Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Cool Science Gossip
Kenneth Miller was speaking this evening at Boston College's Clavius Symposium on Faith, Mathematics and Science, and I was lucky enough to hear about the event straight from Ken and get there in time for his talk. I've corresponded with him by email, read his book and seen his recorded appearances at universities as well as his stint on the Colbert report. But I'd never met him until today.

If you've ever seen him give his presentation live, you know what a great enthusiast he is for science and religion. Catholic parents concerned about the whole hyped up science/religion wars ought to get Ken to give his talk at their church or their school--because whether we like it or not, science education in this country is pathetic, and Ken is a great antidote to the obnoxiousness of the 'new atheists' who love to beat church-goers over the head with the alleged 'indifference' of the cosmos and science's 'unassailable' role in proving the meaninglessness of life. (Note to Mark Shea and Amy Welborn, you've got to meet this guy!)

One of the things Ken pointed out, which doesn't surprise me, is the amount of hate mail he gets from fundamentalists: fundie Bible Christians who tell him he's going to burn in hell for teaching evolution, and fundie atheists who tell him what a traitor he is to science for even suggesting that you can accept evolution and darken the door of a church every Sunday.

I know some conservative Catholics who have read his Finding Darwin's God like to sniff about an alleged flirting with 'process theology' --but he couldn't have quoted more orthodox authorities in his talk, including the late John Paul II, Augustine, Aquinas and the current pontiff, Benedict, whom Ken reminded his audience approved this paragraph (63) for the document Communion and Stewardship for the International Theological Commission:
"According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the 'Big Bang' and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5 - 4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution." (paragraph 63, from "Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God," plenary sessions held in Rome 2000-2002, published July 2004)
One can quibble with the current pope's use of the word 'controversy'--I think 'research' and 'argument continues' would have been more accurate. But his summation of what science has told us thus far is, as Ken pointed out, second to none.

Interesting note: Ken also alluded to the fact that he had heard directly from members of the Pontifical Academy that they were not happy with Cardinal Schönborn's ill-considered 2005 op-ed column for the New York Times tacitly endorsing intelligent design. The Cardinal has since...er, done his penance for that faux paux. As many suspected, he did not write the op-ed himself, but allowed it to be handled largely by flacks for the Discovery Institute with whom he is sympathetic.

As has been pointed out before (see the excellent Scott Carson) this kind of nonsense has only helped confuse Christians about the factuality of evolution and what it means and doesn't mean for religious faith.

Anyway, it was a great talk--and I was delighted and surprised at the close of his presentation, to not only see Ken cite Lemaitre and his philosophy of science, but show a picture of my book and kindly point out to the audience that the author was..ahem... in attendance.

It also turns out that the Brown professor and colleague of Ken's who introduced him to the audience was a graduate student in mathematics who knew Lemaitre when he was at U.C. Berkeley in the early sixties: Thomas Banchoff.

I wish I'd known that when I was writing the book. Maybe if I'm lucky enough to go to a second printing I can add Tom's firsthand anecdotes about the cosmology genius...

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