January 2015 Newsletter

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

  1. Evolution Weekend 2015: Last Call to Sign Up;
  2. Astrobiology News for January 2015: The Adler Planetarium Celebrates Clergy Contributions to Science – Past, Present, and Future;
  3. Working to Ensure Continued United Methodist Church Support for The Clergy Letter Project;
  4. A Fun Video Promoting Evolution Weekend; and
  5. Two Upcoming Free Events.

1. Evolution Weekend 2015: Last Call to Sign Up

It’s almost here! The 10th Annual Evolution Weekend celebration (13-15 February 2015) is almost upon us. If you’ve not yet signed up, please do so now so our public list of participants can be as accurate as possible.

_____ YES! Please add me to the list of those participating in Evolution Weekend 2015 (13-15 February 2015).

City and State (Country, if not USA):
Your name:

PLEASE, please check the list to see if your congregation is actually listed. To ensure the integrity of the list, I never add a congregation without an explicit request to do so – even if you’ve participated many years in a row. After the fact, I always learn about congregations who participated and who thought they were listed but who never signed up. Please don’t fall into that group. Check the list and if you’re not yet there, let me know.

Remember, you can participate any time in the temporal vicinity of Evolution Weekend if that specific weekend poses problems. And you may participate in any way you think is appropriate for your congregation – nothing is either too small or too large. We welcome all events.

Additionally, please note that if you plan to participate in Interfaith Power & Light’s Preach-In for Climate Change, you can be listed with us as well. Or if you plan to participate in the United Church of Christ’s Science, Faith and Technology Sunday program, you can be listed with us as well. Collaborations of this sort are wonderful opportunities for all.

Finally, here’s a link to a draft press release you can use to promote your event and Evolution Weekend more broadly. Please feel free to use it as extensively as possible.


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2.  Astrobiology News for January 2015: The Adler Planetarium Celebrates Clergy Contributions to Science – Past, Present, and Future

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses the Adler Planetarium’s “Clergy Day” and provides brief biographies of five clergy who have made significant contributions to science.

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.

Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell (b. 1943) was the first female President of the Institute of Physics.  Bell discovered a type of extremely dense stars known as pulsars in 1967. Because she was a graduate student at the time, it was her advisor, Anthony Hewish, who received a share of the 1974 Nobel Prize for this discovery.  Bell and Hewish initially thought pulsars might be indications of extraterrestrial technology due to their rapid, regular, radio pulses, and they nicknamed the new objects LGM for “Little Green Men.”  Pulsars were later identified with rapidly rotating neutron stars, which send out radio waves like lighthouse beams.  Bell is a life-long Quaker who has served the tradition in many capacities, including as a member of the Quaker Peace and Social Witness Testimonies Committee, which produced Engaging with the Quaker Testimonies: a Toolkit (2007), for which she wrote the introductory essay. (1)

Bell describes the press attention her discovery attracted:  “When the paper was published the press descended, and when they discovered a woman was involved they descended even faster.  I had my photograph taken standing on a bank, sitting on a bank, standing on a bank examining bogus records, sitting on a bank examining bogus records: one of them even had me running down the bank waving my arms in the air - Look happy dear, you've just made a Discovery!  Meanwhile the journalists were asking relevant questions like was I taller than or not quite as tall as Princess Margaret and how many boyfriends did I have at a time?” (2)

Rev. Robert Evans (b. 1937) is a citizen scientist and Methodist minister who has discovered a world record number 42 supernovae.  Using a 12-inch Newtonian reflector telescope, Evans observes from his backyard in Hazelbrook, New South Wales (about 70 miles west of Sydney, Australia) by memorizing fields of galaxies.  He has memorized the environments of more than 1,000 galaxies, so he can rapidly check for the appearance of “new” stars. (3)  Supernovae are critically important for helping to establish the distances to galaxies, and the expansion and age of the Universe.  Early observations are particularly important to capture peak brightness and how this declines with time.  These observations allow the supernova’s apparent brightness to be converted to its actual (absolute) brightness, so its distance can be calculated.

