Are You An Anthropocentrist?

Laura Grace Weldon

animal intelligence, anthropocentrism, Paradise, by Gillis d’Hondecoeter circa 1575

When I was growing up we were taught humans were at the top of every chart, far superior to all other living beings. Our textbooks, illustrated with stereotypical images of “cave men,” proved the assertion with a long list of what our species could do that others could not. The list was so smug that I was a bit embarrassed on behalf of my fellow homo sapiens. A skeptic even then, I thought the list was somewhat prejudicial. Worse, it didn’t acknowledge what feels obvious to young children, that we are all things and all things are us.

I don’t for a moment dismiss our many human accomplishments—among them language, science, the arts, and shared rules meant to advance mutual compassion. I simply mean to point out that we’re not better, we’re different.

Besides, what I was taught as a kid doesn’t really hold up. Here are…

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Complex Organics on Mars

Leak in Mars Rover Curiosity’s Wet Chemistry Test Finds Organics 


Credit: ASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS 

This image from NASA’s Curiosity rover shows the first sample of powdered rock extracted by the rover’s drill from the Yellowknife study site. Curiosity used its Mastcam on Sol 193 (Feb. 20, 2013) of its mission to capture this photo.  An unexpected leak of a chemical designed to tag complex organic molecules in samples collected by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity appears to have serendipitously done its job,

Curiosity’s onboard laboratory includes seven so-called “wet ” experiments designed to preserve and identify suspect carbon-containing components in samples drilled out from rocks.

None of the foil-capped metal cups has been punctured yet, but vapors of the fluid, known as N-methyl-N-tert-butyldimethylsilyl-trifluoroacetamide, or MTBSTFA, leaked into the gas-sniffing analysis instrument early in the mission.

Curiosity landed in a 96-mile wide impact basin known as Gale Crater in August 2012 to determine if the planet most like Earth in the solar system has or ever had the chemistry and environments to support microbial life. Scientists quickly fulfilled the primary goal of the mission, discovering sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon in powder Curiosity drilled out of an ancient mudstone in an area known as Yellowknife Bay.  That paved the way for a more ambitious hunt for complex organic , an effort complicated by the MTBSTFA leak. “This caused us a lot of headache in the beginning, frankly, because it has a lot of carbon in it and other fragments that can break apart,” Curiosity scientist Danny Glavin, with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said on Tuesday at the Lunar and Planetary Science conference in Houston, Texas. “We’ve turned this sort of bad thing into a good thing because we’ve learned how to work around this leak. We’ve actually used this vapor from this leak to carry out derivitization,” he said, referring to the to tag organics. Samples drilled out from Yellowknife Bay were stored inside the Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM instrument, as the rover made its way over the next two years to Mount Sharp, a three-mile high mound of sediments rising from the floor of Gale Crater. “These samples were just reacting with this MTBSTFA vapor, reacting with all that good organic stuff. That turned out to be a good thing,” Glavin said.

In addition to analyzing the doggy-bagged sample that had been reacting with the MTBSTFA vapors for two years, scientists also were able to compare the results with residue from a sample that had been heated twice, effectively killing off any volatiles, but which also had been exposed to the vapors for two years. Initial results show indigenous Mars complex organics in the fresh sample, though more work is needed to definitely peg the compounds.  “It’s probably going to be years of work trying to disentangle this story,” said Glavin. “This is really exciting stuff. We’ve got a mudstone on Mars in a habitable environment. There was a lake there at one point. We’ve got organic molecules, possibly some interesting ones, of astrobiological interest. Bottom line, this sample has an even more diverse set of organic compounds than we previously thought. “Million dollar question? Is this or not. I wish I had an answer I can’t tell you. We’ve got basically a few compounds that we’re dealing with here. You probably need a lot more before you can start discriminating between biological and non-biological origin,” Glavin added.

This article was provided by Discovery News. MeasureMeasure

From SETI Institute: “Kepler 186f: Is It Inhabited?”

The search for life goes on but will it me intelligent?

