Planetary Geologist at the SETI Institute
Categories: David, Scientist
As Principal Investigator at the Carl Sagan Center at the SETI Institute, Devon Burr looks at planets and moons for clues about how life began here on Earth. During our interview, she explained why she sees no conflict between science and religion as expressed in the Bible; what characteristics scientists and spiritual thinkers share; how she sees God's work evidenced in her work, most of which demands collaboration; how she sees the nature of reality; why she loves science; and more.
What do you do as a planetary geologist?
I get to travel all around the world looking at geological data, and I also get to study data from other bodies (planets, moons, etc.) in our solar system. I use these data to try to make scientific, rational, intelligent deductions or inferences about these other bodies -- how they formed, what they're composed of, what this might tell us about their potential habitability. I'm also looking to see what this information tells us about the formation of our solar system. I work to support other scientists who look at biotic or pre-biotic chemistry to try to understand what might have led to life on Earth.
What is pre-biotic chemistry?
As we understand life on this planet, it's comprised of physical and chemical processes and reactions. The geologic record, as far as we understand it, presents to us a gradation of life forms from simple to more complex. These data from the geologic record support the theory that life must have evolved out of something very simple indeed. It's these very simple chemical processes that I'm referring to when I speak of pre-biotic chemistry.
So what planets or moons are you studying?
Right now, I'm studying Titan, one of Saturn's moons. Titan has very interesting chemical processes which seem analogous to what might have happened on early Earth at the time that life arose (as far as we can tell from the geologic record). I'm also studying Mars, one of NASA's prime astrobiology targets. I don't actually study biology; I study geology and how it may or may not have produced environments or niches or locations that might have been conducive to life, or to biotic or pre-biotic chemistry.
Some people argue that there's a conflict of interest between science and religion. And some scientists believe in God, while others deny God's existence. What's your viewpoint?
One of the things that characterizes a good scientist, of which there are many, is humility. Scientists fundamentally must understand that they don't understand everything, or science would be a vapid and empty exercise in self-glorification. Maybe it is for some scientists, but I'm very grateful to say I don't know any of them! This is a great blessing given to me by my Father-Mother God. I have great colleagues, and together, we maintain curiosity, humility, a willingness to be corrected, an eagerness to learn. These fundamental qualities for being a scientist are also expressed by the great spiritual thinkers in the Bible. So I don't see any conflict between science and religion as expressed in the Bible. Both require exactly the same willingness to learn, humility, dedication to the truth, and unwavering focus.
Which Bible characters do you think expressed such qualities?
David (David and Goliath, King David) for one. I read something by Professor Elie Wiesel (1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner) who said what made David the chosen one wasn't consistency or follow-through but his willingness to learn. I think that concept really sounded right to me. David made mistake after mistake, but he was always willing to learn, to be corrected. We also see such willingness in the New Testament. It took Simon Peter, the "rock" upon which Jesus built his church (Matt 16:18), awhile to understand what Jesus was teaching. But in the end, he got it! Jesus never doubted him, never lost patience with him. He did speak sharply to Peter sometimes, but Jesus continued to hope and to expect good things and right thinking from Peter. Such qualities expressed by David or by Peter make a good Christian or a good Jew or a good planetary geologist.
How have you used the Bible in your experiences?
I rely on it every hour of every day! I constantly have to ask divine Mind, another name for God, what I am supposed to be doing, especially when I'm confused, don't understand something, or wonder which way to go. I got into this field by a very circuitous route. My undergraduate degree is in Political and Military Science from the U.S. Naval Academy. My first Masters degree is in Classical Philosophy and Liberal Arts from St John's College in Santa Fe, NM, where both the collegiate and masters level classes are based entirely on the Great Books of the Western Cannon. It was only after all this that I found that I was interested in becoming a scientist and geologist.
How did you change directions like that?
Well, I was relying on God. That's the answer. That's why I just listen for the right way to do things, for the best way to take my unique set of skills and knowledge and use them to help solve scientific problems, advance science, and bless my fellow man. I lean on the divine Mind to express the intelligence necessary in this line of work, which also requires me to express the love so fully expressed by Jesus. This is particularly important because, by nature, science is now a fundamentally collaborative endeavor. Science requires a lot of teamwork, which is very different from one or two centuries ago.
What demands are placed on the scientist now that science is such a "collaborative endeavor"?
There seem to be in this field, as in every field of endeavor, conflicts of personality and emotional disagreements. That emotionalism is mitigated to a certain degree by the demands of scientific thinking, but it's still there because science is still a human endeavor. So I have to "watch and pray" (Mark 13:33, 14:38), as Jesus told us, and stay on guard so I don't let anger, frustration, or emotionalism get in the way, especially since science now requires so much collaboration.
