Orbiting Dicta

Category Archives: Science


The devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey is fast assuming the status of the worst natural disaster in US history, surpassing the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina exactly 12 years ago this week.
Could the destruction have been prevented?  Not entirely, of course, but it could have been greatly reduced.

Step one: reduce carbon emissions significantly… best time to start: 25 years ago.

Step two: expand and develop environmental protection laws and policies… best time to start: 25 years ago.

Step three: pay greater attention to climate scientists, who warn that as the sea warms and levels rise, hurricanes will increase in size and intensity, if not necessarily in frequency… so we hope! Best time to start: tomorrow.

Take away for Mr. Trump: Climate Change is real. Do not gut the EPA regulations, the agency itself, or US natural resources.  Stay in the Paris Climate Accord.  The people deserve it. The earth requires it.

The View from Here: Voyager’s [O]mission

This year, in August and September, the 40th anniversary of the launches of the two Voyager spacecraft are being rightly celebrated.

Each of the probes carried on board a remarkable document — a record of civilized life on Earth devised as a greeting card to any life forms in the universe intelligent enough to intercept and decipher these messages.  A product of the creative collaboration of astronomer Carl Sagan, his wife Linda, and their associates, each of the Voyager messages included sounds and music representative of human cultures on the planet as well as pictures inscribed on a long‑playing phonograph record. But the Sagan team strove to make sure that all mention of God, the sacred or the religious dimension of human experience on Earth was deleted from the gold-plated record.

Secular music by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven was included, along with jazz and folk songs from around the globe.  But there were no liturgical chorales, masses or oratorios; no Gregorian chant, no Negro spirituals; no hymns or native religious canticles.  There was no religious art – Leonardo’s Last Supper, for instance, or Michelangelo’s paintings from the Sistine Chapel, or the windows of Chartres, arabesques from the walls of the Alhambra, or sculptures from Angkor Wat.  No Buddhist or Hindu temple appears, no cathedral, synagogue, or lamasery‑‑ only the Taj Mahal – technically a mosque, but “a monument not to religion,” it was noted, “but to love, and thus an appealing choice.” (A few gothic chapels slipped by‑‑ in a photograph of Oxford University — probably because they are unrecognizable as places of worship to anyone unfamiliar with the “City of Spires.”)

There were lengthy statements by politicians and other “world leaders”‑‑ the President of the United States, a two‑page list of US senators and congressmen “associated” with NASA, the Secretary General of the United Nations, and statements and even poems from fifteen UN delegates.  There were none however from the Dalai Lama, the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, a rabbi, an imam, a Buddhist nun, or a yogi.

One other oblique reference did manage to slip by the screening process devised by the scientists, however.  It was a statement by an African from South Uganda, Elijah Mwima‑Mudeenya of Kampala, who said, “Greetings to all peoples of the universe.  God give you peace.”

In the end, what Sagan nearly accomplished was a gross misinterpretation of the real human situation on this planet, whose inhabitants are overwhelmingly members of a variety of religious traditions, some of which (preeminently Christianity and Islam) demonstrably gave rise to the very science Sagan and his colleagues espoused.

But despite claims, or should I say boasts, to the contrary, science is not uniformly value-free nor devoid of significant prejudice.  Sometimes disastrously so.  So I hope that any advanced civilization capable of playing phonograph records has some appreciation of irony. I wonder what our hopefully friendly extraterrestrials in some remote aeon in some imaginably distant realm of the universe will make of  Elijah Mwima‑Mudeenya’s blessing once they get the phonograph going.

Obama’s “Phony Theology”

In the wake of the worst winter storms of recent US history and the likelihood of more to come this spring and summer, as well as clear evidence of increasing global climate change, presidential hopeful Rick Santorum’s denunciation on Feb. 18th of President Obama’s “phony theology” of “radical environmentalism” flies in the face of the Obama administration’s all-too-moderate efforts to protect and preserve the increasingly endangered health of the planet.  It no less conflicts with the teachings of Santorum’s own Catholic Church as well as plain common sense.

To sacrifice long-term benefits, especially the common good of rich and poor alike, on the altar of short-term political and material gain is nothing new and could even be characterized as a solid plank in current Republican Party campaign platforms.  (Let it be said that most Democratic candidates for public office have been ominously quiet about the worsening environmental situation.)  But to challenge environmental stewardship as based on allegedly unbiblical “phony theology” betrays a profound ignorance of the pastoral letter on “Global Climate Change” of the US Bishops Conference in 2001 and statements of several regional episcopal gatherings from more than a decade earlier.  It ignores the statements of Pope John Paul II and repeated exhortations by Pope Benedict XVI, not to mention many dozens of books and articles by mainstream theologians and biblical scholars.

If by some weird concatenation of events, Mr. Santorum were to become president, the world might in fact witness a catastrophic reversal of the remaining theologically sound pro-environmental initiatives that have managed to survive the rusty knives of Washington’s wealthy corporate lobbyists and politicians.

The library of authentic Catholic teaching on environmental stewardship is extensive and growing.  Having taught courses in environmental theology for many years, I will be happy to supply Mr. Santorum with a hefty bibliography – if indeed he reads standard theology at all.

No, Mr. Santorum, President Obama’s “theology” is neither extreme nor phony.  But yours seems to be.

The Death of a Great Scientist

On 13 Nov., Dr. Allan Sandage died.  One of the great astronomers of our era, indeed of all time, Sandage was a man of deep faith as well as profound wisdom who famously cited Thomas Aquinas in his case for the existence of God.  He said in an interview some years ago,

“There need be no conflict between science and religion if each appreciates its own boundaries and if each takes seriously the claims of the other. The proven success of science simply cannot be ignored by the church. But neither can the church’s claim to explain the world at the very deepest level be dismissed. If God did not exist, science would have to (and indeed has) invent the concept to explain what it is discovering at its core.  Abelard’s 12th century dictum “Truth cannot be contrary to truth. The findings of reason must agree with the truths of scripture, else the God who gave us both has deceived us with one or the other” still rings true.

“If there is no God, nothing makes sense. The atheist’s case is based on a deception they wish to play upon themselves that follows already from their initial premise. And if there is a God, he must be true both to science and religion. If it seems not so, then one’s hermeneutics (either the pastor’s or the scientist’s) must wrong.”

May he rest in peace.

For an appreciative essay on Sandage and an illuminating interview (from which the citation above was taken), see the sites indicated below:

Allan R. Sandage dies at 84; cosmologist focused on the age of the universe

November 17, 2010

By Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times


Dr. Allan Sandage, “A Scientist Reflects on Religious Belief,” Truth Journal.


Death of a Jesuit Zen Master

Earlier this week I noted with sadness that William Johnston, the wonderful Irish Jesuit and long-time resident of Japan, died on October 12th in Tokyo at the age of 85.  Bill was a pioneer of inter-religious dialogue and the author of a number of superb books on Christian mysticism, especially the interplay of Christian spirituality and Zen.  His 1971 book Silent Music became and remains a classic in the field, not least because of his discussion of the scientific study of meditation comparing Zen and yoga practitioners with Christian adepts.

I was privileged to make a retreat with Bill early in my professional career and in 1985 met him again in Tokyo, where we spent a delightful afternoon and evening together touring the city and exchanging insights.  I was especially happy to share a birth date with him.

He will be greatly missed, but his accomplishments will endure and his memory will be blessed around the world.

Here are some links about the life and death of this wonderful man: