Earlier this month my wife and I attended the 2021 Conference of the Society of Catholic Scientists (SCS). It was held from the evening of June 4 through the afternoon of June 6 at the Washington (D.C.) Hilton (on Connecticut Avenue, not too far away from the White House). The SCS has only been around a few years, and last year there was no conference for reason of COVID, so this is only the fourth SCS conference ever.
You will not find me at a lot of conferences. This is in part because I seem to be drawn to organizations that do not have travel big budgets (the Vatican Observatory needs your support so its budget will be bigger—click here to support the VO!). But it is also in part because conferences involve a lot of sitting. A day at a conference looks something like this: eat breakfast, sit, listen, take a break, sit, eat lunch, sit, listen, etc. Exercise consists of walking to the restroom, and talking to fellow conference-goers! And usually everything takes place in some conference space—lots of dull gray walls with few if any windows (as seen in the photos here). The main day of the conference, June 5th, things started at 7:00 AM, they did not end until 9:00 PM, and the gray walls were always present! Wow! Or… Ow!
Still, I wanted to attend this conference. I thought it would be good for the VO to have a presence there. The conference topic, “Extraterrestrials, AI, and Minds Beyond the Human”, was something which I knew would be enjoyable and about which I have lots of opinions.
However, the best part about the conference was that it was a conference of Catholic scientists. Both mornings began with Mass (and on the 5th, Mass was at 7:00 AM). Mass on Sunday (the 6th) even had a choir of Catholic scientists! That is not something a person experiences every day. Hymns for the Sunday Mass included “All Creatures of Our God and King”—
All creatures of our God and King,
Lift up your voice and with us sing:
O burning sun with golden beam
And silver moon with softer gleam:
—as well as “I Sing the Mighty Power of God”—
I sing the mighty pow’r of God
That made the mountains rise,
That spread the flowing seas abroad,
And built the lofty skies.
I sing the wisdom that ordained
The sun to rule the day;
The moon shines full at God’s command
And all the stars obey.
There were also many folks attending the conference in Roman collars and habits. Habited persons present included Franciscans, Dominicans, and Benedictines—a mixture of men and women. No doubt some reader is asking about Jesuits; I did not inquire to see who among the priests and brothers there in the standard “blacks” and Roman collars might have been of the Society of Jesus. And most remarkably, to my mind, there was a whole family there! (More on them next week.)
All the talks were good. Because the SCS conference is attended by a wide variety of scientists, the talks were not too specialized. My wife attended them all. She is not a scientist. She found them interesting and understandable.
To my mind, the best of all the talks was by Natasha Toghramadjian, a graduate student from Harvard University. She spoke on “Earthquakes, their Consequences, and the Jesuit Pioneers of Seismology”. Her talk was an excellent mix of history, science, and Catholicism. Jesuits played a big role in the development of seismology, in part because Jesuits historically have been drawn to science, and in part because Jesuit institutions spanned the globe and thus facilitated the establishment of the sort of network of seismological instruments needed to probe and monitor the globe as a whole. Toghramadjian showed the audience images of churches in Armenia that had been built to withstand earthquakes using methods developed over time. She spoke of a very Catholic, Christian sense of trying to use the study of seismology to help people live with a geologically active Earth.
There were several talks that directly pertained to astronomy—all linked to the “Extraterrestrials” side of the conference theme. These included:
- Timothy Dolch, Hillsdale College: “The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: an Overview”
- Jonathan Lunine, Cornell University: “The Scientific Search for Life beyond Earth: from Mars to the Galaxy”
- Karin Öberg, Harvard University: “The Likelihood of Extraterrestrial Life”
- Christopher Shingledecker, Benedictine College: “Forming the Molecular Building-blocks of Life on Icy Cosmic Dust”
(See the photos below.) Talks that were also astronomy-related included those by Christopher Baglow (University of Notre Dame) on “Extraterrestrial Life and Catholic Theology”, Jennifer Wiseman (BioLogos, AAAS) on “A Universe of Awe, Challenge and Possibility”, and Simon Conway Morris (Cambridge) on “The Evolution of Humans is Inevitable; so where are the extraterrestrials?”.
All of these astronomy and astronomy-related talks were good, but too “life positive” in my opinion. Much of the story of our search for life has already been written. History tells us that astronomers expected to find a universe full of worlds like Earth and full of life. Such worlds were expected to be found within our solar system—Martians and Venusians and all such like as that.
What we have found, however, is that the universe is full of worlds not like Earth, stars not like the sun, planetary systems not like our solar system. The universe that we have historically expected to find does not exist. Yes, we are still looking at Mars, at Jupiter’s moon Europa, and at Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan as possible abodes of some sort of life, but those worlds are really quite different from Earth.
That those worlds are our targets for further exploration in the search for life in the solar system really says a lot, given what astronomers once expected. If we are going to seriously look for life on Titan (and reference to possible life on Titan even made it into an episode of the new Cosmos, if I recall correctly), why should we not seriously look for Sasquatch, or Mermaids? Think hard, O Readers of Sacred Space Astronomy, on whether Sasquatch is less plausible than life on super-frigid Titan.
I wanted to hear someone at this conference talk about what the universe that we have actually discovered so far tells us, rather than about what something we have always expected to discover, but failed to discover so far, might tell us, if we eventually discover it. The latter is fine and good, but that ground has been plowed many times. Just a little bit of the former would have been nice, since arguably the difference between the universe we have discovered and the universe we were expecting is comparable to that difference between discovery and expectation found in the Copernican Revolution. Conway Morris hit this a little, but not as much as I hoped. (Keep in mind that I am describing these talks from memory and notes—it is always possible that I missed the cool discussion of the history of ideas about spontaneous generation in there somewhere, and shame on me if I did miss it.)
There were also talks related to the “AI” side of the conference theme. These included:
- Timothy Anderson, Catholic University of America: “Deep Learning, Purpose, and Entropy”
- Sr. Stephen Patrick Joly, O.P., Lansing Catholic High School: “Understanding Evolution with St. Thomas Aquinas”
- Javier Sanchez-Cañizares, University de Navarra: “Is Artificial Intelligence Compatible with Evolution?”
- Jordan Wales, Hillsdale College: “Artifact, Actuality, and Apparent Persons: On Humane Living with Near-Future Social AI”
These talks are not related to an area in which I deem myself to have any expertise, so I do not have commentary on them. However, I particularly like Sr. Joly’s talk, because she was coming from a high school and talking about work with students. I also enjoyed arguing with Jordan Wales between talks!
I save for last, of course, the talk that was in the best subject area of all—history of science! Lawrence Principe of Johns Hopkins University gave the St. Albert Lecture, “Scientific Innovation and Franciscan Spirituality in the Middle Ages”. It seems that the Franciscans did some really interesting things in chemistry!
Next week I will present a different perspective on the SCS 2021 conference—the perspective of the family who was there! It was a good conference, despite the gray walls, and despite the technical difficulties that seem to always be present at every presentation everywhere. I hope to attend another SCS conference in the future.