June 2016 Newsletter

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

  1. The Clergy Letter Project Condemns Homophobia;
  2. Astrobiology News for June 2016: Our Magnetic Sun;
  3. The Cubit: A New Website Focusing on Science and Religion;
  4. Standing for the Future: Michael Dowd’s New Project; and
  5. Evolution Weekend 2017.

1.  The Clergy Letter Project Condemns Homophobia

Members of The Clergy Letter Project have come together to foster better understanding between religion and science. Members understand that to do that well means that meaningful dialogue has to be increased and respect for differences in opinion has to be enhanced. There are times when events in the world gain our attention and require our action, even though they impinge only tangentially, if at all, on the intersection of religion and science. When those events reflect a blatant disregard for human civility and respect, I’m proud to say that The Clergy Letter Project has taken a stand.

In a recent essay I published in the Huffington Post, I explained how The Clergy Letter Project has condemned homophobia. This stance mirrors the one we took in December when The Clergy Letter Project condemned Islamophobia. I encourage you to share the latest essay in an attempt to demonstrate our support for our fellow human beings and to demonstrate that a small number of clergy members with hate in their hearts do not speak for the majority of clergy around the globe.


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2.  Astrobiology News for June 2016: Our Magnetic Sun

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase shares a great deal of fascinating information about the nature of our Sun.

When we think about the Sun’s role in nurturing life on Earth, we naturally tend to focus on the Sun’s light and heat. After all, both are critical to Earth’s biosphere; however, the Sun has a less less obvious attribute that nevertheless has a huge impact on the development and sustainment of life on Earth – its complex and ever-changing magnetic field. The Sun is a huge ball of plasma. No, I’m not talking about that stuff in your blood, but rather the fact that gas in the Sun is ionized, such that negatively-charged electrons and positively-charged atomic nuclei move about, creating magnetic fields that in turn affect how the charged particles move. The Sun’s magnetic field produces explosions of charged particles from the Sun that cause “space weather,” resulting in beautiful aurorae, as well as the occasional disruption of satellite communications and radiation potentially harmful to astronauts.

About 4 billion years ago, the Sun was dimmer than it is today and the Earth received only about 70% of the energy it does presently - the Earth should have been covered in ice, but geologic evidence indicates it was warm with liquid water. This is known as the Faint Young Sun Paradox. Although we can’t travel back in time to study our young sun, we have access to a plethora of stars in our galaxy that are similar to our Sun and in different stages of evolution. We can study these stars to piece together a picture of our own Sun’s history.

NASA’s Kepler mission, responsible for the detection of thousands of exoplanets orbiting other stars, also yielded observations of many stars resembling our Sun “only” a few million years after its birth. Such young stars frequently produce very powerful flares – bursts of light and radiation. Kepler data showed these stars produce many “superflares,” explosions experienced by our Sun once every 100 years or so, but up to ten times a day for the young stars. Tempestuous solar storms of this magnitude would have compressed the Earth’s own protective magnetic field, allowing energetic charged particles to penetrate Earth’s atmosphere and initiate reactions that warmed the planet. Recent research suggests that such reactions may even have driven the chemistry necessary for life on the young Earth.(1)

Molecular nitrogen makes up about 78% of Earth’s atmosphere today, but it made up about 90% of Earth’s atmosphere 4 billion years ago. Although molecular nitrogen is chemically pretty inert, the research suggests that the young Earth’s bombardment from solar storms may have dissociated nitrogen and carbon dioxide molecules enabling the production of nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”) as well as other molecules such as hydrogen cyanide (HCN). Nitrous oxide is a powerful greenhouse gas - about 300 times more effective at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, and HCN is an important molecule for life – chains of these compounds produce various amino acids.

I’m writing this on the summer solstice (June 20th, this year). Hopefully, many of you are taking advantage of the long hours of sunlight in the northern hemisphere. Here are some “sun fun facts” to share around the pool or at the beach!

