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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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Being Comfortable in the Presence of Mystery

by Krista Tippett, host

Livio_CMYKMario Livio speaks with Brian Greene (photo: ©The Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of the Imagination/Flickr)

When I first picked up Mario Livio’s book Is God a Mathematician? I knew I wanted to speak with him. Given that title, it is perhaps surprising to learn that he 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 nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western, cultural confidence that science was on the verge of explaining most everything, our cutting-edge, twenty-first-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. 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 “omnipresence and omnipotent powers” 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 physicist Eugene Wigner called “an unreasonable effectiveness” in describing the universe.

Livio also picks up on an intriguing theme left dangling in my lovely conversation in 2010 with the Vatican astronomers Guy Consolmagno and George Coyne — the enduring question of whether mathematical truths, laws of nature, are discovered or invented. Livio 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 to learn, 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 brings me farther forward on this path.

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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If it is art — if it is honest to God, card-carrying, well done, well-crafted, well-honed art — it comes up so sweetly against the side of religion that they are essentially kissing each other. We can’t escape the fact that somehow religion is concerned with the subjective world, as is art. And they share a territory that somehow circumvents or circumscribes the mind, and they have a conversation together.
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Veritas Conversation with Phyllis Tickle and Carmen Acevedo Butcher, 3/3/11Phyllis Tickle, from "A Return to Mystery: Religion, Fantasy, and Entertainment"

Looking back at this old transcript in anticipation of this week’s show, “Monsters We Love” with Diane Winston, I found these lovely lines worth pondering.

Photo by Wyoming Jackrabbit/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0

~Krista Tippett, host

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Light Painting the Mines of North Wales

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

If you’re looking for a brief respite between Thanksgiving meals or a brief interlude to the NFL triple play, check out this short film by Andrew Telling and Owen Richards. They shadow photographer Robin Friend as he traverses the foothills of North Wales and descends into an abandoned Victorian mine at Cwmorthin to do a bit of light painting for his Slaughterhouse series:

"Slaughterhouse" by Robin Friend"Although my mind kept wandering and playing tricks, it would always return to the absence of the men that used to work here. Their presence was palpable; this was their mine and I was trespassing. Each cathedral-sized cavern would have been leased and worked by one family. Grandfathers, fathers, sons, uncles, and nephews would have worked side-by-side, day in day out. These dark passages, steep crevasses, and sheer drops would have been their livelihood. This was their world. They would have spent the majority of their lives down here in the dark with nothing but a candle to illuminate the slate and their spirits."

(h/t trishutchinson)

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Animated Shorts on the Lessons of Forgiveness and Repentance for the High Holy Days

by Susan Leem, associate producer + Trent Gilliss, senior editor

The son of an Israeli nuclear physicist, the artist Hanan Harchol moved to the United States with his family when he was two years old. And it’s his father’s accent that Harchol impersonates and argues with in these two humorous and enlightening animated shorts for the High Holy Days. 

But, these illustrated videos mining a deeper understanding of the Jewish concepts of teshuva (repentance) and slicha (forgiveness), Harchol says, weren’t inspired by a personal sense of devotion or religiosity. Just the opposite, in fact. The requirements of the project stipulated that he immerse himself in the texts, and through studying them he reevaluated the essence and spirit of Jewish teachings he had ignored or rejected for many years:

"I spent my life gravitating towards, and making, narrative art that explores the human condition from a psychological, philosophical, and existential perspective. While Judaism offers thousands of years of wisdom on the human condition, I avoided it as a source because of what I perceived to be its preachy, judgmental, and shaming tone.

Then, in 2009, I was commissioned to create a short artistic animation that interpreted the eating of bitter herbs during Passover. As part of the project, I was mandated to participate in a monthly Jewish study group under the leadership of a dynamic and brilliant rabbi named Leon Morris. To my surprise, I discovered that the human themes we were discussing and wrestling with in the study group were precisely the kind I had always been exploring in my personal artmaking. Even the process itself of sitting around a table, debating and wrestling with these human concepts (a process I did regularly with my friends and in my artmaking) proved to be a fundamental part of the Jewish study and learning process.

I became filled with questions about how much my Jewish heritage had influenced how I was raised, how I behaved, how I thought, and even who I was as a person and an artist. What I discovered was a wealth of wisdom. Within the Jewish texts were crucial teachings and lessons that applied as much to our contemporary lives as they did when they were written. By avoiding the Jewish writings because of their religious nature and tone, I was missing out on thousands of years of deep thought and study on the human condition itself. I had thrown the baby out with the bath water.”

