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Science & spirituality: an interview with Carolyn C. Porco.

CAROLYN C. PORCO, PH.D., IS THE LEADER of the Cassini Imaging Science team and the director of the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. The Cassini mission has taken breathtaking images of Saturn and its rings and moons, and has shed new light on the possibilities of extraterrestrial habitable environments in the outer solar system. Dr. Porco has written and spoken passionately about science and spirituality. In her essay, "The Greatest Story Ever Told," on the website, she states: "The confrontation between science and formal religion will come to an end when the role played by science in the lives of all people is the same played by religion today." In that same essay, she writes: "At the heart of every scientific inquiry is a deep spiritual quest to grasp, to know, to feel connected through an understanding of the secrets of the natural world, to have a sense of one's part in the greater whole. It is this inchoate desire for connection to something greater and immortal, the need for elucidation of the meaning of the 'self,' that motivates the religious to belief in a higher 'intelligence.' ... But the same spiritual fulfillment and connection can be found in the revelations of science. From energy to matter, from fundamental particles to DNA, from microbes to Homo sapiens, from the singularity of the Big Bang to the immensity of the universe--ours is the greatest story ever told. We scientists have the drama, the plot, the icons, the spectacles, the 'miracles,' the magnificence, and even the special effects. We inspire awe. We evoke wonder."

THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW aired on November 4, 2007, on the WBAI-NY radio program Equal Time for Freethought and was specially adapted for the Humanist.

ETFF: Dr. Porco, perhaps you can first give us a quick overview of the project and why you find it so inspirational.

Carolyn Porco: The Cassini project began in the 1980s when Voyager was touring the outer solar system, flying by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. It was the logical conclusion that after we had done something so magnificent with that exploratory mission--opening up the entire solar system to human view--we wanted to go back. We did return to Jupiter with the Galileo mission and then planned a mission to Saturn: the Cassini mission. Those of us who were involved in it have been involved for seventeen years. We got into orbit around Saturn in the summer of 2004 and have been awestruck by what we've found there and by the beauty of our images. We are now conducting an in-depth exploratory expedition in an alien planetary system ten times farther away from the sun than the earth. And what we're finding is, to use a cliche, rewriting the textbooks.

ETFF: Clearly, you find this very inspirational, and you have been quite outspoken about the idea that science can satisfy people's needs that are presently being met by traditional approaches like religion. What in your experience led you to that?

Porco: Well, I can speak with authority, of course, only about myself and I consider myself to be a spiritual person. What does that mean? To me, a spiritual person is someone who seeks the extraordinary in the ordinary; someone who wants to know the underlying meaning of everything; someone who looks around them at everyday life and asks, "Is there a purpose to this? Where is this leading? What lies beyond? And how do I fit into this whole picture?" As a young teenager I asked those questions from the Catholic perspective I was raised with. I was very earnest about doing this for a period of about six months or a year, and found that it did literally nothing for me. I found it completely joyless. So I started to investigate other religions and philosophies. I studied Buddhism, Hinduism, and even existentialism.

Thinking about the big picture got me looking outwards, and that got me thinking about the cosmic context of our life here, and I became very interested in astronomy and what the universe contained. And so I got started on this whole road to what I'm doing now by asking those deep philosophical questions. So for me--for scientists in general--it's about wanting to know the meaning underlying everything.

ETFF: I don't know many scientists who would say they came to science as a result of a spiritual journey, but it sounds like one factor for you has been just that.


Porco: A big factor. And I bet if you got other scientists in a quiet moment and they were not embarrassed to express it, they might say the very same thing. It's what turns us all on about science, whether you are a biologist or an astronomer. If you're an astronomer, you really are looking at the big cosmic theater, but even the biologists who look deep within the cell or the structure of DNA, or the particle physicists who look even deeper, it's all about wanting to know how things are constructed, and the overriding question is what it means for human beings.

And so when I say that religion can be replaced by science, I'm beginning with the concept of God as the explainer of all things, the fiber parent. I think theists seek protection and solace in that concept because they want to feel connected to something much bigger than they are, and what could be bigger than an almighty being? It's what they were taught when they were children so it becomes a deeply engrained cultural phenomenon, too. The social organizations of religion provide something else entirely--that is, a means for people to feel connected to other people. But I think that science certainly can replace the God concept. As the saying goes, there isn't much left for God to do because science has explained so much of it.

