February 2016 Newsletter

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

  1. Evolution Weekend 2016:  A Recap;
  2. Astrobiology News for February 2016:  Planetary Protection in Real and “Reel” Life;
  3. What’s Behind it All?;
  4. Scientists in Synagogue Program; and
  5. Creationism in Mississippi.

1.  Evolution Weekend 2016:  A Recap

I want to thank all of you who participated for making Evolution Weekend 2016 another very successful event. We reached thousands of people with our message and we were responsible for many, many invigorating, informative and thoughtful conversations. Raising the quality of the discourse about this topic is, after all, our main goal. I am confident that we are achieving that goal regularly because of all of your efforts.

If you have any doubt either about our successes or about the need for our work, I encourage you to listen to an interview with Ken Ham, the head of Answers in Genesis. In this interview on Crosstalk America, Ham makes it clear that Evolution Weekend, in particular, and The Clergy Letter Project, in general, represent “an attack on Christianity in a major way.” His extreme words are, in many ways, absolutely chilling.

You can also check out more news reports about Evolution Weekend 2016 by going to our Related News page. If you know of items that aren’t listed, please let me know. .


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2.  Astrobiology News for February 2016:  Planetary Protection in Real and “Reel” Life

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses some exciting events at the Adler Planetarium, including the search for a new planet in our Solar System.

I am a geek. I love science fiction and always have. I’m a first-generation Trekker - one of many children who wrote letters to keep the original series on the air for a third season back in 1968, so I can claim some very small part in keeping Star Trek alive to become the franchise that evolved. In my opinion the best science fiction starts with the science of what is, envisions what might be, and explores the ethical dimensions of what should be.

Case in point: Last month, I participated in a “Reel Science” event at the Adler Planetarium, wherein we focused on science topics related to the movie, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” In that movie, a team of scientists develops a device (aptly named “Genesis”) to terraform planets in a matter of hours by breaking down and re-organizing matter at a subatomic level. The intent is to use the material of lifeless worlds to create new worlds that support life. It is the ever-ethical Dr. McCoy, of course, who poses the inevitable question, what if this device were used on a world where life already exists? As you might be able to guess even if you haven't seen the movie, not all of the characters are as committed as the science team to using Genesis on a sterile world… Although there are many scientific problems with the “Genesis Device” as it is described in the movie, terraforming other worlds, such as Mars, over a period of centuries is within current technological capabilities.

Of course, terraforming is an example of deliberate, directed change of a planet’s environment. What about accidental change? Recognizing the real possibility of Earth contaminating other worlds or other worlds contaminating Earth, in 1967 the United Nations established the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.(1) The treaty states that all participant countries “shall pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination.” An interdisciplinary committee known as the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) meets regularly to debate and update guidelines and specific requirements on planetary protection as new information becomes available. Protection categories are established based on the likelihood that the target world might have gone through chemical evolution that could support or potentially harbor life.

This month, a News & Views article in the journal Astrobiology provided recommendations for updating the current framework of planetary protection, focusing on Mars “Special Regions,” where strict measures have to be applied before a spacecraft can explore them.(2) The authors report on two significant new discoveries during the past couple of years – methane in Mars’ atmosphere and features on the Martian surface that may form as a result of contemporary flows of salty water (brine). Although methane doesn’t necessarily have a biological origin, several possible production mechanisms involve the presence of liquid water and temperatures that could support subsurface microbial life on Mars, either now or in the past.

Before humanity had the technological capability to explore other worlds in situ, science fiction envisioned many of the difficult ethical questions such exploration would raise. Does this mean we shouldn’t explore? No, exploration is and always has been part of human nature. Rather, it cautions us to consider thoughtfully the potential consequences of our actions and make every attempt to understand those consequences as fully as possible, recognizing that we can never foresee all of them.

Many of you have developed sermons on science and religion that are available on the Clergy Letter Project web site. Those of you who are also science fiction fans might consider reading Rev. Dr. George Murphy’s “Pulpit Science Fiction” if you haven’t already.(3) George is a retired Lutheran minister and theoretical physicist, as well as a CLP signatory. As he aptly illustrates in this book, science fiction can be a great way to pique interest in both science and religion!

Until next month,


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

1.  General Assembly of the United Nations, 1967, Article IX
2.  Rettberg, P., et al. 2016, “Planetary Protection and Mars Special Regions – A Suggestion for Updating the Definition”, Astrobiology, Vol. 16, no. 2, 119-125
3.  Murphy, G. (2005). Pulpit Science Fiction. Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Company. (ISBN 0-7880-2377-2)

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3.  What’s Behind it All?

Wycliffe College in Toronto is hosting an exciting free event on 19 March 2016, 7:00 – 9:00 pm (EDT) that can be streamed for free. The event is entitled “What’s Behind it All? A Dialogue on God, Science and the Universe.” Three speakers, Lawrence M. Krauss, Denis O. Lamoureux and Stephen C. Meyer, will all be participating. You can read more about the event here and you can register, for free, for the event here.


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4.  Scientists in Synagogue Program

I ran the item below in our November Newsletter but with the deadline for applications approaching, I thought it would be useful to share the information with all of you again.

Are you interested in exploring the interaction of Judaism and science more deeply? Might your community like to earn up to $3,600 for programming? Then apply to be a part of the Scientists in Synagogues program. The deadline for applications is 31 March 2016.

Scientists in Synagogues is a grass-roots program that will showcase how some of the most thoughtful Jewish scientists integrate their Judaism and their scientific work so that they can be role models and ambassadors for productive conversations surrounding Judaism and science.

This project is organized by Sinai and Synapses (incubated at Clal - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), an organization for which I am on the Advisory Board. Synagogues selected to participate in the program will be expected to send one rabbi and one scientist to a one-day workshop in New York City on 23 June 2016. I will be a presenter at that workshop, and thus I hope we will be able to learn together!

The program is also in collaboration with The American Association for the Advancement of Science Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, Emanuel J. Friedman Philanthropies, and other individual donors.


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5.  Creationism in Mississippi

Just in case you were living under the assumption that our work wasn’t necessary, let me share a recent article from The Huffington Post with you. The piece describes a Mississippi bill that “would allow science teachers to bring creationism and climate change denial into the classroom.”

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Mark Formby, made his intentions perfectly clear: “I just don’t want my teachers punished in any form or fashion for bringing creationism into the debate. Lots of us believe in creationism."

There’s good reason to believe that our work is far from over!


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As I’ve said so often, The Clergy Letter Project wouldn’t exist without the support of thousands of our members. Thank you for continuing to stand together to make the case that religion and science can be compatible. Please take a moment and forward this newsletter along with your recommendation that the person you send it to should join our effort. Let’s watch our numbers grow. Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project