Longform

Starry Fight

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In 1983 Gonzalez graduated from high school and moved to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona. It was the first time he had ever left Florida. "Going away was a big deal," he says. "But the University of Miami didn't have an astronomy program, and Tucson is the astronomy capital of the world." Besides, U. of A. had offered a four-year full-tuition scholarship.

Gonzalez went on to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle. Then, in 1995, he traveled to Asia to do postdoctoral research at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore. There he had an encounter that lasted less than a minute but shaped the course of his career.

It began with a train trip to an impoverished village called Neem Ka Thana, in India's northern desert. The morning after his arrival, he and a team of other scientists set up their equipment in the grassy playground of a local school. It was a clear, crisp day. And just after 9:00 a.m., the sun began slinking behind the moon. For a moment its rays shimmered like a cut diamond. Then, for 51 seconds, it disappeared except for a glowing corona. The temperature dropped 21 degrees and distant planets blazed into view.

This was the first and only total solar eclipse Gonzalez had seen, and it dazzled him.

Afterward, he recalls, he began to consider that many of the same factors allowing intelligent life to flourish on Earth — among them the large size of our moon and our distance from the sun — also made these rare astronomical events possible. At the same time, he began thinking about the breakthroughs scientists had made by viewing eclipses — which include discovery of the element helium and confirmation of Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity. "You can call [all of this] a coincidence," he explains. "But I went further and said, 'Well, what if it's not a coincidence?'"

These musings would evolve into The Privileged Planet, the book that would land Gonzalez on the culture war's front lines.


The year after his India trip, Gonzalez heard about a conference that would bring together a fledgling coalition of scientists and academics who believed life bore the thumbprint of a Creator with a capital C. He decided to attend the event, called Mere Creation, at Biola University in Los Angeles in October 1996.

The gathering came at a key moment. A six-year-old Seattle-based organization called the Discovery Institute had just launched its Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture to support researchers and academics looking for evidence of Creation. And Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe had just published Darwin's Black Box, which introduced "irreducible complexity" — the notion that biological systems are too intricate to be the result of unguided evolution. Both developments helped lay the foundation for the movement that would become known as intelligent design.

Gonzalez left the event feeling as if he had found his niche.

While he once thought the universe was teeming with beings, he was beginning to think mankind might be alone in the cosmos. He also began to believe that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, called SETI by astronomers, was an effort to discredit biblical accounts of creation. "It is no secret that most SETI advocates are also anti-theists," he wrote in a letter to a Website for Christian academics. "Atheists strongly ... support SETI, because the discovery of other intelligent beings in the Milky Way would show once and for all that we are not special.... It is only a small step, then, to discredit the Judeo-Christian worldview."

Gonzalez went public with some of his ideas in a July 1997 op-ed he wrote for the Wall Street Journal. In it he argued that the evidence surfacing for life on Mars and Jupiter's moon Europa was flimsy, and the chances of ever finding life on other planets was exceedingly slim. The argument was pure science, except for the closing. It read: "We should not be asking: 'Are we alone?' We should instead be asking: 'Why are we here?'"

Gonzalez, who has published more than 60 peer-reviewed papers, had never before hinted at his belief that the universe might have been created for a purpose. He simply didn't think his fellow scientists would be receptive. "There's almost a complete censorship of that point of view," he says.

The Wall Street Journal editorial caught the eye of Jay Richards, vice president for research at the Discovery Institute. In 1999 Richards contacted Gonzalez, then a 35-year-old assistant professor at UW. Over lunch, Gonzalez told Richards his theory that our planet was designed not only to sustain intelligent life but also to foster scientific discovery. Richards encouraged him to apply for a grant from the John Templeton Foundation — which supports research on the intersection of faith and science — to develop the concept. Gonzalez did, and was awarded $58,000.

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Mariah Blake
Contact: Mariah Blake