Modernity meets history. A Kurdish girl in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq wears traditional clothes while peeking out from a sunroof. (photo: Ahmed Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
On this first day of spring, Persian families around the world are greeting each other with “Sal-e No Mobarak!” and “Happy New Year!” in celebration of the holiday of Nowruz, a day of beginnings. Translated as "new day," the solar-based holiday marks the first day of the first year of the Bahá’í calendar and the falls on the vernal equinox.
"Everyone lines up, and, one by one, each person jumps over the piles and sings, 'zardi-ye-man az to, sorkhi-ye to az man,' the special song means ‘my yellowness is yours, your redness is mine.’ Iranians believe, people give pain and negativities to the fire, and receive the warmth, the health and strength from the fire.”
Iranians shop for Nowruz at a market in Tehran. (photo: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)
The traditional haft-seen table is an important part of Nowruz celebrations. Iranians prepare these settings in their homes by gathering seven items that start with the letter “s,” which have positive meanings: the spice sumac for sunrise, seeb (apples) for beauty, and sir (garlic) for health, among others.
Haft-seen: a traditional table setting of Nowruz, present in many homes. (photo: Jean-Philippe Daigle/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
An Egyptian Christian Copt holds a portrait of late Pope Shenouda III as mourners wait in a queue to enter Saint Mark’s Coptic Cathedral. (photo: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images)
From St. Mark’s Cathedral in the el-Abbassiya district of Cairo, thousands of mourners are paying their last respects to Pope Shenouda III, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. He died on Saturday at the age of 88. Ahram Online is live-blogging from the site.
On February 9, we live-tweeted highlights of his interview with Krista Tippett and have aggregated them below for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets.
For those not familiar with Kevin Kling, he is a prolific writer, performer, and a nationally recognized artist. He may be best known for his storytelling and commentaries at National Public Radio. With humanity and wit, Kling describes life growing up in the Midwest with his congenital birth defect, and how he’s been changed after surviving a near-fatal motorcycle accident.
On Jealousy, Transparency, and Lies: John Moe on Mike Daisey and the This American Life Retraction
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Yesterday Ira Glass sent an email revealing that This American Life's report on Apple's manufacturing supplier in China "contained significant fabrications." Mike Daisey’s story and TAL’s decisions to go to air and later retract the show have sparked a lot of discussion in journalism and public radio circles.
There’s a lot of praising, challenging, and questioning going on. Frankly, much of it feels like punditry and harmless posturing. But, this Saturday afternoon a stream of tweets by Marketplace's John Moe put a human face on this story and some of the underlying ethical issues at stake.
(I’ve kept the format in order to preserve, hopefully, the rhythm of Moe’s thoughts.)
Turning the Gifts of Our Experiences Into Story and Laughter
by Krista Tippett, host
Full disclosure: until I moved to Minnesota, I didn’t get the Midwestern accent/humor thing thing that the movie Fargo so iconically captured. But I remember hearing Kevin Kling on NPR and staying with him despite myself, always being touched as well as amused at where his stories took me.
Having only heard him on the radio, I wasn’t aware of the disability he was born with — his left arm much shorter than his right, with no wrist and no thumb. Then, about ten years ago, he was in a catastrophic motorcycle crash. The Associated Press and the local newspapers in Minneapolis and St. Paul reported the accident. Eyewitnesses thought he had died. The accident had paralyzed his healthy right arm, the one which had always done the bulk of the work.
Reading his stories from and about his childhood — they are legion — it is clear that Kevin Kling was always a natural humorist. And life has also made him wise.
Our losses make us human, he’s learned. They give us our richness and our wisdom. But wisdom doesn’t come cheap; it costs us. This is one of the endless things he says that makes you think hard just before or after he makes you smile.
We get the whole package of Kevin Kling in this conversation: funny guy, poet, wise man. As deeply down to earth as he is — in life as on stage — he also has an innate love of literature and philosophy, weaving Shakespeare and Dante into his stories as easily as Goofus and Gallant.
He describes himself as touched by Dante’s underworld. It’s a reality he feels he landed in, and wrested himself back from, after his accident. He also plays with Dante’s language about the underworld as he considers his very being and presence in the world. Dis, he says, is “the place of shadow and reflection where you round off the rough edges of torment and desire. You go to this world of Dis. And it’s the prefix for ‘disability,’ which doesn’t mean ‘unability.’ It means able through the world of shadow and reflection. And so it’s just another way of doing things… it is literally having a foot in two worlds.” This is how Kevin Kling experiences the “dis” in the disability he was born with, as well as the one he acquired in midlife.
