Complete Podcast Interview Transcript:  

Jonathan Lunine, PhD, astrophysicist

Announcer               00:06            

Welcome to the Purpose Nation Podcast. Inspiring conversations with Christians in science, technology and industries of the future. For more information or to make a tax-deductible contribution, visit

Brad Cooper            00:16            

This is Brad Cooper with the Purpose Nation Podcast and today we are very blessed to be joined by Professor Jonathan Lunine. Professor Lunine, thank you for joining us today.

Prof. Lunine             00:27            

It's a real pleasure to be here, Brad. Glad to be here.

Brad Cooper            00:30            

Thank you. So he's calling in here from his location in Cornell in Ithaca... Upstate New York, a place that I know very well. Today we're going to be having a great discussion about faith and science and life on other planets, potentially, and lots of great things.

Brad Cooper            00:46            

So before we get started, a quick background on Professor Lunine... very impressive background. He's a David C. Duncan Professor in Physical Sciences at Cornell University -- home of Carl Sagan and many other notable astronomers and physicists. He's also the director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science. Professor Lunine earned a B.S. in physics and astronomy from the University of Rochester and also holds an M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in planetary science from the California Institute of Technology. He's author of textbooks and other books, one called "The Frontiers of Astrobiology" which is based on a Study Week on Astrobiology held by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the Vatican. 

Brad Cooper            01:26            

He's a frequent speaker. He travels a lot. He just got back from traveling and he'll hopefully talk about that a little bit. He's been covered in many publications: Newsweek, NBC News, New Scientist, all all of those things you probably heard of.

Brad Cooper            01:38            

So you're a very busy guy!

Prof. Lunine             01:39            

I do feel like I'm very busy. Thank you.

Brad Cooper            01:44            

Lots of things going on here.

Brad Cooper            01:47            

So, just to start out. Let's say you're on the plane flying back from Europe and you're sitting next to somebody and they say, "So what do you do?" What's sort of your normal response?

Prof. Lunine             01:55            

Yeah, well, my normal response is that I tell them I'm an astronomer. I start with that, And then if they ask what that is, I say, "I study stars" and then I say, "But I don't really study the stars, I study planets." And then I go on to explain a little bit of how I do that with spacecraft missions in our solar system then and then if they're interested I'll move on to astrobiology and talk a little bit about that. So actually quite a few people do like to engage in a little bit more of what I do.

Brad Cooper            02:25            

Yeah, I was going to say, I mean who doesn't love astrobiology? I mean, come on. It's a pretty interesting topic.

Brad Cooper            02:31            

If you could tell us a little bit more about some of the main projects you're involved with and have been involved with in recent years.

Prof. Lunine             02:37            

Sure. I have been involved in a lot of NASA missions starting out with Voyager mission when it flew by Neptune in 1989. I've been involved for 30 years now and the Cassini–Huygens mission which is in orbit around Saturn. Cassini is a main orbiter built by the U.S. And Huygens, named after the Dutch optical scientist, Christiaan Huygens, was a European probe which descended the surface of Saturn's moon, Titan, which has a very dense atmosphere rich in organic molecules. That mission is about to come to an end after 20 years in space of 30 years total planning, development and operation. I'm involved in the Juno mission, which is a NASA mission orbiting Jupiter right now. I am in the planning stages of working with NASA on the planning stages for a mission to go to Jupiter's moon, Europa, which may have a... it does have an ocean under the surface... might life support life.

Prof. Lunine             03:35            

I'm involved with the James Webb space telescope because I have an interest in planets around other stars. And last but not least I spent a lot of my time working to try to get NASA to try to do a mission back to Saturn's moon, Enceladus, which is a small moon which has geysers, or jets of material, of water and organic molecules and salts pouring out its South Polar region. What Cassini told us is that it discovered that plume, it told us there's an ocean underneath that surface and everything that Cassini had told us suggests that that ocean could support life. If you threw terrestrial microbes in the ocean, which we don't want to do, they would be able to propagate. And so, the next step is to see if Enceladus has a native biome of its own.

Prof. Lunine             04:24            

So that's a that's a very breezy tour through the things I'm working on and have worked on.

