Navigating the Crossroads of Science and Religion with Astronomy Professor David Weintraub

Navigating the Crossroads of Science and Religion with Astronomy Professor David Weintraub


VPR contributor Izzy Ercan recently sat down with Professor David Weintraub of the Astronomy Department about his new book, Life on Mars: What to Know Before We Go. The book will be published early next year, and it deals not with the technological difficulties of exploring for life on Mars, but rather focuses on the moral issues and ambiguities of human exploration in space. Weintraub’s fourth book joins another book of a similar nature, Religion and Extraterrestrial life: How will we deal with it? (2014), which explores the agreements and disagreements new life will have with religious thought. Ercan sat down with Professor Weintraub to ask him about his experience writing these two books, as well as his own thoughts about finding life in the universe.

What is your religious background?  

I was raised Jewish, and now I am someone who was raised Jewish (chuckles). I am mostly a non-practicing person in terms of religion. My wife and I raised our kids to confuse the hell out of them. My wife is Christian. We had a Passover Seder and Hanukkah Candles and a Christmas tree, and they went to Easter service with my wife. Every once in awhile, I will go with her to service to keep her company, but I’m not a member of her church.

For all of the other religions that you explore in your religion book, where did you obtain the knowledge? And what prompted your interest in religion?

I think I learned more about religion just on my own rather than in my education growing up… it’s sort of self-taught. I became fascinated with religion when I was in high school, largely because of a play my high school performed about Galileo called Lamp at Midnight. I was also interested in astronomy and the play is about the famous astronomer who was persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church for his discoveries. I thought ‘there is something going on here.’ That was the beginning of my fascination between this overlap of astronomy and religion. Astronomers ask a lot of questions that are identical in many ways to questions that theologians or philosophers or religious thinkers would ask- ‘Why is there a universe.’ That’s a pretty religious or astrophysical question. ‘What is our purpose in the universe, are we alone in the universe?’ My interest is what led to the book I wrote, Religions and Extraterrestrial life, which had to do with the fact that astronomers are good now at discovering planets around other stars. Why are we doing that? Because we are interested in our quest to find life in the universe. We are doing it not only because we can do it but because we are really interested in the question of how many planets are out there, and how many planets are like the Earth. We are interested in life that can exist on any of those planets…if we someday find life on another planet what does that mean for us? Are we alone or will that bother God? There are religious implications to discovering life out there and that’s what my book is about.

What type of impact would life on Mars have upon religion?   

I wasn’t thinking of the life on Mars book in regards to religion but if we found life on Mars, I think some religious people would have to confront that knowledge in a way that might cause them a little of conflict between their religious views. What I found in my research in the other book is that most religions would be very happy with the idea of extraterrestrial life. Some religious points of view almost insist that there is life beyond Earth. So, discovering life on Mars would not bother someone who is a Muslim, a Hindu, A Buddhist, or a Jew or all sorts of other religions. But folks who insist that life on Earth is the only life in the universe because we are the sole focus of God’s attention, that could be a problem. There are a lot of people in that group but it’s only one part of one religious domain. Life on Mars would pose questions that are more important in real terms than a religious question. Part of that has to do with what that (discovered) life might be like.

David Weintraub’s book, Religions and Extraterrestrial Life (2014), David Weintraub/Springer

How would life have come to Mars?

If life exists on Mars there are two possibilities for how it got there. One, it arose in the same way it did on Earth. Life on Earth got started and a rock splashed life to Mars or it started on Mars and a rock splashed life to Earth. And it’s all DNA based and we’re all related and all of us are Martians. The second possibility is that life on Mars arose completely independently of life on Earth. You can call it independent genesis. Whatever the reasons it got started, it has nothing to do with life on Earth. Those are the two possibilities. Either way, it’s a pretty profound discovery. If it’s the first, then it means that it is not that hard to transport life from one place to another. Interplanetary space is a harsh place; it’s tough for stuff to survive out there. There’s ultraviolet light, cosmic rays, x-rays. If it did survive, Ie: a rock splashed life in either direction, it probably was a rock orbiting the sun for millions of years before it got from one point to the other. In millions of years, life could travel from one star system to another star system. If it could survive here, it could survive and be transported all over the universe. And if life on Mars started independently, that means that it’s not that hard for life to get started since it got started at two places. Either way it would be pretty big news.

