Smoked Octopus and Rum: life advice from Brother Guy

Today is the feast day of Ignatius of Loyola, and it is also the first birthday of Project SJ. By way of an anniversary extra, here’s a wonderful speech delivered by my friend (and Project SJ’s invaluable supporter) Guy Consolmagno SJ. The year: 2010. The occasion: prize day at St Aloysius’ College, Glasgow. The topic: well, let’s call it What Not to Do…

Photo by Alessia Giuliani.

Photo by Alessia Giuliani.

I am honored to be among you this afternoon, to add my congratulations to those of your faculty. I confess, when I attended the Jesuit high school in Detroit, I used to sneer at academic awards; that is, until I actually won one. My sophomore year I was named to the National Honor Society, for reasons that were utterly mysterious to me. I had not distinguished myself academically; in fact the most common comment I had heard from my teachers was that I was “working below my capabilities.” But I thought I was getting by, just fine; I had a firm belief that hard work was just a sign you hadn’t figured out the system. I suspect, in retrospect, that the powers who handed me that honor knew me better than I knew myself, however. I was so embarrassed at getting the award, that I wound up actually working hard—or, at least, harder than I had been—to try to see if I couldn’t make myself a little more worthy of it.

Hard work is one of those virtues that is often misunderstood. One of the awful clichés that we used to hear at my high school from speakers (like me today) was, “If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be, you can reach your dreams!” Now, that always sounded like utter nonsense to me. What if I dreamt of being the star center for the Detroit Pistons, our local basketball team? Would hard work make me sixteen inches taller or stretch my arm span by an extra foot? Not likely.

The trick, of course—and it is a trick—is that you can be anything you want, only by controlling what it is you want. If you want to follow your dreams, you have to put some hard work into choosing your dreams. What is it that you really want?

Let’s say you think you want to be a basketball star. Ask yourself, why? Is if for the fame? There are plenty of ways to be famous besides playing basketball. A classmate of mine got his name in the papers just last year; he was working with the US military space program and was caught trying to sell military secrets to the Israelis. Hey, if it’s fame you want…

Is it for the money? You don’t need to be a sports star to get rich. Another high school friend studied to be an accountant. He wound up as the president of a bank.

It is the adulation of the crowds you crave? You can’t do better than my roommate at MIT. He’s married now with two sons. His wife and family know him as only family can, and they think the world of him. What adulation could be better than that?

Or maybe, just maybe, you want to be a basketball star for the irrefutable reason that you just love basketball. In that case, play basketball. It doesn’t matter if thousands of fans pay to watch you play, or if nobody watches; that’s not why you do it. Find a league, find friends, find a place where you can get a pickup game with people at your level, and play your heart out. There’s a guy I have worked with for thirty years, born with coordination problems, blind in one eye, he has no depth perception; but he loves basketball and even now—he’s a college professor, my age—three times a week he drags his aching old bones out onto the court for the sheer love of the game.

Now, if you’re lucky, your passion will match your skills and you’ll be good at what you want to do. If you’re even luckier, you will find a way to make a living at it. But the important thing is, to understand what your passion really is. In the words of St. Ignatius, you must learn to discern your deepest desires.

You knew I was going to drag Ignatius into this. He has a whole system for discerning your desires, but the main key to it is a principle that ought to be obvious, but sometimes gets lost: God wants you to be happy. The trouble is, of course, that what really makes you happy in the long run is sometimes not what you think will make you happy right now.

When I was eighteen and went off to University, I had no idea what I wanted. When it came time to choose a place to study, I picked Boston College mostly because it was in Boston, which seemed like a good place to be a student (there are 300-odd colleges and universities in Boston, some of them very odd). And Boston College was a Jesuit school; I had an idea that maybe I would want to be a Jesuit, but I wasn’t sure.

