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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

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Cosmic Origami and What We Don’t Know: An Invitation to Picture Parallel Realities

by Krista Tippett, host

Hubble Legacy National Air and Space MuseumAn audience watches IMAX 3D footage filmed by astronauts during the STS-125 Hubble Repair Mission in 2009. (photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA)

With Martin Rees as with other scientists I’ve interviewed across the years, I’m utterly intrigued by the language he uses to describe the stuff of his inquiry, the ideas that drive the work of his days — the deep structure of space and time, extreme phenomena in the cosmos.

He is an aristocrat in several senses in the world of British science. He’s a member of the House of Lords and holds the honorific title of Astronomer Royal. He recently ended a five-year term as president of The Royal Society, the august scientific fellowship to which Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Stephen Hawking have all belonged. Yet the great value of this conversation, I think, is Martin Rees’ skill in bringing the vast frontiers of science down to earth, so to speak. He sees them, and is able to describe them, as matters for public understanding and pondering.

So, for example, he uses an analogy that became the playful title of this show. As he discusses the possibility of parallel realities — once the stuff of science fiction — he asks us to picture worlds that might be out of our range of perception because they are tightly rolled up in space like origami. Or we might be like ants on a flat plane, assured that the contours of our known world are all there is. But just beyond of our range of perception, other planes also teem with life.

Martin Rees Gives The Reith LecturesIn his conversation with me as in the prestigious Reith Lectures he gave in Britain in 2010, Martin Rees is especially good at evoking the great puzzles that physics carried from the 20th century into our own. There are the predictable laws of physics at cosmic scales that Einstein brilliantly described. Then there is the wild, anything goes “microworld” of reality at the smallest scales — the scale where cosmic origami might happen. I remember another great physicist, Freeman Dyson, describing this as the difference between the rules of nature at the “mountaintops” and in the “rainforest.”

And I find a great and strange comfort in Martin Rees’ desire to loop in a third level of complexity that begs for some kind of unity with the other two — that of life. He makes the remarkable assertion that human beings are the most extreme complex phenomena in the cosmos by far. It is possible, he says, to say definitively true things about the workings of stars — but not to say anything that is even remotely definitively true about dieting or child care.

In fact, on scientific frontiers from cosmology to genetics, new and complicated ethical and philosophical questions are being raised that need deliberation precisely in relation to complex human life. In his Reith Lectures, he named a few: How will our lengthening life spans effect society? Who should access the readout of our personal genetic code? Should the law allow designer babies? Should we use nuclear power or wind farms?

For pursuing this kind of inquiry, Martin Rees was awarded the 2011 Templeton Prize for “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” He took some sharp criticism from some scientists and atheists for accepting the prize.

In the spirit of full disclosure, On Being receives funding for some of our shows from the John Templeton Foundation. But what brought him to our attention, compellingly, is that Martin Rees himself is firmly atheist. He is in fact as little interested in science-religion dialogue as in science-religion battles. Rather, in his third way between the two, he sees religious people as essential allies in the philosophical and ethical challenges that are being raised on scientific frontiers.

I’m grateful for the language Martin Rees uses to describe the role he’s discovered along this path — a calling to be a “science citizen.” His is an eloquent voice for many of our listeners, I think, who find the labels of “atheist” and “agnostic” too narrow if they seem to rule out ethical and spiritual life, however broadly defined. And he helpfully points at practical starting points for non-religious and religious to pursue meaning and mystery in our age — together, and with humility all around.

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Participating in the Mystery of the Universe

by Krista Tippett, host

"Misremember" is a word I often use about the history of science and religion in the West. We’ve forgotten or misremembered that the great classic scientists did not understand science and religion as opposed. Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton may have had their struggles with religious authorities. And they did not believe that their scientific exploration would prove or disprove the existence of God. But they believed quite fervently that their explorations and discoveries in the natural world would deepen human understanding of the nature of God, of the mind of the maker.

In George Coyne and Guy Consolmagno, I found two modern-day exemplars of this tradition. They have clear boundaries between their science and their faith. Father George even goes so far as to say that to “need” God vis-a-vis his science would be a diminishment of God and of human intelligence. They both insist, in a few different ways, that they don’t see God at the end of their telescopes. Their belief in God and their sense of the love of God, are borne out in other kinds of experience.