What is the chance that we find life on Mars?

I think it’s very unlikely. I don’t think it’s zero but it’s very slim. Now there are some folks who already think we’ve uncovered the evidence that it’s there, not many people agree with them, but not everyone disagrees with them. The possibility is bigger than zero that life is there, but there is also the possibility, greater than zero, that we have already discovered life on Mars. We don’t all agree on what the answer is and we would need more study and research.

What are the issues that are being overlooked in the planned Mars explorations?  

The real profound question is I think: if life exists on Mars, do we have the right as humans to contaminate Mars? Should we leave it alone? If life exists on Mars and we go and colonize Mars, are we going to wipe out the life that is already there? I think there is an ethical and moral dimension to doing that that we ought to be thinking about. And then this becomes a political, economic, religious, and a philosophical question. And no one has talked much about this yet. Elon Musk and numerous other groups want to go to Mars and build a city on Mars⎯everyone wants to go to Mars⎯but I don’t think many other people have stopped and thought about the potential negative consequences of going. We are clearly going to Mars, certainly by the end of the 21st century, but maybe we ought to slow down a little bit and learn a bit about it to figure out what we are doing. If we explore Mars sufficiently to prove that the planet has no life and we go and colonize it, do we have the right to do that? I don’t think it is manifest destiny for us to go conquer and colonize another planet just because it is there. Maybe it belongs to other Martians and it was already theirs for all we know. It may be off limits to us. We need to explore more to find out. If in fact there are Martians there and the only thing there is only bacteria things which may not be DNA based. We ought to at least know we may be wiping it out. There are parallels to what humans have done on Earth. We are pretty much wiping out other existing organisms on Earth right now. When native Europeans came to the “New World”, they brought all sorts of diseases and wiped out tremendous numbers of the indigenous populations, not just human but animals too. They changed what was here. Now there is still life in North and South America, but it is not the life that was originally here. Humans have a robust history of wiping out the life in places. Maybe we should learn a little bit from our past and think before we leave.

Is there something out there, (life) in the rest of the universe?

Probability, bigger than zero. I think it’s less likely than what my colleagues think. There are billions and billions of stars and hundreds of billions of galaxies out there like the Milky Way. The universe is a tremendously big place and the Cosmological Principle states that the stuff here must be the same stuff in other parts of the universe, so if life is possible here in our parts of the universe it must be possible in other parts of the universe as well. The recipe is in place, the question is how hard is it for it to happen. If you believe there is a deity who reaches down and stirs up the soup and life happened, then there can be life anywhere in the universe⎯if God wants there to be life. If life is a phenomenon that emerges naturally, then it is just a chemical process where the right ingredients are together at the right place at the right time. On the Earth, life arose very soon after the Earth formed. The earliest evidence of life on Earth is a billion years after Earth formed. But then it took another 2 billion years to create creatures that could create enough oxygen to oxygenate the atmosphere and make the surface safe for life. Then it took time, more than a billion years for multicellular organisms to appear, then a few hundred million for dinosaurs to appear. It is very hard for life to evolve into multicellular advanced creatures. If I were to really commit to answering your question, I would say yes there is life out there, but the chances that there is intelligent life out there, I would say is very close to zero. It looks like it is very hard for there to be an advanced, technological advanced species out there.  

On the future of Space Exploration:

I think the privatization of space flight is both inevitable and part of NASA’s charter. When NASA was originally chartered, they were supposed to be the engineering outfit that proved you could do things in space so it could be done by private enterprise. Long before Space X, NASA showed in the 1970’s that you could put satellites in space to look down onto the Earth and predict weather and measure the atmosphere. All of that has become privatized. When you get your weather from Weather Channel you are getting it from private companies using satellites in space. Your cellphone is talking to satellites that are not owned by NASA. So having private companies figuring out how to send rockets to the Space station is a good idea. NASA should be focused on doing things that private enterprise can’t do yet. NASA has done all of the foundational work in trying to understand the limitations of the human body in space during space flight. I think NASA should be doing the science, because private enterprise won’t necessarily do that: Ie to send a spacecraft to Venus to understand the planet. NASA’s current missions are pioneering the technological skills, to show the way, and if there is money to be made private enterprise should take over.

I do think that for something like going to Mars, that it should be a universal effort. I think the U.N. should be involved. An international voice is necessary in how we explore space, in the same way we explore Antarctica; no one country owns it. The same ought to be true of the Moon or Mars because if someone goes and colonizes it and puts up a fence, is that ok?

On his new book to be released early next year:

It is about a four-year process for me to begin the book to when it is published. It is set to be published early next year. I would love to be able to teach a class on it. We have a solar system course, and another professor is already teaching that. I think this book would be good content for that course. If I were to teach it again, it would become part of the curriculum. There’s a program at Vanderbilt for retired folk called OLLI (Ocean Lifelong Learning Institute) that would be a six-week course for an older audience that I think it would be great for. I didn’t write it to be a textbook, neither did I write the Religion and ET book for that initial purpose as I have with other books. I wrote this book because I was genuinely curious. I got a publisher and they think that other people will be curious also. My book is an academic book but it’s meant for a wider audience.

How do your colleagues handle your work? Do you get any critique or praise?

Not a whole lot of either. I talk to some folks who are really glad that I’m doing what I’m doing because science is not communicated very well to a broad audience by most people and it is something that I seem to do reasonably well. At least I keep getting published so I hope so. I have that level of support. I’m not doing what most astronomers do, which is go to telescopes and collect and analyze data. I’ve done that for most of my career but now I’ve transitioned over to writing about science and astronomy, rather than actively doing astronomy. I still do a little bit of that, I’ve got one active project going on right now. I’ve written my share of research papers but no one really in my area is writing books. There’s a humanist in me that’s working hard to get out. I think what I’m doing is of value. If everybody in the astronomy department was doing what I was doing, we might have a dysfunctional astronomy department, but the program can handle someone like me doing this. I’ve been here for 27 years, and almost all I did was research for most of my time here.  

What was your motivation to begin writing books?  

The Pluto book was my first book and that was published in 2006. And that happened by accident. I was teaching the Solar System course, and I got many questions about Pluto from my students so I started developing materials for them to read to understand the controversy about Pluto. I started putting it up on my website in the late 90’s, before Bright space and OAK existed. After a couple of years, the students started complaining, ‘it’s too expensive’ and I was like ‘what’s too expensive?’ Well, they apparently were printing out all of the material on the website and they were spending money on toner cartridges for their printers. So, I thought to myself, maybe I can solve that. So I took all of my materials and went to campus copy and I found out that it’d cost $60 to print everything out. The students were happy now that they could spend $60 instead of like $150. But once I had it in the form of a classpack, it looked like a book, so I tried to figure out if someone would publish it because maybe that’d be fun to do. But also, it might be cheaper. Once Princeton published the book, it was $29.95 instead of $60 from campus copy and it looked like a book. Hey this is kind of neat! So, it saved students money, and they could buy it either used or in paperback, and it was cheap. Now I know what I want. I write a book for my class and I approach the publisher and see if they want to publish it.

About his current unique position in the astronomy department:

It wasn’t until when I started the religion and ET book, which was 7 or 8 years ago, that I really started migrating into doing things that really interested me. That’s why I did the religion and ET book, and that’s why I did the Mars book. They weren’t motivated by doing a textbook, it was ‘I’m really curious and want to explore this subject.’ That’s one of the privileges of being a university professor is that we are paid to be curious about stuff. And very few people today⎯ even if they are Mars experts⎯know now about the history of Mars and the history of the search for life on Mars as I do, and now I’ve put it all in one place for people to discover. I think it is a valuable, different type of contribution. It is important to know how to communicate science well with a broad audience.   


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