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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 1999 > Apr > Apr 29

ETs: Is Astronomy Refashioning The Images Of God?

From: stig.agermose@get2net.dk (Stig Agermose)
Date: Thu, 29 Apr 1999 04:19:52 GMT
Fwd Date: Thu, 29 Apr 1999 09:21:09 -0400
Subject: ETs: Is Astronomy Refashioning The Images Of God?

Source: Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas,




Updated: Tuesday, Apr. 27, 1999 at 14:33 CDT 

Is astronomy refashioning the images of God? 

By Karen R. Long
c. 1999 Religion News Service 

WASHINGTON -- The hope that humanity is not alone in the
universe heated up earlier this month with news of the first
solar system outside our own.

Astronomers meeting with theologians at the Smithsonian Museum
of Natural History rushed to update their slides and reword
their presentations, admitting that their e-mail had been
buzzing with speculation for weeks. After 11 years of
painstaking observations, researchers announced April 15 they
had detected a trio of extrasolar planets orbiting Upsilon
Andromedae, a star similar to our own sun about 44 light-years
from Earth.

"You can expect the announcement of dozens of new planets over
the next several years, gaseous as well as rocky planets,"
declared Harvard University astrophysicist David Latham, who is
running his own search at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

"When I got here Tuesday we had 17 (planets outside our system);
now we have 19," said Jill Tarter, director of SETI, the Search
for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project, and the model for
Jodie Foster's character in the movie "Contact."

"I really do have the best job in the world," said Tarter,
beaming at an eclectic audience gathered at the Smithsonian to
ask if the new boom in cosmology was beginning to answer the
oldest questions about God and the universe. "Every morning I
get up and strive to solve some technical challenge and each day
I learn something new, often from the diverse disciplines
engaged by this question: Are we alone in the cosmos?"

The 400 assembled included Noble laureates and Montessori
teachers, Mormon scientists from Salt Lake City and brown-robed
monks from St. Anselm's Abbey, a retired Dallas couple who
learned of the conference on the Internet and Nate
Ewert-Krocker, a 14-year-old boy from Concord Township in Lake
County, Ohio whose parents thought he might be interested.

Into this mix waded a few theologians, who are starting to work
on how the discovery of extraterrestrial life might recast
notions of God. What might happen to the three Abrahamic
religions -- Islam, Judaism and Christianity -- with their
concepts of "the chosen," and "the special elect, if God turns
out to have other children?

"Any encounter would be a chance to broaden our understanding of
the divine," said John F. Haught, a theology professor at
Georgetown University. "The fact that we have SETI illustrates
our cosmic impulse at socialization. It would not be so
surprising that other civilizations are centralized and reaching
out toward us."

Owen Gingerich, a Harvard University professor of astronomy and
a conference organizer, said, "From a perspective of religious
humility, we are not in a position to limit God's creativity to

Some scientists, such as Harvard University anthropologist Irven
DeVore, don't care how many planets the astronomers manage to
count. "I personally cannot discern a shred of evidence for a
benign, cosmic presence," he said. "I look at evolution and I
see indifference and capriciousness. What kind of God works with
a 99.9 percent extinction rate?"

Researchers are eager to find out. Kenneth Nealson, NASA's top
astrobiologist, is leading a quartet of Mars missions over the
next decade designed to retrieve rocks from the surface and
scour them for hints of microbial life.

"From my point of view, as a microbiologist, we need to figure
out how to broaden the search, broaden our horizons," he said.
"My guess is we'll have a boost of knowledge about our solar
system equivalent to the Apollo coming back from the moon and
putting samples into our hands."

Although SETI rents radio telescopes and systematically listens
to portions of the night sky for signals that might indicate
war, transportation, energy-making or communication of an
advanced technological society, Nealson suspects the majority of
life in the universe would be of a more humble sort.

"From the point of view of SETI, Earth would have scored as
negative until we developed radio waves about 70 years ago,
despite the pyramids and everything else here," Nealson said.

As the lead project scientist on the NASA Mars robotic missions,
Nealson is very conservative about the likelihood of lucking
onto extrasolar life in a few scoops of debris from Mars. When
pinned down, he thinks Callisto, a moon of Jupiter, might be the
best candidate for nonterrestrial life in this solar system. But
current technology precludes any effort to go there: Propulsion
systems are not powerful enough to break the gravity of Jupiter
to bring samples back.

Nevertheless, NASA and its partner agency in France are
committing close to $1 billion on the four Mars robotic
missions. Astronomer Gingerich said this was similar to the King
of Denmark supplying a ton of gold to support Tycho Brahe's
16th-century observatory. The drive to answer such questions
goes very deep.

"Finding a second Genesis in our solar system would greatly
strengthen the argument for plentiful life in the universe,"
Tarter said. She also thinks it might mean a lot to humanity.

"For me, I always have this Pollyanna hat I wear," she said,
"that given independent evolution of life somewhere else, we
would have to recognize the differences between ourselves and
any others would be vast, and this would trivialize any
differences among humans, the tribal differences with which we
now have so many difficulties."

But Haught, the Georgetown theologian, was more interested in
what advanced extraterrestrial life might have in common with

"ET would share our cosmological limits, the constraints of
physical laws and entropy," Haught said. "If alive and
intelligent, ET could share our capacity for religion. Would ET
know about fate, suffering, death or guilt? Would there be a
possibility of sharing our mutual creation stories?"

Haught said some believers might take news of extraterrestrial
intelligence as opportunity to evangelize, as Cleveland author
Mary Doria Russell explored in her fictional book, "The
Sparrow," about Jesuit missionaries jumping the gun into space.

But Seth Shostak, a SETI scientist, warned the religionists
against becoming too cozy with the idea they can rejigger their
theology to make room for extraterrestrial intelligence. He
pointed to the 18th-century reaction of the people on the South
Sea Islands when Capt. James Cook sailed into their harbors.

"They took one look at his ship, his guns, his wheels and
assumed his religion must be more advanced," Shostak said, "and
they threw off their religion for his."

Some of those least inclined at the three-day Smithsonian
conference to sit still for such speculation were the
evolutionary biologists.

"I've been waffling on my own opinion," said professor Sara Via,
a University of Maryland expert in ecological genetics. "It's
not at all obvious to me that the evolution of intelligent life
is inevitable."

It took an asteroid to clear the decks of dinosaurs so mammals
might evolve, an asteroid that would have missed striking Earth
altogether if it had been 20 minutes earlier or later. It took
blue-green algae 1.4 billion years of photosynthesis to alter
the atmosphere permanently so oxygen-breathers could emerge. And
it took surviving a very close call when monkeys nearly wiped
out apes because apes, from which humans descend, cannot eat
unripe fruit.

"Natural selection is ongoing and blind, a zig-zagging
opportunistic course," Harvard's DeVore said. "If you remember
only one thing, remember that 99.9 percent of all species have
gone extinct. With perhaps 50 billion species over the history
of the planet, only one achieved the ability to send radio

Tarter and Shostak wager that the universe is so big there must
be more, because there are more stars than grains of sands on
all the beaches of Earth. At SETI headquarters in Mountain View,
Calif., the team keeps a bottle of chilled champagne on ice.

"Even if the evolution of biological intelligence is very rare,"
Shostak said, "it can't be zero probability, because we are

Distributed by The Associated Press (AP)

=A9 1999 Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas -- Terms and Conditions

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