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2004 - 2006: University of Arizona

Astrobiology and the Sacred: Implications of Life Beyond Earth


Upcoming Lectures and Activities
    • Year 1 Theme
    • Year 2 Theme
    • Year 3 Theme
Project Leaders
Organizing Committee/Working Group
Additional Information



The search for life beyond Earth is the last frontier in the continuing scientific and cultural revolution that began with Copernicus. The theory of the origin of the solar system suggests that the condensation of heavy elements into planets is an unexceptional process. From chemistry we learn that organic molecules form under a wide array of conditions, so that we find them in asteroids, comets, in the atmospheres of gas giants (Saturn, Jupiter), and in the interstellar medium. From geology we learn that life began on Earth almost as early as it was possible to do so. Recent findings in biology indicate that life on Earth can survive in a wider range of environments than previously thought. In recent years, the number of planets found around nearby stars has grown to over 115. All of these developments, along with recent progress in astronomical instrumentation, suggest that scientists will soon have the tools to demonstrate that biology is not unique to Earth. This discovery will have profound implications for human culture.

While scientific work in this area accelerates, thoughtful and systematic reflection on the implications of these developments is in its infancy. In the past it was thought these findings might constitute a reductionist challenge to traditional religious faith. Instead we sense an exhilarating rediscovery of the essential spirituality of humanity in all its diversity. Questions of religious faith, of meaning in life, of cosmic purpose, of the universality of human values, are reawakened with a new urgency and a deeper sense of community with the wider universe beyond Earth. Our sense of global responsibility begins to expand beyond Earth, to encompass the solar system. This proposal addresses the need for a rigorous humanistic and theological assessment of the issues that will arise as the new science of astrobiology begins to achieve successes. The University of Arizona is among the very best institutions in astronomy, but it is also true that there is a strong tradition here of the constructive engagement of science and religion. The Vatican Observatory has only one foreign station - here in Tucson, in cooperation with the Steward Observatory. We have graduate and undergraduate courses that deal with the relationships between science and religion offered by several departments. Catholic, Episcopal, Jewish, Methodist, Baptist, Islamic, and atheist scientists here discuss and debate both scientific and religious issues. We have drawn participants not only from Astronomy, Planetary Sciences, and Molecular-Cellular Biology, but also Religious Studies, Judaic Studies, Creative Writing, Humanities, and Art History. Because this proposal crosses departmental lines and encourages interdisciplinary humanistic inquiry, it is consistent with the university's strategic goals, and consequently is strongly supported by the institution at the highest levels.

The proposed twin lecture series builds on local expertise in the emerging field of astrobiology, with a program that extends the discussion to include scholars in the Arts, the Humanities, and the social sciences. In addition to acting as the primary vehicle for an annual series of research lectures, the program will engage in outreach and create curriculum materials for non-science majors, astronomy majors, and for high school science teachers and their students. Lectures from each series will be reviewed and published in book form. Each entire lecture series will be disseminated by live and delayed Internet web-cast, and will be made available on DVD.



Upcoming Lectures and Activities

Note: The University of Arizona was awarded its grant for the Templeton Research Lectures on April 1, 2004. Stay tuned for updates as the organizing committee prepares the program for the Templeton Research Lectures!

Central Research Theme:
Astrobiology is the scientific study of biological processes on the Earth and beyond. It connects research in physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and planetary science. After centuries of speculation, we will soon have the capability of detecting ancient life or pre-biotic chemistry in the solar system, microbial life on extra-solar planets by its alteration of global atmospheric chemistry, and technological civilizations throughout the galaxy. Success in any of these areas would profoundly affect social discourse at all levels, reawakening religious questions in a new context. This series pursues these implications by bringing together voices from the relevant areas to form a new kind of interdisciplinary networking community that will encourage dialogue, research, and publication from the participants. Astrobiology has a firm scientific footing and it makes an excellent platform for gathering scientists, humanists, philosophers and theologians in an exploration of the role of humans in the universe.


Year 1 Theme: Life on Earth
Research Topics: The history of life on Earth from the perspectives of chemistry, biology, and paleontology. Earliest evidence for life. Pre-biotic chemistry and the growth of complexity. Contingency and the rise of human intelligence and technology. Global environmental consciousness in nature-writing and devotional literature. Non-human intelligence. The nature and end points of evolution. Human activity in near space, its effect on our sense of nature and the sacred. Divine action and the dynamics of the biosphere. Life as computation. Free will in the context of evolution and complexity.


Year 2 Theme: Life in the Nearby Universe
Research Topics: Extremophiles on Earth and the range of potential sites for life. Environmental theology on the scale of the solar system. Implications of a return to the Moon. Mars as potential biological laboratory, debates on the philosophical and ethical implications of Martian microbial life. The ethics of terraforming. Lessons from Europa and Titan, and the prospects for obtaining evidence of life in the solar system. The current state of searches for extra-solar planets and the theory of planet formation. Detection of life via atmospheric chemistry of extra-solar planets. Ethical and religious obligations upon detection of alien biology. Terrestrial inequalities (race, gender, class, nationalism, ethnic and religious hatred) and the potential for strife resulting from discoveries in astrobiology.


