LOOK UP FOR COMET HALE-BOPP. It is rare to get a chance to see a really bright comet. Over the years we have had some flops like Kohoutek and Halley's, but this spring should bring a comet that is worth looking at. Like Hyakutake last year, this comet should have a visible tail and a bright head. In March the comet will be in the northern sky just below the constellations Cassiopeia and Cepheus. In April it will be in the northwest sky in Perseus just west of Cassiopeia. Hale-Bobb is 20 to 30 miles across and is a icy chunk of celestial debris which moves near the sun as it comes from the outer edges of the solar system, whips by the sun, and then sweeps back to the edge of the solar system. It is believed that comets are made of the original material of which the solar system was made, and one interesting question this year will be whether organic material like the material ALH84001 (the Martian meteorite mentioned below) will be found. Take a look-- you don't get a chance to see a comet like this often. A pair of binoculars or any kind of telescope will be helpful.
STILL MORE ON MARS. The media continues to pro-mote the idea that bacterial life has been found on Mars, but the scientific literature seems to be going the opposite direction. Dr. John Kerridge who is a planetary scientist at the University of California, summarized recent studies by saying "the biological explanation for the meteorite is becoming less and less plausible." Dr. Harry McSween of the University of Tennessee says "It makes me feel like the Grinch stealing everybody's Martians" but he reports on two major problems that we have made reference to previously in this journal. The first is that much of the biological material seems to be coming from contaminants from the Anarctic ice. The other problem is that mineral and not biologic formation of the material seems to be indicated in most of the studies that have been conducted. British studies, for example, show that the ratio of carbon 13 to carbon 12 in the meteorite is closer to Earth values than to Mars values. Another argument being made is that it is more likely that material would have travelled from Earth to Mars at an early date in Earth's history than it is that it would travel from Mars to Earth now. The discovery of pollen and other organic molecules by Shuttle crews supports that concept, and Ross and Parsons have shown the solar and stellar wind can push microbes from the Earth's upper atmosphere to Mars. All of these studies argue against the scenario proposed on the meteorite being a remnant of a biologically active period on Mars. We do want to re-emphasize that finding life on Mars is not an issue in either the evidence for the existence of God or on the evolution/creation controversy. Arguments for design do not deny multiple origins for life, but do suggest that the design pattern is not a product of chance. Sources for further reading include: Science News November 9, 1996, December 14, 1996; NY Times News Service, December 22, 1996; Discover, January, 1997, and Facts and Faith, 4th Quarter, 1996, PO Box 5978, Pasadena CA 91117.
THE POPE AND EVOLUTION. The iSouth Bend Tribune on Friday October 25, had as its major headline "Pope: Human Body Product of Evolution." The following week Time had as its title "Vatican Thinking Evolves" (November 4, 1996, page 85). In Italy the Rome daily Il Messaggero headline was "The Pope Rehabilitates Darwin" and the paper Il Giornale ran the headline "The Pope Says We May Descend from Monkeys." Atheist and skeptical journals are viewing the statement as a capitulation to science by the Catholic Church.
All of this is downright humerous when one looks at the Pope's explanations and at what the Catholic academic institutions in the United States have said for the past 40 years (your author received his second master's degree from Notre Dame University in Earth Science in 1972). In the 1970s, my professor at Notre Dame called it "Mitigated Evolution." The idea was that evolution was a tool of God used to continually shape living things physically to meet a changing world in which they must survive. Jack Duman, the head of the biology department at Notre Dame, said "Evolution is taught at Notre Dame just as it would be taught at...any other major university in the country."
Pope John Paul II's statements are not that radical, nor do they have anything to add to what has been understood by American Catholics in the past. His statement is "fresh knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis." He goes on to state several key Catholic under-standings about evolution:
--"The human soul is directly created by God.
--"There is not a single theory of evolution, but many. Yet any theory that excludes the spiritual dimension is 'incompatible ' with biblical revelation.
--"Evolution's validity as a theory must be 'constantly tested against the facts.'"
What is especially frustrating about all of this is that no one is defining what they mean by the word "evolution." The fact that there is biological change in the earth is incontestable, and much of what is understood in modern biology is based upon that fact. The notion that the complexities of living organisms can be explained by extending those processes of change and that all of this happens by blind mechanistic chance is another matter. The proponents of atheistic evolution will find no consolation in what the Pope has said. We do not see the Pope changing anything as far as the way Catholicism approaches the question of evolution. The confusion that has followed his statement and the slants that various special interest groups have put on it reflect how little the question is understood and how important it is to be crystal clear on what one means when one says "evolution."
BURNING CHURCHES--RACIST OR ATHEIST ACT? There is always a danger of being accused of being a "radical wolf screamer" when you try to point out a problem that most people are not aware of. We are all familiar with people who exaggerate the magnitude of a crisis or who make a relatively minor situation seem like World War III. In the 29 years that the Does God Exist? program has existed, we have seen a lot of violence and experienced a lot of persecution by atheist groups. Every time we try to alert people to these problems we get some mail in which we are accused of being a radical wolf cryer.
With all of that in mind, we would like to suggest that the burning of churches in the United States needs to be examined carefully by those who feel it is primarily a racial issue. Since January, 1995, there were 51 churches burned in Texas and Tennessee. Eighteen of these fires were in black churches and the remaining 33 were in white churches. There is no question that racial hatred may spawn the burning of a church. Churches are easy targets of vandalism, and that may account for some burnings. We would suggest that the hostility of the press and of many people in this country to religion in general and to Christianity in particular needs to be viewed as another culprit in the case. In no way do we wish to mimimize the terrible destructive nature of racial prejudice, but hatred by unbelievers is just as destructive and is also based on ignorance.
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BUILDING STONEHENGE: One of the common themes found among UFO advocates, paranormal addicts, and extremist religious groups is the idea that many edifices found on the earth had to be built by aliens. The idea is that structures like the pyramids, Easter Island statues, or huge monoliths like Stonehenge could not have been built by people who lived long ago. The solution offered is that aliens with anti-gravity devices or special powers assembled the huge rocks for their own purposes.
In Reader's Digest, December, 1996, page 195, there is an article titled "How They Built Stonehenge." The article contains drawings and accounts of actual test runs with 45 ton stones moved and erected by 130 volunteers. The article is useful for those who encounter the question of whether ancient peoples could have built the huge structures we are amazed by today.
CAVE MEN OR CAVE APES? It is our contention that those who try to construct a scenario of lemur to man frequently ignore race in making their arguments. Was Homo erectus a different species than modern man or was he a different race? Was Neanderthal man an ape or a true man. New discoveries of Homo erectus skeletons have been made in Java in rocks considered to be 27,000 years old, much too recent for most evolutionary scenarios. A flute used by the Neanderthals at about the same time in Ljubljana (in Slovenia) indicates a talent for language and articulate speech, which many anthropologists try to maintain they did not have. We would suggest that wide varieties of ancient man spread over the whole world and that, as more and more data is gathered, we will see that there has been racial variation, but not an inferior cave ape evolving into various species of man, one of which led to us. The oneness of man is seen in many ways, and the fossil record is just one of them.
YEAR-END REPORT AND INDEX AVAILABLE. Every year, we prepare a report of the year's activities, plans for the future, and a report of the finances of this work. Those who help us financially on a regular basis are automatically sent a copy of this report, but it is available to anyone who is interested. We believe in accountability and we try very hard to conduct this work in an honest and above-board way, so if you would like a complete report, just send us self-addressed stamped envelope and ask for the Year-End Report and/or the 1996 Index. Mail your request to: