Adler’s Grace Wolf-Chase seeks to connect public science participation with faith communities

Dr. Grace Wolf-Chase, astronomer and public advocate for citizen science and education, spoke to attendees at the Ecumenical Roundtable on Science, Technology and the Church held last month at the Lutheran Center Conference Center in Chicago (Churchwide offices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).

Wolf-Chase told her story of coming out of her physics studies at Cornell University thinking that faith and science couldn’t mix. As a grad student at the University of Arizona she met a remarkable group of “brilliant people who were scientists and Christians.”

Today, she spends much of her time serving the public interest in science. She is a science consultant on the Clergy Letter project, affiliated faculty member of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, vice president for CASIRAS and on the steering committee of the Albertus Magnus Society at Dominican University in River Forest. Her astronomy research today focuses on protostars, protostellar outflows and the impact of outflows on the evolution of molecular clouds. She also widely promotes, through the Adler’s public education initiatives, the idea of citizen research or what is widely called citizen science.

“There is a widespread perception that one must choose between science and faith,” she said. “This false choice has dire consequences, all of which are very bad for society.”

Many people are on the verge of hopelessness because they feel that science has taken away the mystery, she adds. Her response is to encourage young people of faith to consider STEM vocations.

“We need people who know how to speak many languages to help us address the many challenges we are facing to help others to become better stewards of creation,” she added.

In the mid-1990s there was an explosion of new data in astronomy thanks to the Hubble Deep Field. So far there have been 3,000 known exoplanets and 300 Earth-sized planets circling stars discovered.

It takes a big community to look at this big data, she said. Citizen scientists extend the reach of what professional scientists can accomplish. Via Zooniverse.org, the University of Oxford and Adler are leading the way for citizen research. More than 1.5 million people participate in one or more projects. There are 59 active projects. She also highlighted a unique citizen science e-pub for kids — Kidsfrontiersin.org.

Referring to the Latin word MIRA, which means ‘to wonder’, Wolf-Chase created an acronym to move the religion and science dialogue forward.

The first letter M — stands for the need to Move people away from the God of the gaps thinking that has plagued much of the early dialogue on faith and science. Secondly, there is a need to Initiate more partnerships between clergy, scientists and educators.  R stands for Reflect, which is what communities can do in coming together for the common good. Lastly, she advocates for all parties to Acknowledge limitations.

“We need a strong dose of humility,” she concluded. “All human models are subject to error and incompleteness.”