Brad Cooper            04:30            

Yes. That's amazing. Lots of great stuff and lots of opportunity there for discovery hopefully and learning more about God's creation here in our own own solar system.

Brad Cooper            04:39            

So take a step back. Take us back, I guess to the childhood or wherever it might have been where you had an interest in science and was there a specific point where you said, "I want to be an astrophysicist"? Or was it kind of more of a slower slow journey? Tell us about your growing interest in science as a child.

Prof. Lunine             04:56            

Well I was very ambitious as a little kid. I wanted to be an astronomer, an astronaut and I also want to be a wide receiver for the New York Giants.

Brad Cooper                                   

All right.

Prof. Lunine             05:08            

Yeah. So the wide receiver part definitely did not work out.

Brad Cooper            05:12            

Still working on that one.

Prof. Lunine             05:14            

Uh, yeah, I think I've given up on that one, although I love football. But, I just I was just lacking a few things: the speed, the strength and the hands.  Other than that, I was in good shape.

Prof. Lunine             05:24            

But I've always been interested in space. I grew up in New York City which would seem to be a terrible place to have a love of astronomy because there really are no stars in the sky, except occasionally. But I grew up just by chance very close to the Hayden Planetarium and I was also born just a year after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was founded. And in my early childhood of course the United States committed, President Kennedy committed the United States, to land a man on the moon within a decade. And so the ability to go to the Hayden Planetarium when I could get my mother or a relative to take me over there, one of the most amazing science museums in the world the American Museum of Natural History Hayden Planetarium, which is now the Rose Center and is even more dramatic and more spectacular.

Prof. Lunine             06:16            

I had dreams that were based on those planetarium shows, just standing in an open field and watching the stars come out and suddenly be projected into the cosmos so that interest was fueled by the Hayden Planetarium, it was fed by the space race which I followed avidly and I wanted to do all those things. Now wanting to do something and knowing how to do it are two very different things. I was very, I felt very isolated child. My father was an alcoholic. We had a lot of family troubles and in a way when I was 11, 12, 13 one of my escapes was my monthly subscription to Sky and Telescope magazine which I would read avidly. And there was a book review in that magazine one month of a book by an astronomer called Carl Sagan. The book was "The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective" published in 1973.

Prof. Lunine             07:13            

It was 1973. I ordered the book. It came some weeks later. This wasn't exactly, you know, the era of, so maybe it came a month or two latter... and it just it transported me. Carl Sagan's vision of humanity's roll in the cosmos was just transporting me and evidently I was so much of a pain around the household reading chapters aloud that my mother strongly encouraged me to write to Carl Sagan which I thought was preposterous... a big professor at Cornell responding to a junior high school student. But she pushed me and I wrote to him and he wrote a two page letter back which included in the guts of it what to do to become an astronomer what to study what to focus on. And of course it was on the physical sciences not mathematics which my junior high, high school was not good at.

Prof. Lunine             08:06            

But I you know I really really pushed as hard as I could, based on that letter. And we corresponded off and on after that and then became colleagues before Carl himself died in the mid-1990s. So that was really the portal that was open for me to to really have that career was the advice of Carl Sagan and the fact that he gave me that advice in the form of a personal letter. It is so important for young people to get that kind of encouragement from people who are now in the field.

Brad Cooper            08:35            

That's amazing. It's amazing. And you still have the letters I'm guessing. Yes?

Prof. Lunine             08:46             I still have the letters, yes. There are copies of them that have been deposited with his papers in the Library of Congress. There was a ceremony at the Library of Congress back about four years ago which I was privileged to speak out where Carl's papers were deposited. Extremely fitting to have them have them there.

Brad Cooper                                   

That's amazing.

Prof. Lunine             08:59            

Yeah but I still I have the I have the originals of them.

Brad Cooper            09:03            

So it sounds like your family put up with you but were there any other family members that were involved in science or in education any way. Are you sort of the black sheep if you will of that in terms of science.

