June 2017 Newsletter

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

  1. Evolution Weekend 2018;
  2. Astrobiology News for June 2017:  Touching the Nearest Star;
  3. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
  4. Sinai and Synapses Fellowships Available;
  5. Zimmerman on the East Coast;
  6. The Universe Story’s 25th Anniversary Celebration; and
  7. The Evolution/Creation Controversy is Not Over.

1.   Evolution Weekend 2018

Yes, it seems early to be thinking about Evolution Weekend 2018 (9-11 February 2018), but I suspect that it will creep up on us faster than any of us would like.  So, please take a moment to mark your calendar, think about suggesting a theme for the weekend, and drop me a note saying that you plan to participate.

_____ Of course I’ll participate in Evolution Weekend 2018!

Name of Congregation:
Your name:

Signing up early for our 13th annual Evolution Weekend helps me enormously, so please drop me a note.  Remember, participation can take any form you deem appropriate and participation can occur any time in the temporal vicinity of 9-11 February.  I hope to hear from you soon!


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2.   Astrobiology News for June 2017:  Touching the Nearest Star

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses a planned mission to the Sun.

Last June, I wrote about some of our Sun’s effects on Earth (other than the very obvious ones) and it seems appropriate to continue to write about our nearest star during the month of the summer solstice.  NASA recently announced a new name for a mission scheduled for launch next year:  the Parker Solar Probe(1) honors University of Chicago Professor Emeritus Eugene Parker,(2) a pioneer in solar astrophysics since the 1950s.  The probe will skirt the Sun’s outer atmosphere (the corona), approaching seven times closer than any previous spacecraft.  Many energetic events that affect the Earth and human technologies originate in the Sun’s corona.  This mission will enable us to predict better the magnitude and timing of these events, which in turn will help protect our increasingly technology-dependent society from the potential threats of space weather.(3)

The idea of a solar probe isn’t new – it’s been recommended by the National Academy of Sciences since 1958; however, the technical challenges to designing such a mission have been formidable.  The temperature of the Sun’s corona is roughly a million degrees, much hotter than the visible “surface” of the Sun.  The Parker Solar Probe is expected to help solve the puzzle of why the corona is so hot. At its closest approach, the front of the spacecraft will reach a temperature of about 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit and endure solar radiation intensities 475 times higher than we do on Earth.(4)  The probe’s instruments will be protected by a 4.5-inch thick carbon-composite heat shield, but proper orientation of the spacecraft will be critical to its longevity!

As it happens, many people across the continental United States will have the opportunity to actually see the Sun’s corona this summer.  Last month, Clergy Letter Project member Jon Cleland Host wrote about the upcoming solar eclipse on August 21st.  I’d like to add my voice to Jon’s in encouraging you to experience this rare and awesome spectacle!  The path of totality (where viewers can experience the Sun completely covered by the Moon, enabling them to see the much fainter extended solar corona) will follow a 71-mile-wide band stretching from Oregon to South Carolina.  Partial phases will be visible from the entire continental United States, weather depending of course!  Check out the Adler Planetarium’s web page(5) for more information, including necessary eyewear for viewing partial eclipse phases.  Folks who live in or near Chicago can come visit Adler’s latest temporary exhibit, Chasing Eclipses, to preview the total solar eclipse experience and “meet” historic eclipse chasers.

Finally, NASA’s Space Grant Consortium is coordinating an effort utilizing 55 teams that will launch balloons from 30 locations along the path of totality to live stream footage of the Moon’s shadow from the edge of space – a feat never done before.(6) The Adler Planetarium’s Far Horizons group(7) is one of the participating teams.  As for myself, if things go according to plan, I’ll be taking video of the eclipse from a Cessna 310, flown by my spouse, so maybe – just maybe – I can finally avoid clouds and check “see a total solar eclipse” off of my bucket list!

Until next month,

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

1.  https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/parker-solar-probe
2. This is the first time NASA has named a spacecraft after a living person.
3.  Space weather refers to conditions in space near Earth (such as radiation and charged particles emitted by the Sun) that can affect human activity and technology.
4.  https://www.space.com/37044-nasa-parker-solar-probe-mission-infographic.html
5.  http://www.adlerplanetarium.org/events/solar-eclipse-08-21-17/
6.  https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/nasas-space-grant-ballooning-project
7.  http://www.adlerplanetarium.org/education/far-horizons/


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3.  Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

With this item, I’m experimenting with a new feature for The Clergy Letter Newsletter:  short book reviews from members.  If you want to write a review of a book you believe would be of great interest to members, please let me know.

