Space Ads

So, I’ve got enough stuff to worry about down here—the chimney needs some attention, that backyard gate still doesn’t hang right, and Giant keeps on running out of the cereal I buy—to have to turn my attention to space.  I love outer space, although, unlike some people I’ve never been there.  One of the simple pleasures in life is to be outdoors at the lake and watching the night sky where there’s no light interference.  Then I learned about space advertising.  You see, as an editor you get to read about all kinds of topics, and this came up in a proposal one time.  I had no idea that companies had been proposing billboards in space to fly across our nighttime skies.  It’s hard enough to use the internet anymore without hacking your way through a jungle of ads, and now they want to clutter our view of the nighttime sky so there’s no escaping capitalism.

“Space, the final frontier.”  This is a mantra that many of us grew up with in the sixties.  Most of us can’t afford to, and really have no desire to, go into space.  Born down here, we’re content to stay down here.  That doesn’t mean we can’t look at the sky with wonder.  Already you can’t go to the beach or a stadium event without planes flying banners trying to draw your mind back to the commercial world.  Even in remote forests you can find litter stamped with some company’s logo, trying to sell you more.  It’s enough to make you want to get to space to get away from it all.  Now that companies can afford to fly people to space as tourists—this is pretty strictly limited to the top one percent, of course—they feel they have the right to clutter the nighttime skies so that you’ll have that midnight urge to go buy a Tesla.

The original space advertising?

At this time of year we look to the nighttime sky in hopes of seeing a special star.  People with too much money cause so many unnecessary problems for the rest of us.  This has been apparent throughout history, but has been brought into sharper focus in the days of late capitalism.  Having too much only makes you want more, it seems.  And since other people have some you need to flash your company in their faces constantly.  From what I’ve read the only reason space advertising hasn’t really taken off is that it costs millions to get your ad up there.  Despite inflation it seems that these kinds of costs always come down.  And yet you can’t even get a contractor to come out and do something about that deck that’s falling apart.  And I do hope that they’ll have my cereal at the store this week.


First Images

I awoke to an image from the James Webb Space Telescope.  Looking at the universe at it was 4.6 billion years ago is a humble and terrifying experience.  Our universe is so incredibly vast and we are tiny.  As we on this planet bicker and kill and destroy, out there something truly wondrous looms.  Those tiny pinpricks of galaxies.  Our own galaxy so massive that we can’t comprehend it.  Our own midsize star large enough to hold more than a million earths.  Our own planet big enough that no human being can see it all in a lifetime.  What in the world are we fighting for?  This image is just a patch of sky about the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length.  How many grains of sand would it take to fill the visible sky?

Many people argue that such things are a waste of money.  Yes, there are very real, human-created problems right here on earth.  The siren call of space, however, has the potential to save us.  If we look into that immense universe just out there and realize that we are part of something larger than ourselves, we can stop fighting and hating and electioneering.  Keep looking up instead.  Costs, after all, are relative.  Our entire economic system is arbitrary.  We decide what’s valuable and what’s not.  We make rules that allow individual human beings to control the lives of countless others based on nothing more than agreed-upon principles.  Food could be freely distributed.  Medicine could be given to the sick.  What’s required is perspective.  If looking at the universe doesn’t provide perspective, what can?

I often wonder about life in those distant galaxies.  Given the sheer numbers it’s practically impossible that life evolved only here.  We’re told that teleological thinking is wishful and naive, but looking at the way life behaves I have to wonder if that’s true.  Life may be seeking goals.  If it is, than intelligence may be among them.  We’ve got billions of years and billions of lightyears to work with.  And when I look at the headlines I find those of the James Webb Space Telescope to be the most hopeful of all.  Galaxies are all about possibilities.  Stars being born where the outcomes may be better than one gender assuming it’s better than another.  Or that the “right to bear arms” means  stockpiling assault rifles to kill others in a fit of pique.  No, this money’s not wasted if only people might listen and pay attention to the stars.


Many Moons

Once you get beyond the very basic level, astronomy quickly become all about numbers.  It’s both fascinating and a shame.  Fascinating because scientists have been able to send probes millions of miles away, calculating, for example, where the multiple moons of Jupiter and Saturn will be so that they can fly by for an interplanetary peek.  The shame is that many people star-struck by the concepts can’t pursue it as a career.  That’s where books like David A. Rothery’s Moons: A Very Short Introduction come in.  I’ve read a number of books on the moon, but I’ve fallen behind on what we’ve learned about the moons of the outer planets.  This short treatment covers them in just enough detail.  I certainly learned a lot by reading it.

Rothery points out that apart from Earth, in our solar system the likeliest candidates for life are actually some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.  Heated by tidal action and volcanism, and having under-surface oceans, conditions may be right for such worlds to spawn life.  Even if microbial, finding life elsewhere would confirm what this dreamer has supposed all along—we’re not alone in the universe.  As Rothery also notes, there are far more moons than planets in our solar system, so that may also apply to other systems as well.  Exoplanets have been discovered for decades now.  If other suns have planets and those planets have moons, who knows what might be out there?  And all this has been happening for billions of years, whether or not we notice it.

For me, it’s concepts such as these that make astronomy so fascinating.  Also, as the book points out, there are all kinds of oddities in our own astronomical back yard.  Asteroids that have their own moons.  Moons that have unusual geological (or lunar) features that haven’t been explained.  Moons that have been torn apart by their host planet.  Moons that have been captured in orbit when passing by.  Probes have been landed on moons other than our own, and the ethics of doing so (since we might transmit microbes unintentionally) are topics of discussion.  There’s a lot crammed into this brief study.  I also can’t help but wonder what amazing things the next generation will discover.  Our knowledge of this universe, impressive as it is, doesn’t even break the crust of ice moons out there, where there is nitrogen ice and methane ice.  Parameters beyond imagination.  It may all come down to numbers in the end, but moons are so much more than that.


Used or New?

A recent post on a used book got me to thinking.  Back when I was acting like a trained researcher my reading was very specialized and focused.  Even so, my personal reading was eclectic.  I think that’s the result of having been raised poor.  With no bookstore in our town, and no Amazon (or Bookshop.org), book purchasing was catch as catch can.  Since my fortunes haven’t dramatically increased in life (long story), my purchasing habits have remained pretty much the same.  I’ll buy used books or movies if I can.  Since these are about the only things I buy, they loom large in my mind.  And the thing about buying used is that it’s often opportunistic.  I can pretend it’s intentional and say I’m trying to be well-rounded, but the fact is I try to save money where I can.

This really struck me as I was reading something written by a film maker.  Now, I’ve penned two books about horror films, and I tend to watch them quite a lot.  What struck me about what I was reading was just how many films the writer knew.  Academics can be that way—knowing everything about a subject.  When researching my first book, A Reassessment of Asherah, I read everything I could find in pre-internet days about the goddess.  That is a thoroughly researched book.  When you’re a graduate student your job is to become as familiar as possible with your subject, no matter the language of the research (within reason).  As just an editor my movies and my books are a matter of what I find in my eclectic life.

I often imagine what my life would be like if I could’ve remained a professor.  In those days I read fewer full books—research is often a matter of reading only the parts relevant to your project—and certainly less fiction.  I was never a well-paid academic, teaching at a small school that considered on-campus housing a large part of the compensation package.  I didn’t buy many books then, either.  Some of the most important ones were, you guessed it, used.  I wonder if I would’ve ever have shifted my interest back to horror.  During those days I didn’t need horror (it was a gothic campus and I was beginning family life).  Since then I’ve become an even more eclectic person.  My fascination with geology began then and still comes back when the stars are just right.  And even they, I suspect, might be remnants of even older, used stars.

Photo credit: NASA

Whose Holiday?

I write a lot about holidays.  One of the reasons is that even long before capitalism, societies took breaks right in the middle of things.  One of the major seasons of celebration was the vernal equinox.  Easter is tied to Passover, of course, but since nobody knows the year of Jesus’ crucifixion the actual date can’t be determined.  Passover is a moveable feast and since the lunar calendar is essential in setting Passover’s date, Easter is calculated as being the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.  There has been talk of the three major branches of Christianity—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—agreeing on a set date for Easter but even if that happened there would be splinter groups who liked it the old way and the confusion would only grow.