And being able-bodied, he helpfully points out, is always only a temporary condition.
Sit back, relax, and prepare to reflect and to laugh. It’s a rare, lovely gift of Kevin Kling to make us do both. He helps us remember what he knows so well — that our sense of self and our sense of humor are great gifts in facing whatever life throws at us. Once we turn our experiences into stories and laughter, they no longer control us. The challenge is in not merely resting with the stories that help us sleep at night, but claiming the stories we want to grow into.
Archbishop Williams’ successor will take on some challenging issues as the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion of 77 million faces internal struggles and debates about the ordination of gay clergy and shrinking attendance. But the Church needs to choose the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury first. How is a successor chosen and who chooses?
"The responsibility for choosing the next Archbishop of Canterbury rests with the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC). Its task is to submit the name of a preferred candidate (and a second appointable candidate) to the Prime Minster who is constitutionally responsible for tendering advice on the appointment to the Queen.
Once the Queen has approved the chosen candidate and he has indicated a willingness to serve, 10 Downing St will announce the name of the Archbishop-designate.
The College of Canons of Canterbury Cathedral formally elect the new Archbishop of Canterbury.
The election is confirmed by a commission of diocesan bishops in a legal ceremony (the Confirmation of Election), which confers the office of Archbishop on him.
The new Archbishop is formally enthroned in Canterbury Cathedral.”
(l-r): Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905), and Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935)
On February 15, 2012, Abdulkarim Soroush, a visiting professor at The University of Chicago, delivered a thoughtful and enlightening talk about revival and reform in Islam. Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar writes in The New York Times, “Soroush has been described as a Muslim Luther, but unlike the Protestant reformer, he is no literalist about holy books.” Robin Wright, a journalist who writes frequently about the Middle East, also describes him as "the Martin Luther of Islam," however she acknowledges that Soroush himself prefers to avoid comparison with Luther.
In the beginning of his talk, Dr. Soroush argued that Islam has not undergone a reformation similar to that of Protestantism. This contention is certainly debatable since a number of Muslim reformers cited the need to reform Islam as Christianity was reformed. Even Muhammad Iqbal, one of the Muslim reformers whose projects were discussed by Dr. Soroush, identified Protestant elements in Islamic reform: “We are today passing through a period similar to that of the Protestant revolution in Europe, and the lesson which the rise and outcome of Luther’s movement teaches should not be lost on us.”
Many scholars discuss how the idea of “Muslim Luther” or “Islamic Protestantism” emerges in the discourses of Muslim reformers, especially the Shi’i circle. Charles Kurzman and Michaelle Browers explore the historical usage of the Islamic-Protestant reformation analogy. Sukidi specifically traces the traveling idea of Islamic Protestantism to what he calls “Iranian Luthers,” namely, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Ali Shari’ati and Hashem Aghajari. This characterization is, of course, not without problems. Muslim reformers might follow patterns of religious reform similar to those of Christian reformers, yet they certainly found their own ways of dealing with their tradition. However, the analogy is not invalid, given that these Muslim reformers themselves expressed their admiration for Luther and other Christian reformers. Afghani, for instance, strongly believed that Islam needs a Luther and he might have seen himself as that Luther.
The Egyptian Muhammad ‘Abduh's admiration for Protestant reformation is often overlooked by scholars. Undoubtedly, 'Abduh is the most influential Sunni scholar whose ideas of Islamic reform reached far beyond the theological divide and the Arab world. In his magnum opus, Risalat al-tawhid, ‘Abduh argues that Christian reformation included “elements by no means unlike Islam.” It would surprise no one that ‘Abduh was so impressed by the way Christian reformers strove to break the entail of obscurantism, curb the authority of religious leaders, and keep them from exceeding the precept of religion. “They discovered,” ‘Abduh writes, “that liberty of thought and breadth of knowledge were means to faith and not its foe.”
It is worthwhile that, unlike other Muslim reformers, ‘Abduh brings the discussion deeper into theological issues. “The reforming groups in the West,” he says, “brought their doctrines to a point closely in line with the dogma of Islam, with the exception of belief in the prophetic mission of Muhammad. Their religion was in all but name the religion of Muhammad; it differed only in the form of worship, not in the meaning or anything else.”
