Monthly Archives: September 2010

Another Earth?

Newly discovered planet may be first truly habitable exoplanet

A team of planet hunters led by astronomers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington has announced the discovery of an Earth-sized planet (three times the mass of Earth) orbiting a nearby star at a distance that places it squarely in the middle of the star’s “habitable zone,” where liquid water could exist on the planet’s surface. If confirmed, this would be the most Earth-like exoplanet yet discovered and the first strong case for a potentially habitable one.

Via Possible earthlike planet found in the Goldilocks zone of a nearby star! which includes some cautions, beginning with:

However, this does not mean the planet is habitable, or even very Earthlike. It may not even have any water on it at all. For now, we can’t know these things, so beware of any media breathlessly talking about life on this planet, or how we could live there.

A scientist at the Vatican

Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist

Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., is a Planetary Scientist, specializing in meteorites, and a Jesuit brother. He writes about the different types of meteorites and their significance in the first section. The second section is about the church, where he argues that the trial of Galileo was a tragic aberration, and discusses the theological justification for science in the works of St. Athanasius and of John Scotus Eriugena. Later chapters include some autobiography, a discussion of aliens and their possible theological implications (short answer: no problem), and a concluding section about exploring for meteorites in Antarctica.

He has a first rate education in both science and religion, and is obviously very comfortable with both and sees no problem reconciling them. Neither do his Jesuit superiors.

I have read quite a bit on science and religion, but mostly from a somewhat detached academic point of view. Brother Astronomer is a very refreshing view from the inside. Brother Guy is perfectly aware of all the historical, religious, and scientific background, but communicating that is not his purpose. He is a working scientist. His scientific work is his Christian vocation. That is what he trying to communicate, and he does it very well.

Brother Guy was recently interviewed by some of the British news media, resulting in stories such as:

His comments on all of this are at Anybody want my last three minutes of fame? .

A Survey of Apples and Oranges

Atheists, agnostics most knowledgeable about religion, reporting on the Pew Forum U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey begins

If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist.

Heresy? Perhaps. But a survey that measured Americans’ knowledge of religion found that atheists and agnostics knew more, on average, than followers of most major faiths.

A majority of Protestants, for instance, couldn’t identify Martin Luther as the driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, according to the survey, released Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Four in 10 Catholics misunderstood the meaning of their church’s central ritual, incorrectly saying that the bread and wine used in Holy Communion are intended to merely symbolize the body and blood of Christ, not actually become them.

So why would an atheist know more about religion than a Christian?

American atheists and agnostics tend to be people who grew up in a religious tradition and consciously gave it up, often after a great deal of reflection and study, said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum.

“These are people who thought a lot about religion,” he said. “They’re not indifferent. They care about it.”

Terry Mattingly, in Brilliant doubters, dull believers? makes the same point, with rather more snark:

Well, the sexy lede out of this study is that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than, well, religious people. That is just accurate enough to be misleading. It’s also not all that surprising. I know very few people who are as obsessed with the fine details of religion as highly motivated unbelievers. As the old saying goes, the opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy.

He goes on to raise a really good question:

According to the researchers, a person’s education was the single best predictor of how she or he would score. I do not doubt that. However, when I have a chance to dig further into this data, I will be looking for evidence of a pew gap in this Pew effort.

In other words, did anyone try to find out if the intensity of a person’s religious practice has anything to do with knowledge. In other words, do daily Mass Catholics know more about Catholicism and other religions than inactive Catholics? Do Jews who regularly attend worship services know more about, well, Maimonides than Jews who are completely secular? Do Evangelicals who take part in foreign missions projects know more about Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., than people who say they are vaguely “Protestant” and that’s that?

Recall from above that

American atheists and agnostics tend to be people who grew up in a religious tradition and consciously gave it up, often after a great deal of reflection and study….

The atheists and agnostics, as a group, are quite committed to their beliefs or lack thereof. All religions have some members with a comparable level of commitment, but the big ones also have a lot of others, e.g. Christians who only show up in church at Christmas and Easter. I suspect the results of such a survey would look quite different if you looked at only those believers who showed the same level of commitment as the atheists and agnostics. I doubt that many of Mattingly’s “daily Mass Catholics” think “that the bread and wine used in Holy Communion are intended to merely symbolize the body and blood of Christ, not actually become them.”

Facts are not subject to a vote

From Cocktail Party Physics: we are in…like…so much in trouble… episode two.

[…] most people would rather state their opinion about things without wasting time looking up the facts. The NASCAR race I’m watching features the AT&T ‘Fastest Pit Crew of the Year Award’. Fans VOTE for the fastest pit crew. The last I looked, time is not subject to human opinion. Sure AT&T donates $20,000 at the end of the program to a deserving charity. But how silly do you have to be to think that ‘fastest’ has anything to do with your opinion? How about sponsoring something mathematically meaningful, like showing us a histogram of all the pit stop times, showing who was exceptionally fast or slow.