October 2015 Newsletter

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

  1. Evolution Weekend 2016: A Free Book Offer;
  2. Astrobiology News for October 2015:  What Do Comets and Aliens Have in Common?;
  3. The Conflict between Science and Religion;
  4. Noah’s Ark?;
  5. Jeff Schloss in Vancouver, BC to Speak on Evolution and Human Exceptionalism; and
  6. Free Book Excerpts to Enjoy and Help with Evolution Weekend.

1. Evolution Weekend 2016: A Free Book Offer

As I have done so often in the past, with the generous help of many publishers, I am offering a free copy of a book to help you prepare for Evolution Weekend 2016. Don Cupitt’s latest book, Ethics in the Last Days of Humanity, has just been published by Polebridge Press and I think you might find it both interesting and useful.

Here’s what I had to say when I was asked to comment on the book by the publisher: By deftly blending philosophy, theology and a wise environmental sensibility, Cupitt takes what could be a terribly depressing topic, the potential end of humanity, and turns it on its head, finding hope and a positive way of living. As he notes, “it is possible to live without traditional supernatural eschatology,” making the most out of the lives we have, for us and for those around us. Refusing to give in to base instincts, he asserts that “we should prefer to die for our humanitarian values, rather than betray them.” The question he addresses throughout, “How can we be world-affirming and ethically active in the face of very large scale disaster?” is a critical one that will resonate with many readers. His answer deserves close scrutiny.

If you believe that this book might help you prepare for Evolution Weekend 2016, please let me know. I’ll award a free copy to every fourth person who requests one, until all copies are claimed.

_____ Yes, I would like to receive a free copy of the Don Cupitt’s book Ethics in the Last Days of Humanity to help me prepare for Evolution Weekend 2016. If I’m selected to receive a free copy, I agree to pay $5 to cover postage and handling.

     _____ Please sign my congregation up to participate in Evolution Weekend 2016 (12-14 February 2016).

     Name of Congregation:
     City, State:
     My Name:

     _____ My congregation is already listed as participating in Evolution Weekend 2016.

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2. Astrobiology News for October 2015:  What Do Comets and Aliens Have in Common?

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses a fascinating finding by citizen scientists and discusses the possibility, remote though it is, that the finding offers some evidence for extra-terrestrial life.

Both comets and alien “megastructures” have been offered as possible explanations for the bizarre light curves (graphs showing changes in brightness over time) of the star known as KIC8462852, discovered serendipitously by citizen scientists mining data from the Kepler mission in the popular Planet Hunters(1) citizen science project. Let me be clear up front – this is NOT an announcement of the discovery of alien life, but rather a well-motivated call for follow-up observations of this curious object.

In September 2013, I wrote about Searching for WISE Civilizations for The Clergy Letter Project’s Newsletter. In that article, I described efforts to mine astronomical infrared data for signs of the “heat waste” that hypothetical technological constructs known as Dyson Spheres should produce. Although KIC8462852 doesn’t show the infrared signature that would be expected from a Dyson Sphere (among other things), the star’s light dims considerably for long periods of time, and the duration of the dips aren’t always the same. The Planet Hunters science team has managed to rule out instrumental problems and probably intrinsic variations in the light from the star itself. Most likely, something orbiting the star is the culprit, but there is much work to be done to ascertain what exactly that “something” might be!

The paper describing this discovery is an excellent example of how scientists search for the most plausible explanations based on what is known. The Planet Hunters science team methodically discusses several possibilities to explain the strange KIC8462852 light curves. It concludes that the most promising hypothesis involves a barrage of comets in the vicinity of KIC8462852, possibly triggered by the passage of a small nearby star, and suggests that sensitive observations might be able to detect gas released from the comets. Nevertheless, over 100 scientists have looked at the KIC8462852 light curves and have not yet come up with a working solution.