Yet Guy Consolmagno has also written these words:

"(A)s I see the pattern of Creation unfolding, over and over…complexity from the simplest of rules, beauty from the surprising interplay of basic forces…I begin to get a closer appreciation of the personality of the Creator."

The solar system The solar system according to Johannes Kepler (photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

And when I ask him to describe that “personality,” he answers, without missing a beat, that “whoever is responsible for this universe has a great sense of humor.”

His own vocation might be seen as an illustration of divine humor, or at least one of history’s “jokes,” as Coyne puts it. The Vatican Observatory is located in the papal summer residence in Castel Gondolfo, Italy — once the home of Urban VIII, the pope who took Galileo to task. Today the papal summer palace has telescopes on its roof and houses one of the oldest astronomical research centers in the world.

Part of the joy of this conversation is the evident fun Coyne and Consolmagno find in this and in so much else, but most of all in the work they do. They take delight in each other, too, and it is a pleasure to hear them react to each other’s ideas. And they hold good humor in a creative, faithful tension with their equally intimate knowledge of the difficulties of human life and the shadow side of the natural world they study.Brother Guy Consolmagno

Guy Consolmagno considered abandoning his scientific career at one point because he could not justify studying the stars when people were dying of hunger. He joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Kenya where he was assigned to teach astronomy at the University of Nairobi. There, every time he cranked up a car-battery-powered telescope, entire villages would turn out in thrall to what he could show them about the night sky. He came to believe that the urge to look up at the stars and wonder where we come from and how we fit in is as essential to our humanity as our need for food. He joined the Jesuit order in his late 30s.

The 16th-century founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, charged his men to “find God in all things” — in a laboratory as passionately as in a monastic cell. We didn’t originally plan this as an Easter show, but it seems fitting that, as our schedule unfolded, it landed in Easter week. And yet it it is a cosmic view of the Easter story that these astronomers evoke — one nourished by their apprehension of billions of years of the birth, death, and renewal of stars that made life on Earth possible. Inspired by this cosmic drama, they are also content with faith itself as something more dynamic than fixed, a process rather than a destination that is spacious and always evolving. George Coyne puts it this way: “Doing science to me is a search for God. And I’ll never have the final answers because the universe participates in the mystery of God.”

About the smaller image (inset): Brother Guy Consolmagno shows a Mars meteorite. (photo by: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

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Being Comfortable with the Presence of Mystery
Krista Tippett, host

Who Ordered This?I am so happy to be back in the studio making radio, though these last few months of public conversations about Einstein’s God have been fascinating and energizing. And we continue to build on our cumulative conversation with and about science and the human spirit. I picked up Mario Livio’s book, Is God a Mathematician, sometime last year, and knew I wanted to speak with him.

Given that title, it is perhaps surprising to learn that Mario Livio is not himself a religious man. But in his science, he is working on frontiers of discovery where questions far outpace answers — exploring the nature of neutron stars, white dwarfs, dark energy, the search for intelligent life in other galaxies.

In vivid detail and with passionate articulation, he reinforces a sense that has come through in many of my conversations with scientists these past years. That is, in contrast to the 19th- and 20th-century Western cultural confidence that science was on the verge of explaining most everything, our cutting-edge 21st-century discoveries are yielding ever more fantastic mysteries. The real science of the present, Mario Livio says, is far more interesting than science fiction could ever be.

For example, the fact that the universe is expanding rather than contracting is new knowledge. That has led to the discovery of what is called, for lack of precise understanding, “dark energy,” which is accelerating this expansion. And this utterly unexplained substance is now thought to comprise something like 70 percent of the universe. Likewise, the Hubble telescope has helped humanity gain intricate new detail on the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos and the relative insignificance of the space we take up in it. At the same time — and this is one of Livio’s intriguing mysteries — this new knowledge and perspective also shine a new kind of light on the inordinate power of the human mind.

Livio’s question, “Is God a mathematician?,” is actually an ancient and unfolding question about the uncanny “omnipotence and omnipotent power” of mathematics as experienced by science and philosophy across the ages. The question itself, as Livio says, is as rich to ponder as any of its possible answers. And so is the fact, behind it, that our minds give rise to mathematical principles, which are then found to have what one great physicist called “an unreasonable effectiveness” in describing the universe.

