July 2015 Newsletter

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

  1. Evolution Weekend 2016;;
  2. Astrobiology News for July 2015:  New Horizons’s Encounter with Pluto;
  3. What do Americans Think about the Coexistence of Humans and Dinosaurs? ;
  4. More Limitations Placed on Academic Freedom;
  5. Interesting Pieces in The Christian Century;
  6. Religious Leaders and Scientist Must Collaborate on Climate Change; and
  7. The Perceptions Project.

1. Evolution Weekend 2016

How would you like to celebrate Evolution Weekend 2016? How do you suggest others celebrate the event?

Please think about a possible theme for Evolution Weekend 2016 and share those thoughts with me. We’ll settle on one such topic and promote it as Evolution Weekend approaches – always recognizing that participants may opt to focus on the theme or not. Indeed, one of the event’s greatest strengths is that each participating group crafts a program, a sermon, a discussion, a video, a bulletin note, etc., that makes the most sense locally while ensuring that the broader message about the compatibility of religion and science is explored. Please let me hear from you. And, if you haven’t yet done so, please sign up to participate now. Simply reply to this note tell me that you will be participating. Even at this early date, we have representatives from 20 states and seven countries on board. Please join them!

_____ YES, I plan to participate in Evolution Weekend 2016, 12-14 Feb. 2016. Please add me to the list!

Your name:

Finally, if you want to invite me to come and speak on or around Evolution Weekend, now would be a great time to begin making arrangements. Simply contact the good folks at Ovation Agency and they’ll help walk you through the details. Do take a look at their roster of speakers because there are a good number of others who would be fabulous additions to your Evolution Weekend celebrations. Congregations that have invited Grace Wolf-Chase, for instance, have been energized by her visits.


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2. Astrobiology News for July 2015:  New Horizons’s Encounter with Pluto

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses what we’ve been learning from New Horizon’s visit to Pluto. The data the probe is sending back to Earth certainly is fascinating and helping to shape our view of the solar system and universe.

After a 9.5-year and 3-billion-mile voyage, the New Horizons spacecraft made its closest approach to Pluto on July 14th. In part due to low transmission rates from Pluto, the spacecraft will be sending data back to Earth for more than a year after it has finished collecting it(1), so anticipate hearing about some exciting discoveries this fall and in 2016. Meanwhile, the spacecraft has been sending back awesome images showing features as small as one-half mile across, and this intriguing dwarf planet is already displaying several surprises!

Scientists on the New Horizons team have determined that Pluto is roughly 1,473 miles in diameter (about the distance my family recently drove to watch my daughter compete and medal in the USA Karate National Championships in Ft. Lauderdale the week of the encounter!). This makes Pluto the largest known world in the Kuiper Belt(2), which is a vast ring of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune.(3) Pluto is still considered a dwarf planet because it doesn’t have enough gravitational pull to clear the neighborhood around its orbit of debris, which is one criterion for “planethood” set by the International Astronomical Union.(4) Pluto does, however, have a nitrogen-rich atmosphere, which extends as far as 1,000 miles above its surface and which is being stripped away by the solar wind, producing a “tail” of cold, ionized gas extending thousand of miles beyond Pluto.

One big surprise is the apparent “youth” of a mountain range near Pluto’s equator. Planetary geologists estimate the icy mountains formed no more than 100 million years ago, based on the lack of craters in the vicinity, which suggests the region may be geologically active today. With a diameter approximately equal to the distance between Chicago and Boulder, Colorado, a large heart-shaped feature on Pluto also reveals a craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old. Note that the age of surface features on a planet is not the same as the age of the planet. While the worlds of our Solar System (planets, moons, asteroids, etc.) formed about 4.6 billion years ago, many processes, operating on different timescales, can be important in reshaping the surface features of a given world. Small worlds with no significant source of internal or external heating are typically geologically “dead” and present heavily cratered surfaces that remain relatively unaltered with the passage of time. The source of active geologic activity on Pluto is puzzling, since Pluto isn’t being heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planet, as, for example, the icy moons of Jupiter.

