First Faith And Science Lecture Debuts At CMU

‘How A Scientist Can Be A Believer (And Maybe, Perhaps, A Better Scientist)’

April 10, 2019

By MAGGIE GEBHARDT / mgebhardt@centralmethodist.edu

Dr. LunineIt’s no secret that science and religion do not hold a strong reputation for walking hand in hand. Often, there are believers of science and there are believers of God. And when pondering time, evolution, and the reality of life itself, the idea of overlapping the two becomes more and more rare.

But according to Dr. Jonathan L. Lunine, David C. Duncan Professor of Physical Sciences at Cornell University and Director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, it is possible – and he, along with other reputable scientists, are living proof.

On Tuesday, April 9, Lunine visited Central Methodist University for its first-ever Thomas A. Perry Faith and Science Lecture. He presented “How A Scientist Can Be A Believer (And Maybe, Perhaps, A Better Scientist)” for a large crowd.

“One can journey in one’s life toward science and not away from faith, but actually toward faith,” Lunine said. “The two can go together.”

As a planetary scientist, Lunine works to study and understand the planets in the solar system and around other stars. He’s particularly interested in if life could arise in environments elsewhere in the cosmos.

About four years ago, Lunine, who is Catholic, realized Catholic students needed a new way of having fellowship on campus. Tying his faith to his work, he cofounded the Society of Catholic Scientists (www.catholicscientists.org), a group that now encompasses nearly 1,000 members.

“The purpose of this society is to be witnesses to the harmony between the vocation of scientists and the life of faith,” he said. “We want to demonstrate harmony by simply being who we are. We hold conferences, mentor students, have discussions, and so forth.”

To strengthen his point that one can be both a believer in science and in faith, Lunine spoke about Father George LeMaitre, a Catholic priest and Belgian mathematician and physicist, who is universally acknowledged as the father of the Big Bang model. This theory has been validated by a number of astronomical observations, and states that about 14 billion years ago, everything – space, time, and matter, was in a different, compressed state – inconceivably small, and from that state, everything began. 

“But he did much more than that. He nearly became the person who would be recognized as having invented Hubble’s Law,” Lunine said. Hubble’s Law states that the universe is expanding.

“We all think Hubble discovered it, but LeMaitre actually published it first in a poorly-known Belgian journal written in French – which in 1927, was not the leading language of science and very few people actually knew about or read it,” Lunine said. “Two years later, in the United States, Hubble published his data showing the linear relationship, so everyone thinks he was the first to come up with it.”

The order of events was later unraveled, and when LeMaitre was presented with the opportunity to receive equal credit for the findings, he made the choice to not be involved in retranslating the model, as years had gone by and there was no point in going back to focus on and publish old data.

“This speaks to the deep integrity and humility of LeMaitre,” Lunine said. “I have to say that the behavior of this deeply religious man speaks to the things that come from a deep sense of faith. I can’t prove that, but I would assert that.”

Lunine earned his PhD in planetary science from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and recipient of the Jean Dominique Cassini Medal of the European Geosciences Union (2015) and the Basic Sciences Award of the International Academy of Astronautics (2009). He is the author of Earth: Astrobiology, A Multidisciplinary Approach (Pearson Addison-Wesley, 2005) and Earth: Evolution of a Habitable World (second edition, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

The lecture was made possible by the generosity of Reverend Garth Leigh, who wanted to honor the memory of Dr. Thomas Perry, longtime chair of the then-Central Methodist College English Department. Leigh, who served as a United Methodist pastor for many years and now works as a freelance writer, endowed the lecture as a testament to the impact Perry had on generations of students at Central.

Perry (1912-2002) spent 20 years as chairman of the Department of English at Central. He also was chair of the Division of Literature and Languages, and chair of the honors program. He sponsored Scribblers and Scrawlers, a club for aspiring creative writers, hosting and entertaining them monthly at his home. Perry is the late father of Tad Perry, chairman of the Board of Trustees at CMU.