January 2017 Newsletter

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

  1. Evolution Weekend 2017;
  2. Astrobiology News for January 2017:  Reframing the Question, Are We Alone?;
  3. Darwin and Lincoln for Evolution Weekend;
  4. The Year in Review and So Much More;
  5. An Exciting, Pre-packaged Evolution Weekend Event; and
  6. A Scientific Creation Cantata for Evolution Weekend.

1.   Evolution Weekend 2017

Evolution Weekend (10-12 February 2017) is only a bit more than two weeks away.  Although we already have over 300 congregations participating, more would be even nicer!  Please check our list and if you’re not on it, let me know and I’ll get you added immediately.

We have clearly entered a time when some among us believe that opinions are the same as, or are likely more important than, facts.  This is incredibly dangerous for society in general (think about climate change and the use of vaccines) as well as for both religion and science.  Together we can make a very clear statement showing how religious belief and scientific fact can complement one another, doing neither any harm.  Over the past 11 years, Evolution Weekend has reached more than three-quarters of a million people with this powerful message.  Let’s extend our reach this year and touch the lives of many more.

______ Yes!  I absolutely want my voice and the voice of my congregation to be heard.  Please add us to the list of participants in Evolution Weekend 2017.

Name of Congregation:
City, State, Country:
Your Name:

And please remember, if 10-12 February 2017 poses logistical problems, you can participate any time in the vicinity that is convenient for you.  And, as I’ve said so many times before, you can participate in myriad ways, from a sermon to a note in your weekly bulletin, from a speaker to a lunch discussion.  We welcome whatever you opt to do – but please let your voice be heard.


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2.   Astrobiology News for January 2017:  Reframing the Question, Are We Alone?

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase reflects on her childhood memories of the US space program and asks about intelligent life in the universe.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the impact the human space program had on my childhood.  I recently saw the movie, Hidden Figures, which highlights the careers of three amazing African American women at NASA during the early 1960s(1).  (I highly recommend seeing it and reading the book by Margot Lee Shetterly(2)!)  Then, too, the passing of two iconic astronauts, John Glenn and Gene Cernan, within less than two months of each other, has reminded me of the emotional impact of seeing the Earth from space for the first time in human history.  I recall standing in awe of the famous Earthrise photo taken from Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve of 1968, and the breathtaking “Blue Marble” captured by the Apollo 17 crew the last time human beings walked on the Moon.(3)  Voyager 1’s view of the Earth taken from beyond the orbit of Neptune in 1990(4) and Cassini’s view from Saturn in 2006(5) transformed the stunning “Blue Marble” into the tiny “Pale Blue Dot,” accentuating the vastness of space and reinvigorating the question, are there other worlds that harbor technological civilizations?

In 1961, astronomer Frank Drake identified several factors thought to be important in considering the number of technological civilizations with which we might be able to communicate, expressing these factors in what became known as the Drake Equation.(6)  Over the past couple of decades, star formation studies and surveys for planets orbiting other stars have enabled us to place important constraints on two factors that were completely unknown in 1961 the fraction of stars that form with planets and the average number of planets that orbit in the habitable zone of a star with planets. We now have good reason to think that most stars are accompanied by planets, and roughly one in five stars has a planet in the habitable zone. (Technically, wed say that on average there are 0.2 potentially habitable planets per star, since some stars may have more than one planet in their habitable zone.)

Of course, how many of these planets develop life, intelligence, and technology, remains unknown.  Also unknown is the typical lifetime of a technological civilization, which is important in thinking about whether we could actually communicate with an alien species, and also important in considering how sustainable our own high-technology future might be over the long term!  A recent article in the journal Astrobiology puts a new spin on thinking about other civilizations by posing a somewhat different question:  Has even one other technological species ever existed in the observable Universe?(7)   Framed in this manner, the lifetime of a technological species doesn’t enter into the equation.  The authors calculate that only if the fraction of planets that develop life, intelligence, and technology is lower than 0.0000000000000000000000025 are we likely to be the only technological civilization to have evolved in the entire history of the Universe!

The authors go on to consider how our present knowledge of potentially habitable planets can inform SETI(8) search strategies for other technological species in our Milky Way Galaxy now.  If all habitable planets were to develop life, intelligence, and technology (a big “if”, I grant you), and the average lifetime of a technological civilization is about 50,000 years (another big “if”), one in every million stars (about 300,000 stars in our galaxy) could host a planet with a technological species.  Since our Milky Way Galaxy is roughly 100,000 light-years in diameter, even detecting signs of alien technology would by no means guarantee we’d be able to conduct a two-way conversation, but this exercise does underscore why SETI searches should be viewed as long-term efforts that should not be expected to yield immediate results!  Further studies of potentially habitable planets should help us identify the best targets for future SETI efforts.  I prefer to remain optimistic.  After all, prior to the 1990s, there was no observational evidence of planets orbiting other stars – as far as we knew, such worlds existed only in the imaginations of human beings.

