Science and Spirituality to Search for Life on Mars

The long-term The conflict between science and religion in the West, there has been something of a role reversal. At first, it was religious leaders who proclaimed certainty, condemning (often to death) those who questioned the biblical story of how the earth was made and how it fit into the heavenly group. Scientists were looking for uncomfortable questions. Today, science is often the most promising thing with certainty, with so-called new atheists like Richard Dawkins portraying religious folk as weak and stupid—and seemingly unable to accept the obvious. Meanwhile, believers in organized religion often see themselves persecuted for failing to follow the line. The side that has the upper hand may change, but the battle continues.

Along this changing and contested terrain is Reverend Pamela Conrad, a geobiologist at NASA who studies environments that could sustain life—while also tending to the episcopal congregation outside Baltimore. Konrad, who was ordained in 2017, is part of the science team that runs Perseverance Rover mission to Mars, where she helps design experiments to understand the Martian environment while focusing on the big questions: Is there life on Mars? Was it there before?

Currently, she is working on two mission-related projects or investigations. The first is a set of tools that help determine what the weather is like on our neighboring planet to assess the suitability of living things. The other uses a special microscope, known as a Watson, and a spectrometer to identify and analyze the planet’s organic matter.

In an interview, Konrad described her two functions as two complementary ways of understanding the universe and our place in it: “The difference between a telescope, or something external to understanding the environment, and introspection in looking inward is to say, ‘I am a scientist, and I also live within a universe.

What follows is a condensed, edited version of our talk about her scientific work and faith, and how they both challenge and teach each other.

Noam Cohen: As a scientist, you research the chemistry of life. Is there a mystical or spiritual attribute to it?

Pamela Conrad: This is not a quest. What’s interesting to me is that they are all the same things. The periodic table of the elements is the periodic table that we see everywhere in the universe, both in astronomy and from samples of the universe that end on Earth – meteorites. We can count on that. Really, it’s a question, since the chemistry is the same and the physical forces may differ, what distinguishes an environment that can support life and an environment that can’t? But it’s not that simple, unfortunately, because we only have one example of life that we know how to recognize, and that’s life on this planet. So I also ask, will we know him if we see him?

In both areas – science and religion – most people seem to be looking for answers, not other questions.

Absolutely. And I fully admit that I am a statistically extreme person. I go there because I like questions. We’ve forgotten that science, although it uses empirical data, is really about building a model to understand the data, and even the best scientists sometimes stick to their preferred model tightly. The really great scientists are the ones who say, “What a fool you were yesterday. Of course it is not, today that is.”

You spoke about a research trip to Antarctica that affected you deeply. what happened?

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