Transformation Is Compatible with the Heart of Science
by Krista Tippett, host
I still remember when I began to hear about Richard Davidson's work. More to the point, I remember the warmth and excitement with which the immunologist Esther Sternberg first told me about him. He inspired in her a courage to align her insights from science and life. Later I would pick up the esteem and affection in which many wise people hold “Richie,” as they all call him — including Matthieu Ricard, the French-born Tibetan Buddhist monk, who brought the notion of happiness alive for me in a whole new way.
Richard Davidson has studied Matthieu Ricard’s brain. His body of work in brain imaging has helped shape the young field of neuroscience. And it shines a new light on elemental understandings of human character, mental and emotional health, and moral development across the life span.
As he tells it, he had a fascination with the mind — its mysterious power to define our very lives — from childhood on. And he was always scientifically oriented, interested in exploring the mind in terms of biology. But as a young scientist, he also became aware of the limits of the tools at hand. As I was preparing to interview him, I found an academic work he edited in 1980 on the "psychobiology of consciousness." And it was striking to realize that even thirty years ago, EEG biofeedback was the best researchers could do in monitoring what was happening inside the brain. This was the world before the widespread use of MRI and other technologies that have unlocked frontiers.
In this same period, Richard Davidson also became interested in meditation. As a graduate student, he traveled to India and attended his first meditation retreat there in the 1970s. To this day he doesn’t call himself Buddhist, but he does have a daily contemplative practice. He experienced this as personally and spiritually gratifying, and the scientist in him was intrigued by this ancient discipline of observing one’s own mind, as it were, from the inside.
He was “in the closet” with this interest for a long time, as he tells it, because Western medicine cast a wary eye on anything that might be deemed spiritual and therefore unscientific. But, one day in 1992, he received a fax from the Dalai Lama inviting him to Dharamsala, India to probe the scientific causes of human happiness and compassion. Davidson eventually brought Tibetan Buddhist monks into the laboratory that he directs at the University of Wisconsin to see whether their meditation practices might alter the very physiology of the brain.
The answer, as it turned out, was yes. Some of the most dramatic observable findings are not yet explainable. For example, these monks have a much higher rate of gamma wave oscillations than has ever been captured before. It is not precisely known how such oscillations correlate to life, behavior, and consciousness. But high gamma wave oscillations do correlate generally with clarity of mental perception — to synthesize and sort among multiple inputs and to attend to granular aspects of experience. These results from Richard Davidson’s laboratory provided a new and solid piece of evidence that our brains are open to change across the lifespan. We don’t reach a stage in adolescence or young adulthood where our minds have finished forming. There is a far more fluid, lifelong interplay between emotions, behaviors, biology, and even genetics than was previously suspected. The name for this — “neuroplasticity" — masks the very hopeful and practical power it puts back in the realm of human choice.
Richard Davidson is now aspiring to understand this more deeply and channel it more broadly at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, which he founded in 2008. He knows that practicing meditation, and cultivating positive qualities like compassion and kindness, can actually rewire us physically. So might this, he is asking and testing, reveal new avenues of approach to conditions like ADHD, autism, even asthma? Might it show us elemental ways to equip children and adolescents to be more self-aware and compassionate in their interactions with others?
I’m also intrigued by how this work might challenge and enrich basic tenets of Western psychology. Richard Davidson tells of an early encounter with Buddhist practitioners seeking — and failing — to understand why Western psychology’s basic definition of the human emotional range is overwhelmingly focused on disorder. Is it really the best we can do, Davidson himself began to ask, to have a sophisticated understanding of anxiety and psychosis but only a primitive grasp of compassion?
I’m left wondering how this science might reframe and enrich things like therapy, child-rearing, education, and treatment of mental disorders in the years to come. I think it will be transformative. And as Richard Davidson says near the end of our conversation, the notion of transformation is compatible with the heart of science he has always known and revered. People like Richard Davidson recall us to this, and open a larger sense of what it might mean, to our common edification.
About the photo above: Psychology professor Richard Davidson, far right, demonstrates to Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, a PET scanner during a tour of the Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior in May 2001. (photo: Jeff Miller / © UW-Madison University Communications)
Danish Filmmaker Spends Year in Wisconsin Documenting Contemplative Neuroscience Research with Children and Vets in “Free the Mind”
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
For the past year, Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo has been trailing neuroscientist Richard Davidson at his lab in Madison, Wisconsin. Best known for studying the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks, Davidson’s research has shown that meditation can literally change the brain.