It's important to note that I'm talking about the how here, not the why (the why is an entirely human projection of motivation, so I don't think it's relevant). Science has answered most of the how, and, like I said in my Edge essay, it is a phenomenally beautiful story. In that story there are universes within universes and it goes on and on. It is this hierarchical set of universes, starting from the very small and going to the cosmically big, and how we fit into it as already ancient (the fundamental particles in our bodies having started at the Big Bang as energy) that makes up the greatest story that has ever been told.

But then there is, as I said, people's need to gather together, to congregate because we need each other. Why, I thought to myself, can't we have organizations of scientists or humanists that use as the guiding principle this beautiful story that has been told about our cosmic circumstances? And then I continued on in the essay and went a little over the top as I imagined hymns to the beauty of gravity and the nuclear forces and so on.

ETFF: You don't hesitate to use the word "spiritual," which a lot of people who are naturalistic or don't have a god in their belief system really bristle at because it contains the word "spirit," and they think of a spirit as some kind of nonphysical entity that exists in a supernatural realm. I think that we have to look at what the word really means to most people.

Porco: I think that the spiritual aspect of us wants to feel a connection, a connection to something much bigger. And I think it is a manifest human need because belief in God--belief in something greater--seems to exist in all cultures. And who knows, maybe it is a leftover from childhood. We start out small, our parents are big, everybody else around us is big. Maybe we just never throw off that need to feel protected by something bigger than we are.

ETFF: You have suggested that our presence at Saturn should be a moment of unprecedented excitement for humankind and that "the exploration of our solar system is one of the signature enterprises of our time. We should be reveling in it; it belongs to us." You also described the release of the Huygens probe from the Cassini spacecraft and its subsequent landing on Titan as a "grown man crying" kind of day that "should have been celebrated with tickertape parades in every major city" You really bring the emotion to the fore there and suggest that we really should be able to grasp and celebrate the enormity of these achievements, but that we didn't.


Porco: Well, it just isn't getting out there. We leapt off the planet fifty years ago and we haven't stopped since. It's time to slap ourselves on the back and say, "Hey, we did it. Look at what we are capable of?' And why aren't people gathering together to talk about these things? Aren't we all sick of watching CNN, watching Fox News? It's just bad news after bad news, and I think it's too much.

ETFF: In a talk you gave in 2005 you said, "My fondest wish is that ultimately we will see streaming video from every planet with associated commentary and explanatory computer graphics piped into vast banks of television screens in shopping malls, supermarkets, and concert halls, so these mythic accomplishments of extending our senses in visiting other worlds will become as much of the fabric of society as Oprah." And then you go on to say, "I think this kind of media blitz would be a much needed antidote to the constant reminder of bad news and human failure that we see all the time on television and could be an equally constant countervailing reminder of the good and the glorious that we can achieve if we put our minds to it."

Porco: Well, I did say that. And I still mean it.

I'm privileged to be doing what I am doing because as I said before, I live this every day. I am living the magnificence of our accomplishments in exploring the solar system and understanding the backdrop of our own existence. I'm not saying I'm in a constant state of euphoria, but when you have to face eternity and enormity in the face every day it literally gives you a different perspective, a different mental picture of your whereabouts.

The earth orbits the sun; Saturn is ten times farther away. I have a camera system out there taking pictures, and then beyond that there is Uranus and Neptune, and then beyond that the Kuiper Belt. It's just part of my general mental picture. And because of that it is maybe easier for someone like me to press the reset button when things around me get ridiculous.

ETFF: As you said, you've seen all kinds of things that are "rewriting-the-textbooks." Apparently the Cassini mission has brought us tantalizingly close to seeing conditions that could support life outside Earth. You said that Saturn's moon Enceladus has warmth, geologic activity (because it is venting), and organic matter--all the elements of life. And there is evidence that Titan has rivers of methane, and we know that there are life forms that can develop in methane, right?

