May 2017 Newsletter

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

  1. Members of The Clergy Letter Project Marched;
  2. Astrobiology News for May 2017:  Revisiting TRAPPIST-1:  The Harmony of the Worlds;
  3. Good News from Texas For a Change!;
  4. August Solar Eclipse; and
  5. A New Young Earth Creationist in Congress?.

1.   Members of The Clergy Letter Project Marched

As you know, members of The Clergy Letter Project voted overwhelmingly to become official sponsors of both the March for Science and the Peoples Climate March.  A number of members sent me pictures from the marches in which they participated and I’ve posted them here.  I hope you enjoy some of the great visuals. 

The link also provides information about a fascinating document written by Clergy Letter Project members entitled "Science as the Voice of God."  The piece eloquently explores the link between religion and science while explaining why clergy participated in the marches.

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2.   Astrobiology News for May 2017:  Revisiting TRAPPIST-1:  The Harmony of the Worlds

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase takes another look at the TRAPPIST-1 solar system and explores various aspects of the orbital harmonies of the system’s seven planets.

Two months ago, I reported the discovery of seven Earth-sized worlds orbiting the “nearby” star known as TRAPPIST-1.  Because of the significance of this discovery to the search for life beyond Earth, I decided to revisit the incredible TRAPPIST-1 system this month.  I encourage those who are interested to keep up with the latest information on the website created by the science team.(1)

All seven worlds of TRAPPIST-1 transit (pass in front of) their star during their orbits, presenting an unprecedented opportunity to study the climates of these planets as starlight passes through their atmospheres.  Patterns in the way starlight is absorbed can reveal the chemical composition and structure of the planets’ atmospheres.  The worlds of TRAPPIST-1 are currently our best bet for discovering evidence of biology beyond our Solar System, and theorists are already working out habitability models based on assumptions that will be better constrained after more detailed studies with the Hubble Space Telescope and the future James Webb Space Telescope.(2)

Another amazing aspect of the TRAPPIST-1 system is the proximity of the orbits of the seven worlds to each other.  The planets are locked in an “orbital resonance,” which means the lengths of time it takes them to orbit their star (each planet’s “year”) are related by integer ratios.  In the time it takes the outermost planet to complete two orbits, the next planet inward has completed three orbits, then four, six, nine, 15, and 24 for the innermost planet.  

Resonant orbits can be a source of chaos.  They provide a gravitational “boost” that is similar to the way periodically pushing a child on a swing causes the swing to go higher and higher.  The problem is that the pushes add up and initial computer simulations of the TRAPPIST-1 system indicated the planets should crash into each other in less than a million years, although their star is billions of years old.  Resonant orbits can, however, also be a source of stability, depending upon other important factors.  The results of research published this month by astrophysicist Daniel Tamayo suggest that if these planets formed slowly, the system could have been fine-tuned to orbits that could persist stably for billions of years.(3)

The research on the planets’ orbits led to an interesting collaboration between Tamayo and Matt Russo, an astrophysicist with a degree in jazz guitar who moonlights as a guitarist in an indie pop band.(4)  Musical harmonies arise from resonances in the frequencies of particular pitches.  Russo, noted, “I immediately recognized that [the orbital resonance] would make beautiful music because it’s the same pattern of period ratios that makes chords.”  Supercomputer simulations illustrate that this remarkable harmony keeps this system stable.  I encourage you to listen to The Song of a Solar System: TRAPPIST-1 on YouTube(5), and while you’re at it, check out the short stories, graphic novels, and poems that have been already inspired by this astonishing planetary system!(6)

Stay tuned (I couldn’t resist!) until next month,

Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. (

1.  See
2.  Wolf, E. T. 2017, Assessing the Habitability of the TRAPPIST-1 System Using a 3D Climate Model, ApJL, 839 (6pp)
3.  Tamayo. D. et al. 2017, Convergent Migration Renders TRAPPIST-1 Long-lived, ApJL, 840 (6pp)


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3.  Good News from Texas For a Change!

I’m delighted to be able to say that after years of unabashedly promoting creationism, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) recently took steps to improve the educational experiences offered to public school students.  As I explain in this short piece, the SBOE actually opted to endorse the recommendation of a panel of experts, including scientists and teachers.

And since I’ve mentioned experts, I can’t help but point out the fact that the EPA and the Department of the Interior just took a completely different tack on the way they perceive expertise.  As I explain in this article, both have apparently decided that experts are no longer of any value.  (As an aside, I’m pleased to say that the editors at Niume opted to feature this particular piece.)


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4.  August Solar Eclipse

The following note comes from Clergy Letter Project member Jon Cleland Host:

This August 21st brings us the first total solar eclipse here in the United State in 30 years! On that day, the crickets will chirp in the darkness as night falls for 90 seconds at mid-day.  Our Ancestors have been enthralled by this indescribable event for over a million years.  In the many thousands of years that humans like us have lived, how many were amazed, inspired, scared, or astounded?  How many of their spiritualities were forever changed? To connect with all of those people – with countless humans both living and dead – is one gift that the coming eclipse can give us.   Don’t miss it!  

If you are important in the life of a child, is there a way for them to experience it with you?  You could give them a gift that they’ll have for the rest of their lives.  Don’t let the fear of eye damage stop you from going – simple precautions are all that are needed to guarantee safety.  Google “cloud cover eclipse” to see the best places to go inside the ~60 mile wide path of totality.  For full instructions, see my April 2nd blog post at  Dozens of millions of people stare in awe, and this eclipse and will be the most photographed, selfied, live streamed, and documented moment in the history of the Universe up to now.  Many places are already overbooked, but with such a wide area, even a parking lot will work.   You can see it, and perhaps give a child the experience of a lifetime, if you plan now.    Blessed be-

Jon Cleland Host


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5.  A New Young Earth Creationist in Congress?

A special congressional election will be held in Montana on 25 May to replace Ryan Zinke who recently became the Secretary of the Interior.  Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate who is favored to win election (although recent polls show the race tightening), appears to be a young Earth creationist who has made donations of more than $300,000 to a Montana creationist museum.  You can read more about the situation here.


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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  Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project