In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.
Or did he ?
That largely depends on who you talk to.
Creation stories are found in just about every culture and attempt to explain where and how humanity originated.
Scientists also look for beginnings, not through stories but by evaluating a constantly evolving series of data gathered through observation and experimentation.
The conflict between faith and science and how the public is sometimes skeptical of a scientific view of creation was the theme of the second in a series of conversations between researchers and the public at the California Academy of Sciences Saturday.
Moderator Jill Tarter of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute noted recent developments worldwide suggest that scientists are not getting the respect they deserve.
For the first time in 80 years, a new government in Australia does not have a post for a science minister, she said, and lack of funding has forced Russia to consolidate its academy of sciences with other unrelated academies.
“Every day in this country it seems we are making decisions based on something other than science,” she said.
Joel Primack is a UC Santa Cruz physicist and head of the UC High Performance Astrocomputing Center.
Scientists should not frame the debate over the origins of life as an argument of science versus religion, he said.
“That is a losing battle for science,” he said. It’s also not true.”
“Most of the mainstream religions have adopted statements saying that evolution is not a problem for them and many scientists take religion seriously.”
Scientists often fail to present their version of creation in a compelling way by stressing that human beings are insignificant when compared to the vastness of the universe, according to Primack.
While Earth does not sit at the center of the universe, humans are unique because our bodies are made of some of the rarest elements in the cosmos, and rare things are often the most valuable, he believes.
SETI astrobiologist David Morrison is director of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of life in the Universe. He has lectured at the academy on the potential threat of an asteroid hitting the Earth.
It’s an exciting time for scientists considering the potential for life on other planets as unmanned probes travel to distant planets and new more powerful telescopes reveal as yet undiscovered exoplanets.
Scientists at SETI also listen for any signals that might come from a civilization beyond Earth. Though no signal has been heard, the three technologies give us more possibilities for contact.
“We don’t have evidence of life beyond Earth but we have multiple approaches that have a reasonable chance of success,” he said.
Researchers often oversell their origin of life theories which makes for confusion on the part of the public, Morrison said.
“We don’t know how life started on Earth and we do a disservice by saying that we are on the brink of finding out,” he said.
Morrison objected to the hysteria created by the “2012 Phenomenon” in which the ancient Mayan calendar was interpreted to predict the end of the world on Dec. 21.
The rumor, disseminated by Internet conspiracy theorists and YouTube videos, caused some teenagers to consider committing suicide and one poll showed that 20 percent of the world’s population did not expect to live beyond that date, Morrison said. The theory turned out to be false with no basis in real science.
“It was a completely manufactured thing, “he said. “None of the so called evidence was real evidence.”
Morrison said the objective science that used to be presented on television has been distorted and diluted with false information.
Shows on UFO sightings and ancient alien visits to Earth have become common on cable television networks, presumably spurred by high viewership and ratings.
To Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, the debate centers on understating the meaning of myths and separating them from the scientific method.
Myths are thought of as fake or false but such stories represent what is symbolically important in any culture, she said.
Science does a good job at explaining the natural world, Scott said, but scientific data should not be mistaken for its own creation myth, she said.
“Myths change and take on new meanings,” she said. “It’s not good to talk about cosmology or science ideas as a myth. Where does science stop and the implications of science begin?”
Objections to science are often caused by ideology, Scott said, which must be assuaged before critics can understand a scientific view of creation.
“It’s only when those ideological concerns can be dealt with that the fingers come out of the ears,” she said.
“It’s frustrating for scientists because we think the evidence stands for itself and that all we need to do is show them the truth and they will smack themselves on the forehead.”
Terry Gosliner, the academy’s dean of science believes scientists should not portray knowledge as complete because it turns people off to the spirit of inquiry that drives research.
“To all the young people in this room…what is really exciting is that we know so little today and that there are great opportunities to add to that body of knowledge, “he said.
The last meeting, “SETI: The Archaeology of the Future” will be held from 9-10 a.m. Oct 26 in the academy board room.
Speakers will include Geoff Marcy, Professor of Astronomy, UC Berkeley,
Andrew Fraknoi, Professor of Astronomy, at Foothill College and SETI Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak.
Admission is $35 for adults and $25 for seniors and academy members. Coffee, tea and pastries are provided. Ticket does not include museum admission. Reservations may be made online or over the phone at 1-877-227-1831. For more complete information, visit: www.calacademy.org/brilliantscience.