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Communing with Beauty

by Rita G. Patel, guest contributor

"Beauty and Its Possibilities" by Rita G. Patel"Beauty and Its Possibilities" by Rita Patel

The architect Christopher Alexander tells this story in The Timeless Way of Building:

I once saw a simple fish pond in a Japanese village which was perhaps eternal.

A farmer made it for his farm. The pond was a simple rectangle, about 6 feet wide, and 8 feet long; opening off a little irrigation stream. At one end, a bush of flowers hung over the water. At the other end, under the water, was a circle of wood, its top perhaps 12 inches below the surface of the water. In the pond there were eight great ancient carp, each maybe 18 inches long, orange, gold, purple, and black: the oldest one had been there eighty years. The eight fish swam, slowly, slowly, in circles—often within the wooden circle. The whole world was in that pond. Every day the farmer sat by it for a few minutes. I was there only one day and I sat by it all afternoon. Even now, I cannot think about it without tears. Those ancient fish had been swimming, slowly, in that pond for eighty years. It was so true to the nature of the fish, and flowers, and the water, and the farmers, that it had sustained itself for all that time, endlessly repeating, always different. There is no degree of wholeness or reality which can be reached beyond that simple pond.

Not only is the description both vivid and beautiful — conjuring up a lovely image — but the emotion from actually seeing and being with this beauty in nature is profoundly powerful.

If I am open, moments where I can deeply see, feel, and be are available in all sorts of so-called common places and interactions. And what happens is that I don’t just observe with my senses and my mind, but I commune with the beauty of it in my heart — that is where it happens, where I actually feel it. The feeling doesn’t stay but the feeling about other things afterwards is always affected. And the more I experience this beauty the more I realize that it does not disappear but is always present. Available to connect to when I am available. A wonderful thing to wake up and remember and make a habit.

"Radiance belongs to being considered precisely as beautiful; it is, in being, that which catches the eye, or the ear, or the mind, and makes us want to perceive it again."
~Etienne Gilson


Rita G. PatelRita G. Patel is an artist, chef, and business consultant living in Rochester, Michigan. You can read more of her writing at Beauty’s Invitation and see her artwork at 365 Days of Print.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

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A poignant comment from The New Yorker's art editor Françoise Mouly on “Soaring Spirit” by John Mavroudis and Owen Smith for their September 11, 2006 cover:

“Philippe  Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers always had  something of the miraculous. Five years after 9/11, it seemed like a  fitting way to represent the strength of the human spirit, even when  faced with tragedies.”

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

A poignant comment from The New Yorker's art editor Françoise Mouly on “Soaring Spirit” by John Mavroudis and Owen Smith for their September 11, 2006 cover:

“Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers always had something of the miraculous. Five years after 9/11, it seemed like a fitting way to represent the strength of the human spirit, even when faced with tragedies.”

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Tagged: #9/11 #cover #art
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A Poster Appropriate for Ramadan Learning
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
This poster for the course ”Exploring the Treasures of Ramadhan” from the Cambridge Islamic Science Seminars is beautifully constructed, don’t you think? I love the way the colors and calligraphy are fused with contemporary typography and layout. They eye wants to meander about for awhile.
Oh, and by the slim chance that any one of you who’s reading this post actually attended this seminar, would you mind sharing your experience of Dr. Nadwi’s presentation? Leave a comment here if you feel comfortable, or feel free to email me at tgilliss@onbeing.org.
Image courtesy of the Cambridge Islamic Sciences Seminars.

A Poster Appropriate for Ramadan Learning

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

This poster for the course ”Exploring the Treasures of Ramadhan” from the Cambridge Islamic Science Seminars is beautifully constructed, don’t you think? I love the way the colors and calligraphy are fused with contemporary typography and layout. They eye wants to meander about for awhile.

Oh, and by the slim chance that any one of you who’s reading this post actually attended this seminar, would you mind sharing your experience of Dr. Nadwi’s presentation? Leave a comment here if you feel comfortable, or feel free to email me at tgilliss@onbeing.org.

Image courtesy of the Cambridge Islamic Sciences Seminars.

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beingvisual:

Created by artists Doug and Mike Starn, “Big Bambú” amazed guests in 2010 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The artists and a team of rock climbers created this rooftop installation out of 5,000 interlocking 30- and 40-foot-long fresh-cut bamboo poles, lashed together with 50 miles of nylon rope. The structure changed throughout the exhibit, and ultimately became 100 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 50 feet high with spires, crests, and footpaths.
Photo by artstuffmatters/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

beingvisual:

Created by artists Doug and Mike Starn, “Big Bambú” amazed guests in 2010 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The artists and a team of rock climbers created this rooftop installation out of 5,000 interlocking 30- and 40-foot-long fresh-cut bamboo poles, lashed together with 50 miles of nylon rope. The structure changed throughout the exhibit, and ultimately became 100 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 50 feet high with spires, crests, and footpaths.

