Welcome to another re-run; this column first ran here in 2016…
Writing my monthly Tablet columns, I often go through many drafts; sometimes the changes are quite radical. This is an early version of the column I wrote for in the Tablet in November, 2009; but it just didn’t feel right, so I kept working at it.. Going through my old columns to publish here at the Catholic Astronomer I discovered that I had kept this version, and I was intrigued by the ideas I was trying to get across… many of which didn’t survive the final draft. So I thought it might be amusing to show you what didn’t get published.
You will know the end-times by their signs, we’re told in the Gospel readings at this time of year. Couple that with typical Hollywood end-of-the-world films, and you can imagine the kinds of questions that we who study asteroid collisions and meteorite falls get. (Read the Gospel passages in their context; they are lessons on how to live our lives, not when to fear our deaths. If you’re afraid of dying by asteroid impact, my advice is to quit smoking and wear your seat belt.)
November 2009 also found the Vatican Observatory in the news, running a study week with 30 astrobiologists who presented their work at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. With the short-term memory characteristic of most journalism, we at the observatory were inundated by requests for media interviews about the Church’s “new outreach to extraterrestrials.” I can cite at least 50 years’ worth of such popular journalism; for that matter, Bishop Nicholas of Cusa speculated on many Earths and many suns in the 1400s.
Along with the journalists come those earnest amateur philosophers who want to share with us their theories about life and the universe. In the old days, the primary sign of such enthusiastic nonprofessionals was cramped handwriting on onion-skin paper. Nowadays their disquisitions come as e-mails with a certain creativity in the capitalization of letters and words. The more web-savvy authors include numerous obscure but colorful images and diagrams. [And You-Tube links!]
The week after the astrobiology meeting, I personally received two dozen such messages, even though I wasn’t even at that meeting. To quote a typical letter, “I have written an article on the parallels between the Holy Trinity, matter, and man… including a possible eschatological implication” – could I please comment? Another gentleman ends his description of the UFO people he’s encountered with the offer, “I am available for research programs to any and all sciences!”
How do we react to these earnest messages? Laughter is tempting but I suspect inappropriate; to the angels, our more professional speculations must appear to be just as ludicrous. Instead, I feel a terrible sadness. These sincere seekers desperately want to participate in the wonderful human adventure of exploring and understanding the edges of our cosmos; who can blame them? Who am I to stop them?
But they don’t know how to join in on the conversation. By trying to publish hypotheses of a kind that normally require years of study (and jumping through academic hoops), they’re trying to crash our party; they haven’t paid their dues. Moreover, they exhibit a certain arrogance to think that they can contribute to a field where clearly they haven’t spent the time to find out what’s already been written by so many generations before us. Those are the dues they haven’t paid.
Even sadder, however, is the presumption that “the right theory” is actually what matters. Rather, it’s more like working out a crossword puzzle; the answer shows if you’ve actually solved it, but once you’ve done it, you can throw it away.
Except, unlike a crossword, science is a team sport. Only in bad science fiction films (and the popular press) do lone misunderstood geniuses make paradigm-shattering breakthroughs. In reality, even if one of those e-mails held a profound truth, it would be useless to the rest of the field. To contribute to the conversation, you have to speak in a context, and a language, that the rest of us can understand.
And surely loving God and neighbor is of more worth than being right about your “trans-dimensional unified field theory.” All our papers and projects will be the first things to be consumed in fire when the Son of Man comes in a cloud with power and great glory.
Tomorrow I’ll post the the very different version I sent to The Tablet; see if you agree with me that the second version is better!