He’s the featured guest in our show titled "Investigating Healthy Minds." While producing it, we were looking for sound that would illustrate some of his point and discovered Ambo’s yet-to-be released documentary, Free the Mind, contained a few audio clips that would help bring Dr. Davidson’s work to life.
In 2010, Ambo set out with her family from Denmark to document Davidson’s newest research with pre-school children and war veterans. We emailed her to learn more about her film, and her motivations for making it.
I met Richard Davidson for the first time in 2009 when he was in Massachusetts for a conference on mindfulness. I was there to look for a scientist who would be a good main character for my film, so I sat through four days of talks given by different experts in the field, and I immediately knew that Richie would make a great character when I saw him on stage. He is a very playful and curious scientist, and it’s easy to tell that he is very visionary.
What inspired you to make a film about him? How and why is Richard Davidson’s work personally meaningful to you?
The reason why I wanted to make a film on Richie’s work is that he is personally invested in his research. He is a meditator himself, which to me makes him interesting as a researcher on a very deep level.
Richie knows that meditation works for him, but he really wants to know how and why it works. He has his own bodily experience with meditation, which I believe gives him the tools to ask the relevant questions on a scientific level. To me it’s also crucial that Richie works with rigorous scientific methods and that he also publishes studies that show that meditation does not work for everyone. This makes him reliable and trustworthy to me.
Another good trait in Richie is that he is not afraid to ask some of the questions that may not be popular in meditation research like: How many of the people who take a mindfulness class actually stick to the training one year or 10 years later?
Do you have a meditation practice? If so, what kind of practice do you do? How has meditation shaped your own life (and brain)?
About six years ago I suddenly started to have panic attacks and it was very scary and disturbing. I went to my doctor and she wanted to medicate me, but I had a strong feeling that medication was not the right treatment for me. I felt that I had to find a way to work my way through this crisis with all my senses open, not closed.
By coincidence I heard about mindfulness meditation and I took an eight-week course in Copenhagen. It helped me a lot to just accept things as they were and not try to shove down all the uncomfortable emotions. But I also felt very strongly that something was physically changing in my brain as I practiced. I got very curious about what was actually happening to me on a scientific level, so I decided to look into this through my work as a filmmaker.
I still meditate every day. I practice different kinds of meditation -– lovingkindness, open awareness, body scan, and sound meditations. It’s funny because in my work as a documentary filmmaker I often struggle with accepting reality as it is; I can’t control what happens when I shoot and this is both the best and worst about working with reality. But the way I see it, meditation is very much about being in the present moment and experiencing it fully without wanting to change it -– and this is really helpful to remember in my job. In many ways my meditation practice helps me to stay open towards any changes that may occur during shooting and just go with whatever happens.
You traveled inside this emerging world of contemplative neuroscience during the filming process. How did your understanding of contemplative neuroscience deepen or change?
In the beginning of my research process, it was very important to me that the meditation form being studied was mindfulness, so I was a bit thrown off when I found out that one of the experiments that I was following for the film had changed into being about a specific breathing technique and yoga, which was not Buddhist based.
This was an experiment with vets who suffer from PTSD and they go through a seven-day workshop. I was worried that just sitting down breathing would be too subtle to make interesting cinematic scenes with the vets, but it turned out that the breathing activated all kinds of emotions that came out during the workshop. This made the study very suitable for the documentary film, and I realized that the contemplative practices all stand on a pretty similar ground so they produce some of the same effects too. It’s not so important whether it’s Buddhist or not.
Tell us a little bit about the filming process. How long did you document Richard Davidson and his research? What aspects of his research did you look at? What’s the story you’re trying to tell?
I went to Madison three times to prepare for the shooting and make sure that we were all on the same page and then I brought my husband and two kids for six weeks in the fall of 2010 where I did almost all of the scenes for the film. I was in India briefly with Richie to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama and then back again in Madison in the spring of 2011 to do the very last scenes for the film.
I had decided to make a film that would appeal to a wide audience because I think it’s important for everyone to know about these alternative ways to work with our health. I think that a lot of people get turned off if they feel that this film is too academic for them so I chose to make it a case-based story where we follow three characters that go through studies set in Richie’s lab.
