Contemplating the Universe from Our Little Green Planet

Contemplating the Universe from Our Little Green Planet

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.

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