Prof. Lunine             09:14            

I was pretty much the black sheep of the family my father was a brilliant man. It was a tragedy that he died so young, he died in 1974. My mother was a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall, precision tap dancer.  My sister followed in her footsteps. She wasn't a Rockette when she was raising us as kids, she was before she got married, and then my mother danced with the alumni association which gave benefits around the country. But when my father was ill and then finally died she actually went back to Radio City Music Hall. For those who've been to New York and seen the shows at Radio City you know that they're one of the most famous dancing troops in the world. You know it was kind of an odd thing to have this famous dancing family. My sister was a gifted dancer. She was four years younger than I was, and then to be a scientist I kind of feel like I'm the odd man out and I have to admit that in high school the combination of that my father's illness, his fight with alcoholism and just the wretched state of science in the United States in the mid-Seventies, the year before I applied to college I switched and decided I wanted to be a medical doctor.

Prof. Lunine             10:23            

I was worried I wouldn't get a job and wanted to help people. So here's another story having to do with Cornell, that's what all my college applications, was pre-med. My senior year. I happened to go to my pediatrician's office. He was a Cornell alum. So I look at his medical school catalogs. I was thinking ahead, right senior in High School, what he has to take in medical school? And he said to me, "You know I have a ticket to a talk downtown at the Cornell Club by an astronomer and I can't go. Do you want to go?" And I thought, I still have an interest in astronomy, I said, "Sure I'll go."

Prof. Lunine             10:58            

The astronomer was Frank Drake, he was a Cornell professor. When I went downtown, I listened to the talk, and was so thrilled by what he had to say that I changed my mind back to astronomy.

Prof. Lunine             11:05             That was the last time I was sort of mentally decided I would want to do anything else. It was a two year sojourn in medicine so to speak as a high school student heading off to college I was back to something I never looked back. And so Carl Sagan the Cornell Professor galvanized my interest in actually being a professional astronomer, showed me how to do it. Frank Drake if you will brought me back into the fold the lost sheep who was wandering off into the field of medicine. Inadvertently, he didn't know this, I told him years later, got me back. And I'm very sure I would have made an appallingly bad medical doctor.

Brad Cooper                                   

Ha ha, well, I doubt that.

Prof. Lunine                                    

I'm happy to be an astronomer.

Brad Cooper            11:51            

OK. So, also just tell us a little bit about if there if there is any sort of the Christian or faith background if if at all. I guess when did you start maybe thinking and asking these types of questions beyond science, and you know, is there something more? Was there a faith background in there at all?

Prof. Lunine             12:08            

Yes, so my faith journey is as complicated as my scientific journey and probably a longer one. I was raised in a Jewish household that not very Jewish. My father's side was conservative Jewish, but he did practice and my mother's side was reform her father my maternal grandfather who I never met because he died of a heart attack a year before I was born apparently so my mother totally believed that religion was the root of all humanity's evils and refused to practice. But I was interested in the Bible, I was interested in Judaism, we didn't have a membership in a synagogue, but we went occasionally and I must've asked my mother and father about that because my father told me years later that they became members of the synagogue, Central Synagogue in New York, because I had asked about it.

Prof. Lunine             13:00            

So then I went to went to Central Synagogue, went to their religious school. I was never Bar Mitzvah’ d. Our family's finances took a real tumble when I was 11 or 12. And so they stopped the membership. there It was a Reform synagogue anyway, so I probably wouldn't have been Bar Mitzvah’ d, but I might have been confirmed which was the thing at the time. At the same time I did a lot of reading and our family had a family Bible. It was actually a King James Bible, which would be unusual for a traditional Jewish family but we weren't very traditional. And I was reading through the Old Testament and the New Testament and both parts of the Holy Scriptures moved me tremendously when I was 13, around the age of 13, I had a dream in which I was up in the pew somewhere up high above the congregation of what was church and I heard organ music of some kind and it was a balcony of some kind in the church and I felt a presence behind me and I turned around and that presence was Jesus Christ and he led me out of that church into the sunlight.

Prof. Lunine             14:05            

And that was the end of the dream. And I felt of course this tremendous sense with being loved and comforted. I told my mother this dream she herself actually became a Christian later in life. Her reaction at that time was typical of mothers because I think she wanted to see me go that way she said well what more do you need. And as a teenager of course that kind of response immediately shut me down.

Brad Cooper                                   

Haha, sent you in the opposite direction?

