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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

You will not believe how the pediatric neuro-oncologist uses the venom from a scorpion’s sting to paint the malignant tumors in children’s brains and lymphatic systems. And, in the process, tap the human spirit.

"Inside the brain it is very difficult to tell the difference between normal brain and cancer. It’s all about millimeters. You’re a millimeter off, take a few grams of tissue that belong safely in the brain, then the patients wake up not as perfect as when they went into the surgery."

To solve this problem, Dr. Olson looked to the natural world. He found his answer in an unlikely candidate: the Israeli Deathstalker scorpion. which has the most powerful venom of any scorpion. The Deathstalker’s venom contains chlorotoxin, a peptide that attaches to certain brain cancer cells while leaving surrounding healthy cells untouched.

Pair this targeting peptide with a fluorescent dye (a beacon) and Dr. Olson came up with“tumor paint.” This method of lighting up cancer cells is 100,000 times more sensitive than an MRI in detecting cancer cells. And, more importantly, the tumor paint shows surgeons precisely what to cut out while leaving healthy cells in place.

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Madness Redefined: Creativity, Intelligence and the Dark Side of the Mind (live video)

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

What’s the line between utter brilliance and incalculable madness? Maybe it’s not a line but a shifting spectrum. Live from the World Science Festival (8pm Eastern), leading researchers discuss new studies showing that people with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia tend to possess higher creativity and intelligence.

We’ve got a producer on the ground scoping out the panelists — James FallonKay Redfield JamisonSusan McKeown, and Elyn Saks — as potential guests for On Being. Watch the live video stream and share your suggestions on whom you’d like to hear on our program.

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Students with Depression Use the Internet Differently

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Cybercafe
Photo by Pedro Figueiredo/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0

Moving beyond the debate of whether Facebook or other Internet use causes depression, researchers at Missouri University Institute of Science and Technology found that students who show signs of depression clearly have different patterns of Internet use. These students are more likely to share large files, send email, and chat online. Also, they are more likely to switch from application to application in a random manner, which is thought to reflect a difficulty with concentrating, and is one marker of depression.

Researchers hope this data can be used someday to help diagnose mental disorders by unobtrusively monitoring and analyzing the Internet behavior of a wider population. It may even alert the user when their usage starts to reflect a depressive pattern.

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Reuben found that, on average, both men and women lied about their performance. When participants had an incentive to lie, they lied more; and the incidence of lying increased as the monetary award for being chosen as leader increased. But while women kept pace with men on how frequently they lied, women did not exaggerate their performance to the same degree, and it cost them: women were selected a third less often than their abilities would otherwise indicate.
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Rebecca Knight of the Financial Times "Women at the Top" blog highlights research by Columbia Business School professor Ernesto Reuben, who finds that men “honestly believe their performance is 30 percent better than it really is.” This is research that should make all men and women pause as it concerns not only gender equality in the workplace but also ethics and morality.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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For at least some of those with soul-destroying morning commutes, liberation may indeed be at hand. A preliminary presentation posted by Stanford University researchers describes the effects of allowing customer service employees at a billion-dollar Chinese company to work from home: Productivity went up, as did hours worked, and employees seemed happier for it.
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Ray Fisman at Slate reports on a study that shows that telecommuting may not be the “working from home” joke many of us make it out to be. And, yet, when all the workers were offered a telecommuting option, half the employees opted to inhabit a cube, “preferring the hours in commute in exchange for the human interaction of office life and a fixed beginning and end to each work day.”

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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Infographic: The People Who Make Up Occupy Wall Street
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Some interesting stats on OccupyWallStreet.org visitors courtesy of Fast Company:
More than 80% of participants are white
90% are college-educated
Nearly half of participants are 25-44
Nearly half have full-time jobs and make under $25k/year
More than 70% are political independents
More than 60% are male
Participation in Occupy events jumped from 24% in early October to 43% two weeks later
Me? I’m curious to know how these types of movements can include different types of minority communities — whether by race, by gender, by religion, or by socioeconomics — in the protests and what difference it makes when they do so.
I have a comment/query out to Fast Company and the author about the spiritual/religious makeup of participants. I’ll share more if I receive it.
Infographic: The People Who Make Up Occupy Wall Street
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Some interesting stats on OccupyWallStreet.org visitors courtesy of Fast Company:
More than 80% of participants are white
90% are college-educated
Nearly half of participants are 25-44
Nearly half have full-time jobs and make under $25k/year
More than 70% are political independents
More than 60% are male
Participation in Occupy events jumped from 24% in early October to 43% two weeks later
Me? I’m curious to know how these types of movements can include different types of minority communities — whether by race, by gender, by religion, or by socioeconomics — in the protests and what difference it makes when they do so.
I have a comment/query out to Fast Company and the author about the spiritual/religious makeup of participants. I’ll share more if I receive it.

Infographic: The People Who Make Up Occupy Wall Street

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Some interesting stats on OccupyWallStreet.org visitors courtesy of Fast Company:

  • More than 80% of participants are white
  • 90% are college-educated
  • Nearly half of participants are 25-44
  • Nearly half have full-time jobs and make under $25k/year
  • More than 70% are political independents
  • More than 60% are male
  • Participation in Occupy events jumped from 24% in early October to 43% two weeks later

Me? I’m curious to know how these types of movements can include different types of minority communities — whether by race, by gender, by religion, or by socioeconomics — in the protests and what difference it makes when they do so.

