September 2015 Newsletter

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

  1. Evolution Weekend 2016:  Promoting Civil Discourse;
  2. Astrobiology News for September 2015:  The Ocean of Enceladus;
  3. Congratulations, Guy!;
  4. Advice Needed from Members;
  5. Anti-Evolution Lawsuit Dismissed in West Virginia; and
  6. Alabama’s Evolving.

1. Evolution Weekend 2016: Promoting Civil Discourse

Simply put, too often public discourse is rude and uncivil. People are shrill and belligerent rather than thoughtful and educational. The purpose seems to be to make points rather than to engage in meaningful dialogue that might lead to new insights.

One of The Clergy Letter Project’s goals when it was founded was to raise the quality of the discourse about the relationship between religion and science. The belief was that it should be possible to have a civil and informative discussion about this topic. Over the years that we have been in existence, I think it is fair to say that we’ve demonstrated not only that such a thing is possible but that doing so is actually incredibly productive.

With this goal in mind, the theme for Evolution Weekend 2016 (12-14 February 2016) is Exploring Ways to Engage in Complex Discussions in a Civil Manner. We don’t need to shout at each other; we need to listen to one another. We don’t have to agree but we should understand what others are promoting.

Evolution Weekend events occur in congregations, the perfect setting for reasoned discourse. If, in that environment, we are unable to have such discussions, I fear there is not much hope for society. Please join hundreds of your colleagues and demonstrate that it is possible to engage in thoughtful dialogue about complex issues. By doing so, together, we can make a collective statement not only about the compatibility of religion and science but also about the desire we all have for reasoned debate.

Please sign up now for Evolution Weekend 2016!

_____ YES, I plan to participate in Evolution Weekend 2016, 12-14 Feb. 2016. Please add me to the list!

Your name:

If you’re already on our list for 2016, there’s no need to sign up again. If, however, your congregation is not yet posted, please sign up by replying to this e-mail. I’ll proudly add you to our growing list.


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2. Astrobiology News for September 2015:  The Ocean of Enceladus

In this month’s Astrobiology News, Clergy Letter Project consultant and Adler Planetarium astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase discusses the probability that there may well be a warm ocean covered by an icy crust on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. The implications of this research for our search for life in the Universe beyond Earth are striking.

Two years ago, in Astrobiology News for August 2013(1), I wrote about a proposed mission to the Jovian moon Europa. A major reason such a mission would be of interest is the evidence for a subsurface liquid ocean on Europa. Years before any spacecraft data were available, Guy Consolmagno (who was recently appointed Director of the Vatican Observatory by Pope Francis(2)) suggested that Europa should have a liquid ocean under its surface based on detailed computer models he performed as a graduate student at MIT. Just this month, we learned there is strong evidence that the Saturnian moon, Enceladus, has a warm global ocean beneath its icy crust. These results suggest that some of the natural satellites of giant gaseous planets may provide subsurface environments conducive to life.

More than seven years of data obtained by the Cassini spacecraft provide independent lines of evidence that Enceladus (Saturn’s 6th largest moon) harbors a subsurface ocean.(3) Icy plumes emerging from fissures near the moon’s south pole provided previous evidence of a subsurface body of water. Furthermore, changes in the speed of Cassini as it passed through Enceladus’ gravitational field during flybys from 2010-2012 suggested the presence of a feature denser than ice but less dense than water below the surface of Enceladus. The most likely explanation, consistent with the observed plumes, is the presence of a subsurface ocean.

The latest results are based on careful mapping of surface features (primarily craters) across hundreds of images that have enabled Cassini scientists to measure changes in Enceladus’ rotation with high precision. These observations indicate that Enceladus wobbles as it orbits Saturn, to a degree best explained if its outer ice shell and core are not rigidly connected, but separated by a global subsurface ocean. This vast ocean feeds the spray of water vapor, icy particles, and organic molecules erupting from fractures near Enceladus’ south pole. Although the mechanisms that may have prevented Enceladus’ ocean from freezing are not yet understood, tidal forces from Saturn may be heating the moon’s interior to a larger extent than previously thought, and heat provided by ongoing hydrothermal activity may provide an environment suitable for living organisms. On October 28, Cassini will fly through the plumes just 30 miles above the surface of Enceladus, so stay tuned for future surprises from this distant, enigmatic world!

