INTRODUCTION TO THE “AWAKENING” BLOG

What will happen when we discover that we are not alone? Will science and faith collide or merge? 

People all over the world, at all levels, from individuals to organizations, are awakening to the realization that finding life elsewhere in our Galaxy would forever change how we see ourselves and our place in the cosmos.”

Sara Seager, Professor of Planetary Science , Professor of Physics, MIT from her statement to the (U.S.) House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, United States House of Representatives, December 4, 2013

“Imagine the moment when the world wakes up to find that we are not alone.” 

Dr. Matt Mountain, Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, at a July 14, 2014 televised panel of leading science and engineering experts discussing NASA’s search for life elsewhere in the Universe

I wake up at 6 a.m. every morning and listen to the national CBC radio news- “ The World at Six” – before my feet hit the ground. Like my mother before me – I’ve been a news junkie all my adult life. Must be in the genes

As a freelance writer and columnist with a passionate interest in space exploration and discovery, I confess to having invested a fair amount of time in imagining the moment that Dr. Mountain speaks of in the above mentioned quote.   I’m also convinced that, from all I have seen and read, that moment will (barring unforeseen circumstances and God and/or the Universe, depending on your belief, willing) happen in my lifetime.  And yours.  But more on that later.   For now, let me tell you how I got here- developing a blog (my first) that will probably break more than one grammatical and structural rule and put my membership in the Professional Writers Association of Canada at risk.  But this isn’t my usual gig and there are no editors here –just you and me and what I really want this to be is an open and honest dialogue- not a pedantic essay- on a topic that I believe will soon  be one of the most important issues of our time.

The overriding goal of this blog is to stimulate dialogue on the seemingly intractable perception in our world that faith and science are exclusive of each other. We are entering a time of profound change that is bringing a new urgency to the need for a balanced discussion on the subject. Things are starting to happen – scientific discoveries in astronomy, space exploration and physics are rapidly revealing a vaster and potentially more habitable universe than we had previously imagined.  Exo solar planets (planets that orbit other stars)  and “other earths” are now being located in the thousands and most of us who even have a passing idea of how large the Universe is know that this is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Scientists like Dr. Mountain and others now believe that our galaxy alone is teeming with other planets – at least 100 billion of them. And that’s just our Galaxy- the good old Milky Way.  But there are some 100 million other galaxies in the known universe.  I’ve never been good at Math- my brain just isn’t wired for it- so I can’t tell you number of other potential worlds that adds up to . ( and yes I did—just end a sentence in a preposition and it hurts my writer’s soul but I’ll get over it.. ) But I know that it would contain a lot of zeros—maybe more than I can fit into this space but I think that gives you the general idea of what we are dealing with.

The media also refers to things like the discovery of the so called “God particle” not to mention that mysterious stuff called dark matter and dark energy.   The public, or at least those who are paying attention, is “waking up” to the irrefutable fact that many of these discoveries will ultimately redefine our place in the Universe and could potentially conflict with the existing religious doctrine/spiritual beliefs upon which many people base their world view and indeed their lives.

“Our (the Vatican Observatory) mere existence is witness that science and religion can live in harmony. For too many years there has been a “war” between the two sides. Dialogue, though, difficult, is necessary.  Is there any honest dialogue that is not difficult?

There may be conflict and tensions but we must not be afraid of them. The Church does not fear science and its discoveries. “ 

Fr. Jose Gabriel Funes, S.J. from the introduction to `The Heavens Proclaim`

As of this writing, scientists have discovered and catalogued almost 2000 exo solar planets in our Galaxy, some of those in the aptly named “Goldilocks Zone” ( close enough to their host star for the melting of ice to form liquid water and far enough away so it doesn’t burn up.  “Not too hot and not too cold”) which is how we determine habitability- at least by human standards.  Some of those planets are rocky planets within their star’s habitable zone that scientists are dubbing, at least in the media, “twin earths”.  As recently as July of this year, NASA announced the discovery of “Kepler 452 B” which is a planet similar to Earth orbiting a star that is similar to our sun and it has the additional tantalizing characteristic of being some 6 billion years old, giving  it an evolutionary jump on us by a couple of billion years. In other words, good old 452 B has had that much longer to evolve and it boggles the mind to even try and imagine what kind of civilization might have developed over that amount of time. Or not.  Obviously we cannot state definitively that life exists elsewhere because we haven’t “seen” or “heard” any evidence that organic life, intelligent or otherwise, exists on these planets but we are getting closer to finding out.   We now know that the building blocks of life, the compounds and elements that all life on earth has evolved from, ( My Astrobiology course has taught me the acronym for the 6 main elements of organic life so here it is —CHNOPS—Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorus and Sulphate ) has been found on Martian meteorites that have travelled through space and collided with Earth.  So why wouldn’t those same materials have been “delivered” elsewhere?

By the way, if you are a creationist and believe that God created life starting with Adam and Eve, please stay with us anyway.  You are the folks that we really need to hear from.  It is possible to integrate these beliefs- at least in my experience.  I am a practicing Catholic (although admittedly I could practice more) and I find that these theories and the science that go with them do not contradict my belief in God but rather enhance it.  Galileo, a devout Catholic, is perhaps the poster boy for the conflict of faith and science and there are many who are still angry with the Catholic Church for their persecution of his support of the radical Copernican theory that the sun and not the earth is the centre of our solar system.  To think otherwise would be laughable now, but Galileo was constrained by the beliefs of the 16th century.   His famous reflection on faith and reason has always resonated with me and sustains me in my passion for science and discovery.