Frs. Francesco Grimaldi SJ (1613-1663) and Giovanni Riccioli SJ (1598-1671) were Jesuit scientists who composed an accurate lunar map (“selenograph”) that is the basis for all modern Moon maps.  Grimaldi is responsible for the practice of naming lunar regions after astronomers and physicists, rather than ideas such as “tranquility.”  More than two dozen lunar craters are named for clergy, mostly Jesuits.  Grimaldi was also one of the earliest physicists to suggest that light was wavelike in nature.  He discovered the diffraction property of light, gave it this name, which means “breaking up,” and laid the groundwork for the later invention of the diffraction grating, which is used in spectroscopy.  (Check out the Adler’s on-line collections for lots of cool artifacts and maps, including many produced by Jesuit astronomers.) (4)

Fr. Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966) is known as the “`Father’ of the Big Bang.”  This Belgian priest was the first person to propose what became known as the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe.  He recognized that a static Universe was not consistent with Einstein’s General Relativity and found evidence that Einstein’s equations suggested an expanding Universe.  Lemaitre also published the relationship between a galaxy’s distance and its velocity two years before Hubble published this relationship, but Lemaitre felt that Hubble’s observations were stronger than his own theory, so when Lemaitre translated his own paper from French into English, he omitted the part we now know as “Hubble’s Law.”

When Pope Pius XII referred to the new theory of the origin of the universe as a scientific validation of the Catholic faith, Lemaitre responded:  “As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question.  It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being… For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.” (5)

Fr. Angelo Secchi SJ (1818-1878) is sometimes known as the “’Father’ of Astrophysics”.  This Jesuit scientist devised the first system of classifying stars by their spectral types.  Although his system was superseded by the Harvard system in the 20th century, Secchi’s work was critical to later studies of the compositions of stars.  He also organized systematic monitoring of the Earth’s magnetic field and established a Magnetic Observatory in Rome in 1858. (6)

Visitors will also encounter a poster about several women in the Society of Ordained Scientists, (7) an organization of clergy scientists with active members in physics, chemistry, biology, engineering and many other disciplines.  Although rooted in the Anglican tradition, the Society welcomes members from many churches.

As you can see, the brief biographies above are somewhat weighted to the Catholic and mainline Protestant traditions.  Please email me if you have suggestions for clergy or lay leaders in other traditions who have made significant contributions to science in general, and astronomy in particular!

I hope you have exciting Evolution Weekend events planned! 

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

1. https://www.quaker.org.uk/jocelyn-bell-burnell-born-1943

2. http://www.bigear.org/vol1no1/burnell.htm

3. http://www.tenagraobservatories.com/Interview%20of%20Robert%20Evans.html

4. http://www.adlerplanetarium.org/collections/

5. http://www.amnh.org/education/resources/rfl/web/essaybooks/cosmic/p_lemaitre.html

6. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13669a.htm

7. https://ordainedscientists.wordpress.com/


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3. Working to Ensure Continued United Methodist Church Support for The Clergy Letter Project

As most of you undoubtedly know, the United Methodist Church has endorsed the activities of The Clergy Letter Project. Their endorsement was for an eight year period and will expire if the next General Conference doesn’t renew the endorsement. Clergy Member Project member Gary Sherman has been working tirelessly to try and ensure that the endorsement continues. I’m delighted to say that a resolution he introduced to the Baltimore-Washington Conference Board of Church & Society to do just that has received a very favorable response. Indeed, the Board has voted to endorse the resolution and will present it to the full Baltimore-Washington Conference at its June meeting. If it passes there, it will be on the agenda at the next General Conference.

Please join me in thanking Gary for his amazingly productive work in this area.

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4.  A Fun Video Promoting Evolution Weekend

Every year, Reverends David Coleman and Zam Walker, along with their son, produce an animated video promoting the Evolution Weekend event at their congregation, the United Reformed Church in Greenock West, Scotland. This year’s video can be viewed by going to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdJbwkLGwqc.


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5. Two Upcoming Free Events

As Grace Wolf-Chase mentioned in item 2 above, the Adler Planetarium is sponsoring a free day at the Planetarium for all clergy on Tuesday, 10 February.

Additionally, on Friday, 13 February I will be presenting a free talk entitled “The Evolution/Creation Debate and What it Can Teach Us about the Relationship between Religion and Science” at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, NJ. My presentation is scheduled to begin at 12:30 pm in Roscoe West, Room 201. If you’re in the vicinity, I hope to see you there.


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It is difficult to believe that our 10th Anniversary is upon us. And it’s difficult to believe how much, together, we have accomplished over those 10 years. As I’ve said, just through Evolution Weekend in congregations, we’ve reached over three-quarters of a million people with our discussions of respect and enhanced understanding. Via media outreach, we’ve reached many, many more. Simply put, together, we are making a difference. Please continue this great work by signing up for Evolution Weekend and by passing along this e-mail newsletter to colleagues.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project