Since astronomical observation has grown so mathematical, the date of Easter can be calculated far into the future.  We know just when the vernal equinox will occur, and we know when the full moon will come around.  All that’s needed is some calendars and a whole lot of patience (and maybe a calculator).  Despite society’s obvious preference for Christmas, Easter has its own array of attendant holidays for some Christians.  (Not all Christians celebrate Easter.)  For instance, for some today is Maundy Thursday.  Tomorrow most will recognize as Good Friday.  Nobody’s quite sure what to call Saturday, and many Christians will begin to celebrate Easter at midnight even before Sunday wakes up.  Easter does last more than a single day, in some traditions, but it’s not quite as developed as the twelve days of Christmas.

Lately I’ve been considering that how these holy days are sacred for some and secular for others.  One of the realizations that globalization has wrought is that not everybody shares the same concepts of how universal events—such as the vernal equinox—should be commemorated.  Although on the equator every day’s not quite an equinox due to the earth’s tilt, it isn’t as dramatic as the changes that occur in temperate zones.  Christianity was custom-built for European holidays, which is what it tends to keep.  The history of the holidays is more complex than it might seem at first.  Add to that widespread disagreement around the world as to both religion and to when certain events should be calculated and you’ll need more than a slide-rule to figure it out.  So as we begin the Catholic and Protestant Easter season (Orthodox Easter is about a month away yet), it may be helpful to remind ourselves that what day it is might just be a matter of perspective.

Stiftung Gertrud Schnürle 1975, Fritz von Uhde, The Last Supper, via Wikimedia Commons


Sunrise Sunset

The earliest sunrise doesn’t take place on the longest day.  Things like this are what kept me out of a career in astronomy.  No, the earliest morning occurs about a week before the summer solstice.  It keeps staying light later in the evening, but the darkness creeps back in the a.m.  I know this because I awake before sunrise and I jog at first light in the summer.  For a couple of weeks now I’ve been having to start my jog later and later as I wait for the sun to catch up.  The latest sunset is about a week after the solstice.  Now matter how you count it, the days are getting shorter now.  Another lesson I’ve learned from my early morning jogs is that it’s chilliest just before sunrise.  The temperature keeps dropping from what it is around 3:00 a.m., meaning that it’s coolest just before the sun comes up.  Life lessons from the jogging trail.

I took astronomy both in high school and college.  Always fascinated by space I guess I was optimistic that perhaps the mathematics would’ve dropped out of it somewhere between diploma and baccalaureate.  My mind is more of the humanities type, dealing with approximations and analogies.  The concepts I get, but I can’t swim in formulas.  One of the main sources of perplexities was just what I’ve been describing about the earliest dawn and latest evening.  Shouldn’t they be the same day?  And how is it that the longest day is neither the earliest sunrise nor latest sunset?  Math may explain that, but I can’t.  There’s a wonder in it all.

Jogs before work (for I start that early as well) are possible only a few months of the year at this latitude.  They will give way to lunchtime breaks soon enough and yet summer has only just started.  The days will seem longer although in fact they are getting shorter.  You see what I mean about approximations and analogies?  I still occasionally read books about astronomy, and when NASA (or some privately funded venture) makes announcements about what’s going on in the heavens I pay attention.  Yes, I would liked to have gone into astronomy, but life has a way of steering you down certain paths.  Besides, there’s a certain wonder in retaining the mystery of how the longest day occurs three times in the course of two weeks, depending on your definition.  


Monsters and Gods

Nothing makes you feel quite as old as seeing a documentary where the names of the experts are unfamiliar to you because they’re too young.  So it was when I watched PBS’s Ancient Skies episode “Gods and Monsters.”  They had me at “Monsters” although I know that when paired with gods the term generally refers to Greek mythology.  This documentary had a pretty cool rendition of Marduk battling Tiamat that would’ve left many a Babylonian quaking in his or her sandals.  Ranging across the world, it showed the earliest efforts to understand astronomy, and then went on to contrast it with how the ancients nevertheless still believed in gods.  It was a striking kind of condescension, I thought.  Many scientists today still believe in a deity, although it’s no longer the fashion.

That sharp dichotomy, that either/or, bothers me a bit.  It’s not that I have a problem with science—I’ve always supported the scientific method.  No, it’s the idea that everything is explained that bothers me.  We understand so little about the universe.  Yes, we’ve made great strides over the past millennia, but we’ve not even been out of the cosmic neighborhood yet.  And I wish we could acknowledge that even on earth life is still a mystery that can only be solved with poetry as well as reason.  “Gods and Monsters” made the point that the ancients realized the explanatory value of stories.  Myths weren’t just idle constructs to pass the time.  They were ways of understanding how this universe works.  Some people take their mythology too seriously, of course, but that doesn’t mean that no stories are required to make sense of it all.

