2017 SCS Conference: Origins
April 21, 2017 - April 23, 2017
Our first conference—“Origins”—ran April 21–23, 2017 in Chicago at the Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel.
The conference brought together researchers on all aspects of origins, from cosmos to consciousness. Specific topics included current cosmological ideas on the beginning and fate of the universe, fine-tuning and multiverse ideas, habitable planets and astrobiology, the origin of life, the evolution of species, and the origin of intelligence and consciousness.
2017 St. Albert Award:
Inaugural conference of the Society of Catholic Scientists
Friday, April 21:
Arrival and registration
8:00 PM Reception and Poster Session I.
Saturday, April 22:
7:00 Mass at St. James Chapel, The Archbishop Quigley Center
8:45 A Welcoming remarks (Stephen M. Barr, President of the SCS)
9:00 Keynote Lecture: “The Origin and Evolution of Universes” Prof. John D. Barrow (University of Cambridge)
10:15 Invited lecture: “The Origins and Prevalence of Habitable Worlds” Prof. Karin I. Öberg (Harvard University)
11:30 “Medieval Ideas of the Multiverse” Prof. J. Christopher Clemens (University of North Carolina)
1:15 “The Origin of Evolution: The Interplay of Order and Contingency” Prof. Daniel Kuebler (Franciscan University of Steubenville)
1:45 “Process Information: A novel communication theory with applications to evolutionary biology” Dr. Erick Chastain (Rutgers University)
2:30 Invited lecture: “Why Only Us: the origin of human language” Prof. Robert Berwick (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
3:45 “Science in the Light of the Christian View of the Human Person” Fr. Joachim Ostermann, O.F.M.
4:15 “The Catholic Scientist in the Secular World: What is the meaning of our vocation and how does it distinguish us?” Dr. Marisa March (University of Pennsylvania)
5:00 St. Albert Award Lecture: “To Find God in All Things: Grandeur in an Evolutionary View of Life” Prof. Kenneth R. Miller (Brown University)
8:00: Banquet address Br. Guy Consolmagno, S.J. (Director, Vatican Observatory)
Sunday, April 23:
8:00 AM Conference Mass at St. James Chapel, The Archbishop Quigley Center
10:00 Invited Lecture: “Georges Lemaître’s Contributions to Cosmology” Prof. Robert Scherrer (Vanderbilt University)
10:30 “Are Probabilities Indispensable to Inferring Design?” Prof. Robert C. Koons (University of Texas at Austin)
11:00 Poster Session II
1:00 Membership meeting
2:00 Closing remarks
2:15 Conference ends
2017 Inaugural Conference Welcoming Remarks
As President of the Society of Catholic Scientists, I welcome you all to our first conference, whose theme appropriately enough is “Origins.” SCS itself had its origin only last summer with seven members. As of today [April 22, 2017] we have about 330, which far exceeded our expectations, as has the attendance at this conference.
I would like to say a few words about what the Society of Catholic Scientists aspires to be.
One friend whom I invited to join SCS last summer, was hesitant because, as he put it, “I am not a Catholic scientist; I am a scientist who is Catholic.” His point was that there is not a specifically Catholic way of doing science, nor are there specifically Catholic scientific theories. That is true; and yet, faith is not unrelated to or alien to the scientific enterprise. As we heard last evening in Andrew Sicree’s excellent presentation about Bl. Nicolas Steno, the founder of the science of geology, and as we will hear tomorrow in Bob Scherrer’s talk about Georges Lemaître, the father of the Big Bang theory, religious believers have contributed mightily to the progress of science. But beyond that, one can say that basic Jewish and Christian beliefs support both the possibility and the value of scientific research. Indeed, it has been suggested by many that Jewish and Christian revelation helped prepare the ground for the emergence of modern science. It did so, most fundamentally, by sharply distinguishing between God and nature.
Biblical revelation taught that the sun, moon, oceans, wind, forests, and other things of this world are neither gods, nor the habitations of capricious deities, but are, rather, the works of God. This stripped the world of divinity and made it truly a natural world. Though not itself divine, the world nevertheless reflects its divine Author. As the Book of Wisdom said, “from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.”
In particular, as God is rational and wise — indeed God is Reason and Wisdom itself — one expects the universe to be governed by laws and principles intelligible to and discoverable by reason. Johannes Kepler, a devout Lutheran, announced his discovery of one of those laws with the words: “I thank Thee, Lord God our Creator, that Thou hast allowed me to see the beauty in Thy work of creation.”
This was the attitude of all the great founders of modern science, including Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Pascal, Boyle, Steno, and Newton. It is the attitude of religious scientists today. It is the attitude of the Society of Catholic Scientists, whose own motto means “Knowledge with devotion, research with wonder.”
And yet, there is a proper distinction between theology and natural science, just as there is a distinction between God and nature. Theology and science should not be put into a blender to produce some pseudo-mystical or pantheistic mush that has the characteristics neither of genuine science nor of sound theology. Science should not pretend to be theology, nor should theology pretend to be science. Each is grounded in a sense of wonder, and a belief that the world makes sense, but each has its own methods, competence, and sources.
