In the long run struggle between science and religion in the West, there has been something of a reversal of role. In the beginning, religious leaders were the ones who professed certainty, condemning (often to death) those who questioned the history of the Bible about how the Earth was made and how it fit into the celestial panoply. Scientists were researchers asking uncomfortable questions. Today, science is often the one that promises certainty, with so-called new atheists like Richard Dawkins portraying religious people as weak and stupid – seemingly unable to accept what is clear to see. Meanwhile, believers in organized religion are often persecuted for not following the line. The side with the upper hand may change, but the battle persists.
The rider of this changing and disputed terrain is the Reverend Pamela Conrad, a NASA geobiologist who studies what environments can sustain life – while also holding an episcopal congregation outside of Baltimore. Conrad, who was ordained in 2017, is part of the scientific team that leads the Rover Perseverance Mission to Mars, where he helps to design experiments to understand the Martian environment with an eye to the big questions: Is there life on Mars? Has it ever been?
At the moment, he is working on two projects, or investigations, related to the mission. The first is a series of tools that help determine what the climate is like on our nearby planet to assess how hospitable it could be for organisms. The other uses a special microscope, known as Watson, and a spectrometer to identify and analyze the planet’s organic materials.
In an interview, Conrad described his two occupations as complementary ways of understanding the cosmos and our place in it: “The difference between a telescope, or anything that looks out to understand the environment, and introspection. to look inside is to say, “I am a universe, and I also live in a universe.”
What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation about their scientific work and their faith, and how each challenges and informs the other.
Noam Cohen: As a scientist probing the chemistry of life. Is there a mystical or spiritual quality in this?
Pamela Conrad: This is not research. What’s so interesting to me is that it’s all the same material. The periodic table of elements is the periodic table that we see everywhere in the universe, both in astronomy and from samples of the universe that end up on Earth – meteorites. We can count on that. Indeed, it is a question, given that chemistry is the same and that physical forces can vary, what distinguishes an environment that can sustain life and one that cannot? But it’s not a simple question, unfortunately, because we only have one example of life that we know how to recognize, and that is life on this planet. So I ask, will we know if we see her?
In both fields – science and religion – it seems that most people are looking for answers, not other questions.
Absolutely. And I fully recognize that I am a statistical outlier. I go there because I love questions. We have forgotten that science, even if it makes use of empirical data, is really about building a model to understand the data, and even the best scientists are sometimes a little too strict with their preferred model. The really great scientists are the ones who say, “What an idiot I was yesterday. Of course it’s not, today is it.”
You talked about a research trip to Antarctica that deeply influenced you. What happened?