Questions from Christian Students

Sarah was recently invited, along with two other scientists, to take part in a panel discussion for a group of mostly Christian students. After the main discussion, students were invited to submit questions via text message; there was very little time to address them, so only a few were answered. The questions were quite good, so over the next few weeks, Surak and Sarah will answer most of them here. They are listed below, in no particular order. (Despite the title of this post, at least two of the questions appear to be from students who are currently struggling with belief.) 

Since becoming a Christian and living in an environment where your faith is tested every day, have you experienced doubt? If so, what has brought you through those doubts? (Part 9)

Was Adam the first man created or was he chosen from an already existing population? (Part 2)

Has an effort by students to share their faith with you ever made an impact on you in any way? (Part 3)

Have you ever had a student challenge an idea during class? (Part 3)

How does evolution relate to belief in a creator? And please address the time frame. / Please address the timing of evolution and the Bible. / How do you reconcile biologists teaching evolution and coming from apes with the creation story in Genesis? (Part 11)

What was it about Christianity that made you feel hostile towards it before you read the Bible? (Part 5)

Do you wish you could talk about your faith in the classroom / office hours? If so, what keeps you from doing it? (Part 3)

How do you account for the Higgs boson particle? (Part 1)

How hard is it to work in the field of academia in an anti-Christian environment from a faith perspective? (Part 9)

How do you recommend Christian students react to professors who are intolerant of their Christian faith? (Part 9)

You mentioned the big bang. In your interpretation, does the big bang coincide with the moment of creation? / How does scientific proof of the big bang line up with the biblical teaching of creationism? (Part 4)

Within your field of study what has been the most remarkable observation that you have made that reinforces your faith? (Part 1)

What was the most difficult specific objection to faith (particularly Christianity) that you had to get past? / What was the biggest stumbling block to faith that you had to overcome? / For new believers, how do you get past the line of ‘the Bible is just a story’ into faith? I’ve accepted that there is a God, but I’m struggling with accepting Jesus. (Part 7)

Outside of the creation story, have you found other parts of the Bible that support what you have observed scientifically? (Part 10)

What’s the most remarkable, undeniable discovery you have used to prove or disprove the faiths of different persons? (Part 1)

What’s the most common scientific argument you encounter against Christianity? How have you responded? (Part 6)

What is the most important piece of knowledge you have come to learn about evolution since becoming a believer? (Part 8)

What is your colleagues’ biggest reason for thinking the Gospel is not worth believing? (Part 5)

Would the discovery of intelligent life on another planet disprove the existence of God? (Part 8)

What would you say to someone who can’t believe in Christianity because of its exclusive claims, that no one enters the gates of Heaven without first meeting Jesus? (Part 12)

SETI is once again listening for E.T.

Dr. Frank Drake, author of the famous Drake Equation, estimates there are at least 10,000 advanced civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy alone. Drake came up with this equation more than 50 years ago, at a time when astronomers weren’t even sure there were planets beyond our solar system. Now that we have observational evidence of more than a thousand planets orbiting other stars — and there is reason to believe that most of the 200 billion or more stars in the Milky Way host planetary systems — Drake’s estimate doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

However, contact with any advanced civilizations that may be out there may depend on whether we here on Earth are listening. One group that’s been listening for decades is SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), but their efforts were halted last year due to a lack of funding. Thanks to donations solicited through its website — including a sizable donation from actress Jodie Foster — SETI is now back up and running at the Allen Array in Hat Creek, California, and it plans to keep listening for as long as funding holds out. Negotiations are currently underway for the U.S. Air Force to share the array for tracking satellites and space junk, which would give the SETI program the financial stability it needs to continue for the foreseeable future.

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Astronomers find several new “Super-Earths”

Is our planet alone in its ability to host life? So far, it’s unique in the Solar System, which is dominated by apparently lifeless bodies, but it may not be unique in the universe. Astronomers have long speculated about the presence of extraterrestrial life elsewhere in the cosmos, but thanks to two planet-searching projects — ESO’s HARPS project and NASA’s Kepler mission — they are closer than ever to finding suitable candidate hosts orbiting other stars. Teams for both have announced intriguing discoveries in the last year, the latest of which includes detection by HARPS of a planet that is only 3.6 times the mass of Earth.

While Kepler is a space-based mission that searches for planetary transits — planets periodically passing in front of their host stars — HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) is part of the land-based La Silla telescope located in the Atacama Desert of Chile. The HARPS spectrograph looks for periodic shifts in the light from stars, tell-tale signs of gravitational tugs by orbiting planets. Most of the planets discovered by Kepler are orbiting distant stars; the planets discovered by HARPS, however, are orbiting nearby stars, and will be much easier to observe in follow-up projects to detect, for instance, spectral signs of water and other substances necessary for life as we know it.

