Christian Suburban Housewife Scientist

Christian Suburban Housewife Scientist

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Several recent thought-provoking papers from the Future Visions group have inspired me to offer some thoughts from a "female perspective". As an observational astronomer and a Christian, I found myself in consonance with many views expressed in Bernard Haisch’s contribution "Freeing the Scientific Imagination from Fundamentalist Scientism" (although I disagree that strident debunking is exclusively a testosterone-related phenomenon — witness the fact that the President of the "Freedom From Religion Foundation" is a woman…). Particularly, I agree wholeheartedly with his emphasis on the importance of observations and empirical evidence. Consideration of the theological implications of whether we live in an "anthropic" universe or a multiverse is likely to remain purely theoretical for some time, as it is not at all obvious (at least to me) how one would go about observationally exploring the reality of universes which operate under different physical laws and are not causally connected to our own…

Considering the case for the existence of extraterrestrial life and extraterrestrial intelligence is, however, a completely different matter. Until recently, it has been extremely difficult to test many of the assumptions in statistical arguments, such as the Drake Equation, observationally. Thanks to the advent of new astronomical technologies over the past few decades, we can now realistically address this question, the answer to which could be the single-most concept-altering discovery in the history of humanity. There is good evidence that at least 50% of the stars in the process of forming in nearby molecular clouds are surrounded by protoplanetary disks, the probable precursors of planetary systems. The number of actual extrasolar planets being discovered increases almost daily. True, many of the planets being discovered are dissimilar to planets in our own solar system (giant planets close to their stars or on highly elliptical orbits further out — neither of these orbits bode well for the long-term survival of earth-like planets in these solar systems), but there is a selection effect toward detecting massive planets on small orbits (this will decrease with time, as more data become available for planets on larger orbits). The methods currently employed are not sensitive enough to detect earth-like planets in habitable zones of solar-type stars. However, NASA has plans to launch orbiting interferometers within the decade which will be capable of not only identifying, but searching for the spectral signature of life in the atmospheres of, terrestrial planets. Actual imaging of an earth-like extraterrestrial planet is perhaps a few decades down the road, but probably still within the the lifetime of many on this listserv! Of course, I’m speaking of searches for life as we know it – similar to life that evolved on earth – anthropocentric perhaps, but a reasonable place to begin the search. There are no guarantees that extraterrestrial life of any kind will be found in the near future, if ever, but if it is, it surely renders the theoretical consideration moot! Meanwhile, we are building up useful statistics on the variety of extrasolar planetary systems.

I am very curious to explore (and get feedback on) how the role of women will play out in the ongoing science/spirit dialog. If the number of "traditionally" religious scientists is relatively small, the number of traditionally religious female scientists is probably far smaller than the number of males.

Although I have no data to back this claim, I strongly suspect that conservative religious views toward gender roles must take some of the credit in alienating women who might otherwise be more open-minded. I make no apologies for my somewhat irreverent sense of humor in what follows, as I feel that humor is surely one of God’s greatest gifts! Much to my frustration as both a woman and a scientist, I live in a midwestern suburban community that might easily be mistaken for a rerun of a 1950s sitcom. I am surrounded by "clones" of Ward and June Cleaver. I can understand why most of my U. Chicago colleagues have chosen to live in urban Hyde Park… I am beginning to fear for my own sanity. The town in which I live bears a frightening similarity to the movies "Pleasantville" and "The Stepford Wives". You get the picture. I will borrow an unintentional description from a local police officer and call it "Tidytown". In short, it is the most gender-stereotyped and monocultural environment in which I’ve ever lived, and yet I fear it reflects a very large portion of U.S. suburbia. On occasion, I’ve vented my frustration over certain "male attitudes" I’ve encountered to my husband, to which he invariably, and semi-jokingly, responds "we men are the way you women have raised us". I must admit, he has a point. In addition to the overwhelming preponderance of stay-at-home moms whose biggest concerns outside of their families appears to be whether their houses look as nice as other houses on the block, essentially all of the elementary school teachers, as well as most of the other school officials, in "Tidytown" are women. At my daughter’s school, I can think of only one male teacher. He teaches first grade (God help him). I pity the poor man. He is surrounded on all sides by submissive, though ironically overbearing, women who vociferously state they are "Mrs. Fill-In-Your-Husband’s-Name", and make no bones about their disdain for those of us who happen to prefer a title that doesn’t automatically label us as so-and-so’s-wife, but rather as individuals to be valued as equal human beings. Toy shopping adds to the nightmare. Witness a comment from a "Typical Tidytown Mom": "Don’t look for a gift for Suzie in that aisle – those are the boys’ toys!", or from a "Typical Tidytown Dad": "You won’t catch MY son playing with dolls." (Heaven forbid – he might become, dare I say it? – A GOOD FATHER!!!!) I used to associate all of these attitudes with "the older generation", and I naively assumed that most of these attitudes would die out in time measured from the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s, but the median age in "Tidytown" is under 40!

My point in this diatribe about the mindset of middle-class suburbia in the U.S. is that this regional group holds tremendous sway over policy-making decisions, school boards, and in general, enormously influences the way American youth is being educated. As the mother of 3 young children, I am happy to report that my daughter is equally likely to play with remote-controlled cars and construction toys as she is to push a doll carriage (as are my sons). It worries me to think about what several more years of exposure to the climate in which we are immersed will do to my assertive and critically-thinking children.

I agree wholeheartedly with Wesley Wildman’s "Education for Collaboration" and Henry Stapp’s "Harnessing Science & Religion…" Future Visions pieces, calling for multidisciplinary training, and less mechanistic introductions to science at an early stage of education. Dr. Stapp writes, "One might think that the ideas of quantum physics are too counterintuitive for young minds to grasp." Indeed, many may feel this way (I don’t), but I think the bigger issue is not what children are able to grasp, but the background and training of the educators themselves. It is here that we may help, by occasionally emerging from our ivory-tower environments to take a more active role in helping to intiate some much-needed reform in the educational system.