Curiously, a few earlier papers(2) noted that the Kepler mission or future James Webb Space Telescope would be capable of discovering planet-sized artificial satellites, and the KIC8462852 light curves are similar to the predictions of some of these models. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a natural explanation that doesn’t involve alien technology won’t be found in time, but it does make KIC8462852 an extremely interesting target for radio astronomers involved in the Search for Extraterrestial Intelligence (SETI)(3)! In any event, this discovery is another great example of how terrific “ordinary” human beings, not just professional scientists, are at spotting unusual patterns that are often missed by machines.

By the way, the science team has estimated the distance to KIC8462852 to be roughly 1,480 light years. Since this means it takes 1,480 years for light to travel the distance between KIC8462852 and Earth, any alien “megastructure” built around this star would predate the Middle Ages. There should be more than sufficient time in the history of the Universe for such an alien civilization to arise; however, distance and time wouldn’t leave us much hope for an actual conversation!

Until next month,


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

1. The research paper has been submitted to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, but you can read a blog about it at www.planethunters.org.

2. Arnold, L. 2005, “On Artificial Transits Feasibility and SETI,” in Scientific Highlights 2005, EDP Sciences, p. 207; Forgan, D.H. 2013, “On the Possibility of Detecting Class A Stellar Engines using Exoplanet Transit Curves,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 66, 144; Korpela, E. J. et al. 2015, “Modeling Indications of Technology in Planetary Transit Light Curves-Dark-side Illumination,” ApJ, 809, 139.

3. http://www.seti.org/     

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3. The Conflict between Science and Religion

An interesting piece just published in Sojourners Magazine discusses the public’s perception of a conflict between science and religion in the United States. Reporting on a recent Pew Research Center report Cathy Lynn Grossman explains that while a majority of people believe that such a conflict exists, many of those people don’t see a personal conflict. Instead, they believe that others have this problem. Interestingly, those who were most religious were least likely to claim that a conflict exists while those who indicated that they were not religious themselves were the most likely to believe that others were conflicted. The news article and the underlying research report are well worth reading.


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4. Noah’s Ark?

A dominant theme in creationist literature is that Noah’s Ark either has been found or that it will be very soon. Clergy Letter Project scientific consultant and retired professor of geology Larry Collins has just written a paper debunking claims that the ark has been found 27 kilometers south of Mt. Ararat in Turkey. His work makes for interesting reading. In the spirit of The Clergy Letter Project, he stays away from personal attacks and presents the scientific evidence demonstrating why the claims of Young Earth Creationists are not true.


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5. Jeff Schloss in Vancouver, BC to Speak on Evolution and Human Exceptionalism

Jeff Schloss, a member of The Clergy Letter Project’s list of scientific consultants, professor of biology at Westmont College and a BioLogos Senior Scholar, will be giving a lecture entitled “Uncommon Nature Through Human Descent?: Evolution and the Question of Human Exceptionalism” at Saint Mark’s College in Vancouver, BC, on Friday, 30 October. His talk is part of a two-part series entitled “Creatures of God: Human Nature and Evolution for Evangelicals and Catholics.” You can read more about the series here.

If Vancouver isn’t close enough for you to drop in on this lecture but you want to hear Jeff speak, you can contact the good folks at Ovation Agency to see about having him visit you. Be sure to mention that you’re associated with The Clergy Letter Project to receive a deep discount. And check out their web site for other great speakers (like Grace Wolf-Chase) on topics at the intersection between religion and science.


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6. Free Book Excerpts to Enjoy and Help with Evolution Weekend

Our good friends at the National Center for Science Education regularly make excerpts of books that are likely to be of interest to Clergy Letter Project members available for free. I thought it would be helpful if I shared these with you. The most recent excerpt comes from Ian Tattersall’s The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack. You can read many more excerpts by clicking here.


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Thanks to all of your efforts, The Clergy Letter Project continues to grow and reach more and more people with our message of respect. With your continued efforts, though, we can do even more. Please think about finding a friend with whom you can share this newsletter. And if you haven’t yet signed up to participate in Evolution Weekend 2016, please do so today. Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project