Two of them are vets and one is a five-year-old child. What I really like about the studies that these two extremely different groups go through is that they are very similar; they all learn to concentrate and become more aware of themselves and their surroundings. So the story that I would like to tell is that essentially all human beings are alike even though we seem very different on the surface. We are all just trying to achieve happiness. The good news is that we can work intentionally towards that goal because our brains are plastic and we have the potential to change all through life.
What did you see on the ground while filming that made a lasting impression on you? Is there a particular story or experience that stands out?
I really like some of the more poetic moments in the film. One of the vets sits in his own thoughts halfway through the workshop and then he says, “I’ve just come to the realization that I haven’t really lived since I’ve been back. I’ve just been kind of here.” This guy has stopped making plans for his life, but at the end of the workshop he starts to talk about running a marathon!
Another moving moment is when a vet says that he used to be a kid who was smiling all the time for no reason and now he’s grown cynical and closed off and he never smiles. At the end of the workshop, he has a smile on his face during a meditation.
The little kid in the film, Will, also has a wonderful scene in the film when during class the kids are talking about how to make a plant grow. The other kids say “sun, soil, and water” but Will says “love” in a clear voice “because if you don’t love it, it won’t grow!” These are all little steps that the characters take on their journey that I feel incredibly privileged to be witnessing through my camera.
Free the Mind is slated for release in the spring of 2012.
Reminder of an On-Stage Exchange Thanks to Kungfutofu
- Ms. Tippett: So Sylvia, one thing following on that. Lovingkindness meditation is also towards one's self. You share a story in your writing about precisely that, but you share what you often say to yourself when you're in a moment of anxiety. OK. So I think this is just great advice. I'm going to hang onto this. "Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax, take a breath, let's pay attention to what is happening, then we'll figure out what to do." I think that's a fabulous sentence for one's self and for one's children.
- Dr. Boorstein: I'm so pleased that you found that. It's tremendously pleasing to me because I meet people in some significant numbers who tell me that they say to themselves in moments of distress. I say — they say, "I say to myself, 'Sweetheart, you're in pain. Relax, take a breath.'" I love that. A whole bunch of people out there saying to themselves, "Sweetheart."
A Twitterscript of Richard J. Davidson Interview
by Susan Leem, associate producer
The Dalai Lama and Dr. Richard Davidson trade smiles during the first day of the Mind Life XIV Conference at the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala, India on April 9, 2007. (photo: Tenzin Lhwang/AFP/Getty Images)
Richard Davidson is best known for peeking into the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks. With brain neuroimaging, he is trying to understand how their contemplative practices change a human brain — functionally and structurally. We’ve wanted to speak with the neuroscientist for several years now, but it wasn’t until Krista spoke to him at Emory University last fall that we were able to schedule an interview.
Early in his career, Davidson was discouraged from doing this work by his advisors, who feared he wouldn’t find any results. His research has implications not just for practitioners of Buddhism, but also for improving the learning and social behavior of school children. His most thrilling finding is that our brain is more flexible than we realize, even in adulthood.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and reposting for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets:
- As we get set for interview w/ neuroscientist Richie Davidson, enjoyed @SmithsonianMag's “Top 10 Myths about the Brain”http://bit.ly/kqRdG7 24 May
- Krista is now interviewing neuroscientist Richard Davidson (of @DalaiLama fame)! We’ll be live-tweeting for the next 90 mins. #meditation 24 May
- You might know Davidson for peeking into the brains of Buddhist monks http://bit.ly/kLdczm 24 May
- @Wisc_CIHM he studies “healthy qualities of mind such as kindness, compassion, forgiveness and mindfulness” http://bit.ly/jrMxc4 24 May
- As a kid he was a ham radio operator. And now he studies “contemplative neuroscience.” 24 May
- Davidson’s been on our radar ever since speaking during HHDL’s visit to Emory last year http://bit.ly/izyTdE 24 May
- His friends and colleagues call the Professor “Richie.” 24 May
- "What modern neuroscience is teaching us is that there is a lot of neuroplasticity (in the brain), and change is possible." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "It’s not the genes are unimportant, it’s just that they’re much more dynamic than we previously understood." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "Contemplative Neuroscience—the study of the impact of contemplative practices on the brain." -Professor Davidson 24 May
- "The Dalai Lama challenged me, he said why can’t you use technological tools to study kindness and compassion?" -R. Davidson 24 May