Livio also picks up on an intriguing theme left dangling in my lovely Easter conversation with Vatican astronomers Guy Consolmagno and George Coyne — the enduring question of whether mathematical truths, laws of nature, are discovered or invented. He unapologetically offers his conclusion that there is no either/or answer possible here — that mathematics is both invented and discovered. That is to say, as he tells it, scientists habitually “invent” formulations and theories with no practical application, which generations or centuries later are found to describe fundamental aspects of reality. Even mathematical ideas that are at first invented yield real discoveries that are relevant, true, and wholly unexpected.

I was also interested, as I went into this conversation, that when Mario Livio is not doing science he is a lover of art. “Beauty” is a word that recurs across my cumulative conversation with scientists, and Mario Livio infuses that word with his own evident passion. He is not quite sure, when I press, what that might have to do with his simultaneous passion for art. And yet there is something intriguing — mysterious even — about his description of how echoing allusions from science and art come to him effortlessly in his writing.

And in the backdrop of our conversation, images from the Hubble Space Telescope have brought a lavish beauty of the cosmos into ordinary modern eyes and imaginations. One senses that of all the accomplishments in which he has played a part, Mario Livio is most proud of this one. For him, science is a part of culture — like literature, like the arts. And he wants the rest of us, whether we speak his mother tongue of mathematics or not, to experience it that way too. This conversation (listen above) brings me farther forward on this path.

And I kept thinking, as I spoke with Mario Livio, of Einstein’s references to the reverence for beauty and open sense of wonder that Einstein saw as a common root experience of true science, true religion, and true art. His use of the word “God,” Mario Livio tells me, is similar to Einstein’s grasp for the word “God” as a synonym for the workings of the cosmos. I am struck once again with the capacity of modern scientists to be more comfortable with the presence of mystery, and bolder in articulating its reality than many who are traditionally religious.

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Is my life any different since I became a Jesuit? Oh, yes. The rules of obedience, from the structure of the day to this assignment at the Vatican, have put me under constraints I did not have before, but they’re constraints of my choosing, which, like the rules of a sonnet, give me a framework to create a wonderfully fulfilled life.
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—from Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist by Brother Guy Consolmagno

Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

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The Dance of the Fertile Universe
Trent Gilliss, online editor

Fr. George Coyne, former director of the Vatican Observatory and a guest on this week’s show, often speaks about our 13.7 billion-year-old universe in terms of fertility. In this lecture (jump to the 3:25 mark), he describes a rich cycle of cosmic birth, death, and replenishment. Three generations of stars, he says, had to live and die in order to sow the chemical abundance that made life on our planet possible.

For many of us, this metaphor of a rich, cosmic soil is possible to envision as the daffodils and day lilies sprout with the return of Spring, at least here in Minnesota. On the other hand, the scale of such a vast time span is hard to comprehend. I don’t know about you, but I can’t even wrap my mind around the idea.

Thankfully, Fr. Coyne helps us make sense of this incomprehensible scenario. He crunches nearly 14 billion years into a one-year time line. With the birth of the universe on January 1st at 12 a.m., 364 days and 58 minutes had to pass before humans even entered the scene. And, we’ve been studying the stars for only the last two seconds!

Universe in a Year

Seeing the age of the universe explained in this way provides a strange sense of relief. We are merely specks on the continuum. Knowing this, perhaps we can forgive ourselves for not having all the answers and open ourselves to the mystery of creation and the laws of nature — even if that means we get it wrong over and over.

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Two Vatican Astronomers: A Twitterscript

Trent Gilliss, online editor

Two Jesuits who work at the Vatican ObservatoryBrother Guy Consolmagno, curator of meteorites, and Father George Coyne, its former director (whom you might recognize from his appearance in Bill Maher’s Religulous) — have been on our interview list for years. Yesterday, Krista was finally able to interview them, together, from a recording studio in Arizona. These two astronomers had a great dynamic between them and have a bit of different perspective from most of the “hard” scientists — usually physicists — we have spoken to over the years. Oh, and they have great sense of humor, as you can see in the video to the right of Br. Consolmagno’s appearance on The Colbert Report.