(1) The Sun converts 4.5 million tons of mass to energy every second, equivalent to the mass of a million elephants every second (and it still has enough fuel for another 5 billion years).
(2) The Sun’s energy production each second is enough to supply the electrical needs of the USA for 50 million years.
(3) On average, the energy released in a fusion reaction at the Sun’s center takes about 1 million years to reach the Sun’s surface.
(4) Don’t panic but as you read this sentence about a quadrillion (a thousand trillion) solar neutrinos will zip through your body.
(5) The Sun’s outpouring of energy is equivalent to 100 billion hydrogen bombs exploding each second.
(6) An area of the Sun’s surface the size of a postage stamp shines with the power of 1.5 million candles.
(7) Giant arcs of plasma called prominences shoot out from the Sun’s surface for 310 thousand miles — that’s more than the distance from the Earth to the Moon.
(8) The smallest visible sunspots have an area of about 500 million square miles.
(9) The Sun gives off a stream of electrically charged particles called the solar wind. The Sun pumps more than a million tons of material into the solar wind every second.
(10) Hans Bethe, a German astronomer who worked in America, discovered how stars generate their power by the process of nuclear fusion during a train trip. In 1938, Bethe started to jot down some ideas while returning to Cornell University from a conference. By the time the train reached its destination, Bethe had mapped out the main features of the theory.

Until next month,


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

1.  Airapetian, V.S., et al., Nature Geoscience, 9, 452-455 (2016))

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3.  The Cubit: A New Website Focusing on Science and Religion

In a somewhat surprising election result, Mary Lou Bruner was defeated in her bid for a seat on the Texas State Board of Education. As you likely know, the Texas Board plays a powerful role in setting educational policy in the state with ramifications throughout the rest of the United States.

Religion Dispatches has recently begun a new endeavor that is likely to be of interest to members of The Clergy Letter Project. The Cubit: Examining the intersections of science, religion, technology, and ethics is a website with interesting and wide-ranging articles. As the founders have noted, “The Cubit will be skeptical of dogmatic rhetoric, whether it’s found in religious sermons, scientific triumphalism, or feel-good compromises that ignore the critical distinctions between religion and science. We will examine the pieties of secular liberals every bit as critically as those of religious conservatives, and we won’t shy away from the politics of power that underlie so many of our science-and-society debates.”

I encourage you to explore!


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4.  Standing for the Future: Michael Dowd’s New Project

Many of you are already familiar with the wonderful work of Michael Dowd and many of you have invited Michael to speak in your congregations. His book, Thank God for Evolution, has received well-deserved praise.

I’m delighted to be able to tell you about his latest project. Entitled Standing for the Future Michael describes the three-episode video series as “the culmination of my life’s work and my most important legacy contribution to-date.” You can learn more about the project and you can download the video series for free by clicking here.

Take a look at the videos – I’m certain you’ll be impressed. Please think about using one or more of them as the centerpiece of your Evolution Weekend 2017 event!



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5.  Evolution Weekend 2017

I’d like to use this opportunity to clear up a reoccurring question concerning Evolution Weekend! People ask me regularly why they have to sign up each year to participate. The answer is simple: I want the list of participants that we post on the web to be as accurate as possible so that means that I need participants to confirm their involvement each year. While your signature on The Clergy Letter is permanent, you must let me know that you plan to participate in Evolution Weekend to be included on that list. I realize that this is a bit of a pain, but, when you think about it, it really is remarkably minor.

I’ve started building our list of participants for 2017 and while I won’t post it publicly for a couple of months, PLEASE take a look at it now to see if you’re listed. If you don’t find your name there, please let me know and I’ll add you immediately.

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

Name of Congregation:
City, State:
My Name:

At this early date, we already have 22 states and two countries represented. Please sign up now and help us increase our reach. There are two critical things to remember about participating. First, although Evolution Weekend 2017 is scheduled for 10-12 February 2017, you can participate any time in the vicinity if you have a conflict. Second, you can participate in any way you think is appropriate. As you know, our goal is to increase the synergy between religion and science while improving the quality of the discourse about this topic. Whatever you believe is appropriate for your congregation (or class) IS appropriate for inclusion.


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As I said at the top of this newsletter, The Clergy Letter Project is based on respecting difference and encouraging dialogue.  There are times when these simple goals appear virtually impossible but we can’t give up hope.  Working together we can demonstrate the power that we have as a collective.  And, as I indicated in a special update I sent out last week, our network of partners is expanding.  The Presbyterian Church (USA) officially endorsed The Clergy Letter Project and they thus join the United Methodist Church in taking such a step.  In this light, please take just a moment to do two things.  First, forward this Newsletter to 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