Are you willing to do real science? Now, for our professional scientists who read Sacred Space Astronomy, that question is rather easy to answer. The target group for this question are those who want to enter into the discussion on faith and science, but are not professional scientists. Why, you may ask?
A danger I see in debates on faith and science is they can quickly devolve into fights over personal opinion. In the United States, a phrase we use to describe this is “armchair quarterbacking.” This term references American football and how some fans who have never played the game will talk as if they know more about the sport than coaches and players. I see a similar phenomena when people share strong opinions about faith and science despite the fact they don’t live a life of faith and/or are not engaged in doing science. Just as the over zealous football fan can come across as profoundly ignorant of the sport they love, so, too, do people who criticize both faith and science without some type of personal grounding can come across as mere cheap shot artists.
One of the ways a non-scientist can avoid falling into this trap of armchair quarterbacking is to actually do real science. One of the best and easiest places to engage the sciences is citizen science programs. Of the many citizen science programs you can find online, I routinely visit a site called Zooniverse. It’s basically an internet porthole for numerous scientific research projects.
Citizen science programs invite collaboration between professional science organizations and the general public. Participants are invited to search different types of data to submit findings to the group hosting the project. Projects cover just about every area of science imaginable.
I was reminded of my work with citizen science projects when Dr. Leonard was showing us how he discovered the comet that bears his name. As he ran the sequence of four slides that revealed the comet, I was reminded of doing similar research on Zooniverse to help observatories find comets, asteroids, and supernovae candidates. When I shared this with Dr. Leonard, he was excited to share that his observatory hosts some Zooniverse projects. I haven’t had the chance to look for them, but I look forward to find out what his observatory offers.
One of my favorite citizen science projects is digging through images to help find supernovae candidates. It isn’t the most exciting work, but you basically sift through hundreds of images collected by professional observatories and submit potential candidates. There is a brief training exercise that teachers you how to identify candidates. When you feel ready to begin, you start looking at images and submit findings!
After you submit your findings, the observatory checks the submissions. If what you submitted is a supernova candidate and you were one of the first three people to submit the candidate, your name is added as a collaborator. Here is a clip of some of the supernovae candidates I’ve submitted. I feel very blessed to have been named a collaborator on three supernovae candidates!
Another project I enjoy working on explores surface features on Mars. Here’s some of the images I’ve worked on in the past. This Mars project asks participants to trace the blotches in the images to help scientists from the HiRISE Mars program understand Martian weather.
There are a lot more projects I could share with you, but I don’t want to bore you with a raw data slideshow. Therefore, here are the projects I enjoy the most and the number of submissions I made with each program.
What is the benefit of participation in citizen science programs? For starters, it’s a lot of fun! If you’re someone who has a hunger for discovery and exploration, citizen science programs give you the opportunity to help professionals in their process of discovery. I also experience a great amount of humbling when I do citizen science programs. What do I mean?
Years ago, a parishioner of mine owned a golf course. He was convinced that every priest should know how to play golf. I wasn’t a very good golfer, so Chaz gave me lessons. Sadly, Chaz’s efforts to help me become a good golfer fell short due to my lack of ability. However, I learned enough about golf that when I see a professional golfer make an amazing shot, I have an appreciation for what they are able to do and how far away my golf game is from being a professional.
I have a similar experience when doing citizen science programs. When I sift through the data produced by professional observatories, I begin to realize just how amazing professional astronomers are. It develops a respect for the profession that humbles me. I keep those moments in mind when I write about faith and science or are asked to give presentations. The fruit of this humility is a quick death to any desire to become a faith and science armchair quarterback.
As a priest, a “religious professional,” I greatly appreciate when people who do not have a faith life try to understand what living faith means before commenting on it. It gives me a sense of trust that the person who doesn’t understand faith is not merely attacking my profession, but is trying to understand their struggles with faith by engaging faith. Obviously, these moments transcend spats about faith and science because many scientists have a deep faith. It reminds me that what is at the heart of arguments about faith and science really has little to do with either discipline. What they really reflect is a lose of respect between people of differing worldviews. How beautiful a thought that is – Perhaps the key to ending the “faith vs. science” war isn’t trying to figure out who can argue better, but enter into the messy process of developing a healthy trust and understanding with those who think differently than we do.
Are you willing to do real science? Are you willing to understand and explore what it means to have a faith life? Pray with these questions today. May we hope that by doing faith and doing science we can develop a more level and respectable debate on these topics. Let us avoid the inflammatory rants of the armchair quarterback who only wants to talk about the game. May our dialogue be rooted in participation and not mere argumentation.