Photo by artstuffmatters/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Picasso in Palestine for the Very First Time: An Interview with Khaled Hourani

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

Picasso in PalestineAll photos courtesy of the Van Abbemuseum

This summer, for the first time, an original painting by Pablo Picasso was exhibited  in the West Bank city of Ramallah. What’s the big deal, right? Museums and galleries loan each other works of art all the time. But in Israel and the West Bank, where politics, borders, and security concerns rule the day, organizing a public exhibition of Picasso’s $7.1 million "Buste de Femme" turned out to be no easy feat. Who would insure the painting? How could its physical security be guaranteed? How would it be transported across military checkpoints?

For the last two years, Khaled Hourani has been doggedly figuring out answers to those questions together with the Van Abbemuseum in Holland. Hourani is arts director at the International Academy of Art Palestine (IAAP) in Ramallah where the “Buste de Femme” was on display. The Van Abbemuseum holds Picasso’s painting in its collection. Theirs is a story of a cross-cultural team triumphing over bureaucratic hurdles.

The Van Abbemuseum sent us over one hundred pictures documenting the painting’s careful voyage from Holland to Ramallah. The photographs tell their own story with the “Buste de Femme” as a silent, cipher-like protagonist. The painting is a magnet for attention and inspection and yet it also seems a little lonely and plaintive as it winds its way through customs and checkpoints into the IAAP’s exhibition room.

We reached out to Hourani to learn why he wanted to exhibit a single Picasso painting in Ramallah, and how the experience of working on this project affected him personally. Here’s his answers to my questions via email:

Picasso in PalestineStaff at the Van Abbemuseum in Holland prepare the “Buste de Femme” for its journey to Ramallah. (photo: Perry van Duijnhoven)

Why Picasso?
There are several reasons for this choice. The students of the Art Academy were at the center of the selection process from its early stages. The students voted in full consensus for Picasso as an artist and for the chosen painting in particular.

The Academy conducted a thorough research in Palestine about “who is the most popular international artist in our region?” The answer was Picasso. I recall asking my mother about the most well-known artist or painting she favored. Her answer was Picasso as an artist, and “Mona Lisa” as her favorite painting.

I had other personal reasons for selecting Picasso. His name was carved in the memory of my childhood in the early stages of my upbringing. When I was a child and used to paint, my teachers nicknamed me “Picasso.” Later in my life, when I started working, the name Picasso accompanied me. In our culture it is very popular to give a nickname to someone after a well-known figure; and, for me, Picasso became my nickname.

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Reich’s piece brings back some searing memories, with (for me) an emotional intensity that had dimmed over the last 10 years. His work is a reflection of the chaos and horror of that day, and of the struggle to understand what happened. In that light, using that photo feels, to me, appropriate. I don’t fully appreciate the dark smudging and streaking of the image (the NY sky was a bright clear blue that day)…but this feels like a quibble. The events of that day were ghastly, abhorrent. But I appreciate the way Reich’s piece brings me face-to-face with what happened, and with my own visceral reaction.
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Steve Reich's "WTC 9/11"Fred Child, host of Performance Today

The classical music aficionado and public radio host weighed in on his show’s Facebook page with a brief perspective on the new cover art for the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steve Reich’s latest work, WTC 9/11, from Nonesuch Records. Released this week, the gritty adaptation of Masatomo Kuriya’s famous photo showing the second plane moments before plunging into the south tower has stirred up quite visceral reactions among people from all walks of life.

But, what about the music itself and the fact that the cover art is meant to support or tease out a central element of the music it sheaths? Well, Fred has been “listening to the piece obsessively this past week” and he’ll be writing a lengthier reflection for us in the coming weeks. As a fan of Kronos Quartet, I, for one, can’t wait to read his interpretation of the piece and how the image fits in.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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Walker Art Center Honors Silenced Voices with Public Sit-In
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
This week the Walker Art Center organized a silent demonstration outside its doors. Inspired by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s 2007 installation "Fairytale: 1001 Qing Dynasty Wooden Chairs" and commemorating what would have been his 100th day of detention this week, the Minneapolis-based cultural institution invited the public to bring a chair of one’s own to their Hennepin Avenue terrace to acknowledge the many artists around the world “who work under oppressive conditions where artistic freedom is compromised.”
After people from Ai Weiwei's studio heard about the effort, they sent a desk chair from his Beijing studio, which was placed among the other chairs. Guess which one it is.