Perhaps, it was his disciple, Rashid Rida, who pushed this idea further to argue that belief in the prophethood of Muhammad is not a sine qua non for salvation. Commenting on Qur’an 2:62, he rejects the idea that this verse implicitly stipulates belief in Muhammad. In his own words: “… there is no problem for not stipulating belief in the Prophet because the verse deals with God’s treatment of each people and community who believe in a Prophet and a revelation particular to them. Their salvation (fawzuha) is certain whether they were Muslims, Jews, Christians, or Sabeans. God declares that salvation lies not in religious allegiance (al-jinsiyya al-diniyya) but in true belief which has control over self and in good deed.”
Elsewhere, Rida emphasizes the need to combine “religious renewal and earthly renewal, the same way Europe has done with religious reformation and modernization.” Rida’s attitude toward other religions is more complex than is sometimes supposed and is beyond the scope of this article.
It is interesting that Muslim reformers like ‘Abduh and Rida have no qualms dealing with the theological aspects of the nature of Christian reformation. While some Muslims might truly believe that Islam faces challenges similar to those faced by Christianity in Europe, ‘Abduh simply asserts that “Many scholars in Western countries confess that Islam has been the greatest of their mentors in attaining their present position.” Christian reformation is not alien to Muslim reformers, but one may still wonder why Muslim reformers envision their projects in light of Protestant reformation.
Mun’im Sirry is a PhD candidate in Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is currently a Martin Marty Center Junior Fellow and a Harper Dissertation Fellow. His dissertation is entitled Reformist Muslim Approaches to the Polemics of the Qur’an against Other Religions.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Kids are now able to go to school because of available transportation. (Photo courtesy of Philippine Funds for Little Kids)
On January 20, 2012, I was invited to speak at TEDxMontpellier in southern France. There, I shared my experience in using social media to bring about social change in the Philippines — particularly about my experience in building up the Philippine Funds for Little Kids (or as it is popularly known, the Yellow Boat Project).
It’s been an exciting journey for us over the last 16 months since I first found out about the story of the kids who have to swim just to be able to get to school in the mangrove village of Layag-Layag in Zamboanga City. We gave the first yellow boat last March, and we have since expanded into three communities, namely Layag-Layag, Bgy Talon-Talon, Zamboanga City; Isla Mababoy, Bgy Guinhadap, Monreal, Masbate; and Lakewood, Zamboanga del Sur.
We’ve also given three big motorized yellow boats and 120 smaller yellow boats to these communities.
Journey of Learning
It was not a journey without failures and mistakes. We learned a lot during the last year, especially about the real essence of volunteerism and about the challenges our country faces in education. But we continue to face these challenges. The Yellow Boat Project became more than just a dream to help these kids get to school safe and dry; it’s become a national movement dedicated to helping communities become empowered agents of economic and social change.
When we were in the first months of the project, I wrote about how we are harnessing Filipino “people power” online and about how the project is leveraging the power of Facebook, social media, and volunteers from all across the nation and even the globe. We have volunteers in the United States who continue to raise funds for our projects, we have partners in the business community who continue to support us, and we have so many volunteers on the ground who mentor and shape decisions together with the three communities we are currently helping.
Early on, I emphasized the importance of using “people power” and volunteerism not just during elections but also during the governing period, when it is most important. And that is what we are trying to do.
Symbol of Hope
At TEDxMontpellier, I also shared the four key lessons I learned from the project, and, fortunately, they are easy to remember: HOPE. And it’s precisely because the Yellow Boat Project has become a symbol of hope.
H is about harnessing one’s potential. It is about finding your passion in life. I personally feel, even after 15 months into the project, that I have found my life’s mission and it is to help children who struggle to go to school.
And more than that, it is to help bring communities in the Philippines the resources they need to get a better chance in life. Without discovering what you are passionate about in life, it is very hard to stay focused on a mission, on a project. You’ve got to find what you love to do.
O is about opening one’s mind and one’s heart. When I first heard about the story, I couldn’t shake it off. I didn’t know what to do then. I shared it on Facebook, not thinking that it would transform into a thriving national movement helping children in three communities around the Philippines.
P is about perspiration. You cannot help people without getting both your hands and your feet dirty. When we want to help people, we should act on it. Only in doing so can we gain insights into how our efforts and operations can be made better. Perspiration is very good for the body and the soul too, as it cleanses our system. Personally, I have become thinner as a result of my involvement in the project.