When it came time to declare a major—in America you can choose anything, it doesn’t depend on how you did on any particular subject in high school—I looked at the list and tried to find the box that said “all of the above.” It was the fault of those clever teachers in my high school who had gotten me to work hard; I had discovered that learning stuff was really, really fun. I wanted to learn everything.

But when I got to Boston College, I found myself in a freshman dorm where the local liquor store made deliveries. (The legal drinking age was twenty-one, we were all eighteen, but they didn’t seem to care.) Everyone went nuts doing all the stuff they thought they wanted to do, all the stuff they couldn’t do when they were living with their parents.

I remember one Friday night, there was this guy who tried to drink an entire bottle of rum and eat a tin of smoked octopus. I found him in the hallway about to be sick into the trash barrel; but he stopped. Something was wrong. He looked puzzled. Slowly, he took off his trousers and carefully lay them over the trash barrel. Then he got sick, into them.

Eventually these geniuses started failing their classes. No surprise. Well, that wouldn’t have bothered me, except that for some reason they would come to my room and pour out their problems to me. As if I cared. The more they bewailed their situation, the more I thought to myself, “you know, life is tough… when you’re stupid.”

I didn’t like it there. I didn’t fit in. So I figured, ok, there’s no problem so big you can’t run away from it. Time to bail out. Join the Jesuits, like I was thinking of doing anyway.

I found a Jesuit and asked him where to sign up, and he asked me a very peculiar question: “Have you prayed about this, son?” (I hate it when they call me “son”.) Well, I figured it was part of the routine. Why not? I went back to my room, sat on the floor, looked at the ceiling, and said, “OK, God, I’m supposed to ask if you want me to be a Jesuit, but I know you’re desperate for priests and I’m desperate to get out of here…”

Silence. Nothing came from the ceiling. And I was feeling very foolish.

While I was sitting there, waiting for something to happen, a funny question occurred to me. What does a priest do for a living? You know, when they show up at their desk on a Monday morning—I assume priests must have desks—what’s on those desks? Papers, I guess. Papers about what? About people. People with problems. People just like the idiots in my dorm whom I was trying to get away from. What a terrible job!

So… either there was no God, in which case it would be stupid to be a priest; or there was a God, and he had just told me it would be stupid for me to be a priest.

If being a Jesuit priest wasn’t where I wanted to be, what was? My best friend from high school was up the road at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I used to hang out there every weekend. They had weekend movies, and tunnels in the basements connecting the buildings you could explore, and the world’s largest library of science fiction. Home of nerds and geeks. People like me. If I wanted to be a nerd, why not go to a nerd school?

I transferred. They accepted me. And when I got there, I was ecstatically happy like I didn’t think could ever be possible. This is what I was good at; but more important, this is what I loved. I had finally found my passion. It wasn’t the science fiction; it was the science. It wasn’t the tunnels, it was the exploration. It wasn’t the movies, it was the imagination.

Imagination is an essential part of being a scientist. How do you decide what to study? There are so many possibilities, so many interesting things in the universe. Often your choice is motivated by daydreams. “What would it be like to be standing on one of the moons of Jupiter?”

One of the first projects I ever worked on at MIT was, in fact, all about the moons of Jupiter. We knew they were mixtures of rock and ice—recall the scene in one of the Harry Potter books, as Hermione is correcting Harry’s astronomy paper and reminds him that Europa is covered with “ice”, not “mice”! I remember reading that and thinking, “hey, that was my master’s thesis!”

These moons are as big as Earth’s moon; indeed, the largest of them, Ganymede, is bigger than the planet Mercury. Back then, soon after the Apollo program, we had just learned that the rocks the astronauts brought back from the Moon were lavas, volcanic eruptions from inside the Moon long ago. Would the moons of Jupiter have volcanic eruptions? What would a volcano look like in a body that was half made of water ice?

We knew that the volcanoes on the Earth and the Moon are powered by the slow decay of radioactive elements in the rock. Presumably the rocky bits of the icy moons also would have radioactivity. Would this produce enough heat to melt the ice and cause it to erupt, spewing water into the sky?

