July 2017 Newsletter

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

  1. Evolution Weekend 2018 and a Free Book Offer;
  2. Astrobiology News for July 2017:  Embryonic Stars Hidden in Stellar Nurseries;
  3. Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation
  4. New Law Puts Science Education at Risk in Florida;
  5. The Clergy Letter Project and Freedom of Speech;
  6. Is The Clergy Letter Project Having a Positive Impact?; and
  7. The 2017 Solar Eclipse.

1.   Evolution Weekend 2018 and a Free Book Offer

Each year Clergy Letter Project members ask for resources to help them prepare for Evolution Weekend.  And each year I try to accommodate!  I’m delighted to say that I have a number of copies of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species:  A Graphic Adaptation available for free distribution to those who believe it will help them prepare.  The book is written by Michael Keller and illustrated by Nicolle Rager Fuller. I’ll distribute free books, until all copies are claimed.

_____ Of course Iíll participate in Evolution Weekend 2018 (9-11 February 2018)! (But I donít need the book!)

Name of Congregation:
Your name:

_____ Yes, I plan to participate in Evolution Weekend 2018 (9-11 February 2018). Please enter me in the free book sweepstakes. If selected, I promise to pay $5 to cover postage and handling.

Name of Congregation:
Your name:

Either way, please sign up to participate in Evolution Weekend 2018 now. Given all that is happening, it is more important than ever for religious leaders to demonstrate the importance of science.


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2.   Astrobiology News for July 2017:  Embryonic Stars Hidden in Stellar Nurseries

In this monthís Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses some of her own exciting research examining star formation amid stellar nurseries.

Despite the long history of musings by creative writers, philosophers, and theologians, until the late 20th century, the only planets we were certain existed are those that orbit our Sun.(1)   Since then, astronomers have been finding increasing evidence that most stars have planets.(2)  This evidence comes from two types of studies Ė those focused on discovering planets around distant stars, and those focused on studying how stars and planets form in the first place. My own research efforts belong to the latter category.

The cold interstellar clouds of gas and dust that give birth to new stars are trillions of miles across and they rotate slowly.  They are also invisible.  Fortunately, telescopes that record infrared light and radio waves can not only detect the clouds themselves, they can peer into these hidden stellar nurseries and enable us to develop a picture of how nascent stars develop.  As gravity pulls these clouds together, they shrink and flatten out into huge protoplanetary disks, comparable to the size of our Solar System (“mere” billions of miles across).  As the name suggests, protoplanetary disks can eventually form planets, given sufficient time and material.

One question that puzzled astronomers for many years is how stars can actually form at the centers of these disks, since they spin faster as they shrink, similar to what happens when spinning figure skaters pull their outstretched arms in toward their bodies.  (As a former competitive figure skater, I have first-hand experience of this.)  For gravity to build up a star, material falling onto the star from the disk must lose angular momentum (in other words, something has to slow the spin).  This happens through powerful outflows of gas, known as jets, which are channeled into tight streams perpendicular to the disks.

Some fun facts about jets from nascent stars:  1) Jets can travel a million kilometers per hour and launch more than a trillion tons of gas into space every day.  2) Jets are much longer than they are wide.  (Their proportions are similar to a garden hose shooting a tight stream of water 20 miles.)  3) Jets span interstellar distances; that is, their lengths can be thousands of times larger than the diameters of the protoplanetary disks that launch them.  Because of this, observations of jets are often used to infer the presence of a disk when the disk itself isn’t observed directly.

Although we’ve put together a fairly detailed picture of how an individual star forms with planets, reality is far more complex.  Stellar nurseries tend to be very crowded environments, cranking out clusters of tens or hundreds of stars of various sizes and masses.  In fact, we’ve good reason to think our own Sun was born with many stellar “siblings.”(3)  Disentangling all the ways baby stars affect their surroundings is no easy task – even with current technology!  The heftiest stars in stellar nurseries bathe their surroundings in intense ultraviolet light that heats and disperses the natal cloud quickly, so many questions remain such as:  Do these massive stars form with disks?  Do the disks survive long enough to produce planets?  How do massive stars affect the development of their siblings?