Year 3 Theme: Life in a Cosmic Setting
Research Topics:
Evidence for cosmic fine-tuning, anthropic ideas and the multiverse. The likelihood of planets and biology in vastly different environments throughout the universe. Interstellar travel and interstellar communication. Reconciliation of humanity with non-biological life and artificial life. Cosmic chemistry, life and thermodynamics. Insights from poetry, art, and religious writing responding to the size and nature of the astronomical universe. Physical dynamics on a cosmological scale (supermassive black holes, gamma ray bursts, supernovae, quasars) in the context of prayer and divine action in a God-created universe. Biology as a cosmological force. Spirituality and morality in the context of exo-biology.



Project Leaders

Chris Impey (Chair of the Committee and Principal Investigator)
Chris Impey is a University Distinguished Professor at the University of Arizona, and Deputy Department Head of Astronomy. He received his B.Sc. from the University of London, his Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh, then he held an SERC/NATO postdoc at the University of Hawaii, and was a Weingart Research Fellow at the California Institute of Technology. He has authored over 130 research papers on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology and has had 17 projects approved with the Hubble Space Telescope. He is the author of two introductory textbooks with Bill Hartmann, and is the creator of a web site that serves more than a thousand students each year with astronomy content and interactive teaching tools. Impey has won nine University of Arizona teaching grants and awards. For five years, he was the Associate Director of the NASA Arizona Space Grant, ranked by NASA as the best among 50 in the country. He was the co-Director of a M.Sc. program for high school teachers, funded by the NSF. Impey is a founding member of the editorial board of the Astronomy Education Review, a peer-reviewed education journal sponsored by the American Astronomical Society. He is currently Vice President of the American Astronomical Society. Last year, he was one of six people nationwide chosen as an NSF Distinguished Teaching Scholar, and he was selected as the Arizona Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. His research interests center on cosmology, gravitational lensing, faint galaxies, and dark matter.

Richard Poss (Co-Investigator)
Richard Poss is the Director of the Humanities Program and Associate Professor of Astronomy. His Ph.D. (University of Georgia, 1986) is in Comparative Literature with initial training in literature and painting of the Renaissance. Soon after coming to Arizona he became interested in interactions between science and the humanities. His research examines the role of astronomical themes in European poetry, and he has published articles on Petrarch, Dante, Veronica Gambara, Walt Whitman, on the exploration of Mars, and on reconciling environmental issues with lunar development. His current interest is the astronomical landscape paintings of the 18th century Italian artist Donato Creti. Professor Poss regularly teaches a course entitled "Science and the Humanities" which examines topics such as robotics and artificial intelligence, planetary science and space exploration, genetic design and bioengineering. He frequently offers a first-year colloquium entitled "Science and Human Values in the 21st Century." He has won a variety of teaching awards, including the UA Foundation Leicester and Kathryn Sherrill Creative Teaching Award 1994, the Provost's General Education Teaching Award 2001, the Humanities Seminars Superior Teaching Award 1996, and two Provost's Teaching Improvement Awards (1991 and 1992).

Timothy Slater (Co-Investigator)
Timothy Slater is an Associate Professor of Astronomy and the Director of the Science and Mathematics Education Center at the University of Arizona where his scholarship focuses on the teaching and learning of science. He earned his Ph.D. at the Univ. of South Carolina in 1993. As part of the Conceptual Astronomy and Physics Education Research (CAPER) group in the UA Astronomy Department, his research focuses on inquiry-based curriculum development and authentic assessment strategies, with a particular emphasis on non-science majors and pre-service teachers. He also teaches science education pedagogy courses for the College of Science Science Teacher Preparation Program. He has served multiple terms as chairman of the Astronomy Education Committee of the American Association of Physics Teachers and most recently as the president of the Association of Astronomy Educators. He is an author on more than 70 refereed articles, six books, and is frequently an invited speaker on improving teaching of science through educational research as well as on teacher education.



Organizing Committee/Working Group

Click on the name of a committee member for biographical information.
  • George V. Coyne, S. J., Director of the Vatican Observatory
  • Alison Hawthorne Deming, Professor of Creative Writing, English Department
  • Paul Ivey, Associate Professor, Art History
  • Thomas Lindell, Professor, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology
  • Jonathan Lunine, Professor of Planetary Sciences and Physics; Chair, Theoretical Astrophysics Program
  • Renu Malhotra, Associate Professor, Planetary Sciences and faculty member, Lunar and Planetary Laboratory
  • Alex Nava, Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies
  • Bill Stoeger, S.J., Vatican Observatory and adjunct associate professor, Astronomy
  • Neville Woolf, Professor, Astronomy, Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute - Tucson node
  • J. Edward Wright, Director and Associate Professor of Judaic Studies
  • Thomas Fleming, Associate Astronomer and Senior Lecturer, Astronomy (lecture organizer, publicity, and web-casting)
  • Adrienne Gauthier, instructional specialist, Steward Observatory (instructional materials development, and web design)
  • Cathy Petry, senior research specialist, Steward Observatory (events organizer and proceedings editor)



Additional Information

Web Site:


Chris Impey, Ph.D.
University of Arizona
Department of Astronomy
Steward Observatory 334
933 N. Cherry Avenue
Tucson, AZ 85721

Work: 520.621.6522
Fax: 520.621.1532


1616 Walnut Street, Suite 1112, Philadelphia, PA 19103 USA
Voice: + 1 484.592.0304 Fax: +1 484.592.0313