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AAAS's Connie Bertka: Astrobiology Could Aid a Science-Theology Dialogue
The recent discovery of the first potential Earth-like planet outside of our solar system has generated intense interest among space scientists, but for Connie Bertka, the discovery has intriguing theological implications as well.
Researchers have suggested that the small-mass, rocky planet orbiting the star Gliese 581 some 20.5 million light years from Earth could have water on it, and water is essential for life as humans know it. If it were possible to determine that water there supported even simple life forms unrelated to life on Earth, proof of a "second genesis" would provide interesting grounds for reflection by the world's religions, and especially for Christianity, says Bertka, a geologist with theological training who directs AAAS's Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion.
"The astrobiology community—planetary scientists, astronomers, and biologists—is tracking ever closer to answering a question that has been around for a long time: Are we alone in the universe?'" Bertka said before a 28 April presentation at the Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Va. "With the discovery of a small mass planet, just five times the mass of the Earth, at a distance from its star that allows for the possibility of water at the planet's surface, scientists have taken another small step towards answering that question."
The discovery of a second genesis would almost certainly trouble some religious people, specifically those who insist that the origin of life on this planet, and elsewhere, is dependent on a direct intervention by God rather than part of a God-given fertility of nature, she said. For the scientist, the observation of even one other genesis of life suggests that the process could be common and a result of natural processes with no supernatural intervention required.
But, she added: "For theologians who favor a view of creation as ongoing by a Creator who welcomes the participation of the creation in the process, and for theologians who dismiss an anthropocentric world picture in favor of emphasizing the connectedness of humans with all of creation, this discovery will most likely be welcome. These theologians will find themselves at the forefront of encouraging religious traditions to remain in dialogue with science."
Bertka has Ph.D. in geology from Arizona State University and has done extensive research in planetary science; she also has Master of Theological Studies degree from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. That background gives her an unusual view of the intersection of science and religion in the United States.
David Morrison, senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute, was among a group of select researchers who heard Bertka's 12 April presentation at the Space Science, Environmental Ethics, and Policy Conference at NASA's research center. It was not the sort of message space scientists usually hear. But, Morrison said, "it is valuable for scientists to understand the way society views their work. I am especially intrigued by Dr. Bertka's suggestion that astrobiology might help bridge the gap, since many religious and spiritual people share with scientists a special respect for the living world."
Later, at the Carl Howie Conference for Science, Art, and Theology at Union Theological Seminary, Bertka detailed the science of astrobiology and search for extraterrestrial life before a largely religious audience. Earlier in April, at NASA Ames Research Center in California, she spoke to influential space scientists about the deeply religious character of the United States, advising them to build an understanding of—and a relationship with—religious communities. That would serve both to increase public understanding of science and, perhaps, to build a sense that space exploration is a shared mission.
Humans have long been fascinated by the possibility of life from other worlds. The question—and the search for answers—has exerted a strong influence both on religion and on science. But spacecraft and earth-bound telescopes are now creating a possibility, however tentative, that we may in the near future be able to prove the conjecture.
In both of her recent talks, Bertka focused on the 1984 discovery of a softball-sized Martian meteorite in Antarctica. Subsequent research, published in Science in 1996, suggested that the small chunk of igneous rock known as ALH84001may have contained fossil evidence of primitive bacterial life.
"This announcement served to focus the energies of not only the planetary science community, but also the larger scientific community, on a multidisciplinary effort to explore the origin and evolution of life on Earth, to determine if life exists elsewhere in the universe, and to predict the future of life on earth and elsewhere in the universe," Bertka said in remarks prepared for the Carl Howie Conference. "The resulting discipline, called astrobiology, addresses the questions: "Where did we come from? Are we alone? Where are we going?"
South Polar ice cap of Mars
Photos courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech
Research has since demonstrated that ALH84001 did not contain microbial fossils. Still, recent months have been an "amazing" time for the emerging field, she said. Missions to Mars, including NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission and the Mars Global Surveyor, have demonstrated that liquid H20 was abundant on Mars in the past, and perhaps even in relatively recent times. In March, research published on Science Express detailed how the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding of the Mars Express space probe had found vast deposits of subsurface ice at the planet's south pole. If the ice were melted, researchers wrote, it would be enough to cover the entire planet in 11 meters of water.
And then, last month, came the announcement in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics that astronomers had discovered an Earth-like planet in the constellation Libra, orbiting Gliese 581.
That discovery is likely just the beginning, Bertka said at the Carl Howie Conference.
Consider the size of the search area (an explanation derived by Bertka from a past presentation by NASA's Navigator Program Public Engagement team): There are 200 billion stars in the Milky Way alone—and the Milky Way is just one of billions of galaxies in the universe. Or, she said, look at it another way: If you scale our solar system to the size of a quarter (in U.S. currency), the Milky Way would be the size of the United States, and the galactic neighborhood that includes Gliese 581 would be the size of New York City.