Prof. Lunine             14:33            

It sent me in the opposite direction like hitting a tennis ball with a tennis racquet. it's understandable because we do this with our kids all the time, right? So I feel nothing negative about that. But later on. You know I was always carrying this this kind of uncertainty. I compared it to being on the edge of the swimming pool, which I guess would be an apt description, since I was not actually baptized until 2007.

Prof. Lunine             14:59            

Sort of fast forwarding now, I got out of graduate school Cal Tech. Came to the University of Arizona and taught there for 26 years. I met my wife in Tucson and she had just become a member of St. Francis of Foot Hills United Methodist Church which was a very progressive church with a brilliant Pastor David Wilkinson who has given some of the most remarkable sermons I have heard in my life. He is a brilliant, brilliant man. Retired now. My wife was not a Methodist, she was raised in Church of Christ in Morrisburg, New Mexico, a very conservative, through that over in college at Abilene Christian and was looking for something very different and I joined her and we became members of that church. But I was never actually baptized. I did not accept Christ. And then you know we went to that church for years and years. Fast forward again, a little bit, not very much, and I had come to know the Vatican astronomers, the astronomers who are, I think now with one exception, are all Jesuits. They had a Western headquarters at the University of Arizona because their telescope they were developing a telescope at the site east of Tucson in the mountains of course traditionally their home was the Vatican. Rome, like New York City, is not a great place to do observation astronomy, the skies are too bright. But they had they had their facilities at Castel Gandolfo, but they had their offices also the University of Arizona they were hosted there.

Prof. Lunine             16:19            

Father George Coyne with their director he had a long association with U of A. We came to know them. In the course of that and in the course of sabbaticals, also, I had done in Rome Italy came to know them very, very well and in fact I helped to run a summer school with them in 2005 during my second sabbatical. I was deeply, deeply impressed by their life which was a harmonious blending of their science and their faith. There was nothing artificial or sutured together about it. It was I would say effortlessly harmonious and that made a big impression. And so finally you know all of this together all of this thinking talking to people. 2006, I suppose, we came back from that sabbatical to Arizona and I remember sitting, a couple of weeks after we got back from Rome, and thinking I really need to make a decision and I felt decision I want to make is that I want to become a Catholic and accept Jesus Christ and formerly become baptized.

Prof. Lunine             17:19            

And I called up a dear friend our son's pediatrician who is Catholic. And I said, "Do you think that I would be crazy if I told you, Bill, that I wanted to be Catholic?" He said, "Of course not." So he introduced me to a priest at the Newman Center at the University of Arizona and I started the RCIA process in 2006 and was baptized and confirmed on Holy Saturday 2007.

Brad Cooper                                   

It's amazing

Prof. Lunine             17:43            

And that is my faith journey.

Brad Cooper            17:44            

Yeah. And that's a great one. And it sounds like the dream...It sounds like you know "what more do you need" but then not necessarily jumping in then but it still seems sort of edging your way I guess forward.  And then interestingly enough it almost seems as if your connection to science and in this case astronomy the Vatican astronomy group there in Arizona that sort of brought you back which is amazing.

Prof. Lunine             18:09            

Well yeah I have to say my two influences in Tucson almost certainly were: David Wilkinson, himself, because of his really enlightened sermons. Now he was, you know, he had no love of the Catholic Church he was a Methodist minister and he knew all of the ills of the Church, but he also had a tremendous breadth of knowledge of the Church and of the history of Christianity and Catholicism. One of his favorite go-to's in his sermon was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin which led both my wife and I to buy Teilhard's books and read through them... they're not easy. "The Phenomenon of Man" is not an easy book to read, but they in and of themselves were eye-openers so. So there was David Wilkinson then on the other side there were the Vatican astronomers who were living there Catholics faith day to day through their science and through the work that they did as well.  It was a combination of the two. And so, yeah, those years in Tucson were transformative in both those ways. 

Brad Cooper            19:12            

That's great. OK so fast forward again to your current work. What are some of the biggest questions right now that you're trying to solve, related to astronomy and astrobiology?

