Some of the people at the Faraday Institute have been spending much of the last 12-18 months working on and testing out a new science and Christianity course and set of resources that will be marketed under the Test of Faith banner.
The trailer seems to be out in the public domain now so quite happy to be putting it up as well for people to see:
Why is this exciting? Well basically it is the first telescope that has been constructed that should find worlds the size and composition of our own planet but orbiting around other stars. So far our technology has limited us to finding big, gassy and hot worlds around other stars (300+ so far), but Kepler will change that entirely.
If these Earth-sized worlds are found it is a challenging, but small step from there to analysing the chemical make up of those worlds. The ramifications of even discovering just water on one of these worlds is pretty huge as that would indicate the possibility of habitation either by a native civilisation or give us pointer to a world that might be suitable for future human colonisation.
If the analyses reveals key markers for things like oxygen or ozone alongside water it will be a big indicator that many of the same processes that occur on our world are occurring on those other worlds too. Since many chemical signatures are generated pretty uniquely by our form of life (organic-based) getting a large enough combination of them would be a solid indicator of life on those worlds.
In theory it would also be possible to track the changes in the chemical composition of the atmospheres of those worlds over time. If you studied our own world using the same techniques you would notice a surge in the amount of a number of gases that are produced from the mass industrialisation (think the causes of global warming) of our civilisation in a relatively short period of time (~150 years). This would would be a heavy indicator that such worlds with life contained a civilisation with an emerging level of reasonable technology that were also probably at least capable of communication with ourselves.
Even a result that shows up no worlds at all will still be very interesting as it will help us to not only place limits on the possible number of civilisations beyond our own, but also show whether our models of solar system formation are up to scratch or not and how to make them more accurate which would tell us a lot about our own system.
Aside from the science aspect, if alien life of whatever level or form is found in a distant star system it brings huge challenges for our own civilisation in terms of how we view ourselves against the backdrop of the universe and also from a religious side how God interacts with and creates away from the human sphere.
Big thoughts are needed in case of big discoveries.
We don't know what Kepler will find, but it will have ~100 000 sun-like stars (and many others) under its gaze over the next few years so it will be quite exciting to see what it brings.
One of the big problems with maturing regenerative medicine into a clinical therapies is the difficulty with obtaining stem cells that are sufficiently pluripotent - that is that they can form any variety of descendent cells required and can fully integrate into the hosts body without rejection.
Stem cells can be obtained from adults or umbilical cord blood etc. and although therapies generated from these types of stem cell are entering clinical trials ahead of embryonically derived cells at the end of the day their usage will be limited as they are already way down the stem cell pluripotency line and can only form limited cell types.
Hence the great interest scientists have in stem cells derived from embryonic sources as these cells have maximum viability and flexibility in terms of potential treatment use. Many Christians have big ethical problems with using embryonic cells as it does mean the creation and disassembling of the embryo involved.
Whilst I do not personally share these concerns (due to a number of reasons both scientific and theological) I am pleased to see some good progress being made on the creation of an alternative method of deriving embryonic-like stem cells by groups in here in Edinburgh. Although there is still work to be done this is clearly a big step forward. It will provide more tools in the stem cell tool kit and increase our understanding of the underlying mechanisms involved which will bring wider benefits to stem cell therapies derived from the other sources as well.
This method would also initially appear to have less ethical problems than the existing methods of creating embryonic stem cells and indeed many conservative bioethics groups have been saying this for a while now.
It does however pose a new question for those reluctant to use embryonically derived cells. Much of their reasoning relies on proposing that the embryo has the quality of personhood due to its biological potential to become a human being. A potential human being here is protected with the full rights of a realised human being.
With this new method of producing embryonic-like stem cells, does there come a point however where we drop the semantics of 'like' and regard these created stem cells equally as potential human beings? Physically the difference between embryonic stem cells derived from the two methods would ideally be minimal to non-existent so any difference might end up boiling down purely to using a language of convinience to make us more comfortable with one method rather than the other.
If so then this new method is no more or less ethical than before, but if not do we then have to factor into account the method of production in our ethical deliberations even if the physical output is the same? If so what do we define as the method of production that endows potential personhood? If it is the creation of an embryo via the combination of sperm and egg that we would choose since it is the 'natural' method of production, can we continue to call into question the ethics of creating embryos ex vivo in the lab as scientists currently do to obtain embryonic stem cells?
It strikes me that this could fast become another case of 'angels on a pinhead' and that if objections to the use of embryos for generating stem cells are to continue then it may have to be a case of all or nothing rather than picking and choosing between methods we see as more emotive or mechanistic.
We had a big and very exciting meeting at my church yesterday afternoon to explain a new way that our church is considering operating under in the near future. In contrast to many recent church meetings and a general sense of frustration and constraint I have felt at church over the last few months I actually left yesterdays meeting with a big sense of excitement and anticipation.
The fundamental change that is being envisioned is a change in our organisational structure. Instead of being a central hub with attached satellite activities (pastorates, small groups, ministries, etc) extending out from that hub we are going to move towards more of a decentralised network structure with differing components of differing sizes and focuses forming the wider MBC network.
These components will be know as something like Mission Expressions (ME) which will be orientated towards outreach and mission work of whatever type or purpose suits that particular expression - age, location, cause, topic, activity, etc.
If this change does go ahead as a church we will still meet pretty much as we do now for two out of every four Sundays and a third will be a combined gathering of the entire church into one service. The remaining fourth Sunday will be a day for the decentralised components to worship and teach together with styles and topics more orientated towards the particular component involved.
The hope as well is that other local churches might also see what we are doing and think about doing something similar which would be a great opportunity for working together in particular areas and/or for increasing resources as needed.
Small Groups as they currently stand will be remodelled and form from within particular Mission Expressions. A current Small Group might still all get on board with the same ME or might disperse into any number of them depending on the individuals and group involved. Ministries as well might stay as they are and/or change into ME's as appropriate.
Obviously there will still be some things to be worked out practically as well as setting up and equipping the ME's themselves, but is great to have the chance to do so and for the responsibility and permission to do so to be so freely given to the congregation at large. It's a big step out of the warm, fluffy and comfortable set up we are familiar with but I think its what we and the city need if we are to truly serve it.
As I said I was quite excited yesterday and still am today. No idea what I might fit into, suggest or do as a ME yet but I have had a few ideas today that relate some other minor random thoughts I have already had in the last few months which I will need to think about some more.
Personally I think this change of operation is a great opportunity to focus ourselves not only outwards more and beyond our own church walls, but also to develop and explore not only people's giftings but also their own individual styles of engaging with God as we have been learning about over the last few weeks.
I am a physicist currently working in biomedical research.
Firstly though and (hopefully) before all else I am a follower of Christ (commonly called a Christian).
I like fudge, roasts, good company, spiders and something else.
Warring, transforming robots are quite good fun too.