"So who has time to serve on school boards?", you might ask. A very good question. For most of us to become more actively involved in the education of our youth, a radical shift in the mindset (and I do mean "mindset" here) of the workaholic, emphasis-on-quantity of research, traditional academic community is necessary. This mindset has been especially detrimental to talented female scientists who are also raising families. The high attrition rate of women in academic positions (at least in my field) from graduate school, to postdoctoral positions, to faculty positions, to ultimate inclusion in societies such as the National Academy of Sciences, testifies to the incompatibility of academic attitudes and family values. Herein lies a strong connection to traditional religious values, which are also incompatible with academic workaholism. Lest I be accused of "reverse sexism", let me mention that many men are also no longer satisfied playing the role of the aloof "Ward Cleaver", and WANT to take more active roles in raising their children. Can men AND women who so choose be successful academicians and have family lives? I believe it is possible, but only with some major changes in thinking about gender roles in this country, as well as in the workaholic mindset of the academic community. Quality of work need not be sacrificed — only quantity. European countries, for example, have long held a more enlightened work ethic. Perhaps the current research in genetics will play an important role in re-evaluating traditional concepts of what it means to be male and what it means to be female. In particular, the line between male and female may not be as distinct as some are comfortable with. Here’s something to think about (and I don’t mean to be facetious) – theologically speaking, what criteria would one employ to determine the "true" sex (not to mention the "natural" sexual orientation) of an hermaphrodite (eg., chromosome 46 XXXY)?

There is also a great need for more published literature on issues in science & religion at the level of the lay person. As Freeman Dyson recently pointed out, the public generally gets a one-dimensional view of the dialog between science and religion from the media, who tend to focus on the most extreme views in both communities. Although some wonderful books on the current dialog exist, they are overwhelmingly written for those with significant backgrounds in science, theology, or both. Throw in too many terms such as "epistemology, ontology, eschatology, collapsing wave functions, and non-locality" and you’ve lost most people before they’ve had a chance to understand what you’re trying to say. Although my own world view differs from that of the late Carl Sagan, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the ability he had to communicate complex scientific concepts to the general public. I do think it’s unfortunate that this was done from such an extremely materialistic perspective, and I think there’s a great need for the public to get a less one-sided perspective in the area of religion/spirituality. This perspective should be presented in a non-dogmatic, non-elitist way. I know of one book that is a wonderful first-step in this regard:

"The Way to the Dwelling of Light…" by Br./Dr. Guy Consolmagno of the Vatican Observatory. This book does an exemplary job of communicating scientific ideas and the scientific method to a lay audience assumed to have been raised in the Christian tradition (wider applicability is discussed). Unfortunately, it is my impression that this book has not received the wide attention and distribution that it sorely deserves.

For the most part, I am very optimistic about the future direction of the dialog between science & religion, and the enormous opportunity for growth in both areas, with the exchange of concepts and approaches used in each, but I’d like to interject one note of caution. Academicians are not, in general, known to be the most humble people on   our planet. (This could well qualify as the biggest understatement of the millennium.) Scientists and theologians alike have acquired reputations of great arrogance. God help us when we now speak of multidisciplinary, hybrid "theological scientists". With our current technology, such a breed might well become the most arrogant "species" on Earth, however such a breed might also usher in a humbler science AND humbler theology. The latter is my great hope.

In speaking of humanity as the "image of God" I think there has been a large tendency toward seeing God in our own image instead. I also think there’s a danger in trying to "over-intellectualize" our understanding of God. This danger is similar to the danger in arguing the unimportance of humanity in the universe/multiverse based on humanity’s relative "smallness". The inherent assumption is that God’s values are our own; that is, size, power, intellect, and human-centered thinking are important to many people, therefore they must be important to God. The Bible, at least, doesn’t paint this picture. Consider Moses, who was "slow of tongue", yet chosen to speak for God, or King David, who could be described as the "runt of the litter", and Jesus’ promise "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God". Nowhere, in the Bible at least, can I find a similar promise to "those with high IQs". However, a piece of biblical wisdom I HAVE witnessed time and again is "Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall". We hear much about searching for the "Mind of God", but what of the "Heart of God"? It is with tears in my eyes that I read Freeman Dyson’s beautiful speech, after he received this year’s Templeton Award. May we indeed be ethically guided to use our new technologies to improve life for the poor, rather than as "toys for the rich". This is a wonderful goal for the new millennium, and a terrific place for science & religion to find common ground.

Grace Wolf-Chase holds a Bachelor’s degree in Physics from Cornell University and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Arizona. In 1994, she was married, moved to California to begin her first postdoctoral position as a National Research Council fellow at NASA/Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, and had her first child. Two years and two subsequent children later, she was awarded a University of California President’s postdoctoral fellowship at UC Riverside to study the earliest stages of star formation. In 1998, she accepted a "Tenure-Track Equivalent" position combining academic research and public education at the University of Chicago and the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum. She spends roughly 40% of her time pursuing scientific research in the field of star formation at the University of Chicago, where she is a member of the Research Faculty, and 60% of her time serving Adler as an "Academic Liaison", to help bridge the gap between the academic research community, educators, and the general public. At Adler, she serves as Project Director on exhibit development and sky show production teams, helps develop educational programs, and works with diverse audiences including educators, students, media, and the general public, to help bring the excitement of scientific research into informal and formal education. Her primary research interests are protostars, protostellar outflows, and the impact of outflows on the evolution of molecular clouds.