More photos of the turnout can be seen on the Walker’s Facebook page.
All photos courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

Walker Art Center Honors Silenced Voices with Public Sit-In

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

This week the Walker Art Center organized a silent demonstration outside its doors. Inspired by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s 2007 installation "Fairytale: 1001 Qing Dynasty Wooden Chairs" and commemorating what would have been his 100th day of detention this week, the Minneapolis-based cultural institution invited the public to bring a chair of one’s own to their Hennepin Avenue terrace to acknowledge the many artists around the world “who work under oppressive conditions where artistic freedom is compromised.”

After people from Ai Weiwei's studio heard about the effort, they sent a desk chair from his Beijing studio, which was placed among the other chairs. Guess which one it is.

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More photos of the turnout can be seen on the Walker’s Facebook page.

All photos courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

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The Collective Pride of Commencement

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

the-graduate-ernie-barnes"The Graduate" by Ernie Barnes

Ernie Barnes used his canvas to celebrate black American life in elongated, vibrant strokes. “The Graduate” (shown above) is one of the professional football player-turned-artist’s best-known paintings, which is part of a body of work Barnes called “The Beauty of the Ghetto.” Barnes passed away in 2009.

According to his long-time assistant Luz Rodriguez, “The Graduate” is rooted in Ernie Barnes’ experiences growing up in segregated Durham, North Carolina during the 1940’s and 50’s:

"Because it was rare at that time for a member of the family to graduate from high school, it was commonplace and an honor for the new graduate to walk home from campus still dressed in their cap and gown. As the new graduate walked home, people on their front porches stood and clapped, which instilled a sense of pride in the graduate as well as the community. This image always remained in Barnes’ psyche."

The creative inspiration for “The Graduate” came many years later while Barnes was in his car, parked at a stop light. Peering out the window, he noticed a young man striding across the street. “He expressed the attitude and confidence that Barnes captured for the mannerism in ‘The Graduate,’” says Rodriguez.

John McDonogh Senior High School Graduation - New Orleans - 2007A student in New Orleans, Louisiana walks to his graduation ceremony at John McDonogh Senior High School. (photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Even though “The Graduate” depicts a solitary figure, it tells a story of collective pride and accomplishment. For Barnes, who attended North Carolina College on an athletic scholarship and graduated with an art degree, the graduate’s achievement buoys a family and a community. One person’s success may inspire a succession of possibilities.

Livingstong High School graduation - New Orleans - 2008Valedictorian Lawyna Taylor, one of 11 students displaced by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, celebrates after commencement was held in Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in the Ninth Ward. (photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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Completely Free to Be Vulnerable: Martha Depp on Art and Cancer

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

This afternoon we received the following email from Ben Depp, a photographer whose sister Martha, an artist and art teacher, was diagnosed with an advanced form of ovarian cancer:

"I put together a six-minute film on her art, life, and cancer. I think this is a good fit for your blog because of her spiritual journey through her cancer process, and it’s very interesting because of how she illustrated the process with painting and drawing. Her blog has touched thousands including many with terminal cancer.”

I don’t know why, but I started watching Ben’s quietly touching video, half expecting an against all odds type of story. It wasn’t to be.

Martha died this past Thursday at the age of 33. May she rest in peace with that brand new body she was awaiting:

"Physically, healing hasn’t happened. I mean, obviously, I still have cancer, and I’m obviously going to die from it. And it’s all over my body. But I’m kind of happy about that because I get to go to heaven sooner and be healed and get a new body and be from pain and suffering, and tears. No more tears."

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My Wish for Japan: A Softness Touching the Earth

by Sharon Kingston, guest contributor

A Softness Touching the Earth

Japan has been on all our minds and in all our hearts. There doesn’t seem to be enough capacity in the human soul to witness nature unleash its force on man in this way. Helplessness still sits with us even after the contributing of funds to relief efforts.

The magnitude of the disaster and continuing saga has made us all feel vulnerable to the uncertainty of life. We can’t fathom how recovery can possibly follow such devastation.

Then there’s me here in my studio just painting clouds and wondering how what I do could possibly matter. And then today I happened upon this Rilke poem after I finished the painting shown above. And the words could not be more profound and with them my painting feels right again.

Threshold of Spring
Harshness gone. All at once caring spread over
the naked gray of the meadows.
Tiny rivulets sing in different voices.
A softness, as if from everywhere,

is touching the earth.
Paths appear across the land and beckon.
Surprised once again you sense
its coming in the empty tree.

—from “A Year With Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke” (translated and edited by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows)


Sharon KingstonSharon Kingston is an oil painter of invented and imagined spaces infused with metaphor and poetry. Her most recent paintings, the Reading Rilke series, have been inspired by the writings and poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. She lives in Bellingham, Washington.

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

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