Science, Science Fiction, and God: A Winter Conference for High School Students

Is It a Sin to Lie to Siri?
If We Discover Aliens, Should We Baptize Them?
Is Merlin a Scientist? Is Luke Skywalker a Saint?

On January 21st, the Newman Forum’s “Science, Science Fiction, and God” conference gathered hundreds of teens from all over Chicagoland to explore these questions and more. Meeting with experts in their fields, we discussed cutting-edge scientific knowledge, great works of sci-fi literature, and how the faith of the church enhances our pursuit of both.

For those interested in science, technology, or sci-fi, it was a chance to join the Newman Forum at the University of St. Mary of the Lake to explore how faith relates to discovery, innovation, and the scientific imagination. Highlights included:

  • A plenary lecture on “The Frankenstein Problem: Lessons from the Manhattan Project and the Creation of the Atom Bomb”
  • Multiple “Lightning Round” Talks from experts in their fields
  • “Office Hours” with professional researchers and scholars
  • A closing discussion of “The Science of Prayer” and Adoration

January 21, 2023

Where: The University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein Seminary

When: 10 am-3:30 pm

Cosponsored by the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein; the Vocation Office of the Archdiocese of Chicago; the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame; and the Society of Catholic Scientists.


9:00 am – 10:00 am: Registration
10 am – 10:45 am: Opening Prayer, Welcome, and Plenary Lecture
“The Frankenstein Problem: Lessons from the Manhattan Project and the Creation of the Atom Bomb” (Prof. James Nolan, Williams College)
10:45am – 10:55 am: Break
10:55 am – 11:25 am: Lightning Round Talks #1
11:30 am – 12:30 pm: Lunch (lunch is provided for all participants at USML dining hall)
12:45 pm – 1:15 pm: Lightning Round Talks #2 
1:15 pm – 1:30 pm: Break
1:30 pm – 2:00 pm: Lightning Round Talks #3
2:00 pm – 2:15 pm: Break
2:15 pm – 2:50 pm: Office Hours
3:00 pm – 3:30 pm: Adoration
“The Science of Prayer” (Fr. John Kartje, University of St. Mary of the Lake)
3:30 pm: Closing Remarks and Prayer

Lightning Round Talks*:

Students had the opportunity to choose from a number of mini-lectures each round, whichever sparked their interest most. Topics included:

Seeds of Life: Creation, Evolution and the Bible (Christopher Baglow, Director of the Science and Religion Initiative, McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame): In this lightning round presentation, Prof. Baglow will introduce the audience to the biblical account of creation through the eyes of St. Augustine. He will show that a natural origin for living things is completely compatible with the First Creation Account when we see it through the eyes of this ingenious theologian and saint.

Time Travel: What Does Science Say? (Stephen Barr, Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy, University of Delaware): Is time travel theoretically possible? This talk will explain the science of time travel, including space-time “wormholes,” in an easy-to-understand way – and what this has to do with free will.

Speed vs. Spirit: C.S. Lewis’s Unlikely Heroes in “That Hideous Strength” (Jason Baxter, Author and Visiting Associate Professor, University of Notre Dame): In this talk, I describe Lewis’s unlikely heroes who save the world: a band of college professors of medieval literature! Why did he choose a bunch of scholars of Arthurian literature as the only human beings who could fight off the evil, international forces of science and technology? Asking such a question, perhaps surprisingly, helps us get close to the heart of Lewis’s concerns about the modern world.

Reality, Virtual Reality, and Catholic Reality (Michael Burns, Assistant Professor of Biology and Joseph Vukov, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Loyola University Chicago): This presentation explores the Catholic perspective on virtual reality. According to the Catholic view, reality is material and sacramental, so a virtual world can never replicate the real thing. Catholics, however, may still have positive things to say about the creation and exploration of virtual worlds. The presentation, moreover, explores virtual reality using virtual reality—the presenters will be using VR goggles and “live casting” a part of their presentation.

What Would We Do If We Discovered Intelligent Extraterrestrial Life? (Timothy Dolch, Associate Professor of Physics, Hillsdale College): What data about extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) might a future Catholic theologian work with? I will give an overview of where the search for ETI stands. Our reaction would depend on whether the detected signal is intentional or not, whether it repeats, and whether it is heavily information-bearing or not.

Scrupulosity: Mental Illness Meets Religion (Halley Haruta, Program on Medicine and Religion Research Fellow, University of Chicago): Scrupulosity, also called religious or moral obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), involves unwanted and anxiety-producing thoughts (called obsessions) about religion or morality, followed by actions or thoughts (called compulsions) aimed at reducing the distress. In this talk, I provide an overview of what psychologists know about this disorder, as well as the challenges that arise when religion enters the therapist’s office. Finally, I explore the benefits of collaboration between clergy and clinicians in the treatment of scrupulosity.

Heroes, Saints, and Star Wars (Russell Johnson; Assistant Director, Undergraduate Religious Studies Program; University of Chicago): Due in part to the success of the Star Wars movies, the “hero’s journey” has become a template for Hollywood sci-fi and fantasy movies. Though filmmaker George Lucas said he tried to “distill the essence of the world’s religions” to create Star Wars, the heroes depicted in it have only a partial resemblance to the stories Christians tell about saints. This presentation explores what it means to be a hero in contemporary cinema, and how the lives of saints tell a different story.

Christ-Centered Living to Prioritize Conservation in a Throw-Away Society (Christie Klimas, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science & Studies): In this talk, I connect some of our daily actions (like talking on a cellphone or putting on a necklace) to deforestation and mercury pollution in the Amazon. To be in right relationship with others requires radical honesty in assessing our purchases. From clothing to technology, understanding who made what we are purchasing is a step toward right relationship with others and can help in conservation efforts.

Mars Attacks! H.G. Wells and the Signature of Apocalypse (Jay Martin, Assistant Teaching Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame): Why do human beings seem to love to narrate our future demise in fiction, film, art, and even our religious texts? Why is it so easy for us to imagine a future full of violence, suffering, and death, and why are we so good at creating those stories and works of art? In this talk, I will look to H.G. Wells’s classic science fiction novel The War of the Worlds in tandem with the very real panic that resulted from a 1938 radio broadcast of Orson Welles’s live reading of the novel that listeners mistook for an actual news report in the hopes of exploring the theological significance of this apparently universal human tendency to imagine, describe, and stipulate the terms of our own cataclysmic demise.

Vanity and Virtue: Frankenstein, the Practice of Reading, and New Media Ecologies (Michael Murphy, Director, Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage): In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus defiance to God, while certainly in play, is not Frankenstein’s dominant motive. His quest stems primarily from vanity—from a desire to be famous as one who “aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” This presentation will focus on Frankenstein’s lack of virtue, and how Shelley emplots Frankenstein’s increasing arrogance, egotism and inhumanity—exposes his vanity—in the novel. Additional attention will be paid to how virtue relates to habits of reading and media engagement— how we are what we “eat”—both in the novel and in contemporary life. 

Mass Extinctions and Natural Evil (Peter Tierney, Science & Religion Coordinator, Lumen Christi Institute): 65 million years ago, a large asteroid crashed into Earth, contributing to a global extinction of life on this planet and ending the “Age of the Dinosaurs”. This was neither the first nor largest extinction our Earth has witnessed. What role does mass extinction play in the history of life on this planet, and how do we reconcile the idea of recurring, global cataclysm within a Creation that is good and loved by God?

Persons Divine, Created, and Artificial: On Living Humanely with Sociable AI (Jordan Wales, Associate Professor of Theology, Hillsdale College): In the near future, we may be able to purchase the services of artificially intelligent apps—and perhaps androids—that behave persuasively as if they were real persons. Would we treat them as slaves? Or as tools? I consider three questions: How would they work; what would they actually be; and how must we live among them so as to remain fully human ourselves?

*Subject to change

Office Hours:

Normally, only college students get to engage directly with leading researchers, but we brought this unique opportunity to high school students! Attendees had an opportunity to meet Catholic scientists and scholars one-on-one and ask them about their fields of study, career paths, the big unsolved questions in science and ethics, being a Catholic researcher, and anything else they were curious about. Those present were a varied group: young and old; male and female; experimenters and theorists; and in many areas of research. Students interested in STEM subjects or the arts and teachers interested in renewing their own understanding could discuss high-impact topics including: genetics, physics, biology, ethics, literature, and much more.


Click on Speakers to Learn More!

James Nolan Fr. John Kartje Christopher Baglow
Stephen BarrJason BaxterMichael Burns
Timothy DolchHalley HarutaRussell Johnson
Christie KlimasJay MartinMichael Murphy
Peter TierneyJoseph VukovJordan Wales
Attendance is FREE but advanced registration is required.

This event was intended for high school students, parents, and teachers. All others should inquire below for more information.

Questions, comments, or concerns can be directed to Austin Walker, Director of the Newman Forum (

And if you liked this event, and want to know more about how to answer questions about faith and science when your classmates ask, check out…

Apologetics Club

a | polo | getics (noun): “reasoned arguments or writings in justification of something, typically a theory or religious doctrine.”…

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