E is about empowering others. And this is for me, where the challenge really lies, even when you think of our national leadership. In order to succeed sustainably, we must equip and empower more leaders to take on the challenges in education and the other challenges our country is facing.
In the Yellow Boat Project, we continually seek out community leaders who can help us manage things. We are also now looking at sustainable models of social entrepreneurship so that the families we are helping can earn more income and become fully empowered citizens.
I used to have a vague idea of what hope is. It’s now very clear to me. Hope is actionable. Hope is not just a symbol, it is an idea waiting to be executed and shared. So please come and jump on board our Yellow Boat (Project) and together let’s make it a better world for children!
Jay Jaboneta is cofounder and chief storyteller of the Philippine Funds for Little Kids, more popularly known as the Yellow Boat Project. He is also a regular speaker on social media, digital technology, and youth leadership. You can read his blog at Social Media for Social Change.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through ourFirst Person Outreach page.
A Star to Watch During March Madness Who Models the Love of Family and Basketball
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
With March Madness upon us, stories of high-flying success and triumph through teamwork will abound for men’s basketball. But the women’s game, and its players too, often get overlooked. Leave it to Frank Deford to fill that gap with this NPR commentary about Elena Delle Donne, one of the NCAA’s premiere players.
After two days, Delle Donne left the country’s top women’s program at the University of Connecticut to return home to Delaware. The reason? She missed what was most important to her: her family, namely her sister Lizzie who was born without sight and without hearing and has cerebral palsy. But, as Deford points out, ”…for Elena, it was not a matter of leaving anywhere. No, it was only a matter of wanting to be somewhere, with someone where she thought she was more valuable, where she mattered more in life and love.”
These are the stories that swell people’s hearts. Not because of the pain, but because many of us have faced a scenario in some ways similar to Elena Delle Donne’s. We’ve all had to make choices that take us away from our home or the ones we love, whether for work or military service or schooling. The 6’5” All-American did what we aspire to do — to prioritize what’s most important to us and succeed while doing what’s right.
There is no formula for our shows, no template. Each begins with the raw material of a conversation, and we shape its pace and sound and elements around that. I think great radio emerges when the whole feel of the experience seems at one with the words being spoken, taking the listener more deeply into the passion and intent of the voice being heard. Creating our show around the life and words of Rumi has felt a little like having magic to work with.
I take away many gems of idea and image from my conversation with one of Rumi’s delightful 21st-century interpreters and successors, Fatemeh Keshavarz. Rumi saw human life and love as the closest we come to tasting and touching transcendence, and he approached all experience with his whole mind, heart, and body.
Fatemeh Keshavarz describes Rumi’s “whirling” around a column as he recited poetry — a habit that inspired the Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Sufi Order — as a way to “stay centered while moving.” He believed that, as searching and restlessness propel us to keep learning, plowing the ground beneath our feet, they are themselves a form of arrival. In Rumi’s way of seeing life, perplexity is a blessed state, sometimes a necessary state. This idea has special resonance, perhaps, in the 21st century when so many basic definitions and institutions of previous generations seem to be up for grabs.
But Rumi’s recent “discovery” in the West also holds no little irony. I found this best expressed in my research by a British journalist, William Dalrymple:
"It seems almost unbelievable in the world of 9/11, Bin Laden and the Clash of Civilizations, but the best-selling poet in the U.S. in the 1990s was not Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, nor Shakespeare or Dante. … Instead, remarkably it was a classically trained Muslim cleric who taught Sharia law in a madrasa in what is now Turkey."
Yet as Rumi has been translated and popularized in the modern West, the religious sensibility behind his beautiful, best-selling words has often been lost.
Fatemeh Keshavarz is adamant on this point: Rumi was steeped in Islam. He represents and speaks to “an adventurous and cosmopolitan Islam.” The generous, cross-cultural appeal of his words reflects ideas at the core of Islam that are muted by the extremists and headlines of our time. To the extent that Rumi would deny or subvert those, he does so through his grounding in Islamic tradition, and his profound love for it.
Fatemeh Keshavarz, who was born in Iran — the center of the vast civilization that spawned Rumi and where he remains to this day a household name — takes special solace in Rumi’s insistence that we can create worlds and possibilities by way of language itself.
Where that part of the world is now concerned, Fatemeh Keshavarz says, U.S. political culture has adopted a language of fear. Rumi champions and models a language of hope. This is not tepid and naive but full-blooded view of human reality, fully aware of the double-edged sword of the passions and pulls of real human experience. In this, Rumi speaks to those of us on both sides of a real or imagined “clash of civilizations.”
