Oftentimes, for many of us, our way into the world of science is through gazing at the night skies, through astronomy, through NASA. We’re drawn to space and frontiers only limited by our imaginations. Natalie Batalha, a mission scientist on NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, brings this same sense of childhood astonishment and wonder to us in our show, “On Exoplanets and Love.”
This week’s sketchnotes by Doug Neill captures moments of her insights that, we hope, will lure you into listen and read. Quotations from Carl Sagan and rainbows in oil puddles are only the tip of the iceberg with this show. I encourage you to print it out, hang it on your door or in your office. Share with others. Listen and talk about what you see and what you heard.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Symbols of Power: Adinkras and the Nature of Reality
by S. James Gates
Physicists have long sought to describe the universe in terms of equations. Now, James Gates explains how research on a class of geometric symbols known as adinkras could lead to fresh insights into the theory of supersymmetry — and perhaps even the very nature of reality.
Complex ideas, complex shapes Adinkras — geometric objects that encode mathematical relationships between supersymmetric particles — are named after symbols that represent wise sayings in West African culture. This adinkra is called “nea onnim no sua a, ohu,” which translates as “he who does not know can become knowledgeable through learning.”
In the land of theoretical physics, equations have always been king. Indeed, it would probably be fair to caricature theoretical physicists as members of a company called “Equations-R-Us”, since we tend to view new equations as markers of progress.
The modern era of equation prediction began with Maxwell in 1861, continued through the development of Einstein’s equations of general relativity in 1916, and reached its first peak in the 1920s with the Schrödinger and Dirac equations. Then a second, postwar surge saw the development of equations describing the strong force and the electroweak force, culminating in the creation of the Standard Model of particle physics in about 1973. The equations trend continues today, with the ongoing struggle to create comprehensive equations to describe superstring theory. This effort — which aims to incorporate the force of gravity into physical models in a way that the Standard Model does not — marks the extant boundary of a long tradition.
Yet equations are not the only story. To an extent, geometrical representations of physical theories have also been useful when correctly applied. The most famous incorrect geometrical representation in physics is probably Johannes Kepler’s model of planetary orbits; initially, Kepler believed the orbits could be described by five regular polygons successively embedded within each other, but he abandoned this proposition when more accurate data became available.
A less well known but much more successful example of geometry applied to physics is Murray Gell-Mann’s “eightfold way”, which is a means of organizing subatomic particles. This organization has an underlying explanation using triangles with quarks located at the vertices.
For the past five years, I and a group of my colleagues (including Charles Doran, Michael Faux, Tristan Hubsch, Kevin Iga, Greg Landweber and others) have been following the geometric-physics path pioneered by Kepler and Gell-Mann. The geometric objects that interest us are not triangles or octagons, but more complicated figures known as “adinkras”, a name Faux suggested.
The word “adinkra” is of West African etymology, and it originally referred to visual symbols created by the Akan people of Ghana and the Gyamen of Côte d’Ivoire to represent concepts or aphorisms. However, the mathematical adinkras we study are really only linked to those African symbols by name. Even so, it must be acknowledged that, like their forebears, mathematical adinkras also represent concepts that are difficult to express in words. Most intriguingly, they may even contain hints of something more profound — including the idea that our universe could be a computer simulation, as in the Matrix films.
How can we not post this awesome sight from our home state of Minnesota?
A great pic of northern lights from Tumblr Campbench who writes:
ONE of the photos I snapped this evening. It started around 9:30pm (central time) but died soon after. It started up again around midnight and set the sky on fire. I have never before seen the lights this bright and this moving! “Waves” of what I can assume were electro-magnetic in origin would pulsate across the sky. It was definitely one of the most awesome experiences with nature I have ever had (and well worth the frostbite)!
Taken on Lake Superior, Duluth, MN.
I will post more photos to my blog when I get the chance.
(Update: also, check out the Campbench Tumblr. There are more great pics there and more to come later!)
And, on a more somber note, shortly before this wondrous event took place the #1-ranked team in the MN Boys’ State Hockey Tournament, Duluth East, was upset by the unseeded Lakeville South Cougars with a 3-2 victory in the Class 2A quarterfinals. Fireworks of a different sort.
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Being Comfortable in the Presence of Mystery
by Krista Tippett, host
Mario 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.