We are just starting to address some of these questions.  My colleagues and I just published a survey of stellar nurseries that reports new evidence of jets originating from nascent massive stars.(4)  We expect that learning more about the development of infant stars in clusters will help us better understand the amazing diversity of planetary systems that continue to be discovered.

Until next month,

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

1.  We refer to the Sun and its diverse orbiting worlds collectively as the Solar System.
2.  Planets orbiting other stars are technically known as “exoplanets”, but we’ll just refer to them as “planets” here.
3.  Check out the Astrobiology News Archive for April 2015 to read more about this:  http://www.theclergyletterproject.org/pdf/abnews42015.pdf

4.  http://www.adlerplanetarium.org/wp-content/uploads/Adler-Astonomer-Wolf-Chase-Develops-New-Ways-to-Look-at-Stars.pdf


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3.  Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation

Our good friends at the National Center for Science Education have put a free excerpt of the book Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation by Adam Laats and Harvey Siegel.  The book was published by the University of Chicago Press as part of their History and Philosophy of Education Series.  You may well find that the chapter posted will help you prepare for Evolution Weekend 2018.



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4.  New Law Puts Science Education at Risk in Florida

An article in the Washington Post describes a new law in Florida that puts science education at risk.  The law which went into effect this month allows any resident to file a complaint against any topic being taught in a Florida public school.  A hearing officer will have to adjudicate each case.  According to the article, proponents of the bill made it clear that they plan to use it to attack evolution and climate change instruction.  Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, was quoted as saying, “It's just the candor with which the backers of the bill have been saying, 'Yeah, we’re going to go after evolution, we’re going to go after climate change,’” that’s troubling him.


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5.  The Clergy Letter Project and Freedom of Speech

As many of you have noted, The Evergreen State College, where I served as vice president for academic affairs from 2011 through this past June, has gone through some difficult times this spring.  Student protests turned violent and some faculty members turned on colleagues.   Once my administrative position ended, I felt comfortable sharing my perceptions of the events and the lessons that could be learned from those events.  My writing drew the attention of some in Congress and I was invited to participate on a panel on freedom of speech issues on college campuses hosted by two Congressional subcommittees.  In my testimony I was able to weave in the work of the Clergy Letter Project.  I share all of this with you now, partly to answer the numerous questions I’ve received from many of you asking about the Evergreen situation, and partly to demonstrate how our efforts melding religion and science fit into a larger social picture.

In chronological order, here are four pieces, I recently published on the topic:

  1. An exploration of the lessons to be learned from the experience;
  2. A discussion of the consequences faced by a colleague who appeared on Fox News;
  3. An examination the decision by the campus to hire one of the leaders of the protest to rewrite the college’s student code of conduct; and
  4. A presentation of the testimony I delivered to Congress.


Finally, for those of you who are true fanatics, here’s a link to the actual three-hour Congressional hearing!


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6.  Is The Clergy Letter Project Having a Positive Impact?

A recent poll conducted by Gallup shows some positive results for those of us who are comfortable integrating religion and science.  The latest iteration of their yearly poll demonstrated a significant decline in the percentage of respondents who hold young-Earth creationist points of view.  You can read a full discussion of the results in an article written for our friends at Biologos.

While The Clergy Letter Project can’t take all of the credit for this shift in public opinion, I do think it is fair to say that our efforts, coupled with many others, are partly responsible.  Let’s keep working to educate people about this critical issue.


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7.  The 2017 Solar Eclipse

Clergy Letter Project member Jon Cleland Host has already shared some information with us about the upcoming Solar Eclipse.  He and his son have now made a four minute video encouraging people to view the majesty of the eclipse on 21 August 2017.


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In closing this month, let me remind you that although the deadline is very quickly approaching, there’s still a bit of time to apply for a two-year fellowship from Sinai and Synapses to join a select interfaith group of clergy, scientists and writers who are committed to elevating the discourse surrounding religion and science.  It’s a great opportunity as I explained in our May Newsletter.

Finally, as always, I want to thank you for your continued support and as I do every month, I urge you to take one simple action.  Please share this month's 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.  Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project