April 2015 Newsletter

In this Clergy Letter Project update, you’ll find the following four items:

  1. Clergy Letter Project Member Under Attack;
  2. Astrobiology News for April 2015:  Yellow “Space Balls” and the Origin of Our Solar System;
  3. Comparing the Acceptance of Evolution in the United States and Canada; and
  4. Creationism in Louisiana.

1. Clergy Letter Project Member Under Attack

The Reverend Thomas Jay Oord, a member of The Clergy Letter Project and a tenured faculty member in the Department of Religion at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, ID has reportedly been fired for his evolutionary beliefs. According to a report published by Inside Higher Ed, Dr. Oord’s position was eliminated because of this theological positons. As the article noted, Tom has written numerous books and articles which “examine the way Christians are able to embrace evolution while maintaining their faith.”

When I reached out to Tom to offer help and support, he indicated that while he was not yet participating in any interviews he was comfortable with me sharing news of the university’s action. Additionally, he pointed me to a Facebook page entitled “Support Tom Oord.” Please take a look at the page and the associated petitions.

If Tom’s job was indeed eliminated because of his perfectly reasonable position, this is a disgrace.


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2. Astrobiology News for April 2015:  Yellow “Space Balls” and the Origin of Our Solar System

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses some of her own research that arose out of the Citizen Science Project.

Have I got your attention yet? No, Mel Brooks isn’t working on a new science fiction satire (at least to the best of my knowledge…). Rather, this month I’ve chosen to report on a bit of my own research, especially since a recent NASA ScienceCast has developed a pretty cool video about it!(1)

The famous 20th century science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, once commented, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not `Eureka!’, but ‘That’s funny.’” Indeed, the research paper my colleagues and I published a few months ago would not have been possible were it not for citizen scientists working on the Milky Way Project(2) who asked the simple question, “What’s that?” when they identified and catalogued a curious class of objects in the images they were examining. My colleagues and I recently showed that these objects, which are very prominent in the particular color scheme used to represent invisible infrared wavelengths captured by the Spitzer Space Telescope(3), represent an early stage in the evolution of massive star clusters – environments similar to the environment thought to have produced our Solar System.

One of the most-studied star-forming regions is the Orion Nebula. At a distance of some 1,500 light years from Earth, it is the closest such region that is currently forming very massive stars – stars ten thousand times as bright as our Sun. More than 20 years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) found nascent planetary systems around stars similar to our Sun in the foreground of the bright gas that is lit up by the luminous stars. By the way, this month marks the 25th anniversary of the HST.(4) Check out the stunning HST views of the Orion Nebula and its ‘proplyds’ (proto-planetary disks)!(5) “Yellowballs” are dusty cocoons enshrouding embedded stars before these stars visibly light up their birth clouds like the Orion Nebula.

Since the Sun currently has no siblings, why do we think it formed in the company of luminous stars? Primarily because meteorite studies indicate that a short-lived radioisotope (60Fe), which is only produced when massive stars explode, was present in the early stages of the development of our Solar System. 60Fe has a half-life of “only” 1.5 million years, indicating that the products of the explosion must have been incorporated into the Solar System as it was forming. Young star clusters disperse as they evolve, due to winds and radiation from the young stars, massive star explosions, and the individual motions of stars as they orbit the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Any solar siblings have long since “left the nest!”

Continued exploration of the “yellowball” stage of star cluster evolution will hopefully lead to a better understanding of our own origins, and will inevitably lead to many more exclamations of “That’s funny!” and queries of “What’s that?” I hope you watch the YouTube video of our research produced by NASA -- it includes a number of really nice visualizations!(6)

Until next month,


Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. (gwolfchase@adlerplanetarium.org)

1. http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2015/09apr_yellowballs/

2. http://www.milkywayproject.org/

3. http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/

4. http://hubble25th.org/

5. http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/objects-from/pr1994024c

6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blr-qDffIq0&feature=youtu.be


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3. Comparing the Acceptance of Evolution in the United States and Canada

Our good friends at the National Center for Science Education recently reported on a study published by the Council of Canadian Academies comparing public perceptions of evolution in Canada. The comparisons they drew between the beliefs of citizens of Canada and the United States are frightening! Here’s a sample of what they had to say:

“Presented with ‘Human beings as we know them today developed from earlier species of animals,’ 74% of respondents regarded it as ‘definitely true’ or ‘probably true,’ as compared to 47% of respondents in the United States in 2010.”

“Presented with ‘The universe began with a huge explosion,’ 68% of respondents regarded it as ‘definitely true’ or ‘probably true,’ as compared to 38% of respondents in the United States in 2010.”

Clearly we still have a great deal of work to do in the United States!


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4. Creationism in Louisiana

There’s both good and bad news coming from Louisiana this month. On the good news front, a bill to repeal Louisiana’s Science Education Act of 2008 was introduced in the Louisiana Senate earlier this month. The Science Education Act opened the door for the teaching of alternative ideas to evolution in public schools of the state and has been under attack ever since it was adopted and signed into law by Governor Bobby Jindal seven years ago. This is, in fact, the fifth consecutive year that such a bill has been introduced.

A recent article in Slate written by Clergy Letter Project friend, Zack Kopplin, provided ample evidence that creationism was being taught in public school science classrooms in Louisiana and thus clearly demonstrated the need to repeal the Science Education Act.

On the bad news front, for the fifth year in a row, the bill failed to make it out of Louisiana’s Senate Education Committee. Poor quality science and a narrow, one-sided perspective on religion will continue to be legally encouraged in Louisiana public schools.


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As always, I’d like to close this monthly newsletter by by thanking all of you who have supported The Clergy Letter Project and our efforts to promote high quality science education and respect for religion. If you know anyone who share’s these goals, please pass along this newsletter. Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project