Science Springs

SETI Institute

April 21, 2014
SETI Seth Shostak
by Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer

It’s so far away that even if you booked a trip on the speediest of our rockets, you’d have 100 million years to polish your Sudoku skills en route to Kepler 186f.

That’s probably not going to happen. But what has happened is that a team of astronomers, after carefully combing data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope, has finally nailed a world that might be similar to our own.

But is it inhabited?

Lately Kepler 186f has been in the news as much as Vladimir Putin, although the former is more appealing. For the first time we’ve uncovered a planet that — unlike Venus, Mars or the other Roman deities of our solar system — could bear a passing resemblance to Earth. It’s nearly the same size as our planetary home and has temperatures that would permit liquid oceans to…

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Putting Exoplanets on the Scale

Astronomers have come up with a new technique for measuring an alien planet’s mass, and therefore its composition and potential habitability, even when standard methods don’t work.

You’d never ask a woman her weight. (Actually, you’d never ask a man either.) But for exoplanets, the answer is crucial.

Hot Jupiter

De Wit and Seager (both MIT) have found a new way to measure exoplanets’ mass. For now, the technique is largely only useful for hot Jupiters, but future telescopes will allow them to scale the technique to nearby Earth-sized planets.
C. Carreau / ESA / Nature

Knowing the mass of an alien planet, along with its radius, tells astronomers whether the exoplanet is rocky, watery, or gaseous. In modeling, the mass can even influence whether the planet could host magnetic fields or plate tectonics. In the December 20th Science, Julien de Wit and MacArthur Fellow Sara Seager (both MIT) have found a forward-thinking technique to measure the all-important number.

To measure the mass of an alien planet dozens or hundreds of light-years away, astronomers usually watch for the star’s wiggle in response to the planetary tug. The wiggle comes from the fact that planets don’t actually orbit their parent stars — the star and planet orbit a mutual center of mass. So as the planet orbits, the star orbits too, albeit in a much smaller circle. (The mutual center can be inside the star itself, even if not at the core.)

Stellar wobble is easiest to see when massive planets orbit close to their parent stars, such as with hot Jupiters. But the punier the planet and the farther it orbits, the more weakly the star wobbles. And even if we could measure a star’s slowest sway, which we can’t yet (current telescopes can only measure a star’s velocity down to about 1 mile per hour), starspots and other activity on the star’s surface might cover up a planet-induced signal. That’s the case for hot Jupiter WASP-33, whose parent star pulsates strongly.

A New Way to Weigh Exoplanets

With some creative thinking, de Wit and Seager have found a new way to weigh an exoplanet: by watching it transit across the face of its parent star. When a planet transits, starlight passes through the thin sliver of its outer atmosphere. This passage imprints the starlight with the chemical fingerprints of the atmosphere’s composition. Astronomers collect thistransmission spectrum during transit observations, measuring which wavelengths pass through the atmosphere and which are absorbed.

Transiting exoplanet

When an exoplanet transits across the face of its parent star, starlight passes through a thin sliver of its atmosphere. De Wit and Seager show how measuring the atmosphere’s extent can give the planet’s mass.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

De Wit and Seager determined that, because a more massive planet can collect a thicker gaseous shroud around itself, using these transmission spectra to measure the atmosphere’s extent could in theory also reveal the planet’s mass.

It’s not a clear-cut connection: the atmosphere’s extent also depends on its temperature (heat comes from the parent star and the planet itself) and the weight of its molecules. A hot Jupiter will have light molecules in its atmosphere, mostly hydrogen and helium. But a rocky planet’s atmosphere will be composed of heavier stuff such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen. De Wit and Seager show that they can calculate each of these parameters directly from the same transmission spectrum.

This isn’t just a theoretical exercise: the astronomers used the well-studied hot Jupiter HD 189733b to prove the technique works. Radial velocity had already shown the planet has a mass between 1.1 and 1.2 Jupiters; de Wit and Seager’s transmission spectroscopy calculations gave a mass of 1.15 Jupiters.