As we conclude this show, I hear Rumi as a perfect voice for the spiritual longing and energy of our time. With his vigorous and challenging language of the heart, he reminds us that we need poetry as much as we need science, alongside our politics and within our diplomacy. We need passionate searching words, not just logical decisive words, to tell the whole truth about what it means to be human, and about the past, present, and future of our world.
Here is one passage of many I’ve seen quoted of Rumi, which I’ll now hear with new layers of relevance:
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.
My last two years in Brooklyn I felt fortunate to have the view I did. My windows faced east, and, although the blank wall of another building loomed large directly in front, to the right grew a luscious tree and above was an unobstructed view of sky. I often woke at dawn and would stand on the fire escape and soak in the morning, while it still felt clear and clean.
Over the five years I lived in “the city” I learned to train my eyes away from a lot of what was around me: trash exploded from vandalized garbage bags; the grey on brown on dingy grey of sidewalk, street, and dirty buildings; tawdry advertisements; glaring lights. Instead I’d glue my gaze on any scrap of nature available: a leaf splattered on the curb; weeds flourishing in an empty lot; wheeling pigeons, making the sky sparkle with their sunlit wings. By the end of my five years in NYC I felt I struggled endlessly to find enough beauty that I might endure the ugly. “This is absurd,” I thought. “Clearly the city is the wrong environment for me.”
In January of this year I had the opportunity to move out and, with great relief, I did.
Now I live in the woods. There are no other houses in sight. I am on 40 acres, embraced in a bear hug of state land. When I look out my window, I see only beauty: layers of hemlock, bright clusters of beech leaves, spindly maples with slender branches that shatter the sky.
Whether it’s a sun-soaked day that impels me to shut my computer and go out for a walk (or at least to do something useful, like fill the wood box) or an overcast one with a moody sky and pinches of sleet, I see that there is always a perfect harmony in the colors and textures around me. In the woods I am humbled — in that way that’s also elating — with the reminder of all the living and dying and churning forth of ephemeral beauty that is happening around me all the time, whether I am paying attention or not.
Living in such an environment induces a certain shrinking down to size, and a correlating peace with one’s place in this world. Red squirrels and red maples do not seem to fret over the “good enough-ness” of their lives, and it starts to feel a bit out of line to do so myself. I see their perfection — the kind that is inherent rather than measurable — and find it easier to see that same quality in myself as well, ongoing toils notwithstanding.
But of course, I could have felt this in the city. Strictly speaking, the city is no less a natural environment than the one up here. It too evolved from the tumble of cause and effect of living things trying to survive. It is certainly no less vibrant an ecosystem. True, in an urban landscape the parameters of opportunity and constraint are mostly man-made, but they yield an abundance of variety equivalent to that in a woodland environment. There’s differentiation, specialization, and the endless burgeoning of micro-complexity within the larger landscape.
Indeed, there was a time when the city inspired in me similar feelings as the woods do now. I moved there at a time in my life of greedy growth, too hungry for the tidy flower box of a town I lived in. New York City had the appeal of wilderness — an expanse of unknown, potential, and gritty reality.
To love the city is to feel a great compassion for the swarms of other people around you. All those lives, all that urgent self preservation, the palpable vulnerability and ferocity. The beauty of it can break your heart.
“A man never discloses his own character so clearly as when he describes that of another,” an insightful person is said to have said. This observation is true. And it also applies to our descriptions of the world around us. What we see in the landscape outside the window is, truly, a window onto the landscape inside.
New York City lost its beauty not because it changed (if anything it has become thrillingly greener in the years since I moved there, what with the urban agriculture movement, the roof top farms, and so on) but because I lost my ability to see it. My dissatisfaction with the city increased in direct correlation with my dissatisfaction with my life and dissatisfaction with myself for failing to improve that life. The fewer hopes and ambitions I managed to fulfill, the fewer opportunities the city seemed to provide for peace, contentment, and happiness. I condemned it as a place of harsh judgment and didn’t notice that I was the harshest judge.
I moved to the woods to gain a reprieve from the city, but what I really gained is a reprieve from myself. Of course, the change of view outside my window is very real, and one I appreciate intensely, but I know the significant change is actually in my point of view. Bickering at the corner deli used to make me groan, but squabbles of the same order at the birdfeeder make me giggle. I wince at lurid colors in plastic, but delight in the same hues when discovered in lichen. Although I’m a bit of an oddity in the small town I now call home, I feel thoroughly comfortable, as I never managed to feel when in the midst of thousands of peers.