- "I committed to doing everything I could to put compassion on the scientific map." -Richard Davidson. 24 May
- 6 emotions studied: Happiness, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness, and Surprise. “This is the best you can do with Western Psychology?”-Davidson 24 May
- RT @FullContactTMcG: I’d be curious to know how we are re-wiring our brains with being becoming multitaskers with an inability to focus. 24 May
- @FullContactTMcG Will forward to Krista in the booth. Thanks. 24 May
- "The best way to teach compassion is to embody it. Through being that the individuals in the vicinity of that person will learn from it." 24 May
- "That’s what’s so delicious about being in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "The word ‘meditation’ in Sanskrit comes from the word ‘familiarization.’" As in familiarization with one’s own mind. -R. Davidson 24 May
- "There are literally hundreds of different kinds of meditation practices, understood to produce different effects." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "Mindfulness—moment to moment non judgemental attention and awareness." -Richard Davidson 24 May
- "Based on everything we know in neuroscience, change is not only possible, it’s the rule rather than the exception." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "Our brain is continuously being shaped, we can take more responsibility for our own brain by cultivating positive influences." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "Most people still don’t think of qualities like happiness as being a skill, that can be enhanced through training." -R. Davidson. 24 May
- "(We need) a different conception of happiness, more enduring and more genuine, not dependent on external circumstances." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "In the Buddhist tradition there’s tremendously rich detail in the description of the mechanics of these (contemplative) practices"-Davidson 24 May
- "I think the messiness and embodied nature of modern life just produces an enhanced signal for our attention." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "In many ways my life has objective signs of busyness and stress, it creates more opportunities for kindness and compassion." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "(We have) no idea how the subjective quality of consciousness emerges from the physical stuff of the brain." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "The idea of transformation meshes perfectly well with conventional scientific understanding." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "The key to a healthy life is having a healthy mind." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "The best way I can mentor and lead those around me is to embody these (mindful) qualities myself." -R. Davidson 24 May
- "In meditation you experience time slowing down because you can notice more things per discreet moment and you’re more open." -R.Davidson 24 May
- ”(Re: the value of presence) If we’re multitasking, it’s being present with the multiple tasks before us.” -R. Davidson 24 May
- That concludes our interview with Professor Richard Davidson! Thank you for retweeting. 24 May
The Act of Parenting Is Folding the Towels in a Sweet Way
by Krista Tippett, host
I was struck in that discussion by one story she told, about a man who participated in one of her meditation and Metta or “lovingkindness” retreats; she conducts these for Buddhist practitioners but also for rabbis and clergy and lay people of many traditions. As this man prepared to pack up and go home, he described an unsettling sense of vulnerability, of openness to life which also meant that his defenses were down. He felt blessedly sheltered in the context of that retreat but far too exposed to take his newfound vulnerability out into the world.
This has its corollary in becoming a parent, I think. One’s sense of sovereignty and safety goes into freefall — and stays there. But no one tells you this in advance! As the French theologian Louis Evely beautifully put it:
"(W)hen one becomes a father, or a mother, one suddenly sees oneself as vulnerable, in the most sensitive part of one’s being; one is completely powerless to defend oneself, one is no longer free, one is tied up. To become a father is to experience an infinite dependency on an infinitely small, frail being, dependent on us and therefore omnipotent over our heart."
So how to live, how to love, how to know what we can do (and what we can’t) to raise children who will participate in the world’s beauty and its pain and be safe inside their skin. This too is a conundrum, a daunting challenge that we rarely name together. But it is always there if we are raising children not merely to be successful (and there’s lots of advice about that), but to be good and grounded and kind.
As you might hear in the audio above, I went into this conversation with Sylvia Boorstein hoping for some practical wisdom about imparting such qualities of character. In the course of our time together, some of it in exchange with an audience of others with children in their lives, we circled back to the simplest and most daunting reality of all: our children are likely, in the end, to act and live as we act and live. Nurturing their inner lives means nurturing our inner lives, for their sake.
