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The Science and Spirituality of Looking for Life on Mars

by | Jun 28, 2021 | New, News

Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.

— Winston Churchill

In the prolonged struggle between science and religion in the West, there has been something of a role reversal. At the start, religious leaders were the ones professing certainty, condemning (often to death) those who questioned the Bible’s story about how the Earth was made and how it fit within the heavenly panoply. Scientists were seekers asking uncomfortable questions. Today, science is often the one promising certainty, with so-called new atheists like Richard Dawkins depicting religious folk as weak and stupid—apparently incapable of accepting what is plain to see. Believers in organized religion, meanwhile, often see themselves as persecuted for failing to toe the line. The side with the upper hand may change, but the battle persists.

Straddling this shifting, contested terrain is the Reverend Pamela Conrad, a geobiologist at NASA who studies what environments can sustain life—while also tending to an Episcopal congregation outside of Baltimore. Conrad, who was ordained in 2017, is part of the scientific team running the Perseverance Rover mission to Mars, where she helps design experiments to understand the Martian environment with an eye to the big questions: Is there life on Mars? Was there ever?

At the moment, she’s working on two projects, or investigations, related to the mission. The first is a suite of instruments that help determine what the weather is like on our neighboring planet to assess how hospitable it might be to organisms. The other uses a special microscope, known as Watson, and a spectrometer to identify and analyze the planet’s organic materials.

In an interview, Conrad described her two occupations as complementary ways to understand the cosmos and our place in it: “The difference between a telescope, or any outward looking thing to understand the environment, and the introspection of looking inside is to say, ‘I am a universe, and also I live within a universe.’”

What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation about her scientific work and her faith, and how each challenges and informs the other.

Noam Cohen: As a scientist you probe the chemistry of life. Is there a mystical or spiritual quality to that?

Pamela Conrad: That is not the quest. What for me is so interesting is that it is all the same stuff. The periodic table of the elements is the periodic table that we see everywhere in the universe, both in astronomy and from samples of the universe that end up on Earth—meteorites. We can count on that. Really, it’s a question of, given that the chemistry is the same and the physical forces may vary, what distinguishes an environment that can support life and one that cannot? But it is not that simple a question, unfortunately, because we have only had one example of life that we know how to recognize, and that is life on this planet. So I’m also asking, would we know it if we saw it?

In both of your fields—science and religion—it seems that most people are looking for answers, not further questions.

Absolutely. And I fully concede that I am a statistical outlier. I go there because I love the questions. We have forgotten that science, although it makes use of empirical data, is really about constructing a model for understanding the data, and even the best scientists sometimes hold a little too tightly to their favorite model. The really great scientists are the ones who say, “What an idiot I was yesterday. Of course that is not it, today it’s this.”

You’ve talked about a research trip to Antarctica that deeply affected you. What happened?

I was there to take a National Science Foundation-sponsored course in Antarctic biology for people who might at some point want to explore Antarctica. I had a certain mystical sense of something that is very difficult to articulate without sounding loony. But standing there in a place that is so harsh and so devoid of amenities, I could feel the silliness of the things I had held onto—different scars in my own life, arguments I may have had with this person or that person—as being so trivial and meaningless in the big scheme of surviving as a being. It literally all went away in an instant. Not to say that I was able to resolve questions that had been on my mind for a long time. But it was certainly a real comeuppance with respect to my value as a human and my place in the universe. A recognition that you can be a tiny cog in a great big machine—or to be more poetic, a tiny grain of sand against the vastness of all the grains of sand that exist.

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If there were life found on Mars, would that mean anything to you religiously?

The shortest answer is no. To elaborate, we have many people who conceive of God as being really big and being everywhere and capable of anything, yet at the same time we have this notion that we are the pinnacle of creation. The holy book of every faith tradition tries to place us within the context of the universe, but we are still participating in the recording of those stories. This is something I like to poke at, because if you really do believe that there is something in the universe that actually is the driving force of it and is in fact the medium in which everything resides, then we must leave open the possibility that beyond our imagination there are other beings who are also loved and provisioned in their own contexts, whether they look like a fish or stromatolite or us.