Prof. Lunine             19:22            

I am deeply thankful to the Lord for the opportunity to work in the field that I do and work in that at the time that I do. It's a remarkable time in space exploration and the exploration of the cosmos, and I'm humbled to think of not only the things that we're learning but the opportunity to be a part of that.  What particularly in my field we have come to realize is that there are different ways to have environments where life potentially could form and exist today. You know we always look traditionally for planets that were like the Earth and we're doing that around stars other stars galaxy but in our solar system the early years of planetary exploration were very grim for the search for life. Venus turned out to be not only uninhabitable but kind of a super greenhouse climate where the surface temperatures above the melting point of lead, and so organic molecules would just break up immediately there. Mars turned out to be cold and dry and uninhabitable today. It may have had a past where it was a place that could support life for perhaps the first billion years of this history. But at the time I came into the field we're sort of left with you know where do we go from here.

Brad Cooper            20:37            

And it turns out that the outer solar system is where we go -- the realm of that giant planets because both Jupiter and Saturn have residues of moons with all sorts of different characteristics and Jupiter in particular has moons that are heated just by their orbits around Jupiter by the effect of tides. Of course Io which is very volcanic and then Europa which has a thin crust and a liquid water ocean under its surface discovered by the Galileo orbiter mission that I was not involved in, cause I came in just a bit too late for that but I am now able to be involved in the next steps of that exploration which is to try to find in detail what that ocean is like and perhaps find places where we might access that ocean and look for life. But for me it's a Saturn system and I came at just the right to be involved in the Cassini mission from the beginning.

Brad Cooper            21:29            

It has made so many discoveries around Saturn that we could have several radio shows on this. But the most important ones from this point of view of what we're talking about are number one that Titan is an organic rich an atmosphere and with surface liquids of methane and ethane, equivalent to our seas on the earth Great Lakes, Caspian Sea. And those might be places where exotic forms of life conceivably might form and evolve. But even more exciting is the moon Enceladus which is a much, much smaller moon than Titan, about a thousand times smaller in volume, and yet it's being tidally heated by Saturn being squeezed as it moves around in its eccentric orbit around Saturn.  And that has generated the ocean under the surface. The Cassini actually was able to detect it two ways and I was privileged and blessed to be part of that investigation as well as to be part of the investigation that measure the composition of the jets of material coming out of that ocean, sprang into space through an icy crust. Imagine cold geysers equivalent to something like Yellowstone although those are quite a bit hotter. This stuff is spraying out into space and Cassini was able to fly through that plume of material with gas and ice, seven times. And we were able to find salt, salt water, organic molecules, carbon molecules, tiny grains of silica and hydrogen that tell us that the water and the rock are chemically reacting with each other which could produce food for microbes, in fact hydrogen is such a food. And so here is a place staring at us which is, as far as the basic definitions go, a place that can support life, a habitable place. But what we don't know is whether life exists there now. And Enceladus and Europa are far enough away from the Earth that if we do find life there almost certainly it had a separate origin. And so potentially we can answer the question, "Does life form anywhere where the conditions are suitable?" And if the answer to that is yes, if we find that life exists within the ocean of Enceladus and we would discover that by sampling the plume with instruments that are capable of detecting biological molecules, then it would tell us that the universe is potentially teeming with life because it would tell us the two different environments in our own solar system, we're able to support life, the generation of life and that is supported through time. So these are very interesting and exciting possibilities that have only arisen in the last 10 or 15 years and it really creates an impetus to go back to the outer solar system back to Jupiter and Saturn with more sophisticated instruments to look for life. And we're doing that with Europa and NASA's thinking about doing that for Enceladus and perhaps Titan and it's all a result of these remarkable missions over the last couple of decades.

Brad Cooper            24:30            

That's amazing, and so tell us about some of the upcoming missions things that are I guess approved in in-process and others that may be proposed that maybe we don't you know either write to our congressperson about to get more funding for our sort of what's the state of the future missions.

