Q:Can someone at On Being recommend a good book to start reading the works of Teilhard de Chardin? I was transfixed by this show! Thank you!
Most definitely! There are two books I’d definitely recommend reading.
The first is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: Writings Selected. It’s edited by the religious scholar Ursula King, who is a guest voice in our podcast on "Teilhard de Chardin’s ‘Planetary Mind’ and Our Spiritual Evolution."
This book is a good introduction to Teilhard’s spiritual thinking and biographical notes. Ms. King writes a beautiful summary at the beginning that gets at the heart of Teilhard de Chardin’s spirituality, which “creatively welds together science, religion, and mysticism in one unifying synthesis.”
Ms. King doesn’t just write about him and selectively quote from his writings. This is a good thing. She pulls healthy sections from some of his most notable works — including Writings in a Time of War, The Divine Milieu, Heart of Matter, and The Phenomenon of Man — which allow you to imbibe the sensibility of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his own words. The translations are passionate and very readable, thank goodness, because we’ve come across other translations will make you feel like you’re eating week-old bread with nothing to wash it down.
I’d also recommend reading Amir Aczel’s The Jesuit and the Skull. Mr. Aczel is a superb storyteller and popularizer of great scientific minds and finds. For devotees of Teilhard, Mr. Aczel may not do enough, but his focus on the French Jesuit’s role in the discovery of Peking Man in 1929 gives the reader a sense of Teilhard as scientist who is trying to reconcile his religious beliefs with those of the Catholic Church.
Teilhard de Chardin’s struggle is at the heart of Aczel’s book. It’s an adventure story too, trotting the reader all over the globe, introducing us to countries and cultures of the day that speak to our own ongoing wrestling match about evolution.
Whereas, Ms. King’s compilation will force you to read slowly, think deeply, and savor Teilhard’s passionate langue and ideas, The Jesuit and the Skull lets you buzz through with a liveliness and vitality of a good summer vacation exploration.
Hope this helps!
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Radioactive: The Modern-Day Science and Spiritualism of Marie and Pierre Curie
by Jill Schneiderman, guest contributor
Radioactivity. Life. Death. These are front-and-center in my thoughts these days as I contemplate the fallout from the nuclear plant meltdown generated by power outages, triggered by a tsunami set off by an earthquake in Japan. Amidst these events, I turned my attention to reading Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss.
Currently, the book is on exhibit at the New York Public Library. The author, an artist, teaches documentary, drawing, graphic novels, and printmaking at the Parsons School of Design, so one might be excused from not immediately recognizing the logic of her having written a book on the Curies (who shared with Henri Becquerel the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics for their research on radiation.) But there’s little that is logical about the way this story reveals itself and that’s what makes it beautiful and such a pleasure to read.
The book is a piece of art composed of images and words. Although told in roughly chronological fashion, mostly the story has long tendrils of other tales. In this regard, as well as others, I suspect it will be of interest to people fascinated by the intersections of science and mind.
Here’s what I liked about it. To me, the format of Radioactive mimics the way a mind — mine at least — works. All of us dedicated to a regular sitting practice know that just a few breaths into a sit, the mind is likely to take an excursion, follow an idea. After some time we wake up to the fact of our distraction and come back to focusing on the breath. It is in this manner that the story of the Curies, their colleagues, friends, enemies, lovers, and offspring unfolds. Unlike histories of science or biographies of scientists that are so often linear and wordy, this one provides multiple, pursuable pathways.
Even if they know little else, most people know that Marie Skłodowska Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize. They may also know that her first Nobel in physics was followed by a second in 1911 in chemistry for the discovery of the elements radium and polonium.
But the story of Marie and Pierre Curie is much more interesting than that plain fact. It involves a stimulating partnership of spouses engaged by the same scientific questions, infatuation with the invisible, Marie’s scandalous love affair after her husband’s accidental death by horse-drawn carriage, an ongoing commitment to scientific and medical investigations that ultimately killed her, and offspring — both biological and scientific — who have carried on their work.
In Radioactive, entwined images and prose create a fabric that relates the stories of the Curies to more modern-day concerns: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and two World Wars. Redniss indulges her readers with haunting cyanotype and archival images offered up in nonlinear fashion; this is a boon for right-brainers such as I whose minds tend toward wandering.