The HARPS team at ESO recently announced the discovery of 50 new extra-solar planets, or exoplanets, including 16 planets designated as “Super-Earths.” A Super-Earth is a planet 2-10 times the mass of the Earth, but not necessarily rocky in composition; such planets could also be gas dwarfs without any discernible solid surface. One of the recently-discovered Super-Earths, designated HD 85512 b, is a rocky planet located just within the habitable zone around its parent star. The habitable zone is the orbital proximity to a parent star that allows the presence of liquid water on a planet’s surface. The holy grail, as it were, of planet searches is an Earth-like planet with the presence of liquid water — the essential ingredient for life as we know it. The mass of HD 85512 b is tantalizingly close to that of Earth — about 3.6 times greater. Professor Dimitar Sasselov, an astronomer at Harvard University (and the scientist who coined the term “Super-Earth”), speculates that such planets may be even better suited for life than our own Earth due to increased tectonic activity and stable rotation.

Astronomers point out that the frequency of exoplanet discoveries is increasing, and we seem to be on the verge of discovering that the universe is awash in potential hosts for life. So what does all this mean for Christians? Personally, I do not rely on the uniqueness of Earth to bolster my belief in a Creator. It may well be that many planets suitable for advanced life exist elsewhere in the universe, and such planets and life would be part of God’s purpose, as the many different continents and the variety of life on Earth are undoubtedly part of God’s purpose. Furthermore, the existence of many potentially life-supporting planets in the vast universe in no way diminishes the power of the fine-tuning argument, which says that the many physical constants and parameters that permit the existence of life as we know it — nearly 100 characteristics as identified by Hugh Ross — are so finely tuned that even the ostensibly atheist astrophysicist, Fred Hoyle, concluded “the universe looks like a put-up job.”

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New Mars rover will look for signs of liquid water

An enhanced-color image of the Gale crater (Credit: NASA/Steven Hobbs)

Scientists at NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory have selected the crater ‘Gale’ as the landing site of the rover, Curiosity, when it visits the Red Planet next year to search for signs of historical liquid water.

This will mark the 15th time the U.S. has visited Mars since it was first photographed by the Mariner 4 orbiter in 19651. Mars is of great interest to scientists, not only because of its proximity to Earth (it’s our second-closest planetary neighbor after Venus), but because the Red Planet has been the subject of intense speculation about the presence of alien life for over 200 years.

Speculation about Martian life started in the late 1700s with German-British astronomers and siblings, William and Caroline Herschel, who observed the Red Planet and noticed that it had some features in common with Earth, including axis tilt, length of day, and seasonal changes in its appearance. Moved by these similarities, William speculated that Mars had inhabitants. From his address to the Royal Society in 1784:

It appears that this planet is not without considerable atmosphere; for besides the permanent spots on the surface, I have often noticed occasional changes of partial bright belts; and also once a darkish one… These alterations we can hardly ascribe to any other cause than the variable disposition of clouds and vapors floating in the atmosphere of the planet… Mars has a considerable but modest atmosphere, so that its inhabitants probably enjoy a situation in many respects similar to our own.

In the late 1800s, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli added to this speculation when he observed what he thought were canals on the surface of Mars. Schiaparelli’s observations inspired the construction of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona to further study the phenomena. Astronomer Percival Lowell, who founded the observatory, became convinced that the canals were signs of advanced, intelligent life on Mars. From there, it wasn’t much of a leap to science fiction stories about Martian life, including H. G. Wells’ dark tale, The War of the Worlds, and C. S. Lewis’ Christian-themed Out of the Silent Planet.

Despite the fervor over possible Martian life, there were astronomers who questioned whether there was any credible visual evidence for the canals. These questions persisted until Mariner 4 was sent to Mars and failed to detect any signs of the infamous canals. Since then, the focus on the search for life on Mars has shifted to evidence for historical, probably much more primitive, forms of life. If such life ever existed on Mars, it would have required the presence of liquid water, which is why scientists are so eager to find signs of the stuff.

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Methane rain on Titan

NASA's Cassini spacecraft snapped this infrared photo of equatorial rainfall on Titan (Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

Spring has sprung on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and that means rain showers. But not the kind of spring showers that bring flowers — on Titan it rains methane:

Instead of water, as on Earth, Titan’s cycles of precipitation, evaporation and cloud formation involve hydrocarbons such as methane and ethane, which at the extremes of cold on Titan pool as liquids in thousands of lakes around its north and south poles. Indeed, scientists estimate that Titan holds hundreds of times more liquid hydrocarbons than all the known oil and natural gas reserves on Earth.

