Posted by: dacalu | 20 July 2019

Spiritual Space

Intentionally Blank

Yesterday, I spoke as part of a panel on “Astrophysics, Spirituality, and Space Exploration” for the 2019 IONS Conference.

Science and Spirituality

My name is Lucas Mix. I work with NASA on astrobiology, exploring the origin, extent, and future of life in the universe. I am also a preacher and pastor, talking with Christians about faith and theology. I specialize in theoretical and theological biology, what we mean when we say “life.” People often ask me about my beliefs. How do I bring science and spirituality together? The real challenge, I think, is keeping them apart. Both are so important to daily life.

When I choose my meals, I think about biochemistry: fats and sugars and calories. There’s a gap between reading labels in the supermarket and research biochemistry, but it may not be as big as you think. The shopper and the scientist both make important decisions with limited information. They listen to others, weigh what they know, and reach conclusions. The difference comes from time and training and, above all, the care they take. Researchers want to know, precisely and concretely, how much evidence they have, how they reason from it, and how confident they can be in their answers.

Choosing meals involves ethics as well. Where did the food come from? Is it healthy and just to eat? And metaphysics. How does stuff that’s not me become me? Like biochemistry, most of us don’t have time to investigate the details of organic farming, sustainable agriculture, sustainable packaging, transportation, and fair-trade, much less human persistence, animal sentience, and ontology. Still, we have to eat. We choose and, consciously or unconsciously, we pick the issues that matter to us and weigh them to the best of our ability.

I feel very lucky that I have had the time and training to tackle biochemistry and bioethics for a small sliver of issues. I’ve been able to uncover options, read  experts, and think critically about how my choices change the world. Still, I am an amateur in a thousand other matters, all related to choosing meals. Economic justice, climate change, and law enforcement may be the top three. The significance of choices can keep me up at night. It makes me deeply grateful for genuine, thoughtful, helpful experts. Life is difficult, and I use all the brains I can beg, steal, or borrow.

Cosmology

Last year, a friend asked me to speak at South-by-Southwest on astrobiology and theology. I laughed at her. Astrobiologists bring together astronomy, biology, chemistry, and planetary science (not to mention engineering and many other fields) with the hope of forming a comprehensive, natural science picture of life. Theologians also synthesize knowledge, often focusing on experience, belief, and choices in light of our relationship with God.

“You want me to talk about life, the universe, and everything?”

“Yes”

I have a hard-enough time figuring out whether I should eat eggs, How could I tackle astrobiology and theology? But in some ways, it is the same problem as lunch: thinking carefully with limited information. We all want to know where we came from, how we fit in, and where we’re going. We all tell stories about the cosmos.

If I can share only one thing, let it be this. We are all cosmologists. We all tell stories about the universe and our place in it. Those stories change us, affect our choices, and affect our neighbors. So, let us be careful cosmologists. Let us think critically about what we know, what we value, and what we choose. Let us ask who the experts might be and listen to what they have to offer. We can reason for ourselves, without reasoning by ourselves. Understanding life, the universe, and everything will take more than one person and more than one lifetime.

Space Left Blank

The word “space” should give you pause. It suggests a region that is both empty and available for use. Many see this as an invitation, perhaps even a duty, to expand, to “take up space.” Others think human expansion is inevitable. Given enough time we will spread to other planets and other stars. That is, unless we destroy ourselves first. Surprisingly often, discussions of alien life and alien intelligence take progress for granted. Life, once begun, will produce intelligence. Intelligence, once begun, will advance to the creation of radio telescopes, space ships, and eventually interstellar colonies.

I love Star Trek, but I do not share this confidence about human development or the development of intelligence in general. I do not know that space is available, or that progress is inevitable. Neither biology nor theology reassure me on these points. They tell me that we are part of Earth, and Earth is part of us. We are local and should be humble as we reach beyond the atmosphere and beyond tomorrow. They make me wonder.

What if space was left intentionally blank?

HT-Pine Trees-c1595

Space can be beautiful. Hasegawa Tohaku’s Pine Trees is one of the great works of art. We praise the morning fog and the darkening sky. We praise the freshly fallen snow. Space can also be useful. A cup must have space to hold tea. A house must have space to live in. Physicists know that vacuum makes for great insulation and energy efficient windows. Biologists know that cells do work in biology because of the space inside. Perhaps it’s good to have space between the stars.

Space Exploration

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is traveling to Jezero Crater. Sediments from an ancient river fan out from a break in the Western rim. A wonderful gap, by the way, a useful emptiness. I can’t wait to know more about that ancient river and that ancient sea. And yet, I value the space between here and there. I value the distance and the difference.

Jezero Crtr - Mars Xprs

Saturn’s moon Titan has seasonal lakes filled with antifreeze. I’m excited about the Dragonfly mission, planned for 2026. I want to know more. We have found more than four thousand planets orbiting other stars, wondrous and strange and surprising us daily.

I like space exploration and I support the journey, but colonization and pilgrimage are different ways to travel. Pilgrims revere their destination, remember their home, and respect the space in between.

Sacred Space

Space can be a good thing. Ely Cathedral was just big enough for a luminous replica of the Moon to hang in the nave. I visited it last month for the science festival.

Image may contain: indoor

Sometimes, an object must come near for us to appreciate it.

Sometimes, it must be far away.

For me, the vault of heaven stretches over a cosmic sanctuary. I measure it as a scientist, but love it as a worshiper. We are one species among many, one planet floating in space. I dearly hope to find another. A heavenly chorus would be a wondrous thing, but silence and stillness can also be profound. Maybe this space was left intentionally blank.

Buddhists tell of sunyata, emptiness. Muslims say salaam, peace. Christians speak of sabbath and sanctuary. And there are many others. When you look up, remember that you, too, are a cosmologist. Your words have scientific and spiritual meaning. And words have a gravity of their own.

The cosmos is more than a void and more than an opportunity; it is a sacred space.

Image Notes

Moons: In 2011, the Cassini spacecraft took a single photo that included 5 of Saturn’s moons (Janus, Pandora, Enceladus, Mimas, and Rhea) as well as the tip of Saturn’s rings. Saturn is out of frame, to the right. I added the words, but the view is real.

Painting: Pine Trees, Hasegawa Tohaku, c.1595

Jezero Crater: mosaic of images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Express.

The Moon is an artwork entitled Museum of the Moon by Luke Jerram. It hung in Ely Cathedral for the Science Festival, 18 May – 9 June 2019.

It was a deep honor to share the stage with Yvonne Cagle, Bruce Damer, Brian Keating, and Ginny Whitelaw and I encourage you to follow them if you’re interested in the topic. We had wonderful discussions both before and after the public talks.

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