“This [technique] appears to be very promising,” says exoplanetary scientist Jonathan Fortney (University of California, Santa Cruz). “I think that in practice clouds will confound the technique a bit more than they suggest, but I think it will work a lot of the time.”

Scaling Down

TESS satellite

The TESS satellite will monitor bright, nearby stars for transiting exoplanets. Though its focus is Sun-like stars, it will also catch some 10,000 M dwarfs in its view.
TESS team

For now, hot Jupiters remain the main target for the new technique. Their puffy, extended atmospheres make them good targets for transmission spectroscopy. But de Wit and Seager aim to describe super-Earths and Earth-size planets. Current telescopes can’t take transmission spectra of these smaller words, but the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope could. Scheduled for launch in 2018, it will be able to weigh Earth-size planets orbiting the coolest M dwarf stars up to about 160 light-years away. Its reach will extend twice that far for super-Earths.

Unfortunately, that meansKepler’s 167 confirmed exoplanets and 3,500 candidates will be largely out of reach.

“You wouldn’t be able to do this for stars in the Kepler field, which are too far away and faint,” Fortney explains. “But Kepler wasn’t designed to find planets around bright stars that would be amenable to atmospheric characterization.” Instead a number of upcoming projects, including SPECULOOS and TESS (launching in 2017), will focus on finding planets orbiting nearby stars, whose atmospheres will be easier to study.

The ultimate goal. says de Wit, is to combine all the available data for an exoplanet — including both the wobble of its star and the extent of its atmosphere — to better estimate its mass and understand its atmosphere . The more tools in astronomers’ toolbox, the better, because it’s not enough to just count exoplanets anymore, it’s time to see what they’re made of.

Extract from Sky & Telescope Magazine December 2013

Cosmology & Theology – start here?

Recently I came across this short essay which asks some the key questions on the debate between cosmology and theology. More can be found on Diarmuid O’Murchu’s website.



From Universe to Multiverse

(READER’s NOTE: Officially, the word multiverse means several universes existing simultaneously. It is sometimes used to refer to the possibility that other universes existed before the present one, and others may succeed it. I use the term with BOTH meanings in mind).

Galileo was hammered by the Catholic Church for endorsing the Copernican theory  that the Earth revolved around the Sun, putting the Sun and not the Earth at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy. We were awakening to a new expansive view of the universe, although it would take almost another 400 years before we would break the firm grip of ecclesiastical control and scientific reductionism. In 1650, the noted Biblical scholar, Archbishop James Ussher calculated that the creation of the world took place on Oct. 23rd, 4004 BCE, and that the end of the world would occur at noon on Oct 23rd., 1997. That became standard Catechetical teaching in many parts of the Christian world up to about 1960.

Meanwhile, a mind-shift had happened in the early 1900s with Einstein’s theories of Relativity and the formulation of the Quantum Theory. It was no longer the Earth that engaged the searching mind but the universe at large, now so complex and mysterious that talk about its beginning or end seemed short-sighted and even irrelevant. 

Towards the Big Bang

With the Hubble discoveries of the late 1920s and the pioneering work of the Belgian priest-astronomer, Georges Lemaitre, the seeds were sown for the leading theory of 20th. Century science: The Big Bang. The term was coined by Fred Hoyle in the 1940s but only became a formal theory after the discovery of the cosmic background radiation by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1963. From a single point of energy, 13-15 billion years ago, everything we know in creation today began to unfold, including Planet Earth which first evolved about 4.0 billion years ago.

That which gave us the evidence for the Big Bang threw up other imponderables, particularly the discovery of powerful gravity in the distant horizons of time-space. The strength of the gravity waves suggests that great quantities of matter exist out there somewhere. Its nature and location we know nothing about as yet, but scientists are forced to the bewildering conclusion that the observable world comprises at most 10% of the known universe, which means we know nothing about 90% of the created universe.

It has taken discoveries of this nature to challenge the arrogance with which we humans study and propose theorise about the created universe. The real issue of course is neither discovery nor study, but POWER. We feel we have the right to be in control, absolute control and this is still the driving force behind a great deal of modern science, and sadly behind a good deal of religious dogmatism as well.

