The Vatican Observatory and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences have just concluded a week-long gathering of scientists to examine the origin of life and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. “These questions offer many philosophical and theological implications,” said Fr. Jose Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory.
After bringing their Nov. 6-10 talks to a close, four of the scientists held a press conference at the Holy See's press office on Tuesday.
Participating in the press conference were Fr. Jose Funes S.J., director of the Vatican Observatory; Jonathan Lunine, professor at the department of physics in Rome's Tor Vergata University; Chris Impey, professor at the department of astronomy in the University of Arizona and the Steward Observatory, Tucson, U.S.A., and Athena Coustenis, professor at the "Observatoire de Paris-Meudon", LESIA/CNRS, France.
Fr. Funes began his remarks by answering the question, "Why is the Vatican involved in astrobiology?"
Noting that the Vatican also discussed astrobiology in 2005, Fr. Funes stated that despite the field's newness, “the questions of life's origins and of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe are very interesting and deserve serious consideration.
“These questions offer many philosophical and theological implications," the priest-scientist explained.
Professor Lunine went into further detail about the emerging field of astrobiology, defining it as “the study of life's relationship to the rest of the cosmos: its major themes include the origin of life and its precursor materials, the evolution of life on earth, and its future prospects on and off the earth.”
The Italian physics professor also explained the fruit of the study week.
“The study week provided a special opportunity for scientists from different basic disciplines to spend an intensive week understanding how the work in their particular specialty might have an impact on, or be impacted by, that in other areas. Nowhere is this more evident than in the work being done on how life formed on the earth and evolved with the changing environment," Professor Lunine said.
American professor Chris Impey reflected on the implications of an encounter with an intelligent life form, saying, "if biology is not unique to the earth, or if life elsewhere differs bio-chemically from our version, or if we ever make contact with an intelligent species in the vastness of space, the implications for our self-image will be profound.”
“It is appropriate that a meeting on this frontier topic be hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The motivations and methodologies might differ, but both science and religion posit life as a special outcome of a vast and mostly inhospitable universe. There is a rich middle ground for dialogue between the practitioners of astrobiology and those who seek to understand the meaning of our existence in a biological universe,” Impey added.
The press conference came to a close with remarks from Prof. Athena Coustenis on the subject of the exploration of outer planets and their systems, with a particular concentration on the two Saturn moons Titan and Enceladus.