As Earth-dwellers, we often don’t have a way of appreciating how special the Earth is. But the field of Planetary Studies, which is in an exciting state of flux, provides more and more illustrations for how narrow the parameters for a living planet are. Whether we ever find life on other planets or not, the narrow envelope of our existence is an awe-inspiring topic to contemplate, emphasizing the uniqueness of our world, but also its smallness in a universe where new exoplanets are constantly being discovered.
As part of Sinai and Synapses’ series “More Light, Less Heat,” Sinai and Synapses Fellow Myriam Renaud met with planetary scientist Dr. Michael Summers at this year’s Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto, where they discussed how Dr. Summers’ religious faith inspires his work and keeps him motivated. This discussion allowed him to give new voice to feelings he hadn’t previously put into words.
Myriam Renaud, Ph.D., received her doctorate in religious thought at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. Her inter-disciplinary research falls at the intersection between theology and ethics. In her dissertation, she focuses on the ideas that theists have about God and how those ideas influence their moral decisions. Myriam has started work on a second project, researching the ideas about God held by three theologians—a Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian—and developing a method of comparison. She is Principal Investigator and Project Director for the Global Ethic Project of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, where she is spearheading work to expand the Global Ethic (a document that expresses moral directives shared by the world’s religions) to include a moral directive related to sustainable development and care for the natural world. Raised in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, Myriam is an ordained minister affiliated as a Community Minister with the DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church in the Chicago area. She also writes about religion in public life for popular media like The Atlantic online, Religion Dispatches, and Sightings. Myriam is a finalist for the 2017 Religious Newswriters Association’s Chandler Award for Student Reporting on Religion.
Dr. Michael E. Summers is a Professor of Planetary Science at George Mason University. He specializes in the study of a variety of chemical and dynamical processes in planetary atmospheres. His work is primarily theoretical in nature, but he serves on several space mission science teams in the role of science planning and in the interpretation of spacecraft observations. Dr. Summers’ planetary research has dealt with the structure and evolution of the atmospheres of Earth, Mars, Io, Titan, Triton, Uranus, Pluto and its moon Charon. He is a member of the Science Team of the New Horizons mission to Pluto/Charon and the Kuiper Belt that was launched in January 2006 and performed a flyby of Jupiter in February 2007. Dr. Summers’ current work on the Earth’s atmosphere deals with the sources and sinks of middle atmospheric water vapor and the role of water in the formation and evolution of Noctilucent Clouds. He is a member of the science team of the AIM (Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere) Small Explorer mission that was launched in April 2007 as the first dedicated mission to study the role of these high altitude clouds as indicators of global climate change.View Transcript
Myriam Renaud: Well, Dr. Summers, thank you so much for joining me to have this conversation for Sinai and Synapses. Why don’t you just say a little bit about the kind of research you do, and even where you see the intersection between your work and your Christian faith? (Because I understand you do consider yourself a Christian).
Michael Summers: Yeah. It’s an interesting question. I do Planetary Studies. I study planets as an entity – how planets form, a planet like the earth, or how they evolve over time, and occasionally how planets die. And they do die sometimes.
So you’d have planets that have a life cycle, somewhat like a person having a life cycle – stars do too. They have a process from their birth to their death. And during that process, all sorts of things can happen, and you see some of them when you just travel around the Earth, you see weather and climate and volcanoes and oceans, and plate tectonics, and all kinds of things like that.
And so when I study planets, I try to understand all those processes that shape what a planet becomes. We now know of over 4,000 planets in the universe. When I was a kid, it was nine. And then Pluto was demoted, it was eight. Now it’s 4,000. We’re discovering whole new planets at the rate of about three per day. When you think about that – whole new worlds, 3 per day. The talk I just gave at the Parliament of World Religions – I started working on it last week, last Tuesday, and I had to update the number of planets from yesterday, because it had gone up by 52. And then this morning I looked and it had gone up by another 3. So we are discovering whole new worlds. And so there are a lot of examples out there, and each of these planets are unique. And there are more planets than there are people that have lived on Earth in Earth’s history. Every planet has its own life.