Until next month,

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


1.  http://www.foxmovies.com/movies/hidden-figures
2.  http://www.hiddenfigures.com/bio/
3.  https://www.nasa.gov/content/blue-marble-image-of-the-earth-from-apollo-17
4.  https://www.nasa.gov/jpl/voyager/pale-blue-dot-images-turn-25
5.  https://www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/starsgalaxies/dotf-20061101.html
6.  http://www.seti.org/drakeequation
7.  Frank, A. & Sullivan, W.T. III 2016, A New Empirical Constraint on the Prevalence of Technological Species in the Universe, Astrobiology, Vol. 16, No. 5, 359-362
8.  http://www.seti.org/


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3.  Darwin and Lincoln for Evolution Weekend

This year the Sunday of Evolution Weekend, 12 February, is the actual anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin.  It is also the anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln who, like Darwin, was born in 1809.  These two men, each in his own way, transformed the world.

Clergy Letter Project member Jon Cleland Host brought a wonderful Smithsonian Magazine article from 2009 dealing with both of these men to my attention.  As Jon said, “While getting ready for giving my sermon, I came across something that you might find to be worth sharing with the rest of the Clergy Letter Project (and still in plenty of time for use).  The article is long enough for a sermon in itself, and I've edited it down to a short (~2 min) version that I'm using for a reading.”

I hope you find either of these items useful!

_____ They look great!  I’m ready to sign up to participate in Evolution Weekend right now.

Name of Congregation:
City, State, Country:
Your Name:


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4.  The Year in Review and So Much More

This past year has been a full and successful one for The Clergy Letter Project.  Take a look at this short piece I wrote summarizing the highlights of our year.  There’s much there about which we can all be proud.

As I noted previously, I’ve been trying out a new platform for sharing our message.  Since the last Newsletter, I’ve published a number of short essays that might interest you:


If these pieces interest you, you might want to subscribe to be notified when I post new essays.  As far as I can tell, there’s no catch and there’s no cost, not even increased e-mail traffic from the site.


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5.  An Exciting, Pre-packaged Evolution Weekend Event

As they have in the past, WesleyNexus:  Science and Religion Within the Wesleyan Tradition is organizing a large Evolution Weekend event.  Entitled “Are Our Children At Risk?  Food Insecurity, Climate Change, and Racial Bias,” the event will take place on Sunday, 12 February at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time in Fulton, MD.

The event will be live-streamed so any congregation, anywhere in the world, can easily participate.  You can read more about the scheduled speakers and you can learn how to live-screen the event by clicking here.

______  What a wonderful way for my congregation to participate in Evolution Weekend 2017!  Please add us to the list of participants.

Name of Congregation:
City, State, Country:
Your Name:


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6.  A Scientific Creation Cantata for Evolution Weekend

Sinai and Synapses, run by Clergy Letter Project member Rabbi Geoff Mitelman is an organization to watch – with an interesting blog.   A recent piece written by Pekka Sinervo, president of Temple Emanu-el of Toronto and one of the discoverers of the Higgs boson, is well worth reading. 

Although the Scientific Creation Cantata was written for the High Holidays, it can easily be used on Evolution Weekend.

______  This is perfect for my congregation!  Please add us to the list of participants in Evolution Weekend 2017.

Name of Congregation:
City, State, Country:
Your Name:


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With the inauguration of a new US president behind us, we’re now entering the difficult phase of shaping what our future will look like.  To some extent, the future is in our hands – at least we have the ability to be certain our voices are heard and our issues continue to gather attention.  Over the years, and especially in recent months, I have been impressed by what so many of you have been doing.  Simply put, I am grateful for your activism, in the area of religion and science and beyond.  Thank you for your continued support for The Clergy Letter Project and, more importantly, for your efforts to create a better world.  You inspire me!

Finally, as I do every month, I urge you to take two simple actions.  First, share this Newsletter with a colleague or two and ask them to add their voices to those promoting a deep and meaningful understanding between religion and science.  They can add their signatures to a Clergy Letter simply by dropping me a note at mz@theclergyletterproject.org.  Second, if you’re in a position to do so, please sign up now to participate in Evolution Weekend 2017.  Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project