February 2015 Newsletter

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

  1. Catching up on Clergy Letter Project Business;
  2. Astrobiology News for February 2015: Disorderly Planets;
  3. Ken Ham’s View of Evolution Weekend;
  4. Scott Walker and Evolution; and
  5. Grace Wolf-Chase and Oprah.
  6. February Was a Good Month Legislatively for Evolution.

1. Catching up on Clergy Letter Project Business

I want to sincerely thank all of you who participated in yet another successful Evolution Weekend event. Congregations all across the United States and in 13 countries celebrated Evolution Weekend this year. If you participated but are not listed on our official Evolution Weekend 2015 web page, please let me know and I’ll get you added immediately. Additionally, if you would like to have a sermon you delivered added to our Sermon Page, please pass it along to me and I’ll get it posted as well.

Finally, I’m delighted to say that the number of clergy members who have signed our Christian Clergy Letter has now surpassed 13,000! If you know colleagues or friends who would like to be added, please pass along this note to them and ask them to be in touch with me. I bet that together we can exceed 14,000 in short order if we set our minds to it!


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2.  Astrobiology News for February 2015: Disorderly Planets

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses how astronomers believe planets form – and in so doing explains the process of scientific progress.

In In celebration of the upcoming 10th anniversary of Evolution Weekend, this month’s piece diverges from my usual Astrobiology News.  We at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago will be supporting Evolution Weekend events by offering free admission and shows to all clergy on Tuesday, February 10th, as well as offering opportunities for discussions with scientists and other clergy in the afternoon.  Advanced registration is required.  (Send me email if you want the flyer with instructions on how to register for this.)  I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you about some of the people visitors will encounter on posters throughout the museum.

As recently as 20 years ago, the formation of planets around stars (like our Sun) was thought to be a fairly orderly process. A huge spinning interstellar cloud collapses via gravity into a proto-planetary disk, a large, flattened nebula of gas and dust. A star forms at the center of this disk, and planets form at various distances outward in the disk. Theory predicted that planets would orbit their stars in the same direction, on nearly circular orbits, and the composition of a planet should reflect where it formed in the disk. Planets orbiting near their stars would be made of refractory materials (mostly rock and iron, like Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) that condense at high temperatures, while those orbiting further away would be huge gaseous planets containing volatile materials such as ices, as well as the most abundant elements, hydrogen and helium (like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune). This nice, orderly process, stemming from some basic principles of physics and chemistry, came under close scrutiny as we actually started to find planets orbiting other stars (exoplanets), and we discovered that reality is a lot more complicated than this “simple” model. )

Most of the exoplanet systems that have been discovered look very different from our own Solar System. There are exoplanets that don’t orbit their star in the same plane, giant gaseous exoplanets so close to their stars that they complete full orbits in just a few days, and a class of exoplanets known as “super-Earths” that orbit at least 40% of nearby Sun-like stars, but have no analogs in our Solar System. It will take future large surveys, such as NASA’s planned Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) (1), to expand the range of candidates in order to investigate to what extent our Solar System may be different from other systems. Different techniques for identifying exoplanets are sensitive to different exoplanet sizes and orbits, so several methods need to be employed to build a picture of the architecture of other systems.

The phrase “consider a spherical cow” has long been a joke among theorists. It highlights a trade-off we often face as scientists – when does simplifying a problem become oversimplification? Generally speaking, when our models don’t do a good job of reproducing real-world conditions, we know we’re missing something important. Close encounters between forming planets may produce wildly eccentric orbits, and friction with gas in proto-planetary disks produces drag that may cause planets to “migrate” inward towards their stars, perhaps accounting for the close-orbiting giant exoplanets. Additionally, since most stars are born in clusters with many other stars, there may be many opportunities for nascent planetary systems to interact with each other through gravity.

Through all of these complications, the “big picture” remains the same – stars and planets form from interstellar clouds of gas and dust, but the details that lead to the variety that we observe remain poorly understood. This is a great example of how science makes progress, and it is true in all fields. Through careful and repeated observations and experiments, we can often say with confidence that a certain process happens, without fully understanding the details of that process. Refining our observations and experiments allows us to build better models of nature; however, a model remains an imperfect reflection of the reality it seeks to portray – kind of like art!

In closing, I wanted to report that over 150 clergy joined us for our Clergy Day celebration at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago on February 10th – a truly outstanding showing! We had representatives from all of the Abrahamic traditions (at the very least) and we received lots of positive feedback. I hope your Evolution Weekend events were as exciting and successful!

Until next month,


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

1. http://tess.gsfc.nasa.gov/


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3. Ken Ham’s View of Evolution Weekend

I don’t have much to say about the cartoon below other than that it comes from Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis organization and that I hope you enjoy it!

(I couldn't easily figure out how to embed the cartoon on the web, so please click here to view it!)


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4.  Scott Walker and Evolution

I recently published a piece in Huffington Post discussing Scott Walker’s refusal to answer questions about evolution while he was in London. Instead of offering a meaningful answer to the question posed, Walker said he didn’t want “to pontificate about evolution.” In my essay, I explained what it might mean to pontificate and I went on to describe some of the very positive things various Pontiffs have said about evolution.

One of the criticisms that my piece received was that, in fact, politicians shouldn’t have anything to say about evolution. The reality is, though, that state legislatures, as well as local and statewide school boards are constantly attempting to regulate the way science is taught in general and how evolution is addressed in particular. From this perspective, therefore, what a politician thinks about this topic is certainly not irrelevant.


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5. Grace Wolf-Chase and Oprah

Our very own Grace Wolf-Chase will be featured on Super Soul Sunday with Oprah Winfrey. Grace will be discussing the relationship between religion and science in general and how she balances the two in particular. The show is scheduled to air on OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network) on Sunday, 1 March at 11 am (ET/PT). You can click here to view a short trailer and learn how you can view the show on the web. Please join me in congratulating Grace!


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6. February Was a Good Month Legislatively for Evolution

Anti-evolution legislation, typically introduced in the name of religion, was defeated in three states in February. You can read more about these defeats in Indiana, Montana and South Dakota as reported by the National Center for Science Education.


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As I do at the end of each of our monthly newsletters, I want to thank all of you for all you do. Each and every year we increase our reach and bring our message about the compatibility of religion and science to more and more people – and we do so by constantly raising the quality of the dialogue on this topic. Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project