Pluto’s moons appear to be equally intriguing. The entire Pluto system, including the orbits of Pluto’s five moons, Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra, would fit between the Earth and moon nearly three times.(5) Thus far, New Horizons has sent back detailed images of Charon (Pluto’s largest moon), which suggest its surface has also been reshaped by geologic activity. Unlike Pluto and Charon, which are massive enough to be round due to gravity, the smaller moons Nix and Hydra might best be described as having the shapes of a jelly bean and the state of Michigan, respectively.

Fans of the legendary rock group Queen may be interested to know that lead guitarist and astrophysicist, Dr. Brian May, spent his birthday with the New Horizons science team and produced some stereo images of Pluto with the Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team!(6)

Until next month,


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

1. http://blogs.agu.org/wildwildscience/2015/07/13/this-is-why-you-have-not-seen-a-bunch-of-images-of-pluto-this-weekend/

2. in size, but not mass

3. The orbit of Pluto actually crosses the orbit of Neptune.

4. http://www.iau.org/news/pressreleases/detail/iau0603/

5. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/07/150714-pluto-flyby-new-horizons-space-planets/

6. http://www.nasa.gov/feature/rock-starastrophysicist-dr-brian-may-goes-backstage-with-new-horizons


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3. What do Americans Think about the Coexistence of Humans and Dinosaurs?

A recent poll presents some not surprising but still very depressing news about the understanding many Americans have about some basic science. 41 percent of respondents said that dinosaurs and humans probably or definitely coexisted on the planet while 16 percent were uncertain. The results are even more striking when the opinions of those who consider themselves “born again” are examined: 56 percent of those individuals indicated that they were probably or definitely certain that humans and dinosaurs cohabitated. (Just to be certain that we’re all on the same page, humans and dinosaurs missed each other by approximately 65 million years!) Clearly, we have a good deal of work to do! You might want to read the original survey results for yourself or peruse a summary discussion provided by the National Center for Science Education.


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4.  More Limitations Placed on Academic Freedom

Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana has just adopted a new policy making it increasingly difficult for faculty to explore the intersection of religion and science. The policy seems purposefully directed at those on the faculty who have participated with Biologos, a group sharing many ideals and goals with The Clergy Letter Project.

Inside Higher Ed ran a very good story about the controversy that I recommend to you.


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5.  Interesting Pieces in The Christian Century

The Christian Century has just published a couple of articles that should be of interest to Clergy Letter Project members. The first is an essay entitled “Scientists Welcome” by Reverend David Wood of Glencoe Union Church in Glencoe, Illinois. Reverend Wood discusses the importance of bringing science into the church and noted that, “In my own congregation, highlighting the scientists in our midst—all of whom happened to be physicians—resulted in the largest attendance in the history of adult education events.”

The second is entitled “Congregational Conversations” and presents voices of clergy who participated in the John Templeton Foundation funded “Scientists in Congregations” program. I trust you’ll find both of these pieces to be interesting reading.


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6. Religious Leaders and Scientist Must Collaborate on Climate Change

Peter Raven, scientific consultant to The Clergy Letter Project and President Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, along with two colleagues published an opinion piece in New Scientist recently discussing the role Pope Francis is playing in the climate arena. (The article is available only via subscription hence I’m not providing a link.)

The piece discusses a non-sectarian conference held at the Vatican last year under the auspices of the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Science and organized, in part, by Dr. Raven to discuss climate change. Like The Clergy Letter Project itself, the opinion piece argued that religious leaders and scientists need to work closely together. Indeed, the subheading of the essay reads: “The pope is a vital moral ally in science’s fight for climate action.”

It’s worth quoting three sentences from the end of the essay: “The symposium concluded that we need a fundamental change in our attitude towards nature and towards one another, rich or poor, to achieve a solution. Faith leaders have a particular moral authority to call for such a transformational change. We are fortunate to have a global moral leader in Pope Francis.”


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7. The Perceptions Project

The Perceptions Project has been a joint undertaking between the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Rice University. The overarching goal of the Project has been to “to increase understanding between scientific and religious communities.” The three-year project recently came to a conclusion and its website has a host of fascinating material that you may want to explore.


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I hope you agree with me in thinking that there is a great deal of interesting material in this month’s newsletter! If you do, please share it broadly with colleagues who might be interested and please encourage them to join our efforts by signing one of our Clergy Letters, by adding their names to our list of scientific consultants, or simply by asking to be on our mailing list. Thank you for your continued support. Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project