I know there have been times in my life when I could not have appreciated this environment as I do now. And who knows, perhaps I’ll be ill content again someday. But I hope I do not forget that beauty is not a quality to seek, only to see.
Sarah Jean Heart is a writer, editor, and reporter living in Boonville, New York. You can read more of her writing and view more of her photography at The Perspective Project.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication for the On Being Blog. Submit your entry and contribute a deeper understanding of the world around us.
IN YOUR DALAI LAMA SHOW--"PHOTOS OF BUDDHIST FACES IN SILENCE" IS NO LONGER AVAILABLE. ANY WAY TO VIEW THESE PHOTOS?
Thanks for letting us know about the now-defunct version of the YouTube video we had embedded in the post you mention. Fortunately, the gods that be do not disappoint. Here’s the full version of the second part of Arnaud Desjardins’ classic film Le Message des Thibetains (head to the 50:05 mark if you want to see the series of portraits referenced by Matthieu Ricard):
I interviewed James Gates once before, a few years ago, when we were creating our show on Einstein’s ethics. We talked then about Einstein’s little-remembered passion for racial equality. James Gates spent part of his childhood in segregated schools — experiences he does not take for granted now that he is a preeminent, African-American physicist. But what I was so taken by in that conversation years ago was how he explained Einstein’s social activism in terms of the values and virtues of scientific pursuit. He spoke of empathy as a potential byproduct of the process of discovery. A scientist’s “What if…” questions can evolve into human “What if…” questions.
James Gates’ capacity to share both from his humanity and his life in science strikes me again, and comes through even more forcefully during our more recent conversation in “Uncovering the Codes for Reality.” This time, I spoke with him about his particular passions. He is a string theorist, with a special emphasis on supersymmetry — a quality in the universe which, if demonstrated, might help support string theory as a way to reconcile the greatest puzzle modern physics has tried to solve since Einstein. Simply put, the universe seems to follow different rules at the highest and the smallest levels of reality. String theory imagines that deeper than atoms, deeper than electrons, behind quarks, all of reality is brought into being by filaments of energy. These “strings” might span the whole of reality, and possibly explain why gravity behaves so differently from varying vantage points. Some leading string theorists posit that there are at least eleven dimensions — far more than the three or four dimensions we are equipped to experience.
That is about how far I comprehend the idea behind string theory. The lovely thing about a conversation with James Gates is that my incomprehension does not matter. He gives me much to chew on, and be enriched by.
For starters, he is just the latest voice — others include the astrophysicist Mario Livio, and the astronomers Guy Consolmagno and George Coyne — to let me in to the secrets and power of science’s language of mathematics. He calls mathematics a kind of sixth sense — an organ of “extrasensory perception” — for scientists. By way of mathematics, scientists perceived and described the atom years before microscopes sophisticated enough to view them could be invented. Now, with mathematics, he and his colleagues are tracing clues and cosmic hints that may never be provable with our five senses — but that may shift our very sense of the nature of reality.
One of the things James Gates and some of his colleagues have “seen,” for example, are underlying codes embedded in the cosmos — error-correcting codes, like those that drive computer programs. (Full disclosure: he’s a fan of The Matrix — so am I — and we hear a little bit of that iconic movie in our one-hour podcast.) This is just one of many observations he makes that raises questions, he says, that physics alone can neither answer nor probe.
He is also working on an interesting frontier of expanding science’s own imagination about mathematical equations in describing reality. He and his colleagues have recently employed something called adinkras, visual symbols that may be able to unlock truths that equations alone cannot capture, just as there are truths that only poetry can convey.
There’s also a lot of fodder for one of my fascinations with the realm of science — the creative, playful, even spiritual act of naming things, especially in physics: beauty quarks and anti-beauty quarks, sizzling black holes, and superstrings, for example. The term adinkras, which comes from West Africa tradition and connotes pictures having hidden meaning, carries on this tradition.
James Gates’ own delight is infectious and illuminating, as much when he is letting us in on mysteries of the cosmos as when he shares the human lessons of his life in science. I’ll leave you with this, for example, as an enticement. When I asked him what he thought of Einstein’s statement that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” he said he had puzzled over this for many years:
"For a long time in my life, imagination was the world of play. It was reading about astronauts, and monsters, and traveling in galaxies, all of that kind of stuff, invaders from outer space on earth. That was all in the world of the imagination. On the other hand, reality is all about us. And it’s constraining, and it can be painful. But the knowledge we gain is critical for our species to survive.