Prof. Lunine             24:45            

Well I don't want to lay the heavy burden on any of your listeners that they need to write their congressman, they should discern for themselves whether they want to. But OK so future missions so the one immediately this coming up is a mission to Jupiter's Europa called Europa Clipper which will orbit Jupiter and make multiple flybys of Europa this is easier to do than just orbit Europa because the radiation environment at Europa, thanks to Jupiter's magnetic field, is very, very powerful and really damaging to electronics. So it's better to do these long looping orbits that gets you close to Europa only occasionally. So I'm involved in that mission. We hope to map the surface and remotely sense the interior and do many of the things for Europa that Cassini has been able to do for Enceladus: look for plumes, sample any material that may be flying up from the plumes that would tell us whether the ocean can support life, map the salinity of the ocean remotely. There are various ways to do this and essentially to get ready for a mission that would ultimately go look for life there we're not ready to do that, as the very next step, because we don't know as much about Europa as we do about Saturn's moon Enceladus. But close behind the Europa Clipper our plans for a lander on Europa, it would land at a place that Clipper would determine might actually have deposits of carbon molecules to tell us whether there is life under the icy surface of the rover or ambitions in the early planning stages. And I've been involved in the definition of the science for that mission and then at Saturn I get heavily involved in pushing a mission to go back to Saturn orbit, fly through the plume of Enceladus again just like Cassini did but with instruments that are modern -- Cassini's instruments are 25 years old now, they're not capable of detecting life. We can fly instruments that could detect whether there's biological activity inside Enceladus and we can do it just by flying through the plume. And in fact there was there's an opportunity at NASA now to fly a mission in one of their programs called the New Frontiers program. There have been a number of proposals submitted to that including mine. I know there's another competing proposal for Enceladus that has also gone in. And you know we'll see. I hope that one of those two missions or both are selected for further study, I'd prefer it be mine, but if it's the other one that's ok too because ultimately what I would like is for NASA to be on the road to looking for life at Enceladus. And it's a long road because we would not get the answer till the mid-2030s, given the development schedule, flight time to Enceladus, etc. So that's sort of a taste of the future missions.

Brad Cooper            27:27            

Okay and that was one of my questions which is how long do you think this will take. What's your prediction on whether we know the timeline on. I guess either discovering life potentially or very strong signs of life that could lead us to conclude that there is other life in the solar system or getting I guess enough information to rule it out. What's your projection on the timeline

Prof. Lunine             27:52            

Right, for Europa, Jupiter. We have a very aggressive program after Clipper. I would say the late 2020 is maybe 2030. For the Saturn system because it just takes longer to get there.  We're really talking about the mid-2030s. And so we're talking about 15 years from now, roughly speaking. It's long time, but in the history of science, you know not that long not that especially for me.

Brad Cooper            28:17            

Yes and for this question obviously it's a big one. I mean even I was investing a lot of your life into this. I'm guessing, but I'm going to ask it anyway, but I'm guessing you believe there's other life in the universe and probably potentially even here in our solar system? What's your personal view?

Prof. Lunine             28:31            

So I tell people that I'm very careful not to hold that personal view and the reason that they go on to say I believe there is life elsewhere is to make a philosophical statement. But the real issue is, you know, is there life actually out there it doesn't matter whether a particular scientist believe that there is or there isn't. Certainly we know from investigations of discoveries of planets around other stars that there every star on average has a planet orbiting around it. So there are hundreds of billions of planets in our galaxy alone and some of them orbit at distances from their parent star that can support life. They may be quite Earth-like the thing we are lacking is an understanding of how easy or difficult it is for life to actually form. I don't know life for me as a part of the physical process of the unfolding of God's universe.  And so the formation of life from non-life, from chemistry, gives me no problem whatsoever from my religious beliefs point of view. But that doesn't tell me whether it's easy or not. We really need to go and look for life in environments that could support life and see it there and see what it's like. And I'm willing to suspend my own judgment my own prejudices on this and put my energies into trying to make that happen.

Brad Cooper            29:48            

And as far as you talked about the faith of this and obviously through history that's been controversial, I guess you wanted to call it that, but you know from the earth is the center of the universe. In the early you know hundreds of years ago to today where you do have the last few Popes at least saying yes they think it's a possibility incompatible with the Christian faith and obviously I mean based on what you said you don't see any incompatibility one way or the other on the life outside of our planet question?