Religion and Science: Finding Their Kindred Spirits
by Krista Tippett, host
The science-religion “debate” is an abstraction, and a distraction. It isn’t true to the deep nature of science, or of religion, or to the history of interplay between them. These are convictions I’m left with after a cumulative conversation that began a decade ago. And after spending the spring traveling around the country talking about this in theaters packed with scientists and citizens, atheist to devout, I know that others share my sense that our sound-bite friendly, politically-fueled narrative of animosity has outlived its usefulness. There is a science-religion divide — these are two distinct and separate spheres of endeavor. But in the 21st century, we can’t help but hear echoes passing back and forth across that divide and changing the way we understand our humanity, our relationship to each other and the natural world, the contours of the cosmos.
It’s not just the passion and frequency with which mathematicians talk about beauty and physicists talk about mystery that intrigues me. It is also that every time the rest of us log on to our computers in the morning, or every time we eat a meal, we are steeped in the fruits of science. We may not be fluent in the language of science — mathematics — which Galileo called “the language in which the universe is written.” But in the most ordinary moments in our doctors’ offices, certainly in near-ordinary experiences like birth, illness, and death, we receive crash courses in science of many kinds. And we turn simultaneously, without time for debate, to inner territory of morality and meaning, which science has no language for addressing.
Einstein put it this way, helpfully: science is good at describing what is, but it does not describe what should be. That is one way to talk about the role that religious and spiritual practice, our sense of what is right and sacred, plays in human life. And for the record, I don’t believe that spiritual and moral life ceases in the absence of belief in God. Einstein didn’t believe in the personal God of traditional religion. But he did profess a “cosmic religious sense” driven by “inklings” and “wonderings” rather than answers and certainties. Its hallmarks were a reverence for beauty and a sense of wonder that, he acknowledged, he shared with lovers of art and religion.
And it’s worth remembering that, in Einstein’s day, zealous religion appeared less a threat to the future of humanity than science on the loose. He watched chemists and physicists become purveyors of weapons of unprecedented destructive power. He declared, chillingly, that science in his generation was like a razor blade in the hands of a three-year-old. Against this backdrop, he called his contemporary Gandhi — and other figures such as Jesus, Moses, St. Francis of Assisi, and Buddha — “spiritual geniuses.” Einstein soberly observed that these kinds of “geniuses in the art of living” are “more necessary to the sustenance of global human dignity, security and joy than the discovers of objective knowledge.”
It seems clearer and clearer to me that, in the 21st century, genius in the art of living must draw on the best insights of both science and religion, not as argued but as lived. Or, as the Anglican quantum physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne puts it, we come ever more vividly to see how science and religion are both necessary to interpret the “rich, varied and surprising way the world actually is.” I think that the surge of spiritual energy and curiosity of our time is precisely a response to the complexity we know by way of science and technology — not a flight from that, but a turn to sources of discernment to sort, prioritize, make sense.
I was especially intrigued by how the subject of climate change came up when I discussed Einstein’s God in a packed theater in Washington D.C. There the room included scientists from across government agencies — some of them personally religious, some of them not, but all open to engaging the moral aspects of human life that science touches but does not resolve. I heard from people who are working on frontiers of climate change research, including deliberation of how, in a worst-case scenario, we might intervene to change climate, change the weather. This is a cosmos-altering idea on the magnitude of those contemporaries of Einstein who split the atom. But they are deliberating now about the ethical ramifications of this burgeoning possibility, and they are aware of their need of all the resources humanity has to offer for thinking this through.
So what if, as a first step moving forward, we focused less on the competing answers of science and religion, and more on their kindred questions? The question of what it means to be human animates each of these vast fields of endeavor, though they approach and take it up in very different ways. If we just start seeing that, how much more cohesively might we be able to take in the best insights of science and religion, honoring more of the fullness of our humanity, living more gracefully and productively with all that we can know?
In the photo above, physicist Albert Einstein (left, standing behind girl) and theologian Paul Tillich (right, standing in front wearing glasses) at a conference in Davos, Switzerland on March 18, 1928. (Courtesy of Image Archive ETH-Bibliothek, Zurich)
Astrophysicist Mario Livio: A Twitterscript
Shubha Bala, associate producer
For the past few interviews, we have been diligently tweeting away while Krista converses with our guests. We hope that this is a unique way for you to experience some of the highlights — and get the conversation started — before you experience the full edited (or unedited!) show.
