November 2016 Newsletter

From Brexit to the election of Donald Trump, the world seems to have become a dramatically different place in recent months.  The consequences we are already seeing beginning to play out, it seems to me, call for discussion and perhaps action on our part.  Because of this unprecedented situation, this month I’m offering a very different kind of Clergy Letter Project Newsletter.  Below you’ll find only two items with one calling for your participation.  Thank you in advance for your thought and participation.

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

  1. A Call for Discussion about Evolution Weekend 2017; and
  2. Astrobiology News for November 2016:  Probing for Life on Other Worlds, Protecting Life on Earth.

1.  A Call for Discussion outab Evolution Weekend 2017

As you all likely know, I feel passionate about promoting the compatibility of religion and science.  Indeed, the purpose of Evolution Weekend has been to do exactly that while making it clear that evolution is the framework that holds all of biology together.  Although I can’t claim to have always succeeded, it has been the goal of The Clergy Letter Project, from the outset, to promote these points in as respectful a manner as possible.  Our intention has been to educate rather than to demean, to raise the quality of dialog rather than to shout at one another.

As committed as I am to our work, I believe that it might be imperative for us to look more deeply at the world around us and ask if there’s something more that we can be doing right now.

There is significant evidence to indicate that the recent elections in both the UK and the United States have led us in two very troubling directions.  First, we seem to have entered a fact-free environment, where personal opinions rather than scientific data have become far more important for many.  Second, and in many ways even more troubling, we have also emboldened a group of individuals who are acting in racist, xenophobic and homophobic fashions.  Independent of your political leanings, both of these trends should raise high levels of concern.  Similarly, I am convinced that both of these trends run counter to the core mission of The Clergy Letter Project.

Evolutionary theory teaches a critical lesson.  Genetically, we are remarkably similar to one another.  Indeed, the concept of race in humans is mostly a social rather than a biological construct.  From this perspective, it makes very little sense to draw many of the lines we have seen being drawn separating groups from one another.  The fact that some of us might look different from others or accept ideas that others might not embrace is not a reason to stigmatize and hate.  I hasten to add that this perspective is fully in keeping with the teachings all of the world’s major religions.

We are seeing an increase in hate crimes directed at people of color, at women, at LGBT individuals, at immigrants and at members of certain religious groups.  I don’t believe that it is appropriate for good people to stand idly by in the face of such attacks.  With this concern in mind, I want to explore the possibility of refocusing Evolution Weekend 2017 into an event that celebrates all of humanity and all that we have learned. 

Taking a step of this sort is not meant to take a side in any political argument.  Rather, like the core principles of The Clergy Letter Project, such an action demonstrates our belief that it is possible to work collaboratively across differences, that it is imperative that we respect one another, and that we must not forsake knowledge for opinion. 

Simply put, I fear that if we allow hatred to grow and manifest itself widely in society, we will find ourselves living in an environment that runs counter to many of our most cherished beliefs.  Do you agree?  Can we, The Clergy Letter Project, make a statement about the unity of humanity and push back against bigotry?

What do you think?  Are you willing to participate in this fashion?  Should we announce this as one of our goals for Evolution Weekend 2017? 

Please let me know what you think.  Send me your thoughts or, better than that, post them on The Clergy Letter Project’s Facebook page so everyone can see them.  And, of course, please sign up to participate in Evolution Weekend 2017 (10-12 February 2017). 

As you think about this issue, please remember that each congregation always has the ability to participate in Evolution Weekend in any fashion that it deems best and that participation can occur any time in the vicinity of Evolution Weekend if that particular weekend poses a logistical problem.  But sign up now and let’s make Evolution Weekend 2017 a success.

_____ Yes, by all means, I want to be a part of Evolution Weekend 2017.  Please list us as participating in Evolution Weekend 2017 (10-12 February 2017).  (If you’re already listed on our 2017 web page, there’s no need to sign up again!)

Name of Congregation:
City, State, Country:
Your Name:


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2.  Astrobiology News for November 2016:  Probing for Life on Other Worlds, Protecting Life on Earth

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses how NASA is helping us better understand our own planet.

Technology initially developed for the space sciences has benefitted humanity in many ways, from improvements in medical imaging techniques to speed skating. (No, I’m not kidding about that last reference.) When I’m asked questions about the practical applications of space science, I typically recommend NASA’s Spinoff publication, which has tracked these applications since 1976.(1) Of course, technology is also transferred to the space sciences from other fields. This month, I report briefly on how military technology used to monitor the air for potential biohazards in public places could be applied to searching for life on other worlds, and is being used to take stock of the health of our own planet.

The Bio-Indicator Lidar Instrument (BILI) is a remote-sensing device intended for use on a Mars rover. Described as a “rover’s sense of smell,”(2) it might also be thought of as a rover’s “eyes,” since BILI is envisioned to look for dust plumes on the surface of Mars and then pulse ultraviolet light at them. Dust particles would absorb the ultraviolet light and fluoresce; that is, they would emit patterns of light that could reveal organic particles, their sizes, and even yield information on when they were produced. Because BILI is capable of detecting small levels of complex organic materials from a distance of several hundred meters, it can search for signs of life in a non-invasive way, without altering or contaminating the sample.

NASA has also employed this kind of technology in climate research, taking Earth’s vital signs using satellites to monitor fluorescent signatures produced by healthy plants during photosynthesis(3), and to measure carbon dioxide levels.(4) I suspect this won’t come as a surprise to anyone on this email list, but the overwhelming scientific consensus is that climate change is real, and primarily due to human activities.(5) NASA’s role in providing the data needed to develop plans to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change is critical. Since this complex issue affects all life on our world, it calls for a unified human response that transcends political and religious differences. I encourage you to visit to explore NASA’s resources on this topic, and make sure to check out the “Beautiful Earth” gallery(6) for spectacular views of our precious and unique world!

Until next month,


Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. (

P.S. A personal invitation: In April 2015, I wrote about the relevance of so-called “yellowballs,” discovered by citizen scientists working on the Milky Way Project (MWP), to understanding the origin of our Solar System.(6) The MWP(7) was just re-launched with incredible new images and better measuring tools to catalog signposts of star formation across our Galaxy. My colleague, Charles Kerton, and I are leading the yellowball study and need your help classifying the new images – please consider going to the website and joining us in this effort!


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As always, I want to sincerely thank all of you for your continued efforts to help people understand the positive relationship possible between religion and science.  On a personal level, I want to make certain that you all realize how important The Clergy Letter Project community is to me, especially at a time of such political turmoil.  I hope many of you feel similarly. 

For those of you in the United States, please accept my best wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving.

Finally, as I do every month, 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  Second, if you’re in a position to do so, please sign up now to participate in Evolution Weekend 2017.  Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project