NASA signs up British priest to prepare for alien life: ‘May discover it next week!’

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Reverend Dr Andrew Davison, a priest and theologian at the University of Cambridge with a doctorate in biochemistry from Oxford, is one of 24 theologians who took part in a NASA-sponsored programme at the Center for Theological Inquiry (CTI) at Princeton in the US. The theologians set out to assess how the world’s major religions would react to the news that there is alien life humans are indeed not the only life forms in space.

It comes as the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s $10billion (£7.45billion) is poised to launch on Christmas day.

It will use revolutionary technology to study every phase of cosmic history from within our solar system to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe.

The infrared telescope will explore a wide variety of science questions to help us understand the origins of the universe and humans’ place in it.

A NASA expert told The Times: “We may not discover life for 100 years. Or we may discover it next week.”

Between September 2016 and June 2017, Dr Davison spent an academic year at Princeton in New Jersey as part of The Societal Implications of Astrobiology programme, which was sponsored with $1.1 million (£820,000) by NASA.

Will Storrar, director of the CTI, said that NASA was looking for “serious scholarship being published in books and journals” to address the “profound wonder and mystery and implication of finding microbial life on another planet”.

Dr Davidson’s book reads: “The headline findings are that adherents of a range of religious traditions report that they can take the idea in their stride.

“Non-religious people also seem to overestimate the challenges that religious people . . . would experience if faced with evidence of alien life.”

Dr Davison has said that theologians pondered the question of whether God’s powers could have extended to creating life beyond Earth since at least the Middle Ages and are not too troubled by the idea.

But for almost 25 years, NASA’s growing “astrobiology” department has been looking for new answers to these questions.

According to Carl Pilcher, who was head of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute until 2016, the space agency wanted to “consider the implications of applying the tools of late 20th [and early 21st] century science to questions that had been considered in religious traditions for hundreds or thousands of years”.

He added that NASA was “giving an increased emphasis to questions which before the 20th century had largely been the preserve of philosophy and theology and religion.”

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Mr Pilcher said: “It’s almost certain that life exists elsewhere than Earth. It’s inconceivable to almost anybody in this field that, in the history of the universe, life has only existed on this one little ball of rock around a middle-sized star in just this one place.”

Dr Davison said he met various NASA scientists, like Mary Voytek, the head of NASA’s astrobiology team, during the programme in Princeton said they were “deeply personally interested in how it would be received by the public and how it would impact on questions of value and meaning”.

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