Comet watching

Like many people, I spent last Thursday to Saturday transfixed by the successful landing of Philae on comet 67P and the images that it sent back. Just getting Philae onto the comet was a major achievement, and would have had to count as a successful mission even if no data were received. But fortunately, Philae, despite its bumpy landing, did exactly what it was supposed to, and returned loads of data, together with some amazing images.


One of the questions hope to answer using the data that Philae has provided is whether the complex organic compounds required for life (such as amino acids) were brought to earth by comets in the period when the planets of our solar system were forming. If these compounds are found on 67P, this will provide strong evidence for comets as a possible, or even probable, source of the building blocks of life on our planet. If comets do carry these building blocks, then it is reasonable to speculate about life on other planets. This is a subject that some find exciting, others worrying. Why worrying? Well, if life evolved on other planets, as well as on earth, what might that say about our place in the universe and the unique status that we perceive ourselves to have? This can be a particularly troubling question for people of faith, who understand the human race to have a unique relationship with God. I find myself in the 'excited at the prospect' camp. Why should we assume that out of the whole universe, God - who we believe to be loving and extravagant - would allow life to develop on only one world? And if there is life elswhere out there, why should we feel threatened that God might also bestow his love on others? After all, many parents have more than one child and love them all and provide for them all and desire them all to flourish. If fallible human beings can manage that, why not God?


Philae's mission has prompted other questions about religious belief. The Sunday Times on Sunday the 16th included an article headlined, "Comet speeds past God in our creation theory." This article reported on a survey that showed that 15% of Britons believed that God was created by a deity, and 19% believe life began with organic compounds carried to earth by comets. It doesn't say how many believe that both of these things are true. I think it is unfortunate that some in the press (and elsewhere) feel the need to present things as mutually exclusive beliefs when, in truth, they are in fact beliefs that many would hold to be complementary. For those of us who believe in both God and comets, Philae's mission was truly thrilling - an opportunity to give thanks for the gift of human scientific endeavour and ingenuity, and to marvel at the creator's handiwork.

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