A Chat w/ NASA-funded Italian Jesuit Andrea Vicini

03/08/2017 07:27 pm ET

Andrea Vicini was one of two dozen religious scholars who between 2015 and 2017 shared nearly $3M awarded jointly by NASA and the John Templeton Foundation (administered by the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton) to investigate how the religious community would respond to the discovery of life in outer space. As I’ve already reported, informants at NASA tell me we will not find life anywhere else in the solar system. So why blow 5% of the NASA Astrobiology Institute budget on such a project?

I spoke recently by phone with Andrea Vicini at Boston College about this matter. Our interview follows.

Andrea Vicini is a Jesuit priest, pediatrician, and currently a professor at Boston College where he is Chair of the Ecclesiastical Faculty. His MD is from the University of Bologna and his PhD (theological ethics) from Boston College. He also has an STL (in Sacred Theology) from Boston College and an STM (Sacred Theology) from the Pontifical Faculty of Theology of Southern Italy, Naples. Vicini was a 2015-2016 NASA/Templeton/CTI investigator.

Suzan Mazur: What in your view is astrobiology?

Andrea Vicini: It’s a new field of research that is trying to find answers about the origin of life on this planet and the possibility of the origin of life elsewhere in the universe. What we are learning about how life originated on the Earth might help us to understand possible conditions for the beginning of biological life in other parts of the cosmos.

Suzan Mazur: What would you say the laws of astrobiology are?

Andrea Vicini: It seems to me that because this is an interdisciplinary field, the various laws are the laws of the various fields in which we do main research, whether it is biology, chemistry, physics or the study of planets as a whole. Because it is a complex field of research, it’s not sufficient to say main laws in general to the field but we need to enter into a depth of the various components of the whole field of astrobiology.

Suzan Mazur: How do you think about life, i.e., what is it?

Andrea Vicini: It’s a difficult question to answer. It occurs to me that there are different answers according to the discipline we are using to answer it, whether it is biology, or chemistry, or physics, or applicable to the humanities, say philosophy and theology. . . . So there are a variety of ways in which we define what is life. And they’re not in competition one with the other. It is a complex reality that requires a multiple set of skills and ways to be defined.

Suzan Mazur: You’ve recently published an article in a Vatican publication – in Italian -- regarding your NASA/Templeton-funded research as to how the religious community would respond to the discovery of extraterrestrial life. What did you say in the article and who have you interviewed from the religious community about how they would respond to the discovery of extraterrestrial life?

Andrea Vicini: The journal is called La Civilta CattolicaThe Catholic Civilization in English. It is a publication that is run by the Jesuits – the Society of Jesus – and unofficially the articles published in the journal are through the Vatican. So it is an unofficial voice of the Vatican.

I publish different articles in the journal, together of course with others that concern what happens in society in science and in culture. It seems to me that it is important for—

Suzan Mazur: But you said that you just published something specifically related to your NASA/Templeton research grant from the Center of Theological Inquiry.

Andrea Vicini: Yes. It is an article on astrobiology and its important contribution of the research fellowship last year, during the academic year 2015-16 at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton on the research program on astrobiology that was funded by NASA and the John Templeton Foundation. In the article I highlight what is astrobiology for persons who are not scientists and then I highlight ways in which we can identify issues in the ethical field and in theology in general that might be important.

One of these mentioned is whether possible discovery of life elsewhere in the universe might be perceived as a challenge to existing religions. Because in the literature we can find some of those who are – whether in the media or even in scientific literature – as suggesting this possibility.

In the article I argue at least from the point of view of Christianity, this is not the case. The discovery of life elsewhere in the universe is not a challenge to Christianity. On the contrary, it shows how the ability of God of being the creator goes beyond what we experience now and our abilities of knowing now. So there will be ways in which we can in fact interact with these forms of biological life without perceiving them as a threat as they say in a large number of sci-fi movies that portray interaction with new forms of biological life as threatening.

Suzan Mazur: What is the title of the article?

Andrea Vicini: In English it would be “Astrobiology and Us: The Challenges for Science and Society.”

Suzan Mazur: Did you interview people from the religious community to find out how they would respond to life in the solar system outside of Earth? Or are you just speaking and writing from your perspective?

Andrea Vicini: Well, more than interviewing. It’s the result of our research last year. The team of our researchers involved in the research project at the Center of Theological Inquiry on the societal implications of astrobiology was composed of 10 theologians and one philosopher and one expert in management.

Suzan Mazur: But what I’m asking is did you go to the religious community, canvas the religious community and find out how it would respond to the discovery of extraterrestrial life or was the research just conducted within the group of 12?

Andrea Vicini: Well, I would say I think there is another way in which we can explore what is in the religious traditions at least – to look at what is at the core of the various religious traditions. Christianity is not only—

Suzan Mazur: But did the funded researchers go to the religious community and ask: How would you respond to the discovery of life elsewhere in the solar system? Was that done or no?

Andrea Vicini: Well, first we are members of the religious communities so we are in touch with the religious communities. We interact with the religious communities. We’ve spoken with people, so it doesn’t happen in a formal way that we interview them on the street or on the phone. . . .

Religious communities, it’s not only interviewing that counts. There is a tradition of reflection. There are authors who have published on this topic. There is a way of thinking about this issue throughout the centuries since the beginning of Christianity, so to reflect on what characterizes the response that is traditional life Christianity — it is not sufficient to go on the street and ask people what they think or go to a parish and ask them. . . .
It’s about a group of scholars who are embedded in religious traditions, particularly, in our case, it was Christianity. They [NASA] wanted us to interact with scientists because they wanted a high profile conversation where we could take advantage of all their expertise and reflect on our own traditions.

This is the third year of the research project funded by NASA and the Templeton Foundation interacting in a wide scale in different ways with the society at large. But NASA proposed a different kind of experience for the first two years, at least two groups of scholars who are able to rely on the resources in that part of their own tradition. . . .

Suzan Mazur: Where else do you plan to publish your research? Do you plan to publish in the United States in English?

Andrea Vicini: Yes, there is a possibility of publishing a volume that will be the collaborative work of research of one year, probably two years on the information. There are already other publications on the topic.

Suzan Mazur: Do you plan to publish an article on this topic yourself online so the public has access to this research? What I’m saying is that NASA is funded by the American public. So the public should be able to freely access the results of your research in the United States, in English. Do you have any plans to do that?

Andrea Vicini: I plan to do it when I don’t have other commitments. So I will do as quickly as possible. It is not part of the agreement we had with NASA. We were not required to publish. So we do at our earliest convenience.

As scholars we are interested in articulating ideas and sharing them and generating conversation. In a respectful context we will do it.

But the NASA/Templeton project run by the Center of Theological Inquiry, they did not ask us to commit ourselves to publication because we want to be very careful in the way in which we join others who are already part of this conversation.

Suzan Mazur: Why do you think the possible future discovery of microbes in space requires an expenditure now of $3M by NASA & Templeton for outreach to the religious community?

Andrea Vicini: This is in line with research on major projects that has always involved an extension from scholars in the humanities. The most recent example, if you want, the most important example, if you want, is the Human Genome Project. . . .

Suzan Mazur: I’m advised a significant number of people at NASA do not think we will find life anywhere else in the solar system, including Mars. Do you have any insight as to why the NASA Astrobiology Institute contributed 5% of its annual budget to this investigation?

Andrea Vicini: This is a very limited investment, limited in a time frame. I don’t know exactly the numbers.

Suzan Mazur: That’s exactly it. It’s 5% of NAI’s annual budget. . . .

Andrea Vicini: There is also a group of astrobiologists at NASA who affirm that there is life elsewhere in the universe in light of their own statistical studies. . . .

What we are doing is to involve the academy, to involve scholars who are members of religious traditions. It is important because, it is the third year of the initiative and there are different levels of interactions. . . .

Suzan Mazur: It’s being publicly perceived as spin amongst a group of religious academics about a subject that is very, very flimsy at this point. . . .

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