Another Quantum Leap ?

Finally we come to the real big stuff: the multiverse. The story can be traced back to 1957 when an American doctoral student, Hugh Everett (supervised by the Princeton professor, John A. Wheeler), proposed the possible existence of several rather than one universe. His argument is based on mathematical equations derived from Quantum Theory which also leads to the notion that the universe is self-creating and poised for indefinite growth and expansion.

In the 1981, the idea of a multiverse got an added boost from Alan Guth’s inflationary theory. Quantum theory postulates the existence of an original empty space (hence, the quantum vacuum), consisting of energy movements (fluctuations) from which all matter is shaped and formed. Guth proposes that the fluctuations initially manifest like bubbles in a foam, and shortly after the big bang, these bubbles expanded (inflated) each becoming a mini-universe in its own right. A great deal of experimental evidence supports this proposal. And it is strongly endorsed by leading scientists of our time including Andri Linde (Moscow & Stanford), Marin Rees (Cambridge), Brian Green (Columbia), Paul Davies (Sydney).

I find the adoption of fractal geometry particularly inspiring: “Recent versions of inflationary theory assert that instead of being a ball of fire, the universe is a huge growing fractal.” (Andrei Linde). Fractals are revolutionary new mathematical image-like concepts, in which we find repeated patterns buried deeper and deeper (a bit like a Russian doll). The more we unravel the observable pattern (through computer simulations) the more we find it repeated in the subsistent layers. It is a wonderful exposition of the leading principle of the new physics: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, yet the whole is contained in each part. (for more on fractals see my book, Quantum Theology, 2004, pp.51-53).

Theological Implications.

For those who wish to delve deeper, the web pages I cite at the end will provide additional information on these complex ideas. How do we relate these discoveries to the realm of faith, Christian or otherwise? I offer a few thoughts.

1. Long before religion ever evolved, humans believed that the divine was intimately involved in creation. All the religions support this idea. Is creation then a kind of primary revelation of God to us? If so, we need to attend carefully to how we understand creation.

2. Our human tendency especially in the past 2000 years is to reduce creation to a human artefact, one we can use and subdue to our advantage; all the major religions, to one degree or another, endorse this orientation. Consequently, we can no longer assume that the religious understandings of creation are in any way adequate – spiritually or theologically.

3. Although scientists also embrace the addictive preoccupation with power and control, many of their intuitions into cosmic and planetary life may be much more spiritually informed than the insights of formalised religions. On the other hand, several of these scientific insights are congruent with those of great mystics from all the religious traditions of humankind.

4. Christian theologians exhibit strong concern about the notion of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing). They wish to retain this belief in order to safeguard divine initiative, and presumably their understanding of divine power. Today, we understand the primordial nothingness as a substratum of seething creativity. Perhaps, for God, the notion of a beginning-point is of no significance. Might it not be another anthropocentric fascination!

5. Scriptures of all traditions allude to the end of the world. It is very explicit in the
Christian and Muslim traditions. Contemporary science is rapidly moving towards the notion of a world without beginning or end. Might this not be a stronger indicator of truth, rather than the anti-world stance that underpins some of the major religions?

6. The big fear – scientifically and religiously – generated by many of these new ideas  concerns our human place and role in the plan of creation. It is abundantly clear that we are not in charge, that we are not the ultimate species in any sense, that we rely on many other aspects of creation to survive on earth, that we are one small organism among so many others, and disturbingly, not as wise as we would like to think. So what is our purpose? Of all the responses to this question the one I find most challenging and inspiring is the proposal that we are creation becoming aware of itself. Our unique vocation – and contribution to creation – is to enhance the growth in consciousness. An awesome responsibility! (Perhaps, this is what all the great mystics were, and are, about!)

7. Theologically, the crucial issue is around the notion of revelation. If the divine has been disclosing creativity and meaning in the entire story of creation, throughout these billions of years, why restrict the empowerment of the divine to religiously-validated time and culture boundaries? Somehow, it does not seem to make sense anymore!

