July 2016 Newsletter

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

  1. Brexit and The Clergy Letter Project;
  2. Astrobiology News for July 2016:  Nightfall Revisited;
  3. Evolution Weekend 2017:  A Possible Theme?;
  4. An Impassioned Plea to the PC(USA); and
  5. My Upcoming Travels:  I’d Love to Visit!

1.  Brexit and The Clergy Letter Project

While the heading of this item might appear to be a bit of a stretch, unfortunately this isn’t the case! An editorial in the 2 July issue of New Scientist discussing the recent vote in England ran under the subheading “Cynical pooh-poohing of expertise must not go unchallenged.” A critical sentence in the piece noted that, “The willingness to bend, ignore or invent facts was depressing and shameful.”

The piece went on to discuss a statement made by Michael Gove, a leading “leave” proponent. Gove had served as Secretary of State for Education as well as Secretary of State for Justice. Immediately after the Brexit vote, Gove announced his candidacy for Prime Minister. New Scientist wrote, “Pressed in a Sky News interview about expert warnings on the economy, he glibly replied, “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts.”

If this comment sounds eerily similar to what has been said about evolution in Texas, you have a good memory. When he was chair of the Texas State Board of Education, and when he was warned by scientist after scientist that the Board’s policy’s ran afoul of scientific knowledge, Don McLeroy infamously asserted that “someone's got to stand up to experts.”

This position is not different from many other current creationists who simply dismiss the findings of science as well as those who aggressively define all religion in their own image.

The final paragraph in the New Scientist editorial provides a stark warning, one that should animate our ongoing work at The Clergy Letter Project: “Democracy needs experts. And the ones it needs most right now are those who know how to speak truth not just to power, but to ordinary people. It is time for those on the side of rationality to take back control.”


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2.  Astrobiology News for July 2016:  Nightfall Revisited

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase looks at how fiction can be surprisingly similar to fact.

Seventy-five years ago, the 20th century writer and biochemist, Isaac Asimov, wrote a short story, Nightfall(1), about a fictional planet in a stellar system containing six suns. The inhabitants of this planet experience darkness roughly every 2,000 years. We learn that this stellar system is located in a globular cluster(2), so when night eventually falls, millions of stars are visible in the sky. In the story, the realization of just how vast the Universe is drives the inhabitants insane and brings about the recurring collapse of their civilization. Although hardly an uplifting message, this story is prophetic in envisioning the possible physical reality of such a bizarre world more than 50 years before the first exoplanet was discovered. A growing number of known exoplanets reside in systems with multiple stars, and just this month, UA News(3) reported a graduate student’s discovery(4) of a world reminiscent of the planet depicted in Nightfall, at least in some respects.

HD 131399Ab is the first exoplanet discovered by SPHERE(5), an instrument that uses an adaptive optics system, which removes the “twinkling” of starlight caused by Earth’s atmosphere, and a coronagraph, which blocks the light from a star to reveal fainter orbiting planets. Because the contrast between the brightness of a star and its planet(s) is lower in infrared light, SPHERE operates in both the visible and near-infrared parts of the spectrum. It is sensitive to identifying young worlds that retain heat from their formation. At an estimated mere 16 million years old, HD 131399Ab is one of the youngest exoplanets discovered to date. Roughly four times as massive as Jupiter and at a temperature of slightly over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, it isn’t likely to harbor life as we know it. Nevertheless, it is one of the “coldest” and smallest exoplanets that have been thus far imaged directly(6).

HD 131399Ab may not be life-friendly, but its peculiar orbit makes it of great interest for studying how planets form and evolve in extreme scenarios. It takes HD 131399Ab roughly 550 Earth-years to orbit the brightest star in a trinary(7) star system that is located about 340 light-years from Earth in the direction of the southern constellation, Centaurus. Because of its strange orbit, this exoplanet experiences near-constant daylight for roughly 140 Earth-years, and triple sunrises and sunsets for the remainder of its “year.”

Further observations are necessary to investigate HD 131399Ab’s unusual orbit, but computer simulations show that this type of orbit can be stable. One thing is clear – planetary systems are far more diverse than many would have thought possible! To re-quote several famous scientists, including J.B.S. Haldane, Arthur Eddington, and Werner Heisenberg, “Not only is the Universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” Undoubtedly this is true, but time and again, the creative individuals who write science fiction have demonstrated that human imagination knows few limits….