After our interview with Mario Livio, we all sat down to discuss what constitutes a good tweet. So, this week, we ask you: seeing the entire tweeting transcript below, what tweets are helpful? Do links help? Is it too much to break information between tweets?
- For the next 90 minutes, we’ll be live-tweeting Krista’s ISDN interview with Mario Livio, a Romanian astrophysicist who grew up in Israel.
- Mario Livio’s latest book is “Is God a Mathematician?”
- Livio asks if mathematics discovered or is it an invention of the human mind. Picks up from Krista’s interview with two Vatican astronomers.
- “Mathematics turns out to be too powerful in describing all these things.” -Mario Livio
- Mario Livio: Newton takes observations that aren’t so accurate, + his mathematical equations are more accurate than the observations!
- Livio: the theory of knots are very important application for string theory even though it was initially thought to have no application.
- Livio: The conclusion I reached about math being discovered or invented is that the question is being posed wrong. It’s a mixture.
- Ex. of mixture: imaginary numbers like square root of -1. We invent the concept and then we discover the relationships among these concepts.
- Ancient Greeks invented concept of prime numbers. And then the discoveries were forced upon us.
- Livio: Roger Penrose, mathematical physicist: three worlds and three mysteries - physical world, consciousness, mathematical forms.
- Penrose’s 3 mysteries: 1) out of the physical word, consciousness 2) consciousness gives access to math forms 3) math explains phys. world
- Livio: Chomsky will tell you that there is more universality to languages than we think.
- Livio “The Microsoft Effect”: once a particular OS starts to dominate, all have to adapt it. Mathematical notation is a little bit of that.
- Mario Livio: “Our perception system is universal. This had to help in inventing natural numbers like 1,2,3,4,5…”
- “Like beauty in the arts, it is somewhat more vaguely defined [in mathematics] …but perhaps it is a little bit more defined.” -Mario Livio
- We try to formulate a few laws of physics + try to explain all phenomena. We do the same thing in mathematics - like in symmetry. -M. Livio
- “I have heard very few people think that Einstein’s general theory of relativity is not beautiful.” -Mario Livio, astrophysicist
- Mario Livio: You could argue that the principal behind Einstein’s general relativity is simpler than Newton’s gravity.
- M. Livio: Symmetry is a quantity that does not change. Mathematicians came up with a system to describe ALL these symmetries. Group Theory.
- Funny moment where Krista starts to ask Livio about his love of art and Mario Livio responds, “You seem to be well prepared.”
- Mario Livio, in response to Krista’s question: “I don’t have a good explanation for my passion for art.”
- Livio: “…it would be false to say that science + art have influenced each other. Or that science + religion have influenced each other.”M. Livio: “A person who feels a need for God does not want a God that created the universe and then left the universe to its own devices.”
- M. Livio, picking up on that last point: “Science has nothing to say about this. … People try to force the connection.”
- M.Livio-ppl who try to say Genesis is completely accurate scientifically does science & religion a disservice
- M.Livio-Is God a Mathematician? “I mean God as an Einsteinian God-synonym to the working of the cosmos.”
- M.Livio-Physics has changed over time but “Mathematics has evolved, but the math the ancient greeks did is still true today.” Eternal truth?
- M.Livio-As physics became more predictive, people went away from religion to talk about nature - talked about precise sciences
- M.Livio-cont. a development of 20th century-with quantum physics, things are no longer deterministic, can only calculate probabilities
- M.Livio-“Biology today is..at the state physics was…..-many of the major breakthroughs are yet to be made”
- Krista tells a funny story of Goedel, accompanied by Einstein, applying for US citizenship - http://www.ias.edu/people/godel/institute
- M. Livio - About math and life… well “in science, unless you have a well defined problem it is virtually impossible to try to answer it”
- Livio-“Things like life these are inherently complex situations where..often I don’t..know what question to pose, let alone find the answer”
- Livio-April 24 is Hubble 20 year anniversary. He talks about the importance of Hubble images - http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/
- Krista and M. Livio recall SOF interview about human & mathematical limits with Janna Levin - http://bit.ly/axpPBy
- M.Livio-pushing boundaries-we used to think the earth was the center of a universe, and now “200 galaxies like ours just in the observable”
- M.Livio - but each discovery we make, we find out there’s something “even more mysterious”
- M.Livio-In all this, our physical selves seem more&more minuscule, but our minds making the discoveries are more&more important & central
- Thank you Mario Livio! For more information on him and his book : http://www.mariolivio.com/
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.