It was the inherent conflict implied between science and religion, I think, that bothered me the most.  Not everything in life comes down to an equation.  That doesn’t mean that equations are wrong, just that they’re not everything.  One of the points Ancient Skies makes is that people of bygone eras had a very sophisticated understanding of the sky.  It featured the builders of the great pyramid of Khufu, those who constructed Stonehenge, the Maya, and the Babylonians.  They all knew much of the math that would only be formulated in Europe much later.  And they all assuredly believed in gods.  It didn’t prevent them from complex thought in either architecture or astronomy.  Our modern dilemma is the razor burn left by standing before the mirror too long with Occam.  You don’t have to shave to support science.


Heavens Above

When things get bad down here we start to turn our eyes to the heavens. A couple of news stories in the past few weeks have encouraged such star gazing. We’ve read about Curiosity’s long look back over five years on Mars, and the possible discovery of planets billions of light years away. The thing about other planets is that we still haven’t learned how to live on our own without ruining it. Endless thoughtless “development” doesn’t make major religions rethink their declarations on birth control even as we destroy our arable land to make way for more shopping malls. People may starve to death but you can always count on the survivors shopping. Those who collect the money at the end always look so strangely familiar. Have I seen your portrait on some currency or other?

Curiosity has been five years on our most similar neighbor. Having long outlived its life expectancy, it seems to be a harbinger with an important message to tell us, if we were willing to listen. Mars is a beautiful wasteland. Some look at it and think it could become another earth. A little on the chilly side, perhaps, but nothing you can’t fix with fossil fuels and shopping venues. Who needs to go outdoors anyway? Amazon can deliver it right to your airlock. We can hurl disco balls into orbit and still pass legislation that strips basic human needs from large swaths of the population. Space, they say, is the final frontier.

At the same time we’re discovering our universe is chock full of planets. So much to acquire! Of course, with each new planetary discovery we have to think that maybe there’s life out there somewhere. Since Homo sapiens are the measure of all things—if you don’t believe that you haven’t been listening to the White House—we are entitled to exploit anything we can reach. It’s called capitalism, stupid! The assumption is that anything can be owned. And if flying saucers are buzzing around our military jets like metallic mosquitoes we say they can’t be from out there because the universe is for our exploitation, not for sharing. “Now I know,” Victor cries “what it’s like to be—“ as thunder covers that last bit. There are billions of galaxies out there, made up of billions of stars. Many of them have their own planets. Some surely have intelligent life. And we wonder why aliens don’t land on the White House lawn. Appropriately named, Curiosity sits on Mars and stares backward in wonder.


New Religious—Bang!

Religion, no matter what the skeptics say, gives us something to believe in. Even those who claim no religion believe in their non-religion. We can’t escape belief. It’s no surprise, then, that new religions constantly emerge. As people find new things—or events—meaningful, and they come together around the phenomenon or episode, a religion eventually emerges. Take the example of the Chelyabinsk meteorite. On February 15, 2013 a resounding explosion rocked Chelyabinsk. What was likely a former asteroid had headed for Russia (which they seem to prefer almost as much as Donald Trump) and became a meteoroid (the name for meteors while they’re still in outer space). Once it entered the earth’s atmosphere and became a meteor proper, it superheated and exploded in the sky—a phenomenon known as a bolide. For those of us who’ve experience them, bolides are unforgettable. Once the pieces of the exploded meteor hit the earth they became meteorites.

Image credit: NASA/ESA, public domain

Meteors are an everyday occurrence. Any time you see a shooting star—which you can do any clear night—you’ve seen one. Large, exploding meteors are rare. Shortly after the Chelyabinsk meteorite fell, according to Astro Bob, the Church of the Chelyabinsk Meteorite formed. This group did not wish for the main body of the surviving meteorite to be raised from Lake Chebarkul, where it fell. Their protests became religious as they chanted, prayed, and sang. A new, if temporary, religion was born. Astro Bob goes on to say that religions and meteorites are no strangers. Indeed, up until the Middle Ages and even a little beyond, it was believed that rocks could not fall from the sky. A meteorite, then, was a sign from either God or, well, you know who. When the impossible happens religions are quick to follow. Astro Bob’s story was written in 2013, so he doesn’t declare the fate of the Church. The meteorite was raised from the bottom of the lake in October of that year.

