worship. My Jesuit superiors have always
encouraged me to pursue the study of astronomy and
have destined me to work for the Vatican
Observatory. Ultimately, I hope that my scientific
research demonstrates that the Catholic Church is
not against science, and that science and faith can
mutually coexist and help each other.
Q: A Vatican observatory was first established in 1774; would
you argue that its work in astronomy has helped change the
image of the Catholic Church, which has often been associated
with the hounding of the likes of Galileo, Copernicus and
In re-founding the Vatican Observatory in 1891, Pope Leo XIII
wanted a scientific organisation that demonstrated that
everyone might see clearly that the Church and her pastors
are not opposed to true and solid science ... but that they
embrace it, encourage it and promote it.
Over the years, the Vatican Observatory tries to do this—not
only in doing frontier research but to demonstrate through
our research that the Catholic Church is not opposed to good
and true science. It is rather unfortunate how things played
out in the life of Galileo; most of the happenings were
connected with power struggles within the Church. It must be
emphasised that Galileo, till the end of his life, remained a
good Catholic and one of his daughters was a nun.
Q: What impact do you think your recent finding--the
discovery of a long-lost sibling galaxy of the Milky
Way--will have in boosting our understanding of the universe?
First, it is just cool to realise that there was a
large galaxy, the third-largest member of the Local
Group after the Andromeda and the Milky Way
galaxies and we did not know anything about it.
Furthermore, this finding gives us the confidence
that if we could solve part of the merger history
of the Andromeda galaxy (for which we have the best
data because of its proximity to us), then we could
begin to unravel the merger history of more distant
Finally, we have learned some important lessons from this
finding: the disk of the Andromeda galaxy survived this
massive merger and probably thickened in the process. We are
confident that our own galaxy, the Milky Way, will survive
the eventual collision with its satellite galaxy, the Large
Magellanic Cloud, in about 1-2 billion years. In the future,
we are confident that we will eventually unravel what mergers
do to other galaxies.
Q: What are the areas of astronomy you would like to venture into?
I would like to carry on with my current research into
understanding what mergers do to galaxies. Eventually, I
would also like to study our own Milky Way galaxy and
understand which of the properties of the Milky Way are due
to mergers and which are due to its own evolution. Finally, I
also would like to study the various physical processes that
shape the growth and evolution of galaxies.
Q: Being a Catholic priest, how 'different' do you feel while
among fellow scientists, who are almost always perceived to
Most scientists are often pleasantly surprised that
I am a Catholic priest. This is because the members
of the Vatican Observatory have set a good
precedent in this academic field. Everywhere I go,
I find that scientists know who they [Vatican
Observatory researchers] are, and that they are
well loved and accepted. Sometimes, I do encounter
a few "younger" rationalists and sceptics, but
these initial feelings soon go away once we start
talking about science!
Q: And how would you answer the 'believers/creationists'?
Would people who believe the earth was formed in six days be
comfortable to hear a priest talk of galaxies formed billions
of years ago?
Before starting my PhD in astronomy, I taught
biblical theology for about two years in Goa,
catering towards the educated laity! Most people
misunderstand the Catholic Church's teaching on
creation, or the Church's position on Genesis, the
first book of the Bible.
In fact, the first few chapters of Genesis are one of my
favourite portions of the Bible and are a rich theological
resource of the Christian understanding of the human person
and the world. Much of our Christian ideas come from those
chapters! I wish, in general, Christians and, in particular,
these 'creationists' would learn some more theology, beyond
what is taught to children. This is why Pope Leo XIII
insisted way back in 1891 that through the research and work
of the members of the Vatican Observatory, we educate both
the clergy and the laity about the Catholic Church's teaching!
Q: And finally, you spent years in India ministering as a
priest before leaving for pursuing doctoral studies. Any
plans to return?
I would love to come back to India; I always enjoy
visiting, especially my parents in Goa. Some of my
happiest years were the initial ones where I taught
biblical theology for the laity in Goa. However, I
am at the disposal of my Jesuit superiors. If there
is an urgent need, they will mission me back to India.
Contact RICHARD D'SOUZA via Facebook
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