You’ve said it’s inevitable that humans want to go to Mars—part of our inherent nature. But some say we shouldn’t try to go to Mars when we can’t even feed every child on Earth. How do you sit comfortably with that?

To use a poor analogy, it’s like asking why people are interested in sex. It’s a biological instinct that has a purpose in the big picture, in that it ensures we will continue to have the human species. By the same token, we keep looking at new places to explore because all organisms look for opportunities and threats in order to exploit the opportunities and hopefully avoid the threats. That’s biology. We are still biological organisms, however smart we may think we are. So we do a lot of rationalizing of behaviors that I believe are hard-wired into us. Exploration is one of those hard-wired things. However, we have to look at a kind of converse question that goes along with that: What does it mean if we lose our desire or capability to explore? It is something diagnostic about the human condition. And that, I believe, should also be true as much for faith as for science. If we tell people not to explore, but just to hold a belief, we are taking away the critical thinking that is supposed to be used in all our pursuits in life. Whether it's exploring new cooking recipes to keep us interested in eating, or education to keep us more aware of our environment—it’s the same thing.

What about caring for the children on Earth who don’t have food or health care? Isn’t that just as powerful an instinct?

It certainly is an instinct for me. I think all the time about how we should apportion our portfolio of science and technology efforts. One of the mysteries that I think the American public doesn’t have a good grasp on is the percentage of money spent on pure and applied science relative to the amount of money spent on developing new weaponry or other things. When we look at the overall portfolio, we have to understand the costs versus the benefits. Sometimes we are making an assumption of what science costs in each piece of its endeavor and begin to think of it in an exclusionary way. It is true that we have to ask the hard question: Why should we build the technology that will take us to another planet when we don’t have the technology to feed every person in this country? The answer to that is that we do have the technology to feed every child in this country, but we don’t have the will.

Right now we have these billionaires who are pursuing space exploration. You’re talking about innate curiosity and people’s need to discover, but there is also an innate need to stick a flag up on a mountain. What do you think of the public seeing space exploration as a competition between billionaires?

When organisms explore to understand opportunities and threats, remember that one organism’s opportunity is a threat to another. You’re right that people do explore to put flags on top of mountains, but there is a difference between exploration and adventure. Exploration is the instinct to look for opportunities and avoid threats, but humans are also thrill seekers, and there is a difference between the two, even though they are both present.

This is the fact that we have a power issue—that also is a biological thing. It is presumed that if we have abundance that we will be OK, even if it creates scarcity for some other organisms. So billionaires using money to explore space is absolutely to maintain their power as the greatest. There are all kinds of motivations, but that doesn’t mean they might not have an evolutionary consequence that ends up being good for the rest of the organisms. Because even if you have one breakout guy who has a gazillion dollars who decides to explore Mars, that pushes the technology to the point that other humans will explore—and it's not so much because Mars is an important destination.

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit? How would we know if there was a Holy Spirit on Mars? How would we detect it?

I do believe in a Holy Spirit, and one reason why I like a trinitarian concept of God is because I love that light can be a packet of energy, it can be a wave and it can be a particle. We already have scientific precedent to say that you can exist as two things simultaneously. I do believe in the Holy Spirit because I can feel that I am within a unifying system, maybe that is a characteristic of living within a system. But as much as I believe in the rest of the structure of the universe, in dark energy, in dark matter, I don’t think it matters whether you call this energy you can’t identify God or the cosmic microwave background. I believe it doesn’t matter if I understand precisely what God is or what a spirit is to feel that sense of being part of this whole. I believe that if God created everything there is, that must mean that the entire system of universe or multiverse exists within a medium of God. Do I need to understand God to know what that is? No. I have to focus my energies on some things that I can work at, by using both the scientific method and theological reflection. Do I believe that there would be a Holy Spirit on Mars? Of course. Because if we are saying that God is this big, why would we put God in a box?

I can’t say what we would detect per se, because even in the scientific sense, whether you can see something, observe something, is a function of how well you have designed your sensors. If a human has an innate sense of some spiritual desire or connection, or whatever you would call it, that is a spiritual sensor. Do I think you can build that with technology? I have no clue.

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