New Year’s Day in 1987, while I was home from seminary on break, putting a puzzle together with my brother, our house shook. A loud boom accompanied the shock wave. We ran outside to find the neighbors staring at the sky, and a few casting a wary glance toward the petroleum refinery in town. The news later that day told us a bolide had exploded nowhere very near us. We were within the shock wave, and those fortunate enough to be outside that January saw a flaming meteor in the daytime sky. I remember it well thirty years later. I already had a religion at the time (Methodism, starting to tend toward Episcopalianism) so my plate was already full. It was nevertheless a dramatic event, and when your world is literally shaken, you will naturally look for something to believe.


Hoping for Light

Although the stores have been playing Christmas music for some weeks now, it is technically Advent. I think we could all use a little Advent as days grow shorter and dark nights increase their influence over our lives. As a nation we’ve been brutalized by a minority candidate and this has become a bleak December that Poe would certainly have understood. The spinning mind occasionally falls upon George W. Bush who somehow has begun to look normal. The president who told us when America was under attack we should shop. After all, that’s what people do in December, right? We buy things to make ourselves feel better. It sure is dark outside most of the time. Advent is all about candles and light and hope.

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One of the more endearing aspects of human beings is our ability to see the positive amid negativity. Darkness is the natural state of the universe. Stars are tiny points of light in an endless cold and dark universe. Most of what’s out there has no light beyond those willing to burn bright enough for others to see. We, however, see the light of daytime as normative, slumbering away the hours of darkness. We thrive in light and the light has to be augmented by candles as we struggle against the natural darkness that would, if it could, encompass the universe. Darkness, despite its emptiness, is endlessly hungry. Advent reminds us that we must be light if we want anyone to see in the growing nighttime.

We miss this important dynamic if we leap straight from Halloween to Christmas, pausing briefly for Thanksgiving. The church has made its fair share of mistakes, but Advent wasn’t one of them. Experts tell us Jesus wan’t born in December. Christmas isn’t really a physical birthday. It’s an ancient rite concerned with the return of light to darkened skies. A fervent appeal for our colorful lights and candles to encourage the light that we know, we believe, is out there to return to us. Scientists tell us that it’s just that the earth lolls at 23 degrees on its axis and all of this is just a balancing act. That may be so. I’ve never been off the earth to check. Down here on the ground, however, the days come only reluctantly and the nights linger longer and longer. And we can choose to see darkness as our natural state, or we can ignite a candle to encourage the light to return.


The Neighborhood

583px-Ptolemaicsystem-small

Let me send out a warm welcome to the neighborhood, I think. Not that I officially represent Earth—or anything for that matter. I’m just friendly, I guess. Now that astronomers have strong evidence that the nearest star to our own, Proxima Centauri, likely has a planet, it’s not premature to head over with a casserole. It’s not every day that a new solar system is discovered. We don’t know for sure that the planet’s there, but chances are pretty good. In reading about this discovery I learned that the orthodoxy has changed since I took astronomy in college. It seems now standard wisdom teaches that most stars likely have a least one planet. I can’t even count the stars—I usually start to trail off after I get to about ten—so I can’t imagine the number of potential planets out there. And where there are planets, there are gods.

Let me rephrase that. If there are billions and billions of planets it is very likely that there’s life out there. I know I’m racing ahead of the evidence here, but let me have my fun. If there’s life, there’s a chance, a glimmer of a chance at least, that given enough life we’ll find consciousness. I’ve always thought it was a touch arrogant on our part to assume we were the only ones out here. Perhaps it’s because the stakes are so, ahem, astronomically high we seem to be afraid to admit the possibility. We don’t really want to be alone in this cold, vast, universe after dark. Enter the gods. Conscious beings—even arrogant ones—have no trouble supposing that there is an even greater presence out there. I suspect this isn’t an earth-bound bias. I should hope that conscious life looks toward the stars with wonder, and even after they discover that there’s no lid on their planet they might still ponder what else might be out there.

Let’s suppose there are other creatures out there with other gods. When the meeting takes place we’ll need to have that discussion. You know the one I mean. We’ll need to ask whose deity is really real. Is it yours or is it ours? Hopefully we’ll enter into this with an open mind. I suspect it will depend on who’s in the White House, and all the other big houses, at the time. There are certainly those who claim their own almighty brooks no rivals. If it turns out that we can’t agree, I hope it doesn’t come to blows. There will always be other planets to explore, and maybe even new orthodoxies to accept. It’s an infinite universe, after all.


