by Dale Jeffrey, Windsor, Ontario, Canada
Of all the glories which a simple and efficient microscope reveals, perhaps the most fascinating is the scale and variety of the hitherto unknown. Some tiny thing – what is it? – flits across my eyepiece field, and in a frenzy of curiosity I attempt to track it down, first with eye and then with camera and, if I am terribly lucky, with pencil and paper. Later I’ll look it up, but only after guessing at its identity, and then I attempt to engage in more formalized research, often on web sites like this one. My final interest is Aristotelian: I wish to know its quiddity (its essence) and finally, its apparent purpose (what is it for?). What is its relationship with all of the other wonders one discovers in the same drop of water? What, if any, is its relationship with me, and does it matter?
In 1996, NASA reported (prematurely?) its finding of the famous Martian meteorite known as ALH84001. The space agency’s excitement was twofold. First, it felt certain that the rock was undoubtedly from Mars, and second, an extraordinary claim was made that the little rock contained fossilized bacteria or nano-bacteria – in any case, life beyond Earth.
Within the scientific community, reactions ranged from complete incredulity to others whose research tended to support NASA’s claims. Of those whose examination led them to reject the findings, many proposed quite valid explanations for the initially described nano-microbe “fossils”, some stating that these formations were simple chemical reactions and entirely non-biological. Of those who supported the micro-fossil theory, two camps were formed. Some agreed completely with NASA, and others argued that these were indeed fossils of biological entities, but were most probably contaminates from the Antarctic ice field (the Allan Hills), and thus biological, but terrestrial and not Martian.
As one committed to the scientific maxim that “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence”, I chose to be agnostic on the subject. Still, as a priest with both theological and philosophical education, I wondered about the effect on the faith community. What if it could be proven, beyond any doubt, that life independently had formed elsewhere in the solar system? What would such knowledge do to religious claims? If the Christian Church had struggled so rigorously against the work of Copernicus, Galileo, Bruno, and Kepler, what would they do with this information? Charles Lyell and Darwin had started a further tremor in the religious topography of many. How then could people of faith stand and profess an ancient worldview, when Earth’s centrality, human creation, and especially Life’s uniqueness to our planet is completely disproven?
Someday soon perhaps, one of the Martian rovers, or a probe to an asteroid or to one of the Solar System’s many moons (especially Titan, Ganymede, and Europa), may suddenly and unequivocally discover life that has formed and evolved elsewhere. What then?
Consider this the next time you observe living “animalcules” with your microscope. Consider it also when next you marvel at the beauty of the night sky. As we wade through a plethora of life-forms in a single drop of pond water, what if something similar were found elsewhere? How would that discovery affect your self-understanding? What then would you believe?
An old theology professor of mine once admonished our class regarding doctrine and dogma. What he said still resonates with me today. He said that when you finally, through the application of systematic theological and philosophical principles, believe that you have at last put your God in a neat and well-constructed intellectual “box”, be certain of one thing: whatever is in that box is not God at all. And for those who apply the same capture to scientific and universal Truth, surely the same observation must apply.
Dale Jeffrey is a retired priest, living in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.
All comments to the author Dale Jeffrey are welcomed.
Microscopy UK Front
Published in the May 2015 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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