Useful Source material:

For a useful overview of current thinking on the Multiverse, see: George Ellis, “Does the Multiverse Really Exist?” Scientific American, Vol 305 (Aug 2011), 18-23.
John Gribbin (2009), In Search of the Multiverse.
Joel Primack & Nancy Abrams (2006)The View from the Center of the Universe.

WEB Pages: edited by John Brockman,engages leading scientists in ongoing dialogue.

Curiosity Finds a Once-Habitable Mars

On the floor of Gale crater, NASA’s newest rover is finding that ancient Mars seems to have had an environment quite conducive to microbial life.

The researchers coordinating NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory have always been careful to note that their beefy Curiosity rover is not searching for life on the Red Planet. Rather, it’s designed to find out whether Mars was ever suitable for life.

After a year of zapping, scratching, sniffing, and tasting rocks and sand near the rover’s landing site, the answer is “yes.” A flurry of findings published in the December 9th issue of Sciencesimultaneously announced at December’s meeting of the American Geophysical Society, provide the best evidence yet that ancient Mars was indeed habitable.

Yellowknife Bay on Mars

Curiosity’s Mast Camera recorded this view of sedimentary deposits inside Gale crater in February 2013. The mudstone ledge at lower right is about 20 cm (8 inches) high. Click here for a larger view.
NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

Curiosity dropped onto the broad floor of Gale crater on August 6, 2012, then spent many months exploring intriguing rocky outcrops in a nearby expanse dubbed Yellowknife Bay. Mission scientists soon realized that much of the terrain was covered in mudstone, silty sediments that settled onto the bottom of an ancient lake.

What’s now clear, as reported by one research team led by project scientist John Grotzinger (Caltech) and a second by David Vaniman (Planetary Science Institute), is that the sediments contain an iron- and sulfur-rich clay called smectite. Moreover, this clay formed in water with a neutral pH and low salinity — just the kind of benign habitat that primitive life forms called chemolithoautotrophs would want. Such microbes derive their energy from the oxidation of inorganic compounds and their carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide.

A separate analysis by Kenneth Farley (Caltech) and others used isotopic ratios — never measured before by a Martian lander — to estimate the age of a mudstone slab nicknamed Cumberland. It’s between 3.86 and 4.56 million years old, confirming that Gale crater formed very early in Martian history.

But Farley and his team also tested for elemental isotopes produced by the potent cosmic rays that constantly bombard the Martian surface. Cumberland’s “exposure age” is comparatively young, only 60 to 100 million years. Apparently the sediments in Yellowknife Bay spent eons buried under the protective cover of overlying material, which eventually was stripped away by the planet’s incessant winds only in the recent geologic past.

Biologically speaking, this is great news. It means the rover has at least a chance to detect organic matter that might have become trapped in these ancient sediments. In fact, a research team led by Douglas Ming (NASA Johnson Space Center) reports that Curiosity continues to detect chlorinated hydrocarbons in samples of the Martian surface – and that it can’t all be contaminants brought from Earth. Instead, these simple organics might be indigenous to Mars or else hitchhiked there inside meteorites.

In an unusual move for Science, all six of its just-published Curiosity articles are freely available online. You can also watch a press briefingheld during the AGU meeting.

There’s water – is there life?

Hubble Discovers Water Plumes Erupting from Europa

It’s been known since 2005 that Saturn’s 300-mile-wide moon Enceladus has geysers spewing ice and dust out into orbit from deep troughs that rake across its south pole. Now, thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, we know of another moon with similar jets: Europa, the ever-enigmatic ice-shelled moon of Jupiter.

Read more:

Be still – be yourself!

Durham Cathedral from the south

Durham Cathedral from the south (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t know if it is my being at that ‘difficult age’ or the times but the months seem to be winging past.  In fact, the constant round of work, travel and the odd bit of telly, can leave the old brain fairly buzzing. So much so, few of us ever seems to be static even for a moment . No wonder then that I think often of the wisdom of the local expedition bearers who insist on regularly stopping to let their souls catch up! Nowadays we think less of our bodies let alone or spiritual well being.

Going on this year’s summer holiday was more vexing than usual. The days before were particularly hot and busy. The journey was hot and slow with road works. The camping site was hot and packed. And trust me, in Britain the word ‘hot’ is rarely said in the same breath as ‘weather’.

In fact, to escape the heat with the dogs we made the short trip – air con on full blast – to a local beauty spot on the River Wear. It was there I wandered in the medieval ruins of Finchdale abbey; the place where the monks of Durham Cathedral came to rest and recuperate in the summer months.  Something of the ancient meditative mood must haunt the stones. For I found myself sitting and thinking – be still and know that I am God. Perhaps we also need to be still and know ourselves as well.

What is the Scottish Vision?

saltireJohn Drane explores a new spiritual vision for Scotland when he writes….

The first thing to say is that Scotland is not the same as England! We have different legal, educational, and healthcare systems from our nearest neighbours, and soon we might even be a foreign country. Our churches are also different.

Anglicans are Scottish Episcopalians. The national church, the Church of Scotland, is Presbyterian. And whatever you do, don’t confuse the Free Church of Scotland with the Free Churches in England! But the challenges and opportunities with which our churches are wrestling are the same as everywhere else in the developed countries of the western world.

The difficulties facing our churches are by no means unique, though we do have some distinctive historical baggage: in common with other European countries where the Reformation had a more stridently puritanical flavour than in England, Scotland is arguably a more secular country than other parts of the UK and many people are openly cynical about the role of religious institutions. Rapid and discontinuous cultural change has also taken its toll on traditional church life and though there are pockets of new life, in many places the story is one of declining numbers and aging congregations.

More than a decade ago, the Church of Scotland’s Church without Walls report (2001) gave a focus for new thinking about the nature of a missional church. In 2011 another report (Reformed, Reforming, Emerging and Experimenting), which I jointly authored with Olive Fleming Drane, documented the emergence of new forms of Christian faith community and highlighted the need for fresh thinking that would recognise these ventures within the structures of the church.

As the Joint Emerging Church Group of the Ministries Council and the Mission and Discipleship Council reflected on all this, the obvious conclusion was that the Church of Scotland should become a partner in Fresh Expressions. One church leader recently suggested that this is the first time since the Reformation that the Church of Scotland and the Church of England have collaborated on specifically missional issues (as distinct from social and political matters). I have no idea whether that is entirely true, but it is undoubtedly a momentous opportunity for churches on both sides of the border.

Of course, Fresh Expressions has been represented right from the start in Scotland through those congregations that belong to the Methodist Church and more recently the URC and Salvation Army. They will welcome the Church of Scotland’s partnership, not least because the Kirk is numerically dominant over all other Protestant denominations (seven or eight times bigger than all the rest put together) and when it embraces something, that often creates an environment in which others can flourish more easily.

Unlike other denominations though, the Church of Scotland has a presence throughout the country. So this is a significant moment for those who are concerned with the re-evangelisation of Scotland. Central to this vision is an invitation to every parish to explore the possibilities of establishing an appropriately contextualised fresh expression of church by the year 2020 – something that will hopefully be pursued in an ecumenical context.

This will be a major challenge to many congregations, where change of any sort can seem alien and threatening. But a growing number of people have already glimpsed new possibilities and are eager to push forward with a new vision.

Since 2010, more than 200 individuals of all denominations have completed the mission shaped ministry course in Inverness, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen, whilst vision days have taken place in other locations. The new partnerships will hopefully create spaces in which these people will be released to be in the vanguard of the development of fresh expressions in both urban and rural locations.

For there is no doubt that – especially at this time of national uncertainty, as we consider our relationship with the rest of the UK – our people need a new spiritual vision that will take us forward into what by any definition is an unknown future, to hear the gospel afresh in ways that will be comprehensible within today’s culture while also remaining true to the call of Jesus.

All very fine – but what is the vision and more to the point how do we make it happen?