“I do not feel obligated to believe in a God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect and has intended us to forgo their use.”

Galileo Galilei 

1564-1642

I believe that we are close to discovering evidence of life, of some sort, elsewhere in the Universe and being a relentless optimist, I believe that it will happen, (God willing) in my lifetime.  ( Given that I grew up in the 60’s and have 2 adult daughters and 2 little grandkids, suffice to say that I’m in the –ahemmm…middle years of my earthly journey ) And when the moment that Dr. Mountain talks about happens, it will have profound implications for society, especially for people of faith whose religious doctrine or world view is not open to the possibility that we are neither alone or unique in the cosmos.   For them, the discovery of life elsewhere in the Universe may be disruptive, even frightening.  Let’s start a conversation and see how others feel about this and how they will integrate it into their faith, religion, world view and/or personal ideology.

This blog is for everyone, regardless of creed, religion, lack of religion, background in science or not.  I am not a scientist.  Heck—I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and English Literature- not Astronomy or Physics.   I write about space exploration and discovery for the every day person because I am one.  Although I have a passion for space exploration and discovery that is central to my life, I am not an expert.  I am just the writer.  And the listener.  And I want to hear what you have to say about “all of this”.

“The knowledge of the general public of a certain education level about the cosmos and our place within it is still poor. Therefore a cosmic awareness must be further promoted- where our mind is increasingly conscious of the global reality that surrounds us – using the best tool available to us: education. In this respect, we need a new Galileo to lead us in this journey.” 

Professor Gabriel G. de la Torre, Neuropsychologist, University of Cadiz,  quoted in the journal “Acta Astronautica” on his analysis of the ethical and sociological implications of “Active Seti” attempts to contact possible extraterrestrial civilizations.

Acknowledgements and Gratitude  

I’ve been fortunate and truly blessed in my journey to have met and talked to some of the “big minds” of science who are part of this exciting age of discovery that has come upon us since the Kepler Mission was launched in 2009.   I will be forever grateful to Dr. Sara Seager, Astrophysicist and Professor of Planetary Science and Physics at MIT who participated in the Kepler Mission,   for the kitchen table discussion that was the genesis of the “Awakening” project and for her validation of my interest in this topic as well as her continued support and encouragement since then.

 

Also to Father Sabino Maffeo, SJ,  Director of the Specola Vaticana” ( Vatican Observatory ) who not only  admitted me into  the hallowed halls of the Specola but provided me with the unparalleled honour ( and thrill ) of holding  historical documents by Copernicus and Galileo.  But most of all, for inspiring me with his gentle wisdom and faith and by demonstrating with his life and his work, that faith and science can co-exist.

Thank you as well to Dr.  Gabriel Delatorre, Clinical Neuropsychologist and Human Factors Specialist with a special interest in Space Psychology ( (University of Cadiz, Spain ),  for allowing me to use his article “Toward a Cosmic Consciousness “ on this site as well as providing me with a  link to his website.  Also to Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J. Astronomer and Planetary Physicist Scientist at the Vatican Observatory, for also allowing me to post a link to the VO Website and Sacred Space” Blog.   And perhaps more significantly, for taking an interest in my work and encouraging me to “start a conversation.”

And I would be remiss without saying a special thank you to Dr. Russ Taylor, Director of the Centre for Radio Astronomy, Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Calgary who unknowingly planted the first “seed “of what would become an all abiding passion for me.  Although I have had a life long interest in space and astronomy, my “awakening “ to this particular aspect of the search for life elsewhere in the Universe, first occurred  when I interviewed him for my article “The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) : Scanning the Skies for Life- Where it began, Where Else it Exists, and What it signifies” published  in the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Journal /2009)  As a beginning writer with no formal background in science, I was focused on wrestling down the  considerable science involved in the project so I could write about it for others with no background in radio astronomy and his patience in explaining things enabled me to do that.  I recall being especially impressed by the fact that, as an empirically based scientist, he still recognized that the kinds of questions that could be answered by the SKA, which could take us back to those events shortly ( relatively speaking) shortly after the Big Bang, “ really do border on philosophical and religious questions about our place in the Universe.”

Thanks, Russ.  You got me thinking then and I’m still thinking about it now.    And now I want to get others thinking —and talking.

Thanks for getting through the introduction- I promise that my posts won’t be this long

Please let me know what you “imagine” that moment that Dr. Mountain refers to will be like.  What will be going through your mind when you wake up to find that we are not alone?

If you are a person of faith, and if you are comfortable doing so, please take a few minutes to answer the following 4 questions on how that new knowledge will affect your faith and/or religious doctrine.  Or just write a post telling me (and others who will hopefully read this blog)   what you think, believe or feel on this complex but fascinating topic. And if you are not a person of faith, please join the conversation in any way you feel comfortable.

With gratitude and hope
Maureen

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Thank you for interest and participation in this project. M.A.N.


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