We’ll start producing this interview while Krista’s out on tour speaking about her new book, and we can’t wait to release this program! In the meantime, Colleen and I tweeted some of the lines that struck our ears. A transcript of our Twitter stream:

  1. For the next 90 minutes, tweets from Krista’s interview w/ two Vatican Observatory astronomers: Fr. George Coyne and Br. Guy Consolmagno.
  2. Milky Way
  3. 68 degrees in Arizona. They’re rubbing it in since it is frigid today in Minnesota.
  4. Fr. George is a Jesuit who grew up in Baltimore. Tells a great story about a priest who hooked him up w/ books from the Reading, PA library.
  5. Br. Guy grew up in Detroit and transferred to MIT when he discovered they had the largest science fiction collection!
  6. Br. Guy joined Peace Corps b/c he “couldn’t see the point of studying stars when people are suffering.” Realized that all people love stars.
  7. Fr. Coyne: if all we do is feed and clothe people, we’re all going to be naked; what really makes us human is music, the arts, science…
  8. Br. Guy: you don’t find answers to theological ?s by looking through a telescope; you don’t go to the Bible to find answers to science.
  9. Fr. George: “the God of religious faith is a lover.”
  10. Moonset
  11. Fr. George: “My understanding of the universe does not need God. I don’t need God in my science.”
  12. Br. Guy Consolmagno: “The tragedy of Haiti is the tragedy of death. … There isn’t any answer to that.”
  13. Fr. George Coyne, astronomer: “To limit our human experience to scientific knowledge is to impoverish all of us.”
  14. Br. Guy Consolmagno, on seismic and cosmic activity in the creation of life: “The climate will change. … The Earth is not a paradise.”
  15. Fr. George Coyne: “To have faith is an extreme risk. ‘Rock of Ages’ is a nice hymn but…”
  16. Br. Guy Consolmagno: “We know our understanding of the universe is incomplete; our understanding of God is incomplete.”
  17. Br. Guy Consolmagno: “You have to experience something before you can react to it.”
  18. Fr. George Coyne, an astronomer on his science: “It’s exciting to be ignorant.”
  19. Fr. George Coyne, when he presents papers at scientific conferences: “I’m not dressed as a priest. It just confuses things.” Funny moment.
  20. The Vatican Observatory is staffed by all Jesuits, except one diocesan priest. But the observatory was not founded by the Jesuit Order.
  21. Visuale Orion
  22. 4 Jesuits have asteroids named after them: Xavier, Loyola, and the 2 chaps Krista is interviewing: Fr. George Coyne + Br. Guy Consolmagno
  23. Br Guy on Galileo: why is it that 400 years later he’s symbol of science religion clash when that’s not what it was about at his time?
  24. Br Guy: Don’t just learn science from reading Newton & Galileo, but also from Plato, Shakespeare, and scripture
  25. Br. Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit astronomer: “Truth can sometimes only be expressed in a poetry.”
  26. Fr Coyne: language of universe is math; it’s a tool to understand beauty; we absract to understand
  27. Br Guy: Being able to do science is trying to understand how God plays with us
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Quintet: young blue stars, old red ones A 10-billion year old start cluster Space butterfly Peering 5 billion light years away Ursa Major barred spiral galaxy Two images of a star burst

The Wonder of the Cosmos (through an Upgraded Lens)

by Colleen Scheck, producer

Last week NASA published pictures from the newly-refurbished Hubble telescope. Beautiful. Mysterious. Divine. And, simply, Wow. These were the words that ran through my head when I saw them. It’s worth reading the descriptions of the photos on NASA’s site for more detail on these galactic happenings. I also liked this online comment:

"These photos, and the multi-billion year life behind them make me think I’ve wasted the better part of my life looking down at my feet, instead of looking up into the sky."

I don’t have profound thoughts to add, but comments from two cosmologists who have been on SOF seem to apply. From our show "Science and Hope," George Ellis, a practicing Quaker from South Africa:

Ms. Tippett: How do you — because you’re telling me that you also, I believe, you’re telling me you have concluded that there is a God and there can be a God in your cosmology. But how do you think your way around into that question?