I couldn’t have found a better conversation partner on this. Sylvia Boorstein has four grown children and seven grandchildren, and her spiritual practice is blessedly reality-based. Buddhism, of course, is at its core about embracing reality head on, about minimizing suffering in life by first acknowledging that suffering is a fact of life and resolving not to make it worse.
So, as she describes, this spiritual practice has helped her grasp that her lifelong tendency to worry is simply a quality she possesses, no more remarkable than the fact that she is short and has brown hair. Others of us may have a tendency towards anger, or to reach for sensory comfort when life throws its curve balls. The trick for achieving balance and joy in our own lives — a trick made both harder and more important by the presence of children who exhaust as well as delight us — is first to know this about ourselves.
Spiritual parenting, as Sylvia Boorstein describes it, is not about adding work or effort to our overly busy lives. It is about self-knowledge and “wise effort” that helps us live gracefully moment by moment. It is manifest as much in how we fold the laundry as in how we discipline or praise our children. She offers this, for example, as a simple piece of effort that can reorient our attitudes and responses in all kinds of situations. Rather than asking, “Am I pleased?” in any given situation, we can ask instead, “In this moment, am I able to care?”
Lovingkindness (Metta) Meditation with Sylvia Boorstein
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
In mid-February, we partnered with WDET to hold a live event in a quaint suburban village outside of Detroit. The topic: raising children in complex times.
Krista’s conversation with Sylvia Boorstein was rolling along quite nicely — stories were being told, approaches to child-rearing were being shared — when somewhat unexpectedly, Boorstein (a Jewish Buddhist teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California) offered to lead a lovingkindness, or metta, meditation for a crowd of more than 300 folks.
With that size of a crowd who hadn’t necessarily attended for a mindfulness retreat, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What resulted was a magical experience in which the audience fully participated in this impromptu moment of reflection.
If you’re game, we’d like you to use this as a guided meditation. As a producer, one’s never certain if an impromptu experience like this works because it was part of a particular time or if it translates into a fruitful experience for others online. What do you think?
Photo by Trent Gilliss
Correction (June 11, 2011): This post mistakenly referred to Ms. Boorstein teaching at Split Rock Meditation Center, and has now been revised to Spirit Rock Meditation Center.
Namaste, Bobby McFerrin. A Photograph.
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Producing for this public radio program definitely has its memory perks, indelible moments that make one pause and smile, or contemplate and squint. This photo is one of those sacred moments for me, ten seconds or so in which I witnessed an artist prepare in his own way for another interview.
Just after Bobby McFerrin sat down — right before he ran back to his dressing room to fetch Krista some fresh-baked ginger snaps — he began stretching in the most relaxed and expansive way, fully aware of his breathing and his body. His movement was more of a pose, really, with a glacial, measured pace of extension. Ample in its nature, lacking nervousness. The nature of it gracious and enduring, with intention.
This is as good as it gets.
By the way, the man is 61 years old. I gotta start improvising more.
Live Video: Secular Ethics and Meditation
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Although the Dalai Lama wasn’t able to make it to the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, California due to illness, this substitute talk by Thupten Jinpa, His Holiness’ translator, and Robert Thurman, Je Tsongkhapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, should make for a great hour of learning. Two wise people discussing ethics and meditation should provide for some worthwhile contemplation and tips for living a more thoughtful life. The event starts now, at 5:45 pm (Eastern).
A Little Bit of Mindfulness Meditation Can Reduce a Lot of Pain
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"You might not need extensive training [in meditation] to realize pain-relief benefits. Most people don’t have time to spend months in a monastery."
—Fadel Zeidan, neuroscientist
In the study, a small group of healthy medical students attended four 20-minute training sessions on “mindfulness meditation” — a technique adapted from a Tibetan Buddhist form of meditation called samatha.It’s all about acknowledging and letting go of distraction. …
So how did the researchers gauge the effect? They administered a very distracting bit of pain: A small, thermal stimulator heated to 120 degrees was applied to the back of each volunteer’s right calf. The subjects reported both the intensity and unpleasantness of the pain. If pain were music, intensity would be volume. Unpleasantness would have more of an emotional component, kind of like how much you love or hate a song.
After meditation training, the subjects reported a 40 percent decrease in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. And it wasn’t just their perception of pain that changed. Brain activity changed too.
Be sure to read Cole’s article for the details.
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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