AAS 201st Meeting, January, 2003
Session 29. HAD II: History of IDEAS on Extraterrestrial Life
Special, Monday, January 6, 2003, 10:00-11:30am, 612

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[29.02] Harlow Shapley's Biological Universe: Cosmic Evolution and its Uses

J. Palmeri (Norman, OK)

Harlow Shapley was an astronomer with a lifelong interest in biological questions. An early fascination with ants acquired at Mount Wilson became a continuing avocation. During his years in California, Shapley made frequent trips to La Jolla biological station and interacted with prominent biologists. At Harvard in the 1920s Shapley initiated a series of interdisciplinary seminars, one of which was on “The Origin of Life.” At this time he also displayed an interest in the question of life in the universe. In response to an inquiry from Charles Abbot of the Smithsonian, Shapley identified “life in the universe” as one of the most important scientific questions of the day.

Shapley’s continuing interest in these questions found expression in his many popularizations - articles, books, lectures, and other media. (A decade before Sagan’s memorable appearances on the Johnny Carson show, Shapley was engaging in his own dialogue with the American public on life in the universe, through Tonight Show host Jack Paar).

Evolution was the idea that underlay Shapley’s discussions of these biological themes and the vehicle through which he popularized science as well as his own vision of the wider significance of science for humanity. As an astronomer with a profound interest in biological subjects, Shapley was uniquely positioned to popularize cosmic evolution, and to use this theme to promote his belief that science could serve as a kind of “stellar theology.”

Shapley’s case illustrates how cosmic evolution, like biological evolution, has served as more than a scientific account of nature; it has become an idea invested with moral and cultural significance. Shapley’s promotion of cosmic evolution throughout the 1950s and 1960s can be understood against the backdrop of developments in the sciences as well as the historical and personal factors that shaped his career as a spokesman for science.

This research was supported by grants from the American Institute of Physics and the National Science Foundation.

The author(s) of this abstract have provided an email address for comments about the abstract: palmerij@ou.edu

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