While God gave laws to nature, he did not choose to reveal them to us supernaturally. The laws of nature are thus not only discoverable by reason, but must in fact be discovered by reason. And since reason is the common possession of all human beings, who are made in the image of God, science is a human activity and not a specifically Catholic, or Christian activity. Moreover, as reason is a common human possession, we are prepared as Catholics to learn from anyone who has something to teach us, whether it be the great pagan philosophers of antiquity, Plato and Aristotle, or those of our professional colleagues today who are atheists. We will engage them on the field of reason and in the common pursuit of truth, without ever, of course, sacrificing those truths to which we are committed as Catholics.
There is, as my friend noted, no such thing as “Catholic Science.” Nor is there such a thing as a scientific Catholicism. Science is the same for Catholic and non-Catholic. The Catholic faith is the same for scientist and nonscientist. As members of SCS we are Catholics and we are scientists. There is a distinction, but there is also a profound harmony. It is to that harmony we wish to give witness, by our lives and work, through our discussions and our fellowship.
I should point out that in addition to members of SCS, who must be scientists, SCS has what it calls Scholar Associates, who are elected by the Board. These are distinguished Catholic theologians, philosophers, and historians of science, who are interested in the relation of science and the Catholic faith and wish to be a part of our activities. About a dozen of them are present at this meeting. We hope that our Society will increase opportunities for interaction between Catholics scientists and Catholic scholars in other fields. We also would like to foster interaction between Catholic scholars and non-Catholic scholars.
Later today we shall give an award named after St. Albert the Great. St. Albert is the patron saint of scientists and of the natural sciences. But St. John Paul II has a claim to this as well. Never before had any pope written so much or so appreciatively on modern science and so penetratingly on the relation of science and faith and more generally on the relationship of faith and reason. His writings on these subjects form, as it were, a Magna Carta for the Catholic Church’s relation to science.
In 1988, Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to the head of the Vatican Observatory, which contained these words:
“those members of the Church who are either themselves active scientists, or in some special cases both scientists and theologians, could serve as a key resource. They can also provide a much-needed ministry to others struggling to integrate the worlds of science and religion in their own intellectual and spiritual lives. …”
I see the founding of the Society of Catholic Scientists as an attempt to answer this call. May the intercession of St. John Paul II, St. Albert the Great, and Blessed Nicolas Steno help us to do so in a manner worthy of them.
John D. Barrow FRS is Professor of Mathematical Sciences at Cambridge University and Director of the Millennium Mathematics Project, a program to improve the appreciation of mathematics. His research is in cosmology and astrophysics. He has received many awards, including the Templeton Prize, the Royal Society’s Faraday Prize, the Kelvin Medal, the Zeeman Medal, the Dirac Medal, and the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. He has written 520 scientific papers, and 22 books. His play, Infinities, won the Premi Ubu for best play in the Italian theatre in 2002. He has given many lectures on the interfaces between cosmology and areas of philosophical and theological interest and also has the curious distinction of having delivered lectures on cosmology at the Venice Film Festival, 10 Downing Street, Windsor Castle and the Vatican Palace.
Karin Öberg is the Thomas D. Cabot associate professor of astronomy at Harvard. Her research focuses on how chemistry affects star and planet formation and the likelihood of forming habitable planets. Recent highlights include observations of snowlines and organic molecules in Solar Nebula analogs where exoplanets are currently assembling. Dr. Öberg obtained a B.Sc. in chemistry at Caltech in 2005, and a Ph.D. in astronomy at Leiden University in 2009. She received a Hubble Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2009, and joined the Harvard faculty in 2013. At Harvard, her research in astrochemistry has been recognized with a Sloan fellowship, a Packard fellowship and the Newton Lacy Pierce Award. Dr. Öberg is a Director and co-founder of the Society of Catholic Scientists.
Chris Clemens is Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and Senior Associate Dean for Natural Sciences at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill). He received his Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. Clemens studies white dwarf stars, and his recent projects include seismology of oscillating white dwarf stars and the study of exoplanetary rubble that forms around white dwarfs when asteroids, comets or planets are broken up by high gravity. He also builds spectrographs and their components for observatories around the world. He has authored over 100 research papers, holds four patents and is PI of two major NSF grants. He is a faculty member of the Program in Medieval and Early Modern Studies and designed and taught the course “Medieval Foundations of Modern Cosmology.” He has received the Hettleman Prize for Artistic and Scholarly Achievement and the Faculty Award for Excellence in Doctoral Mentoring. He has also co-founded two startup companies, MegaWatt Solar, Inc., and Syzygy Optics, LLC.