That was my task… to do the math, using the best computer of the day (we’re talking forty years ago; my cell phone is more powerful than that computer was…). We wanted to calculate, would the heat generated inside an icy moon be enough to melt the ice? Or would the heat just radiate out of the moons into space before it could do anything?

But wait… what happens when water melts? The water starts to churn, which changes the rate that the heat flows out of the planet. And the rocky bits fall down through the water, gathering together at the bottom of whatever liquid ocean you’re making, a hot layer of rock that melts things below and boils things above. In my mind’s eye, I could see like an animated movie, the inside of this moon fusing and coagulating.

What I had to do, was translate that movie in my head into mathematical code that would add up all the bits of heat budget, what goes into melting, what goes into convecting, what happens as the heat sources decay away. Because, you see, the essential part of the work doesn’t stop with the dream; you then have to translate that dream into something real – in my case, a computer program, with numbers for heat and melt and the thickness of an ocean beneath the icy crust of a moon around Jupiter.

And when it was all over, I had to have the imagination to translate those numbers back into a picture in my mind: a moon with a thick icy crust, a solid hot rocky core, and an ocean in between the two, rich in salts and minerals.

Because then you can use that picture to test your dream. Salt water conducts electricity; could we actually see the effect of this layer of salt water on the magnetic field of Jupiter? The Galileo spacecraft found exactly such an effect when it passed by Jupiter’s moons. As for actually seeing liquid water spewing into space… another spacecraft, Cassini, is in orbit now around Saturn; and it has indeed seen plumes of water shooting hundreds of kilometers into the sky over the south pole of its icy moon, Enceladus. You can see the videos on the internet.

Creation starts with dreams, but it doesn’t end there. J. K. Rowling didn’t stop when she thought up Harry Potter; she had to sit in front of a keyboard and turn it into story, a thousand words a day. Think how thick those books are; that’s a heck of a lot of typing. That’s where the hard work comes in.

Your job, right now, your hard work, is to figure out the dreams that will drive the rest of your lives. To do that well, you have to have a clear idea of what you’re good at—that’s one of the purposes of the prizes you are getting today. And you have to have a clear picture of where you want to go. You may actually never get there; you may wind up someplace even better than you could have imagined. But it all starts with a dream.

Examine your own dreams the way you’re being taught to examine a piece of literature, or a physics problem. What drives those dreams? What’s the essential part, and what’s just a red herring? Is there a glow that stays with you after you’ve thought about any particular, possible future, that says, this is it, this is what’s right for me?

When you daydream, push the dream farther. OK, so you’ve become rich and famous; then what happens? What will you do next? Like me, thinking about being a priest and realizing that I would actually hate that job.

And test your dreams. Try out for the basketball team, or the nerd team, and find out if you really like it or not. If you’re not happy, God’s trying to tell you something.

Once you do know your dream, you’ll want it so much you will work day and night to get it. What you’re doing may look to other people like … dare I say … hard work. But when you love doing it, and if it comes naturally, because it is a good fit to your natural talents, there’s nothing you’d rather be doing.

I am still living out the dreams I had when I was a kid. As a scientist I’ve had the chance to use the biggest telescopes in the world, and to go to Antarctica to search for meteorites. I have met some really smart people, Nobel prize winners, and have them listen to me describe the little corner of my field that I know better than anyone else. And, twenty years after I entered MIT, I finally did become a Jesuit—as a brother, not a priest. I still have no patience for idiots.

Yes, it has taken hard work. Hard work is not a sign you haven’t figured out the system; rather, figuring out the system is itself hard work. And it is your work; because, it is ultimately your dream. Your friends and family and teachers, the people who know you best, can help you sort out the possibilities, make suggestions. Listen to them. But no one can dream for you.

However, I’ll give you one hint, for free. A successful dream probably does not involve smoked octopus.

Br Guy Consolmagno SJ is a planetary scientist and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.