Digging to Look up

Ancient technology is a growing field of interest. A couple years back I gave a talk about ancient technology at a local Steampunk convention. The smallish audience that attended had lots of questions about how ancient people accomplished marvels such as the Antikythera Mechanism, or even the pyramids of Egypt. As new discoveries continue to show, our antique forebears had access to knowledge we have always assumed to be beyond them. An article in Gizmodo tells the story of how Matthieu Ossendrijver, an astroarchaeologist (and hey, this was simply not a job description I ever found in a college catalog, for the record!) at Humboldt University, has been studying an Akkadian clay tablet (the article doesn’t specify which one, beyond “text A”) that demonstrates that the Babylonians understood one of the principles that led to calculus. Tracking the movement of Jupiter, the Babylonian priests knew that measuring the area under a curve could provide the distance traveled by an object. This principle, in the annals of science, wasn’t discovered until about 1350, C.E. Babylonians knew it over a thousand years earlier.

Jupiter_and_its_shrunken_Great_Red_Spot

Although we marvel at the engineering of the ancients, we tend to think of them as superstitious. After all, they believed in gods and things like that. As Maddie Stone points out in her article, however, priests were also astronomers. Believing that messages from the gods existed among the stars, peoples of ancient times kept careful track of the heavens. Apart from romantic couples looking for time alone, how many people spend an evening under the stars, looking up at a universe that is so much larger than the internet that it can actually made you shudder? There is a wonder out there that can’t be replicated electronically. People knew that the sky and the gods somehow belonged together, and they knew this millennia ago.

Given that many of us hold doctorates in reading ancient, dead languages (too many, perhaps), you’d think all the clay tablets found would’ve been read, catalogued, and neatly stacked away by now. This is far from the truth. Tens of thousands of tablets were excavated back in the days before archaeology became an endangered practice in places like Iraq and Syria. Crates full of these tablets were shipped to museums and few have been transcribed, let alone translated. There is ancient knowledge stored away among the receipts and chronicles and myths of people who lived in the cradle of civilization, and now that information remains buried in museum basements because it is deemed not worth the money spent to provide jobs for those who can read them. As is often the case, however, when we are willing to listen to others, even long dead, we are amazed at what we can discover.


Meet the Neighbors

I was called “moon boy” and was otherwise taunted in ways I care not to share. As a child I openly spoke about my fascination of life in space and was ridiculed in the way children specialize in executing humility. So it was with great appreciation, but not much surprise, that I read that water had been discovered on Mars. Where there’s water, there’s likely life. I won’t say “I told you so.” Life, although I know I’m being premature—I’m a moon boy after all—has been one of the many tools in the God-of-the-gaps bag. God-of-the-gaps thinking is where a religion, in the light of scientific explanation, backs and fills by saying only God could do x, y, or z. The weather used to be a gap, but meteorology and fluid dynamics have started to explain many of the things that happen in the atmosphere. But life—life! Life was something only God could do, and it was only here on earth. Mind the gap.

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No, we’ve not yet discovered life on Mars. Those who spend every hour of their waking days combing at incredible magnification the photographs coming from Mars have suggested life forms. Some of them, I must admit, have been very intriguing. The official stance, however, has been that Mars is too cold for life because, as any trekkie knows, life has to be as we know it. I would venture to say that life will be announced on Mars before too long. Astronomers and astro-biologists are a cautious lot, but I think that life is probably a lot more common than we’ve been led to believe. And I have to believe that we’re not the most intelligent species possible. How else can we explain what’s happening in the run up to the Republican Convention? E.T. may not live on Mars, but somebody else might.

Often I ponder how strange our geocentrism is. Copernicus and Galileo more or less proved that we’re not the center of the universe. Reluctantly the church let go of that fiction, but scientists, in some measure, have held onto it. We are the only planet with life. Life on our planet is the most advanced that it is anywhere. And because we know that nothing travels faster than light there’s no possibility that life elsewhere has ever found its way here. To claim otherwise is to face a scientific inquisition. Water on Mars? Yes! This is a new chapter not in the history of the universe, but in appropriate humility in the face of the unknown. Take it from the moon boy—there’s a lot more yet to be discovered.