Daniel Kuebler is Professor of Biology at Franciscan University of Steubenville and teaches courses in evolutionary biology, cell biology, and human physiology. His biological research involves two major projects, 1) understanding the relationship between metabolism and seizure disorders and 2) examining the effects that various biologics have on human mesenchymal stem cells. In addition to his lab research, he is the co-author of The Evolution Controversy: A Survey of Competing Theories (Baker Academic, 2007), a book which critically examines the controversies over evolution. He has also published a variety of popular articles on science, politics, culture and religion. He received a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California, Berkeley and earned a Masters of Science in Cell and Molecular Biology as well as a Bachelors degree in English from the Catholic University of America.
Erick Chastain received his B. Sc. in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon University in 2006, his M.S. in Neurobiology and Behavior from University of Washington, Seattle, and his Ph.D. in Computer Science from Rutgers University in 2017. He is currently working as a postdoc for Nina Fefferman at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His current work focuses on the intersection between the theory of computer algorithms, evolution, and thomistic/scholastic philosophy of nature.
Robert C. Berwick is Professor of Computational Linguistics and Computer Science and Engineering, jointly with Brain and Cognitive Sciences, at MIT. He and his research group investigate computation and cognition, including computational models of language acquisition, language processing, and language change, within the context of machine learning, modern grammatical theory, and mathematical models of dynamical systems. A second line of inquiry is probing the biological and evolutionary underpinnings of human language, including models of language change as well as its biologically-grounded evolutionary origins, in particular, in birdsong. Professor Berwick has been the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Award as well as the MIT Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award, MIT’s highest honor for junior faculty. He has also received an NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award. He helped found and run MIT’s Center for Biological and Computational Learning for more than 15 years.
Joachim Ostermann, OFM, before entering religious life, earned a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Munich in 1990 for his work on mitochondrial biogenesis. After postdoctoral work in Cell Biology at the Sloan Kettering Institute, he became an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at Vanderbilt University. In 2001, he moved to Canada to work in research management positions in the biotechnology industry. In 2008, he joined the Order of Friars Minor. He professed his solemn vows in 2013 and was ordained to the priesthood in 2014. Now his research interests are in philosophy of science and religion and the implication of the scientific worldview on the religious understanding of the human person.
Marisa Cristina March is a cosmologist who specializes in research on dark energy. She received her doctorate from Imperial College London, was a Research Fellow at the University of Sussex, and is currently a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a member of the ground-based Dark Energy Survey where she works on supernova cosmology and observes at CTIO’s Blanco Telescope. Dr. March has worked on galaxy lensing for European Space Agency’s future Euclid space mission. She also holds a Bachelors degree in Catholic Theology from Heythrop College London.
Kenneth R. Miller is Professor of Biology at Brown University. He is life sciences advisor to The News Hour on PBS and coauthor of the nation’s leading high school biology textbook. In addition to his research work in cell biology, he has written extensively on evolution, and in 2005 he served as lead witness in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial on evolution and intelligent design. He is the author of two popular books: Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution, and, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. His honors include the Public Understanding of Science Award from AAAS, the Stephen Jay Gould Prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution, the Gregor Mendel Medal from Villanova University, and the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame University. In 2015 he received the Presidential Citation of the National Science Teachers Association.
Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, is Director of the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and masters’ degrees from MIT, and a Ph.D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona. He was researcher at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics, before entering the Jesuits in 1989. At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, measuring meteorite physical properties in Castel Gandolfo and observing distant asteroids with the Vatican’s telescope in Arizona. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of six popular books including Turn Left at Orion (with Dan Davis), and Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? (with Paul Mueller).
Robert Scherrer is Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University. He received his PhD in physics from the University of Chicago. His research area is cosmology, encompassing work on dark energy, dark matter, big bang nucleosynthesis, and the large-scale structure of the universe. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society (2001), and among other awards is the recipient of the Klopsteg Memorial Award of the American Association of Physics Teachers (2011) and The Ohio State University Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching (1999). He is the author of Quantum Mechanics: An Accessible Introduction (Addison-Wesley, 2006). He has also published several popular science articles and science fiction short stories. Prof. Scherrer is a Director and co-founder of the Society of Catholic Scientists.
Robert C. Koons is Professor in the Philosophy Department of the University of Texas at Austin. He is a metaphysician with interests in the philosophy of religion and science and has written on the cosmological argument, the relation between reason and faith, neo-Aristotelian accounts of modern science, and topics in logic and probability. Trained at Oxford and UCLA, he has authored fifty articles. His book Paradoxes of Belief and Strategic Rationality (Cambridge, 1992) received the Aarlt Prize from the Council of Graduate Schools in 1994. He is the author of Realism Regained (OUP, 2000) and the co-editor (with George Bealer) of The Waning of Materialism (OUP, 2010), and very recently co-authored The Atlas of Reality: A Comprehensive Guide to Metaphysics (with Tim Pickavance). He came into full communion with the Catholic Church 10 years ago from a Lutheran background. He is a Scholar Associate of the Society of Catholic Scientists.
Media Coverage of Conference:
Catholic Scientists Converge in Chicago to Ask Big Questions, Catholic News Agency
Catholic Scientists Discuss Faith’s Role in Work, Our Sunday Visitor