So how could it be that play is more important than knowledge? It took me years to figure out an answer. And the answer turns out [to be] rather strange… Imagination is more important than knowledge because imagination turns out to be the vehicle by which we increase knowledge. And so, if you don’t have imagination, you’re not going to get more knowledgeable.”
You know, at one time I worked for the World Council of Churches and we were based in London. I came from Africa. There was someone from Taiwan. There was someone from Malaysia, someone from the States, and then someone from Latin America, and he introduced me to Latin American liberation theology. And I came to visit for the first time in the United States and here encountered black theology. So all of that was a very significant part of what helped to open my eyes. Mercifully, there isn’t anything like the so-called self-made person.
I mean, they are people who helped to form me. And then discovering that the Bible could be such dynamite. I subsequently used to say if these white people had intended keeping us under they shouldn’t have given us the Bible. Because, whoa, I mean, it’s almost as if it is written specifically just for your situation. I mean, the many parts of it that were so germane, so utterly to the point for us…
When you discover that apartheid sought to mislead people into believing that what gave value to human beings was a biological irrelevance, really, skin color or ethnicity, and you saw how the scriptures say it is because we are created in the image of God, that each one of us is a God-carrier. No matter what our circumstances may be, no matter how awful, no matter how deprived you could be, it doesn’t take away from you this intrinsic worth. One saw just how significant it was.
Recently there was news story about a new technique being used in photograpy; the new method allows a digital picture to be taken. Later it can be downloaded on the computer and focused on different points. The name of the process starts with the letter "N". Can you tell me the name of this new process?
Good morning, Anon—
Although this is definitely not our area of expertise (we do news through the lens of theology, human experience, and storytelling), I actually know what you’re asking about. The technology is called plenoptic, or light field, photography. Joshua Topolsky describes it this way in his review of the Lytro camera for The Washington Post:
"When normal cameras take a photo, they measure the color and light coming through the lens to produce an image. The Lytro camera not only sees color and light but can understand the direction the light moves in while snapping a photo.
Instead of simply grabbing one point of the light in a scene, Lytro analyzes all the points of light and then converts them to data. Once the image is stored, it can be processed and reprocessed after the photo is taken.
What does this mean, exactly?
Basically, it means that you’re able to take a photo and then refocus the subject in it after the fact. It means that if you take a picture of a friend in the foreground and there’s something exciting happening down the street, you can use Lytro’s custom software to refocus on the background, or almost anything else in the scene that you captured. It’s hard to explain, but it’s amazing.”
You can see how this works and play around with images on Lytro’s photo gallery. Check out these examples in which I changed the depth of field by first focusing on the near and then focusing on the distant end of the tree, with one click:
The resolution of the photos has a long way to go. It’s rather poor, but apparently there’s hope. Here’s Eric Cheng, the director of photography at Lytro, explaining the technology and the company’s new camera.
Jim Gates recites a short story at “Toil and Trouble: Stories of Experiments Gone Wrong” at the World Science Festival held at The Moth at Symphony Space on May 29, 2008 in New York City. (photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images)
There are times in our worst hour when we discover that what will save us is just the thing we’ve been doing our whole lives. String theorist Jim Gates had one such epiphany, hearing an unembodied voice telling him to make his own trail while alone on a mountaintop in Iceland, clinging to his mortality. Check out this story from The Moth.
The sun is on the cemetery, leaves are on the stones, there never was a place on earth that felt so much like home.
Let’s celebrate what would’ve been Johnny Cash's eightieth birthday today with a song his daughter Rosanne Cash composed while mourning the loss of her father. As she explained to us earlier this year, the middle verse of “God Is in the Roses” came about the day after she buried her father:
"I got up at 5:00 in the morning and waited for the Starbucks to open and got coffee and went and sat on his grave and watched the sun rise — the sun, yeah, the sun rise on his grave. And it was really comforting to me. I took two cups of coffee — one for him. And I felt so at peace watching the sun rise on his grave and then that gave me that verse. But then I wanted to go out to, you know, more than just my personal experience, when I’m saying, I love you like a brother, father and a son. And now when I sing that live, I sing, I love you all like brothers."