Somewhere, Out There

With Pope Francis’s impending visit, the New York-Philadelphia corridor is abuzz with discussions of traffic and commuting disruptions. From a little further away, Irish Central is reporting that the Vatican chief astronomer has gone onto record stating that he believes in extraterrestrial life. (Despite the headline, the article doesn’t say anything about UFOs, and the astronomer, Fr. Funes, is noted as saying that he doesn’t believe extraterrestrials are flying here.) The real issue, however, is metaphysical, rather than physical. How would life elsewhere impact theology? Long ago the Vatican expressed some comfort with the idea of evolution. As early as Augustine of Hippo, thinkers have noted that reason cannot contradict truth and still be convincing. The evidence for evolution, overwhelming as it is, falls under that rubric. Life in space, at least according to orthodox science, is more a matter of mathematical certainty rather than experiential. And like any scientific idea, not all scientists agree with the astronomical odds in favor of life in space.

Funes, according to the article by Frances Mulraney, believes that aliens are not fallen races in need of salvation. The grand master plan laid out in the Bible was unique to this world only. Human beings sinned, we required divine intervention, and, as you’d expect from a Christian source, the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God’s only son. It does raise interesting questions about what the aliens might think of a chosen race. How could you not think yourself superior if you had no need of God’s special attention? One can only hope that ET isn’t the jealous sort.

Photo credit: John Fowler, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: John Fowler, Wikimedia Commons

For years those who speculate about non-earth-based life have argued over how religions would handle the news that humanity isn’t alone. Would religious observance increase or decrease? It might depend on what our fellow universalists have to tell us. This, in a nutshell, is the dilemma of ancient religions. Founded when worldviews were pre-scientific, back when the earth was the center of everything, they didn’t add an infinite universe into the equation. And infinity always complicates things. Fr. Funes says the Bible isn’t a science book, and indeed, biblical scholars have long known that to be the case. It’s the contingencies outside the ordinary of two millennia ago that are most worrying to literalists. Even with all we have learned of science, we have a great deal yet to comprehend. Religion is a uniquely human response to an uncertain universe. And since ours is apparently infinite and expanding, religion may very well be something we’ll need to take with us to the stars.


Contacting Faith

Contact_0001Sometime after the movie Contact came out, I saw it while on a flight to somewhere here or there. As with most movies on airplanes, it didn’t receive my full attention and I seem to recall not hearing a lot of the sound. Having always been intrigued by the possibility of aliens, however, I told myself I’d watch it again. Several months ago I did just that, but as Carl Sagan hoped, much of the story had become somewhat dated. I finally finished reading the novel, and this was a case of the book being better than the movie (as is frequently the case). A number of things surprised me about the story, the primary one being just how prominent religion is in the plot. In the movie some crazy preacher sabotages the first machine just as it’s nearing completion, and even though Ellie Arroway is long connected to Palmer Joss, their relationship doesn’t seem to dominate the script the way it does the book.

Almost immediately upon reading about adult Ellie, it became clear that religion was a major interest that Carl Sagan had. While the chiliasts receive many scathing comments throughout the novel, thoughtful Christian thinkers, such as Palmer, find a way of being taken seriously by Ellie, despite her own personal unbelief. Unable to understand how someone could not accept the evidence before their eyes, she wants to belittle religion but can’t when serious thinkers like Palmer remind her that they have a sophisticated worldview as well. The story represents a long struggle between alternative outlooks. While as a novel it doesn’t always flow, it pulls the reader along, partly based on the intriguing character of Sagan himself.

Carl Sagan believed in life on other planets. He was less sanguine about the possibility of either ancient astronauts or current-day visitors from space, but he kept an open mind. While he was the respected author of numerous scientific papers, other astronomers didn’t always know what to make of such a popularizer. Of course I never knew him, but I have to wonder if his true beliefs didn’t appear in his fiction rather than in his factual writing. At times I found the novel slow and plodding, and as the machine gives ambiguous results, I wondered where the rest of the story could go. Sagan profoundly brings the end back to belief. Without evidence, Ellie finds herself in the place of the religious who believe on the basis of experience and faith alone. And she finds her best friend is a clergyman. Contact, with its God-like aliens, is really a story of finding oneself a place in an infinite universe. To do that well, Sagan seems to have believed, requires both science and religion.