This story from BBC News about NASA’s missing moon rocks is absolutely tragic. Accidents do happen but people losing and selling so many of these fragments seems to place so little value on the herculean feat of the human race making it to the moon.
“Each ‘goodwill moon rock’ was encased in a lucite ball and mounted on a wooden plaque with the recipient nations’ flag attached.”
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.
Surfing a Wave of Mystery
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
When asked about surfing a world record 90-foot high wave (27 meters) above Nazare Canyon off the Atlantic coast of Portugal, Garrett McNamara comments in this Guardian video:
"This wave is very mysterious and very magical. It’s just such a mystery; you never know what you’re going to get out there."
Magical? Check. Daunting? Check. A mysterious place to meet one’s maker? Check.
You can spend forty years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. I do wonder where it will end.
—Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
What Do You Think Williams’ Mother Meant by Giving Her Those Journals?
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
This bit of audio from our Terry Tempest Williams interview has us all mystified. It resulted in this “thought experiment” among our staff, which led to wildly varying interpretations.
Take a listen to this confounding story about the journals her mother left her:
What do you think Williams’ mother was trying to say about herself? To tell her daughter?
What do those pages say about “voice” to the rest of us?
I’ve told and retold this story to many of my friends and family, and each person has a distinct take on what it all means, but they all ask with a wrinkled brow: Why? Why? Why? I’m anxious to hear your interpretation because I can easily come up with a half-dozen theories.
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.
Old School Mystery
Rob McGinley Myers, associate producer
In researching some possible future topics for the show, I ran across this documentary video, called Powers of Ten, which is described in the opening credits as “A film dealing with the relative size of things in the universe.” It’s got a 70s era, old school educational filmstrip vibe to it, but it’s also pretty profound in the way it places human beings in relationship to both the universe and elementary particles.
Watching the film reminds me of a seasick gut sensation I used to get as a kid whenever I tried to wrap my mind around the idea (picked up in Sunday school) that God had never been born, but rather God had always existed. Or when I tried to contemplate the idea (probably gleaned from some Carl Sagan show) that the universe had no end, and just goes on and on forever. Or when I would stare out the window on car trips at passing houses and get little glimpses of peoples’ lives through their windows or their back yards. And I would think about how every human being on the planet has a life and a consciousness that is just as rich and complicated as mine, but that I would never know anything about the vast majority of those people; their lives would just continue to go on and on, completely independent of me.
I would lie in bed late at night and think about these things and feel like I was falling. And it occurs to me as I write this that I haven’t had that same visceral reaction to mystery since I was a little kid. It’s hard not to recall those childhood revelations without seeing them as a little dated and contrived, not unlike a low budget 70s era educational filmstrip.