In other news, if you haven’t yet seen the latest images of Pluto sent back by the New Horizons spacecraft, check them out because they are absolutely amazing!(4) Also, if you enjoy my brief monthly articles, I encourage you to explore the Adler Planetarium’s social media channels, such as #AstroHangout on YouTube.(5) On a final note, I will be giving a presentation entitled Cosmic Time in “Big History” at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois on October 8, 2015. I invite you to check out the details on the web page listed below – perhaps some of you who live in the Chicago area will even be able to attend!(6)

Until next month,


Grace Wolf-Chase, Ph.D. (

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3. Congratulations, Guy!

Long-time friend of the Clergy Letter Project, Brother Guy Consolmagno has a new job! Earlier this month, Pope Francis appointed Brother Guy as the Director of the Vatican Observatory. The Catholic News Service recently ran an article announcing the appointment. That piece described Brother Guy as follows: “A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brother Consolmagno was a post-doctorate lecturer at Harvard College Observatory and at M.I.T. before serving in the U.S. Peace Corps in Kenya where he taught physics and astronomy. He entered the Jesuit order in 1989 when he was in his late 30s. His research focuses on meteorites, asteroids and the origin and evolution of small bodies in the solar system.” Congratulations, Guy!


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4. Advice Needed from Members

I occasionally receive requests for specific types of information from Clergy Letter Project members and I do my best to respond. There are times, however, when I simply cannot provide good advice and I need to turn to all of you for help.

I’ve been asked to recommend good resources for middle school students to explore the relationship between religion and science. Can you please help me respond by providing me with some high quality suggestions? Similarly, in an attempt to be proactive, if you have any recommendations that would be age appropriate for elementary school students, please send them my way. I’ll share what I receive with all of you and, if the recommendations are rich enough, I’ll build a web page so we have a permanent record. Thanks much.


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5. Anti-Evolution Lawsuit Dismissed in West Virginia

What has to be considered one of the year’s oddest lawsuits is now over. The federal case which argued that teaching evolution in West Virginia was unconstitutional has been dismissed by the judge this past week. The suit, just the latest filed by the plaintiff, argued that evolution was a religion and thus shouldn’t be taught in public schools. Instead, he argued that the court should mandate that his own views be taught, views he claims demonstrate a “mathematical system of genetic variations that proves evolution is a religion.” The judge’s decision in the case makes for interesting reading. And a short summary of this case and the previous suits the plaintiff has brought is also worth reading.


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6. Alabama’s Evolving

As reported by our good friends at The National Center for Science Education, science education in Alabama seems to be evolving. Earlier this month, the state’s board of education voted to adopt a new set of science standards. Those standards describe evolution as "substantiated with much direct and indirect evidence." This is obviously very good news for the students in the state. There is a paradox associated with the adoption of those standards, however. Since 2001, biology textbooks used in the state had to have a sticker attached that told students that evolution is a “controversial theory” that students should question. I’m delighted to say that the Montgomery Advertiser, the largest newspaper in Alabama, published an editorial calling for the removal of the stickers. The editorial opens by saying, “The theory of evolution is just a theory in the same way the theory of gravity is just a theory.” And it ends by concluding that, “It’s time to rip off the stickers.” Progress is a wonderful thing!


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Let me close this month, as I have in the past, by thanking each of you for your continued support.  And let me ask you to think about finding a friend with whom you can share this newsletter.  Together we are making a difference.


Michael Zimmerman
Founder and Executive Director
The Clergy Letter Project