Celebrate the New Year Cosmically
by Susan Leem, associate producer
The Quadrantids are coming! The Quadrantids are coming!
This meteor shower is named after a constellation that no longer exists, but you can get a peek of these gorgeous comets streaking across the sky in the new year on the early morning of January 4th in North America.
According to NASA, the fragments you see come from an asteroid, which could be a piece of a comet that broke up centuries ago. They will “enter our atmosphere at 90,000 mph, burning up 50 miles above Earth’s surface.”
It’s the first major meteor shower of the new year. And one of the strongest of the year if conditions are right.
Photo by Ed Sweeney/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
From Being Visual:
This Crab Nebula is a remnant of a star’s supernova explosion. It’s six light-years wide and expanding! Congratulations to the three astrophysicists who won this year’s Nobel Prize in physics for discovering that the fading lights of supernovas tell us that our universe is expanding into a cold, dark place.
(Photo by NASA via Getty Images)
Earth and Moon as Stars in the Night Sky
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Twenty-one days into its journey to Jupiter, NASA’s Juno space probe captured this remarkable sight on August 26th: our planet and its moon (Earth’s on the left) from approximately six million miles, nearly ten million kilometers, away. Seeing Earth from the outside, Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator, put it best, “We see a humbling yet beautiful view of ourselves.”
Cosmic Origami and What We Don’t Know: An Invitation to Picture Parallel Realities
by Krista Tippett, host
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.
In 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.
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."
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.
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)
Being Comfortable with the Presence of Mystery
Krista Tippett, host
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.
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.
—from Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist by Brother Guy Consolmagno
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
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!
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.