So when I try to put together a picture of a planet from birth to death, and whatever happens to it, I have to be coherent, accurate, and follow all the scientific methodologies to help us to be quantitative. But then, when I look at the pieces of it, and how it works, and how it plays out in our solar system, for the Earth, for other planets, each piece is remarkable in how it fits together, how this whole universe fits together, to allow us to be here.
So the question about where there is an interaction, or intersection, or an overlap between my scientific work and my faith – it’s everywhere. I mean, when I look at a glass of water – water, simple H2O, everyone knows what it is – but yet water is remarkable. It’s got this unusual property that it floats when it freezes. Everybody knows, ice cubes float. That’s unusual – in most substances [solids] are known to stop doing that. When they freeze they get denser, they sink. But if water was different and it behaved like most substances, and it would sink when it freezes, all life on Earth wouldn’t be possible.
A simple little aspect of how water behaves could determine whether or not you could have life on a planet, because if ice sunk when it freezes, oceans would freeze from the bottom up, and then you would kill all the organisms in the ocean, and that would kill the food chain. As it is, the ice freezes, creates an insulated layer on the top of the ocean, so things underneath it stay warm and happy and the cycle of life can keep going – things that are beyond the different organisms living and participating, reproducing, all those things keep going on.
This is just one tiny example. I mean, there are just literally hundreds of things that, you know, I could just easily tell you. Gravity, we talk about gravity and take it for granted, you know, you push the laptop off the table, it’s gonna fall. Everybody knows it, there’s no question. But if gravity was just a little bit different, just a tiny bit different, one percent different, or even less, then if it was lower than 1%, then stars wouldn’t make the elements, the complex elements, that you need for your body, like carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, iron, lead? – all those complex elements that help you form form planets and living organisms.
And if gravity was 1% stronger, stars would go through their life cycle of forming and evolving so quickly that you wouldn’t have stable planets in which to have a living system for very long. And so it’s like that intersection, that overlap, is everywhere you look – if you look. I mean, you could deny it, some people – I have a friend who’s an atheist, and says “oh, that’s a coincidence, or that’s a coincidence, or that’s a coincidence,” but at some point you kind of have to say there are just too many coincidences.
Myriam Renaud: So you see an intelligence at work. Or…
Michael Summers: I do; I don’t know how to describe that intelligence, but I see not just intelligence – that almost minimizes it. It’s like an unbelievable genius at work. I mean, it’s like the universe is like a symphony, with trillions of different instruments working together to give you this beautiful symphony – that’s in harmony, that’s coherent, and is mathematical, and that carries life along with it. And that’s just the stuff we know. I mean, we know just a tiny bit about the universe. We’ve only explored a tiny fraction of our galaxy, and there are hundreds of millions of other galaxies. We don’t know what else we’re going to find out there.
But I see it as intelligence of some sort, like a guiding principle, a creator. It’s almost like – you have a hard time avoiding this idea, this sense, that things are in some sense designed by intelligence. I can’t avoid it, I’ve never been able to avoid it – I’ve never understood how someone could be an atheist. And even at 6 years old, my first telescope, I looked up at the sky and I was just in awe of what you see. I mean, this just doesn’t happen. I mean, you could have some things that are were coincidences, you could have some things that just happen, that something of this complexity, of this beauty, that there’s something just much. I don’t know if that’s too much, or –
Myriam Renaud: Some people take that sense of wonder into a worship service, but for you, this is an integral part of your work. You’re immersed in a sense of wonder and beauty and harmony at the principles that are operating.
Michael Summers: When I grew up in our church in Kentucky, a Southern Baptist church, we would have hymns that we would sing. And one of them I remember is “Holy, Holy, Holy,” I don’t know if you’ve heard it, it’s a staple in conservative churches. And I always felt my back tingle when I kind of felt this relationship between a God who cared for me. I’d look at the sky and feel the same way. That it’s just incredible. But, yeah. It’s worship, that’s what I do. That’s what I think is in there.
Myriam Renaud: You’re in relationship with this – do you give this a name?
Michael Summers: Oh, that’s a good question. I’ve never really thought about a name, of what this is. Well, no, maybe I take that back. I often describe it as a sense of awe. A sense of mystery. A sense of purpose, but it’s a sense of connection too. Because you know that you’re a part of this symphony, you’re not sitting out here watching it, you’re a part of this ongoing process, and it’s not just me. A lot of other scientists have experienced this.