This first review was written by Clergy Letter Project member, Reverend Dr. Joseph Shook of Albany, New York.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson (Norton) 2017.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has written his newest book for curious people “who are too busy to read fat books yet nonetheless seek a conduit to the cosmos” and he opens that “conduit” with this sentence:  “In the beginning, nearly fourteen billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy of the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period that ends this sentence.”  From that small volume to the immense distances and numbers of bodies and complexes he guides us on a tour of the forming and evolving universe with stops along the way to visit scientists who concentrate on the physics of gravity, light, dark matter, dark energy, and chemistry.

For those of us who concentrate on our human origin and how we have evolved to our current condition Tyson provides a brief statement of our beginning “Within the chemically rich liquid oceans by a mechanism yet to be discovered, organic molecules transitioned to self-replicating life.”

Time lines and other figures may be difficult to grasp when time is measured in billions of years and a “millionth of a second;” temperature is measured in a “trillion degrees Kelvin;” and the stars are numbered in the “hundreds of billions,” but Tyson has a communication skill that helps the reader understand the magnitude of the universe.  He clarifies that while the universe is expanding, the galaxies hold together by gravity and it is those complex systems that are moving away from each other.       

Tyson praises and encourages curiosity in these pages and that takes the form of a cosmic perspective that “flows from fundamental knowledge. But it’s more than about what you know.  It’s also about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe.”  

The reader may be in a hurry but should allow time to read and reread this informative and easily readable story of our universe.


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4.  Sinai and Synapses Fellowships Available

Sinai and Synapses is an organization for which I am on the Advisory Board, and it aims to bridge the religious and scientific worlds. It is currently accepting applications for two-year fellowships for clergy, scientists and journalists to learn from experts in the field and then create content and programs in their own communities.  This will be the second iteration of the successful program.  You can read about this exciting opportunity here.  The deadline for applications is 31 July so please hurry!


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5.  Zimmerman on the East Coast

I plan to be visiting the East Coast in late October and would love to incorporate a visit to your congregation or university.  Travel expenses will be minimal since the cross country plane fare is already covered.  If you’d like to invite me to talk, please drop a line to the good folks at Ovation Agency (ovation@ovationagency.com) and I’m certain they’ll be able to work something out with you.  I hope to meet some of you in person.


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6.  The Universe Story’s 25th Anniversary Celebration

As many of you will likely remember, the theme selected for Evolution Weekend 2017 was “a productive melding of science, religion and the humanities as exemplified in The Universe Story.”  The theme was particularly fitting because 2017 was the 25th anniversary of The Universe Story’s publication. 

This coming November there will be a large celebration of this anniversary.  Here’s information about the celebration shared by Clergy Letter Project friend Tom Spiritbringer:

Please join us for the
Thursday, November 9, 2017  9am-9pm (3 sessions)
Valley Center for the Performing Arts
Holy Names University
Oakland, CA 94619

This Earth-wide Celebration calls our entire Human Family to “tell The Universe Story to our children” at this time of Great Promise and Great Peril on our Garden Planet of The Universe!
25 years ago on November 9, 1992, co-authors Thomas Berry and Brian Thomas Swimme were at Gaia Books in Berkeley, California signing this brand new epic book, The Universe Story). Now, 25 years later, Humanity is called on to become more conscious and self-aware of this powerful, comprehensive message of Unity and Love for all our Universe Community Members!

To register for this free event on Eventbrite, click here.  More detail information, including a schedule for the day can be found here.


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7.  The Evolution/Creation Controversy is Not Over

Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, and Ann Reid, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, recently published a column in Scientific American commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the repeal of the anti-evolution law John Scopes was convicted of breaking in 1925.  As they so clearly explain, “the teaching of evolution in public schools is still not entirely safe.”


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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 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.  Our ranks have been growing nicely; as of this writing, 14,671 signatures appear on our Clergy Letters.  Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project