A most fascinating facet of the book tells of the Curie’s explorations in Spiritualism — a movement that suggested the possibility of contact with the divine. As Redniss tells it:
"Electricity, radio, the telegraph, the X-ray, and now, radioactivity — at the turn of the twentieth century a series of invisible forces were radically transforming daily life. These advances were dazzling and disorienting: for some, they blurred the boundary between science and magic…. Spiritualists claimed that clairvoyants possessed ‘X-gazes,’ and that photographic plates placed on the forehead could record vital forces of the brain, or ‘V-rays.’"
The Curies and their circle — including leading artists, writers, and scientists such as Edvard Munch, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henri Poincare, Alexander Graham Bell — participated in the Spiritualist séances of Italian medium Eusapia Palladino and considered it possible to find in Spiritualism the origin of unknown energy that might relate to radioactivity. In fact, as Susan Quinn recounts in Marie Curie: A Life, just prior to his death, Pierre Curie wrote to physicist Louis Georges Gouy about his last séance with Palladino, “There is here, in my opinion, a whole domain of entirely new facts and physical states in space of which we have no conception.”
Both scientists and Spiritualists believed that there was much that exists in the world that cannot be seen by the naked eyes of humans.
Radioactive is a story of mystery and magic as well as a history of science and invention. It shows how science, so often thought of as motivated by passionate rationality, is equally about marvelous ambiguity. The Curies, perhaps influenced by their encounters with Spiritualism, devoted their lives to the search for evidence of phenomena they could not see but that they believed existed. The implications of what they found — the good and the bad, medical innovation and nuclear proliferation — they couldn’t fully anticipate.
A recent New York Times article about nuclear energy, “Preparing for Everything, Except the Unknown,” states the obvious: experts say it is impossible to prepare for everything. As a mindfulness practitioner, I’d like to offer a corollary to that statement: when we sit seemingly doing nothing, plenty happens — we don’t see it, but we sense it. Redniss’s history of the lives of Marie and Pierre Curie inspires me as a scientist to continue to pursue my mindfulness practice.
Jill S. Schneiderman is Professor of Earth Science at Vassar College. She’s also the editor of and contributor to For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design and The Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable Planet. She blogs at Shambhala SunSpace and Earth Dharma.
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Recommended: Johnstons’ New Book on Religion and Foreign Policy
by Krista Tippett, host
As we pulled together this week’s show with Scott Atran, I was reminded of my conversation a few years ago with Douglas Johnston on “Diplomacy and Religion in the 21st Century.” He is a quintessential diplomatic and military strategist who, at 27, was also the youngest officer in the navy to quality for command of a nuclear submarine. And he is, in my mind, one of the wisest and most pragmatic thinkers (and actors) on the role of religion in the modern world.
In our conversation, he offered whole new ways to think about the possible democratizing role of Islam in places like Pakistan, Iran, and Sudan. He told us amazing stories of work he is doing in these places, even in madrasas in Pakistan and with leading religious figures in Iran, that fall under the diplomatic and journalistic radar. And he has a new book out, Religion, Terror, and Error: U.S Foreign Policy and the Challenge of Spiritual Engagement. This is that rare thing — a readable nonfiction book that both challenges experts in its field and simultaneously translates these challenges into a real resource for non-experts. I recommend it highly.
Autism and Being Human, Another Take
by Krista Tippett, host
Our show on autism with Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder remains one of my favorites. And I’ve been enjoying a wonderfully written and moving memoir by Emily Colson about life with her son Max, now 19. Dancing with Max: A Mother and Son Who Broke Free has a prologue and an epilogue written by Charles (Chuck) Colson. Colson, of course, served in the Nixon White House and went to prison for the Watergate scandal, then went on to found Prison Ministries International. He is now something of an Evangelical Christian elder statesman, whom I met and interviewed several years ago together with two Evangelicals of different generations.
Chuck Colson and his daughter have created a searching and sometimes surprising exploration of what autism may teach us about what it means to be human, written from a devout and searching Christian perspective. It is an important addition to our literary and cultural encounter with autism, and I recommend it.