Scientists can no longer be like Newton, who escaped back to his farm during the Black Plague and all on his own came up with great scientific insights and physical laws that formed the basic fundamentals of science. Science isn't just advanced by single individuals like Galileo or Kepler any more. I get to collaborate with people around the world, some of whom I haven't met except through email. Such collaboration requires a trust in Good to make our work together productive or "fruitful," as the Bible says.
I also happen to think this helps us read the Bible a little differently. Just as science is not reserved for individual greats any more, neither is healing work. There are not just a few scattered individuals throughout history or from the Bible who had the gift of listening to God and being able to heal; we can all listen to God and practice healing.
What evidence of God do you see in your work?
It really is there in many ways. But one way I see evidence of God is in the interesting and helpful projects that are presented to me to be done. One example occurred just a couple months ago. My particular field of geology has to do with the flow of liquid across the surface, such as the flow of rivers on Earth, Mars, or Titan where the rivers flow with liquid hydrocarbons. This is my physical expertise; it's what I know the best. But I had the idea about a year ago to propose to do some work on a very different type of geology -- work related to sediment movement by the flow of wind across the surface of Titan. While liquid and wind may sound pretty similar, in this age where there's a high degree of specialization in science, these are actually pretty different. But I had the idea that I could learn about wind and could make a real contribution to planetary science.
Through Love's guidance, God's guidance, I was able to put together a team of several other scientists who have expertise in this type of work, and I was able to lead us in writing a successful proposal to NASA to do this study over the next three years. God's handiwork was evident to me in the fact that this proposal was successful in a time when most proposals are not (usually only one in three or four proposals are accepted). So I was very grateful for that result. The work is now going forward, and I'm learning a lot. I have this great group of gentlemen to teach me about sediment movement by wind flow, and conversely, I'm giving them a wonderful opportunity to broaden their thinking to include Titan (previously they've worked on Earth or Mars).
What kind of discoveries are you making?
We're having a lot of fun pushing outward the boundaries of knowledge, but I don't see us making any discoveries on the fundamental nature of reality because I really think that's what Jesus did for us. He showed us the nature of God as loving and showed us our true nature as God's pure, perfect, free children, purely spiritual and governed by God's invariable laws of good, not by any apparent laws of matter. To the degree that I am doing or saying anything useful about the fundamental nature of reality, I am following Jesus. But I am having a wonderful time practicing scientific -- that is, spiritual -- qualities. I really enjoy contributing to humankind's understanding of the formation of the solar system, what processes are going on, what the distribution of organic material is. And besides studying Mars and Titan, I support my husband in his study of asteroids and the outer solar system moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and Pluto, which recently got demoted to a dwarf planet (… poor Pluto!).
As a planetary geologist and a deeply spiritual individual who believes in God, how do you look at the concept and discussion of evolution?
God is one. This means to me that there has to be one perfect understanding of everything. I think this understanding is spiritual. The Bible tells us that God is "Spirit" (John 4:24). Spirit has created this superabundant spiritual universe for us to discover and rejoice in, and we can't find that by looking for humankind or our history in the dust (Gen 2:7). The study of Earth gives us the opportunity to express wonderful qualities of God, Mind -- of keen observation, persistence, logical deduction, unselfish communication with others, perceptive reasoning. Those are the qualities that we're called upon to express in the world in which we live. But we have to give up a rigid and self-righteous view of the universe, of the Bible, and of God's creation. God is Spirit, and Her beloved creation must be spiritual. And our proper place in that spiritual creation is to express spiritual qualities, such as reason, insight, etc.
I don't think God tests us. God does not "lead us … into temptation," as Jesus explained in his prayer, the prayer which explains the way to pray; rather, God "delivers us" (Matt 6:13). I think God guides us and helps us. God gives us this wonderful world of exploration to enjoy. We have the opportunity to overflow with gratitude, to see the tremendous abundance of goodness around us. I think all the different expressions of life require us to translate them back into their native spiritual qualities. I don't think we can be so simple or selfish as to believe that whatever we see is the limit of God's creation.
Are there any last thoughts you'd like to share?
I guess one thing I'd really like to emphasize is that there's no conflict between doing science and studying the Bible, as I mentioned before. They require the exact same qualities -- the same humility and willingness to glorify God. And they're both so much fun! Studying the Bible is delightful. I just went through the book of Acts and found amazing discoveries. Of course, in order to have a greater understanding of the nuances and meaning of what's happening, you have to understand the culture of the times, which requires research. It's the same with science: you have to understand the laws of physics to progress in scientific understanding and contribute to whatever scientific field you're working in. Science is so much fun. You get to work with people all over the world and travel. Science is just great.