NASA is scheduled to launch its new Kepler space telescope in 2008, and over the following four years, its 95-megapixel digital eye will search in particular for "Earth-sized planets in the habitable zones of their parent stars—within the range of distance from the star in which liquid water is expected to be stable on the planet's surface.
"A little over a year from now, we will begin to learn just how common Earth-sized planets are!" Bertka said. "If Earth-size planets around other stars are common, Kepler is expected to detect tens to hundreds."
Such developments bring humanity "closer than we have ever been" to answering the question of whether Earth is the only planet that supports life, she concluded. "Within my lifetime I believe we will know whether terrestrial planets are common or rare around other stars. Within my children's lifetime, I believe we will either discover extraterrestrial microbial life, or be surprised by its absence.
"As for extraterrestrial intelligent life, I have no idea. But for a scientist, the discovery of extraterrestrial microbial life, particularly if it is a second genesis (that is, it is not related to Earth life)—this discovery by itself is ripe with expectation."
It is, as well, a discovery that could require religious leaders to consider anew long-held doctrine about the creation of life, and of the relationship of God and humanity. Bertka used her 12 April address to the Space Science, Environmental Ethics, and Policy conference to highlight some of the theological implications of such a discovery.
The potential for disconnect between religious people and space scientists goes well beyond Christians who take the Bible's creation story literally, Bertka explained. Twenty years ago, liberal Christian theologian John Cobb Jr. concluded in Theology and Space that space exploration was not justified if it came at the expense of sustaining the Earth's biosphere.
"Certainly the space science community will be asked to answer the same question Cobb raised 20 years ago, and with more urgency," she said. "And, as is apparent to scientists and science educators who specifically choose to commit their time and talents to communicating science, the relationship between science and society has increasingly been strained as new scientific knowledge and technologies unavoidably intersect with values and beliefs."
"Why should the scientific community be concerned with religious communities? From a practical perspective, I suggest we have no choice in this manner—we are answerable to a religious public."
Bertka cited a 2006 study by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion that showed 89.2 percent of Americans are affiliated with a religious tradition, with Christians comprising 81.9 percent of the total.
Americans are becoming more religious, not less, the study says, and they're becoming more spiritual. Some are seeking the Holy Spirit, Bertka said, and others the higher self, and though those spiritual pursuits can be quite different, they share a common trait: "dissatisfaction with the institutions of modernity, a sense of disenchantment that calls into question the guiding principles of the Enlightenment—namely, that increased knowledge is inevitably good for society and an indicator of historical progress, and that scientific progress results in increased knowledge and greater 'material well being'.
"We need to recognize that science is only one component, if that, of the many that people bring to the table when they develop their worldview, and we're not going to change that."
But she suggested that astrobiology could create a new link between space science and theology that did not exist 20 years ago.
"Astrobiology is all about life, including life on this planet," she explained. "It has as one of its primary objectives an understanding of the future of life on this planet, though this is perhaps the area of exploration that has received the least attention… I suggest that the very focus of astrobiology on the study of life makes it a good candidate for funding, if an important measure of funding eligibility is the potential of the investment to contribute to the scientific knowledge necessary to address the preservation of life on this planet."
But would astrobiology be a bridge to religious and spiritual people?
Discovery of a second genesis "will be challenging" for conservative Christians and those who believe in the literal truth of the Bible, she told the scientists. "But don't, for example, assume that all Evangelical Protestants are fundamentalists—they're not. They have a range of beliefs in terms of how they interpret the Bible…For some Evangelical Protestants, the challenging theological questions will be the same as those for liberal mainline Christians: What was God's role in an origin of life that arose naturally? Or, put another way: How does God act in nature?"
Recent agreements between evangelical leaders and the scientific community to collaborate on global climate issues shows the possibility that "creation care" can resonate with both liberal and more conservative Christians, Bertka said.
The key to future relations may be how the scientific community engages Christians, especially conservative Christians.
"When we speak as science educators, we desperately try top help people understand what science can do, and what it can't do—the nature of science," she explained. "This is an important message that we need to keep conveying. That said, another approach has its time and place—that one that looks for dialogue and interaction. In order to participate in that approach, we need to be able to listen in a new way.
"Besides speaking clearly, especially about the nature of science, and listening carefully to people's responses to what we have said, perhaps part of the solution is that we need to bring a friend to the discussion…. What I'm saying is that that the science community can't do this alone. We really need to find some colleagues in the religious community—both conservative and liberal—who share our concerns about science not being taken seriously, and work with them to try to figure our how to reach their communities.
"Securing a religious public's support for space science research and exploration, so that it merits a high enough priority to claim resources, is certainly vital, but it's only the beginning," she concluded. "It is in the sharing of what we learn from the exploration that the process actually comes full circle, and that can only happen when the discoveries are owned by both the religious and the spiritual, the liberal and conservative."
Edward W. Lempinen
9 May 2007