Outer space may seem hostile to advanced life, but the solar system is rich in natural resources needed to survive. If we ever venture out into the solar system with long-term or permanent manned space missions, we should have little trouble availing ourselves of necessities like bulk building materials, hydrocarbon fuels, water, and oxygen.

Update: APOD has featured an artist’s conception of what it might look like from the surface of Titan (not very inviting).

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Space missions for the next decade

Photo of the Jovian moon, Europa, taken by the Galileo spacecraft

To infinity and beyond! Well, to the middle-outer reaches of the solar system, anyway. If we can afford it. The National Research Council’s top recommendations for big space missions in the next decade:

  • visit Mars to determine if it ever had life
  • visit Jupiter’s moon, Europa, which likely has a liquid ocean underneath its icy surface that may harbor life
  • check out the atmosphere of ice giant, Uranus

I got a little excited when I saw the title of the TechNewsWorld article, thinking we were planning manned visits to Mars and Europa, but alas these visits would all be carried out with unmanned probes. Still, these missions would bring back important information about our nearest neighbors and the potential for life beyond Earth.

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Alien life and the Christian view of Creation

A bacterium from the meteorite (right) is similar in size and structure to the terrestrial bacterium Titanospirillum velox (left) (Riccardo Guerrero / Richard B. Hoover / Journal of Cosmology)

Fascinating:

Dr. Richard B. Hoover, an astrobiologist with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, has traveled to remote areas in Antarctica, Siberia, and Alaska, amongst others, for over ten years now, collecting and studying meteorites. He gave FoxNews.com early access to the out-of-this-world research, published late Friday evening in the March edition of the Journal of Cosmology. In it, Hoover describes the latest findings in his study of an extremely rare class of meteorites, called CI1 carbonaceous chondrites — only nine such meteorites are known to exist on Earth.

Though it may be hard to swallow, Hoover is convinced that his findings reveal fossil evidence of bacterial life within such meteorites, the remains of living organisms from their parent bodies — comets, moons and other astral bodies. By extension, the findings suggest we are not alone in the universe, he said.

Claims like this have been made before, and while previous claims turned out to be unsupported by the evidence, they always give rise to the question of whether the presence of life elsewhere in the universe undermines the Judeo-Christian view of Creation. The best answer is the simplest one: it doesn’t. Ancient and medieval Jewish scholars of the Genesis account of creation maintained that the universe was created with the potential for life built into it. This agrees with the growing scientific evidence that the universe is undeniably tuned for life. Working from both perspectives, I would be surprised if we did not eventually find evidence of at least the most basic forms of life elsewhere.

The religiously pivotal question is whether or not we ever find intelligent or even conscious life elsewhere since, according to the Judeo-Christian view, these would have to be deliberate creations by God. As physicist and theologian Gerald Schroeder points out in his book The Science of God, two different verbs are used in Genesis when describing key events: “created” and “made.” The former refers to the instantaneous act of bringing something into existence from nothing. Genesis uses this word only three times: first for the creation of the universe on day one, then for the creation of animal (intelligent) life on the fifth day, and for the last time on the sixth day when Adam is endowed with a human soul. For the remaining events of the six days of Genesis, including the third day when life first appears, the word “made” is used, as though something that already existed was merely being restructured. Non-intelligent forms of life, like the primitive bacteria discovered by Dr. Hoover, would fall under the category of “made.” Intelligent and conscious forms of life would fall under the category of “created.”

With this in mind, let’s ask a revised version of the key question, “Would the discovery of conscious beings elsewhere in the universe undermine the Judeo-Christian view of Creation?” It would if Genesis stated that the creation of Adam is a unique event, not to be repeated elsewhere in space or time. I have not seen anything in scripture to suggest this is the case. In fact, the great Christian apologist, C. S. Lewis, laid out a plausible scenario for conscious life on other planets within the context of the Judeo-Christian view in The Space Trilogy. In these novels, humans encounter alien beings on other planets in the solar system that, though they have some things in common with us, are wonderfully unfallen and thus enjoy direct communication with the Creator.

This brings us to one of the great problems for the materialist view that humans have no spiritual component: the need to explain why an overwhelming majority of humans throughout history have demonstrated a deep longing for the spiritual. The prevailing explanation seems to be that it is an evolutionary tic, an unfortunate byproduct of an otherwise beneficial genetic mutation. So let’s engage in a bit of speculation to turn the tables: would the discovery of conscious beings on another planet who turn out to be as spiritually-inclined as humans undermine the materialist view of existence? Seems to me it would, given the immense improbability of two entirely different species of conscious beings developing the same evolutionary tic independently.

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