September 2014 Newsletter

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

  1. Evolution Weekend 2015;
  2. Astrobiology News for September 2014:  Prospects for Extraterrestrial Life on ‘Exomoons’;
  3. Texas social studies texts; and
  4. My travels.

1. Evolution Weekend 2015

Over the past nine years, a conservative estimate is that Evolution Weekend events have reached approximately three-quarters of a million people! We’ve reached that number in person and many, many more have been educated by our events through media coverage. What an amazing thing we’ve accomplished together!

Evolution Weekend 2015, 13-15 February 2015, our tenth anniversary, will allow us to expand our reach even further. Already, more than 165 congregations and institutions from eight countries and 39 states have signed up to participate. Check out our list by going to our Evolution Weekend 2015 web page.

If you’re not yet on the list, please let me know and I’ll get you added immediately.

_____ Yes, I want to be part of Evolution Weekend 2015. Please add me to the growing list of participants.

City, State (Country if not USA):
Your Name:

Please remember a couple of things. First, even if you’ve signed up to participate in previous years, you must sign up this year to be listed. That’s the only way for our list to have integrity! Second, participation can take any form you deem most appropriate to raise the level of discourse about the relationship between religion and science. Third, if you can’t participate on that exact weekend, you can do so on any other! What’s most important is the discussion that you facilitate.

So, please sign up now!      

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2.  Astrobiology News for September 2014:  Prospects for Extraterrestrial Life on ‘Exomoons’

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses the possibility that life might exist on moons circling planets outside our solar system.  Our astronomical capabilities have come amazingly far since 1992 when the first planet beyond our solar system was detected.  As Grace discusses, we can now find moons associated with some of those planets!

Surprisingly, the best candidates for harboring life beyond Earth in our Solar System aren’t planets, but worlds that orbit the largest planets, Jupiter and Saturn.  Why?  The requirements of life on Earth include liquid water, a stable source of energy, and a supply of nutrients.  We know of at least three moons (Jupiter’s moon, Europa and Saturn’s moons, Enceladus and Titan) that contain liquids, heat, and nutrients.  Since these worlds lie beyond the habitable zone in our Solar System, where liquid surface water might exist, they could be habitable only below their frozen surfaces.(1)  The discovery of well over 1,000 exoplanets (planets orbiting stars other than the Sun) during the past 20 years raises the question, how many of these exoplanets are orbited by natural satellites (aka ‘exomoons’) that might be habitable or even inhabited?

Moons have different contributions to their energy budgets that affect habitability, such as eclipses by their host planets, reflected sunlight and heat from their planets, and tidal heating, which can dramatically impact a moon’s climate and geology.  The most likely candidates for habitable exomoons would be worlds at least as massive as Mars orbiting very large gas giant planets in their star’s habitable zone, where liquid water could exist on the surface of the exomoon.  The minimum mass of a habitable exomoon is set by the requirements that the exomoon could gravitationally retain a substantial atmosphere and generate a magnetic field to shield the planet from harmful cosmic rays.  Although there are no gas giant planets in the Sun’s habitable zone, many giant exoplanets have been discovered in the habitable zone of other stars.  In fact, citizen scientists participating in the highly successful Planet Hunters (2) project have made some of these discoveries.  As remarkable at it may sound, the detection of large exomoons (comparable in size or larger than Ganymede, the most massive moon in our Solar System) is within the capability of planned survey missions, as well as the current Kepler mission.

Readers may recall that the 2009 James Cameron film Avatar took place on an inhabited exomoon orbiting a hypothetical gas giant in the Alpha Centauri star system.  Once again, science fiction may prove prophetic as we learn more about the environments of other planetary systems… but I wouldn’t bet on the floating mountains!

For those of you who live in the Chicagoland area:  Planetary Scientist, Jesuit, and winner of the 2104 Carl Sagan Medal, Brother Guy Consolmagno, will present a public lecture at the Adler Planetarium on November 18, 2014, where he will also sign copies of his new book, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?... and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory (coauthored with Fr. Paul Mueller, SJ).  The book will be released on October 7, 2014.  Check out this interesting interview with the book’s coauthors:

Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. (

1. Heller, R. et al. 2014, Formation, Habitability, and Detection of Extrasolar Moons, Astrobiology, Vol. 14, No. 9, DOI: 10.1089/ast.2014.1147


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3.  Texas social studies texts

The Clergy Letter Project’s good friends at the Texas Freedom Network are working to ensure that students in Texas have first rate social science textbooks.  The Texas State Board of Education is in the process of approving books to be used in public schools across the state – and their approval process can have serious implications for texts distributed in many other states as well.  The Texas Freedom Network has outlined some very serious problems with the texts arising from the extreme standards the State Board adopted in 2010.  You can read a fascinating and frightening report produced by the Texas Freedom Network here.  And you can read about some amazing items that publishers agreed to put into their texts in 2002 in response to the Board at that time by going here.

Many of the potential changes deal with a mischaracterization of religion in America, including inappropriately exaggerating Judeo-Christian influence on the founding of the United States and negatively stereotyping Muslims.  Given that the State Board has regularly attacked both evolution and climate change, often in the name of religion, it is well worth looking at what they are doing now. 

The work we are going together via The Clergy Letter Project is certainly not divorced from what is happening in Texas.  Indeed, The Clergy Letter Project has been outspoken over the years about many of the Board’s decisions about science education.


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4.  My travels

I’ll be in Washington, DC from the 21st through the 24th of January and I’ll be giving a talk at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, NJ on the 13th of February.  If you’d like me to come and speak at a venue close to either of those locations, contact the good folks at Ovation Agency to see what’s possible – and save on travel costs!


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Together we’ve been working toward a fuller understanding of the nature of religion and science for many years.  Over this time our ranks have swelled to over 15,000 members and we’ve accomplished a great deal.  But, unfortunately, our work is far from over.  There are still plenty of people out there who are working continuously to pit religion and against science and thus our message is every bit as critical as it was when we began. 

To help educate people about the ways religion and science can comfortably coexist, please do two simple things.  Please sign up to participate in Evolution Weekend 2015 by filling out the form above and sending it to me.  And please forward this month’s newsletter to one or more colleagues and ask them to drop me a note at to join our movement.  Thank you for all you have done and all you have yet to do!  Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project