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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.

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.


Quarks and Creation: On the Complementary Nature of Science and Religion

by Krista Tippett, host

Transport III first heard John Polkinghorne’s voice on the BBC in the late 1980s, at a time when I lived in England. Late one night, he presented a riveting radio essay. It couldn’t have lasted more than five or ten minutes, but it had a tremendous, lasting effect on me.

Polkinghorne spoke about reason and faith, science and prayer — subjects I was pondering deeply at that point, after a good decade in which I had dismissed religion and religious sentiments out of hand. He described connections between quantum physics and theology in inviting, commonsense terms. He applied chaos theory to make prayer sound intellectually intriguing. I was thrilled when I was able, in 2005, to talk with John Polkinghorne about the ideas he inspired in me 15 years ago and about many related questions I have accumulated since.

Just as I found myself speaking with him, of course, the centuries-old debate between science and religion — in particular the flashpoint of evolution versus creation — was taking on renewed energy in American culture. And even as that debate receded from the limelight, figures like Richard Dawkins popularized the thesis that scientific reason and religious faith are incompatible and at odds. But ironically, in this same historical moment, a lively, deepening international dialogue between scientists and religious thinkers has expanded its reach across the rift that developed after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. John Polkinghorne is a leading figure in that development.

Most striking, however, is how John Polkinghorne’s perspective simply transcends the parameters and arguments that drive our cultural controversies.

Polkinghorne takes the Genesis stories, the biblical accounts of creation, seriously. But he points out that these are lyrical, theological writings. They were not composed as scientific texts. The early Christians, he says, knew this, and only in the later Medieval and Reformation times did people begin to insist on literal interpretation. To read a work of poetry as a work of prose, he analogizes, is to miss the point.

John Polkinghorne Receives the 2002 Templeton Prize
The Duke of Edinburgh presents the 2002 Templeton Prize to the Rev. Dr. John C. Polkinghorne at Buckingham Palace. (photo: Clifford Shirley/The Templeton Prize)

Drawing on the best of his scientific and theological knowledge, Polkinghorne believes that God created this universe. But this was not a one-act invention of a clockwork world. God did something “more clever”: he created a world with independence, a world able to make itself. Creation is an ongoing act, Polkinghorne believes, one in which the laws of nature make room for choice and action, both human and divine. He finds this idea beautifully affirmed by the best insights of chaos theory, which describes reality as an interplay between order and disorder, between random possibilities and patterned structure.

I’ll let you hear for yourself how he approaches mysteries like prayer, and the problem of suffering, in this frame of mind. I’ll leave you with two evocative notions from our interview.

First, modern science increasingly suggests that contradictory explanations of reality can be simultaneously true. A scientific puzzle of whether light is a particle or a wave was resolved with the discovery that light has a dual nature as both a particle and a wave. And here’s the key that made that discovery possible: how we ask the questions affects the answers we arrive at. Light appears as a wave if you ask it “a wave-like question” and it appears as a particle if you ask it “a particle-like question.”

Second, there is the matter of quarks. Modern quantum physics has come to depend on quarks as a foundational element in understanding the way the world works. But in a very real sense, quarks are an article of faith. No scientist has actually seen one, nor do scientists necessarily ever expect to. They are believed to exist because the idea of quarks gives intelligibility to the whole of observable reality.

These scientific notions give me new, creative ways to imagine the credibility of religious modes of thought. They underscore John Polkinghorne’s personable and passionate message that we need the insights of science and religion together to “interpret and understand the rich, varied, and surprising way the world actually is.”