Porco: Well, there are life forms that produce methane, and so I think the astrobiological interest in Titan is basically that it has so much organic material on its surface and in its atmosphere that it provides almost a laboratory to study some of the chemical processes that went on a long time ago in the very early days of the Earth before life arose here and even before there was oxygen in the atmosphere. But on Enceladus, we don't know that we truly have an environment that could support life. Right now some of the evidence--or one way to look at the evidence--says it could be possible. And so, of course, this issue is being contested and is being studied. People taking sides, examining the different aspects of an issue is just good science. What we can say now is that we can't rule out the possibility that those beautiful, dramatic jets that are shooting out of the south pole of Enceladus into the space around it might, in fact, be coming from subsurface chambers of liquid water. And even if they don't directly come from liquid water, there still may be liquid water deeper within Enceladus. So we do know we have a body that is puzzlingly warm, home to simple organic materials, and very possibly liquid water as well. And that is very exciting.

ETFF: Can we tell if the stuff being projected out by those jets is water?

Porco: What you see in the images are fine particles. They are probably even smaller than snow particles, but think of them as fine, powdery ice, and then along with that comes vapor. You don't see the vapor in our images but other instruments on Cassini have sensed the vapor, which Cassini also flew through in July of 2005. The vapor contains water vapor, molecular nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and, we think, some organic materials. We'll get a much better examination of this in March when we'll have another close fly-by of Enceladus. When Cassini flies through the plume we'll take even more accurate measurements of its compositions. So we are all really, really looking forward to that.


ETFF: Pretty exciting, indeed.

Porco: Voyager was just a fly-by mission. We flew that spacecraft past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. We spent maybe a couple of days in the close environment of each planet and then it was years until we got to the next one. And so you madly collect data and have years to analyze it, and then you are bearing down on the next planet. Those were reconnaissance missions. But Cassini is an orbiter. We put Cassini in orbit around Saturn, and that allows us the luxury of monitoring the system and accommodating new discoveries like this incredibly fascinating environment on Enceladus. We have been able to take the planned flight of Cassini and alter it so that we can fly even closer to this moon and more often to investigate it further. That's something you could never do on a fly-by mission.

So now you know why I say, "I would love to see streaming video from every planet." I would love for us to have an orbiter or two or three on every planet, on all the interesting moons, and literally have this information come streaming in so we could have our finger on the pulse of the solar system.

ETFF: Concerns have been raised that Cassini was a project that was very high-risk in terms of what could have happened had there been an explosion at launch.

Porco: Cassini carried seventy-two pounds of plutonium dioxide. Now, plutonium is the heavier of the two atoms, so it was maybe fifty pounds of plutonium. Plutonium is a radioactive substance, which is why we carried it because the radioactivity turns into heat, and we can take that heat and turn it into electricity. But it was never a critical mass that could have gone nuclear reactive. The worst that could have happened during that launch was that this material could have been spread over the launch site and very, very tiny particles could then have made it into your lungs and never made it out. But the launch devices were designed to withstand the expected pressure and temperature overloads during a launch accident. So the risk factor was seriously overblown.

For the Titan IV, I think our success rate at that time was 96 percent, so that means 4 percent of the time you could have an accident but that doesn't mean you would get a dispersal of plutonium. It just would depend on the details of the explosion.

ETFF: So, in your mind, it is certainly worth the risk?

Porco: Oh, my goodness, yes. We have been doing this a long time, and we've gotten very good at it. But now, after fifty years of exploring our solar system, all the simple things have been done. And it's time to take on bigger challenges and ask the deeper questions that can only be answered by more ambitious missions to the planets and a long-lasting, international commitment. I can't think of anything more uplifting and empowering than a sustained scientific exploration of our cosmic neighborhood that is inclusive of all humankind.

by Arnell Dowret; produced by Barry F. Seidman

Arnell Dowret is the associate producer and a host of the radio program "Equal Time for Freethought." He is a freethought activist, writer, presenter, and facilitator of "Secular Connections," a workshop for freethinkers. His writing can be found at

Barry F. Seidman is the executive producer of "Equal Time for Freethought" ( and formerly worked at the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry. He has written for numerous publications, including Free Inquiry, Philosophy Now, the New Humanist,, and Skeptical Inquirer, and is coeditor of the anthology, Toward a New Political Humanism.
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Author:Dowret, Arnell
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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