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Pontifical academy studies possibility of extraterrestrial life

November 11, 2009

The Pontifical Academy of Science has concluded a five-day study week devoted to the emerging field of astrobiology, the scientific study of extraterrestrial life.

“This is a quite appropriate topic for the academy, which has a multidisciplinary membership, since it is a field which combines research in many disciplines, principally astronomy, cosmology, biology, chemistry, geology and physics,” said Father José Funes, SJ, director of the Vatican Observatory. Dr. Chris Impey, deputy head of the University of Arizona’s astronomy department, added:

Four hundred years ago, Galileo Galilei turned his telescope to the heavens and forever changed the way we view ourselves in relation to the universe. In addition to cementing the Copernican revolution with his observations, he showed that the Moon was a geological body like the Earth, with mountains and valleys. Four hundred years later, the study of other worlds has grown to prominence in astronomy. In the past 15 years, technological breakthroughs have led to the discovery of over 400 planets beyond the Solar System. The smallest of these is not much more massive than the Earth. Meanwhile, lab experiments have made progress in tracing the processes by which simple chemical ingredients might have evolved into cells about four billion years ago, and scientists have discovered life in surprisingly diverse, inhospitable environments on the Earth. It is plausibly estimated that there are hundreds of millions of habitable locations in the Milky Way, which is just one of billions of galaxies in the universe.

As scientists gather to discuss progress in astrobiology, we still only know of one planet with life: our own. But there is a palpable expectation that the universe harbors life and there is hope that the first discovery is only a few years away. This meeting gathers an interdisciplinary set of scholars, whose expertise spans astronomy, planetary science, geology, chemistry, biology, and environmental science. They will present the latest research results and engage in deep discussion on the nature and prospects of life in the universe. If biology is not unique to the Earth, or life elsewhere differs bio-chemically from our version, or we ever make contact with an intelligent species in the vastness of space, the implications for our self-image will be profound. It is appropriate that a meeting on this frontier topic is hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The motivations and methodologies might differ, but both science and religion posit life as a special outcome of a vast and mostly inhospitable universe. There is a rich middle ground for dialogue between the practitioners of astrobiology and those who seek to understand the meaning of our existence in a biological universe.

"The questions of life's origins and of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe are very suitable and deserve serious consideration," said Father Funes. Participants agreed that the discovery of any other sentient life forms in the universe would raise fascinating philosophical questions, but the conference was devoted to the scientific aspects of the hunt for life. The interdisciplinary conference, involving 30 scientists from research institutes around the world, explored issues such as the origins of life, the elements necessary for the emergence of life forms, and the exploration of distant planets that could be searched for signs of life.

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  • Posted by: William F. Folger - Nov. 24, 2009 8:52 AM ET USA

    Methinks “other news” is so worrisome these days that attention to this news item suffers. But fear not, the Trinity remains unaffected, to answer Q1. Re Q2, Theology cannot rule out “God-Imaged aliens”. God-Jesus showed He can take on whatever form circumstances require – bread and wine or Ghost-like as when entering despite locked doors, each modifying a normal Earthly nature. Angels can appear as humans yet remain Angels. So, the Second Person on Planet X could have eyes also behind His head.

  • Posted by: William F. Folger - Nov. 17, 2009 8:55 PM ET USA

    We know of 2 types of God-Imaged beings: angels and humans. Consider a 3rd type with VERY different DNA. From war in Heaven and on earth, free agents tend not to like to serve their Creator. If “Type 3” needed saved, like us, then their “Person Jesus with dual Natures” would have a very different looking physical nature. So, 1) what effect on “THE” Trinity does this have? & 2) is theology so powerful it can PROVE no intelligent aliens exist “out there” because the Trinity is COMPLETELY defined?

  • Posted by: wojo425627 - Nov. 17, 2009 1:16 PM ET USA

    I always found the end of the novel A Canticle for Leibowitz very interesting. The Vatican of the year 3000 or so sends a couple bishops and numerous priests in a spaceship and sends them off to land on another planet. Their mission: They are to continue the preaching of the gospel as Jesus said, to the whole world (or universe). They are to keep the church going in the event that the earth (facing nuclear annihilation) destroys itself. The Church will remain to the end of time.