Dr. Ellis: It’s a very valid question, and it’s one for which we haven’t got any clue to the answer. But that is the same for every attempt to understand the foundations of the universe. Science runs into that and religions run into that. My colleagues are producing theories of what they call creation of the universe out of nothing. But when you probe them, you find they’re not producing theories of creation of the universe out of nothing. They are assuming a huge machinery of quantum field theory and fields and particles and interactions, which generates universe, not creation of the universe out of nothing.

Ms. Tippett: Which had to come from somewhere.

Dr. Ellis: Yeah, it had to come from somewhere else….And in the end, we run into a metaphysical blank, whether you pursue it scientifically or religiously, and you simply have to give up in wonder and awe and say, ‘I don’t know the answer, and it’s just marvelous the way things are.’

And, Janna Levin, a novelist and professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College, spoke with Krista for our program "Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth":

Ms. Tippett: ….What are you working on that also, you know, starts to reshape the way you see the world around you and the way you move through it?

Ms. Levin: Well, it’s funny, people have often asked, when I’ve been describing the work that I’m doing, they’ll say, ‘Well, who — why should I care about that?’ I’m telling something about extra dimensions and maybe the universe isn’t three-dimensional, but maybe there are extra spatial dimensions. It is very abstract. We could do a whole show hammering that out.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, yeah.

Ms. Levin: But supposing we grasp the notion of multidimensional space and spaces and finite, people say, ‘Why should I care about that? You know, my taxes are high. We’re on a war in Iraq.’ And these are fair questions, but my feeling is that it changes the world in such a fundamental way. We cannot begin to comprehend the consequences of living in a world after we know certain things about it. I think we cannot imagine the mindset of somebody pre-Copernicus, when we thought that the Earth was the center of the universe, and that the Sun and all the celestial bodies orbited us.

It’s really not that huge a discovery in retrospect. In retrospect, so we orbit around the Sun, and we take this to be commonplace, and there’s lots of planets in our solar system, and the Sun is just one star out of billions or hundreds of billions in our galaxy, and there are hundreds of billions of galaxies. And we become, you know, little dust mites in the scheme of things. That shift is so colossal in terms of what it did, I think, to our world, our global culture, our worldview, that I can’t begin to draw simple lines to say, ‘This is what happened because of it’ or ‘That’s what happened because of it.’

Ms. Tippett: Right, right.

Ms. Levin: We see ourselves differently, and then we see the whole world differently. And we begin to think about meaning — and all of these questions that you’ve brought up — completely differently than we did before. And I’d feel the same way if we discovered that the universe is finite or if we discovered that there are additional spatial dimensions, if these things will impact us, I think, in ways that we can’t just draw simple cause-and-effect arrows.

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A Three Pound Brain, Contemplating Galaxies
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer

[Online editor’s note: For a better, more immersive experience, I recommend filling the screen by clicking the outward-facing arrows icon in the lower-right hand of the video. And, for good measure, put on a set of headphones.]

Science was never my best subject in school, but as an adult I’ve become a total science geek. And our recent program with novelist Mary Doria Russell was full of topics, from Neanderthals to alien communication, that got my geek juices flowing. I especially loved what she said about looking at a recent diagram of the universe, showing how it might expand and contract over time.

I thought, “It’s the breath of God.” That God breathes in and God breathes out. And when he breathes in, the universe is contracting, and when he breathes out, the universe is expanding. And I immediately was charmed by the metaphor…. God is the largest, most complex, most inclusive, most explanatory idea that human beings are capable of imagining. Now, that said, we’re primates and our brains are like two and a half to three pounds. You know, we’re doing the best we can. But I would hate to say that we’ve got a lock on the universe and deity at this point.

I was reminded of an interview with astrophysicist Howard Smith that we’ve had on the shelf since the summer of 2008. Our production schedule is such that we’re sometimes unable to use every interview that we do. But there were parts of Howard Smith’s interview have stayed in my mind for months. He is a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the author of Let There Be Light: Modern Cosmology and Kabbalah, a New Conversation Between Science and Religion. I loved how he described what it’s like for him to stare into the heart of a galaxy and discover something that no one else knows. That moment, he says, is a spiritual moment.

I wanted to see Howard Smith doing that work, peering out at the universe through the tiny window that is his computer screen, using his three pound brain as best he can to understand what he sees. So with help from Howard Smith, NASA, and Flickr, my colleagues and I gathered images to create this slideshow, exploring how we can find spiritual meaning in the stars.

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