Until next month,


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

1.  In Astounding Science-Fiction - 1941, Street & Smith Publications, Inc., ed. John W. Campbell, Jr.
2.  A densely packed spherical collection of ancient stars in orbit about a galaxy
3.  https://uanews.arizona.edu/story/newly-discovered-planet-has-three-suns
4.  Wagner, K., et al., Science 10.1126/science.aaf9671 (2016)
5.   https://www.eso.org/sci/facilities/paranal/instruments/sphere.html
6.   For a listing of ongoing and future programs using diverse methods to search for exoplanets see http://exoplanet.eu/research/
7.  Three stars that orbit each other

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3.  Evolution Weekend 2017:  A Possible Theme?

For the past six years, The Clergy Letter Project has adopted a theme for our annual Evolution Weekend event. While these themes have helped focus attention, participating congregations are not required to promote the theme selected. Instead, participants simply must agree to take some action to help promote a richer discussion of the relationship between religion and science.

To refresh your memory: here are the themes selected over the past six years:

2016:  Exploring Ways to Engage in Complex Discussions in a Civil Manner
2015:  Science and Religion in Dialogue: Past, Present, and Future
2014:  Different Ways of Knowing / Asking Different Questions
2013:  Evolution in the Modern World
2012:  An Interfaith Discussion of Religion and Science
2011:  The Positive Relationship between Religion and the Environment

It is time to begin thinking about the theme for 2017. A suggestion that has been proposed is to join the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the publication of The Universe Story by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry. Take a look at the home page of the celebration to learn more and let me know what you think of this idea. Or suggest an alternative theme. But do let me hear from you.

And while you’re thinking of a theme, this would be a great time to sign up to participate in Evolution Weekend 2017. To do so, just provide the information requested below to me and I’ll get you listed:

_____ YES! Please sign us up to participate in Evolution Weekend 2017 – 10-12 February 2017

Name of Congregation:
City, State:
My Name:

Please sign up now, if you’re not yet on our preliminary list of participants! As I’ve said in the past, you can participate any time in the temporal vicinity of 10-12 February 2017 and you can participate in any manner that you think is appropriate for your congregation. But please sign up.



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4.  An Impassioned Plea to the PC(USA)

As I proudly announced last month, the Presbyterian Church (USA), at their 222nd General Assembly, overwhelmingly endorsed The Clergy Letter Project. One of the speeches that helped move delegates to a positive vote was delivered by Kathleen Huddleston, a ruling Elder at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Beaverton OR. With Kathleen’s permission, I’m delighted to share the text of her speech with you.

She explains the importance and goals of The Clergy Letter Project as well as I ever have. I want to quote just a few powerful lines from her speech to give you a flavor of what she had to say.

“In a time when scientific reasoning is under attack in our country regarding evolution, but also climate science and other issues, this is an important way to amplify our voice and make our position clear when that is needed.”

“Why is this timely and important? In many US school districts, science education is under attack from those who believe the Bible literally. They argue that Creationism is an equally valid theory to Evolution for understanding the diversity of life on Earth. Furthermore, Fundamentalists may say that the Biblical and Scientific versions of life are incompatible — that teaching evolution as accepted theory is even an attack on religious freedom. These protests unanswered have a chilling effect. In response, some schools and teachers retreat from teaching evolution just to avoid conflict, and leave their students with an incomplete or confusing education.”

“The future of our faith community is threatened. In a recent study of why young people are leaving the church, 29 percent of the youth reported being discouraged by the church’s antagonistic view of science.”

I recommend that you read her full statement and share it widely. And I urge you to join me in thanking Kathleen for her wonderful efforts.



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5.  My Upcoming Travels:  I’d Love to Visit!

I have a number of upcoming trips scheduled around the country and I would be delighted to use those opportunities to speak to members of your congregation or your institution. Since I’ll already be traveling, you won’t have to cover travel expenses from Washington State if we add on a visit. If you’re interested in seeing if we can make something work, please drop a note to the good folks at Ovation Agency (ovation@ovationagency.com), and I’m certain they’ll get back to you quickly. It would be great to meet more of you in person!

Here’s what I currently know of my upcoming travel schedule:

12-15 September:  Milwaukee, Wisconsin
26-28 October:  Bennington, Vermont
15-20 December:  Phoenix, Arizona
24-28 January:  San Francisco, California

I hope to hear from you!


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The Clergy Letter Project has become a powerful international force. Together we are standing for lively, informed discussion. We recognize that divergent opinions are not only possible but welcome, but we fully embrace the position that while we are entitled to voice our own opinions, it is not appropriate for any of us to make up our own facts. We agree with the sentiments expressed by the editors of New Scientist quoted above that “democracy needs experts” and that we need to learn to speak truth to ordinary people. The Clergy Letter Project is helping to move this agenda forward and, in that light, 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. As always, thank you for your continued support. Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project