Prof. Lunine             30:21            

I see no compatibility in fact God having created this universe with its enormous potential for structure and evolution which we witness in the universe all the time. Why wouldn't He allow for life to form from non-life wherever that's possible. To me it's an expression of the fullness and plentitude of what God has done. The universe is a beautiful and marvelous and amazing sight for us. I've had no problem whatsoever thinking that we might share that with other life whether it's the primitive life or possibly even advanced life. But it's important to understand that from my own point of view I just I don't know the answer to do or don't.

Brad Cooper            31:07            

Right, sure. Now that I guess you've taken a step forward in Christ and you've become more active. I want to talk about an organization that recently started as well in a minute, but is has that changed either how sort of your peers interact with you, how you look at the state of Christianity versus science, and some of the debates that happen and things like that. Are you looking through different lenses on that issue right now or not? It has always been sort of in the back of your mind know some of the debates that happen the environment that you're in, the peers that you work with?

Prof. Lunine             31:40            

Well certainly sensitized me to this issue.  But I think also we've seen in the last 20 years an evolution toward what I would call a breakdown in the dialogue between science and faith. If I had to fault anyone I would I would fault both sides. I think that you know we have seen challenges to the teaching of evolution in schools around the country. Evolution again is something that is fully compatible with the Christian faith because it's God's way of bringing about us, human beings. But you know that that battle has sensitized people and then on the other side the kind of books that are written by Dawkins and so on have, I think alienated people who are both interested in science and also hold belief in God and practice their faith, in particular for young people, it's really difficult situation to be religious and then to want to be a scientist because some of the role models that one sees are people who seem to say that if you believe in God you are not only should not be a scientist but there's something wrong with you intellectually this famous rights business that we care so much about.  So that's made it difficult for people. Now, on a personal level, I have not experienced any prejudice whatsoever. I'm in a somewhat different position. I'm a tenured faculty member. That's very different from being a graduate student or undergraduate going into the field. And so it's difficult for me from my perspective to really understand what the pressure the students go through on the other hand in my department we have several practicing Catholics as graduate students. We have a wonderful Cornell Catholic community that is very supportive, but nonetheless one has to worry about the pressures that students experience with their peers even with faculty or the scientists whose books they may read which are giving them very, very negative signals about science and faith.

Brad Cooper            33:39            

You'd mentioned other Catholics there in your Cornell community. Tell us a little bit about an organization that you started.

Prof. Lunine             33:46            

Sure, so this organization called the Society of Catholic Scientists ( It was actually founded by Stephen Barr and myself and a number of our colleagues. This this really came about a few years ago when I was thinking about this very issue the kind of polemics that go on the internet and even in books that I think make it very difficult for students who are religious who have faith to choose a path in science or makes it more difficult for them. Most of them and I've read an interview with Stephen Barr, I think it was America magazine online, I read one of his books, "Modern Physics, Ancient Faith" and I thought to myself This is someone I might have a dialogue with about how he might encourage young people, people of faith, to go into science. And I contacted him by e-mail. Turned out we had some commonalities in our backgrounds and so we began to talk about forming an organization.  And really I have to say that Steve who has done the lion's share of this work because he is someone who has been, not only has the science background he's a professor of physics at the University of Delaware, director of the Bartol Institute as a particle physicist. But he has had a very long standing in the context of the Catholic community has connections with theological organizations. And once we decided to make this happen he really worked all his actions.  I feel in some ways that I've kind of been standing back watching all of this amazing organization happen, doing what I can of course to encourage it. So the bottom line now is that this Society was officially chartered last year. It is an official organization of the Catholic Church. We have a bishop adviser as moderator and a liaison to the Catholic Church. Our bishops adviser is Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and our liaison is also through the Archbishop of Philadelphia the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. We have seven board members, all of whom are distinguished scientists in their own right from places like Chicago and Harvard and so we have over 400 members now--scientists who are practicing Catholics who are active researchers faculty at universities and have committed themselves to showing through this organization to witness to the harmony between the vocation of science and the life with faith and to foster fellowship among Catholic scientists and to act as a resource for students, educators, pastors others who have questions about science and faith and how those work together.

Prof. Lunine             36:26            

So we had our first conference had a press conference in Chicago a couple of months ago called Origins of talks for a very high level. Wehad just about a hundred participants and we think now, with God's help, that we are really on our way to becoming a an organization that will make a difference and will I hope encourage young people of faith to become scientists or engineers or mathematicians.

Brad Cooper            36:55            

Right, yes. Great. Well it's a great organization and congrats on success already and the events you've had and will definitely put a link to that organization and folks can sign up for your newsletter and I'm guessing join in advance and keep keep in touch with that so we wish you and your colleagues the best on that.  And it sounds like a great organization. Thank you for doing that. And I know all these things in light of everything that you just went through. You know are a lot of time invested. And so I thank you for doing that. And then also your colleague there, Stephen Barr.

Brad Cooper            37:25            

Along those lines I mean what would you specifically advise for young people who are considering a you know a career in science.  What are the things you highlighted a few of them but what are some of the things you would tell them and you know to advise them on that potential journey.

Prof. Lunine             37:39            

Well the first thing I would say is above all prepare yourself for science or engineering. Now let's talk about science. It's very important in high school to do well in math and science to work very hard in those areas. That's number one. And likewise in college to really put your effort into focus in the courses in biology, physics, engineering whatever you're doing and the mathematics that goes along with it. So that's number one above all else. Number two don't feel like you have to give up your faith. There is no incompatibility between science and faith. Some of the greatest scientists not only of past generations but also of the 20th century and our generation are people who have a deep belief in God. I would only quote George Lemaitre, the famous Belgian priest who is the father of the Big Bang [theory] and say that in many ways people of faith have an easier time with science because we understand how and why it is that the human mind is able to comprehend the universe. Without a belief in God, it is very hard to understand why we can do this in the first place. So we don't feel that your faith is an appendage to what you're doing. Embrace that fully embrace your scientific studies and read books that will help you understand that. I found the book by Aurora Griffin, "How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard" is really a great book in that regard. I would also recommend the book by Guy Consolmagno who is currently the director of the Vatican conservatory entitled, "God's mechanics." These are books that talk about people who are both scientists and believers and so are engineers and believers of both kinds of books are very, very important because they provide I think resets back to reality from what can often be sort of a problem of peer pressure a cycle that comes from peer pressure that can drive you out of your center.

Prof. Lunine             39:40            

Your center of faith and your center of study and science so read those books for sure. And seek out faculty who you know to be believers or have a neutral or fair view on this. When I was an undergraduate my astronomy professor was conservative Jew, practicing Jew, and he actually gave his last lecture on how the model the Big Bang the early universe models if you will the structure of the book of Genesis. I'm not sure any faculty member could give a lecture like that now, they might get into trouble, but in 1977, it was great. But seek out faculty like that and seek out fellow Christians or Jews or whatever you say.  There are always organizations like that on campus. Be proactive don't withdraw. Be proactive as part of these organizations and with all of this, you'll do just fine.

Brad Cooper            40:37            

It sounded like, with mentoring, I mean you couldn't have had I guess my inspirations I guess and mentors you know with Carl Sagan and Francis Drake there. I mean you had some great inspirational folks hopefully you know there'll be people who are listening to this that might get inspiration from you and your background as well and others as you said other Christians who are out there practicing.

Prof. Lunine               40:54            

Right. And I would emphasize too that you know the mentors that you find don't have to believers, Carl Sagan was not a believer. But you know most faculty regardless of their particular beliefs or non-beliefs are going to help you as the student. You know the Dawkins and so on they're out there they're really exceptions, even today and you know you can feel comfortable with almost any faculty member being your mentor in science. And again, at all universities, including even Cornell, there are great groups to provide support.

Brad Cooper            41:28            

Well, very good. It's been an amazing conversation as I as I said to you before we talked. I could go on for another hour I think. And we won't at this point but we'd love to have you come back on again in the future. 

Prof. Lunine             41:39            

I have had a remarkable conversation too. It has really been a great pleasure and I'm happy to come back again and talk.

Brad Cooper            41:45            

Likewise And yeah it sounds like you have a lot of great missions that you're working on and we'd love to hear more about those in the future and then we'll talk again and I appreciate your time today.  Thank you. Professor Lunine. God Bless you and your work.

Prof. Lunine             41:58            

Brad, it's been a real pleasure, we'll talk to you soon. God Bless you.


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