I have a comment/query out to Fast Company and the author about the spiritual/religious makeup of participants. I’ll share more if I receive it.

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A Twitterscript of Richard J. Davidson Interview

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Dr. Davidson and His Holiness the Dalai LamaThe 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:

  1. 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
  2. Krista is now interviewing neuroscientist Richard Davidson (of @DalaiLama fame)! We’ll be live-tweeting for the next 90 mins. #meditation 24 May
  3. You might know Davidson for peeking into the brains of Buddhist monks http://bit.ly/kLdczm 24 May
  4. @Wisc_CIHM he studies “healthy qualities of mind such as kindness, compassion, forgiveness and mindfulness” http://bit.ly/jrMxc4 24 May
  5. As a kid he was a ham radio operator. And now he studies “contemplative neuroscience.” 24 May
  6. Davidson’s been on our radar ever since speaking during HHDL’s visit to Emory last year http://bit.ly/izyTdE 24 May
  7. His friends and colleagues call the Professor “Richie.” 24 May
  8. "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
  9. "It’s not the genes are unimportant, it’s just that they’re much more dynamic than we previously understood." -R. Davidson 24 May
  10. "Contemplative Neuroscience—the study of the impact of contemplative practices on the brain." -Professor Davidson 24 May
  11. "The Dalai Lama challenged me, he said why can’t you use technological tools to study kindness and compassion?" -R. Davidson 24 May
  12. "I committed to doing everything I could to put compassion on the scientific map." -Richard Davidson. 24 May
  13. 6 emotions studied: Happiness, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness, and Surprise. “This is the best you can do with Western Psychology?”-Davidson 24 May
  14. 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
  15. @FullContactTMcG Will forward to Krista in the booth. Thanks. 24 May
  16. "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
  17. "That’s what’s so delicious about being in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama." -R. Davidson 24 May
  18. "The word ‘meditation’ in Sanskrit comes from the word ‘familiarization.’" As in familiarization with one’s own mind. -R. Davidson 24 May
  19. "There are literally hundreds of different kinds of meditation practices, understood to produce different effects." -R. Davidson 24 May
  20. "Mindfulness—moment to moment non judgemental attention and awareness." -Richard Davidson 24 May
  21. "Based on everything we know in neuroscience, change is not only possible, it’s the rule rather than the exception." -R. Davidson 24 May
  22. "Our brain is continuously being shaped, we can take more responsibility for our own brain by cultivating positive influences." -R. Davidson 24 May
  23. "Most people still don’t think of qualities like happiness as being a skill, that can be enhanced through training." -R. Davidson. 24 May
  24. "(We need) a different conception of happiness, more enduring and more genuine, not dependent on external circumstances." -R. Davidson 24 May
  25. "In the Buddhist tradition there’s tremendously rich detail in the description of the mechanics of these (contemplative) practices"-Davidson 24 May
  26. "I think the messiness and embodied nature of modern life just produces an enhanced signal for our attention." -R. Davidson 24 May
  27. "In many ways my life has objective signs of busyness and stress, it creates more opportunities for kindness and compassion." -R. Davidson 24 May
  28. "(We have) no idea how the subjective quality of consciousness emerges from the physical stuff of the brain." -R. Davidson 24 May
  29. "The idea of transformation meshes perfectly well with conventional scientific understanding." -R. Davidson 24 May
  30. "The key to a healthy life is having a healthy mind." -R. Davidson 24 May
  31. "The best way I can mentor and lead those around me is to embody these (mindful) qualities myself." -R. Davidson 24 May
  32. "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
  33.  ”(Re: the value of presence) If we’re multitasking, it’s being present with the multiple tasks before us.” -R. Davidson 24 May
  34. That concludes our interview with Professor Richard Davidson! Thank you for retweeting. 24 May
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On Stem Cells and Untold Stories: When Nature’s Tools Provide the Answers

by Krista Tippett, host

I’ve wondered for years how we could contribute some perspective to the moral consternation that stem cell research stirred in recent years. As with so many other real and important questions raised by medical advances, I have been unconvinced by the blunt either/or choice that culture-war debates seemed to present: defining stem cell research as either a slippery slope to killing babies or a straight path to curing a host of dreadful diseases. Efforts to humanize the issue with real-life examples — seeming to present a stark choice between condemning Michael J. Fox to death by Parkinson’s, for example, or finding an immediate way to save him — can misrepresent both the promise of this science and the moral concerns it raises.

Hearing Doris Taylor speak, then, was a revelation. I knew I had found our way in to this topic. When it comes to stem cells — as to everything else in life, it turns out — the truth is complicated. And much of the story of stem cells — the big picture that arguments have obscured — falls outside the realm of the most passionately contested issues.

From Doris Taylor I come to understand, for the first time, that the existence and function of stem cells is one of those discoveries, not unlike DNA, that will fundamentally change the way we think about the human body. I learn that there are billions of stem cells throughout my 49-year-old body, and as I write they are repairing my organs and tissues as they have done all of my life — albeit less vigorously at 49 than at 9 because of the passage of time and the stresses that life has imposed, and that I have imposed on my body.

SoundSeen: Bioreactors and Building HopeThe newness and rapidly emerging nature of our knowledge about stem cells has contributed to incomplete premises and an understandable measure of fear. Doris Taylor has spent time in conversation with people in churches these past years as well. She has come away with a conviction that, if the medical community and journalists had used different vocabulary to discuss stem cells at the outset, some of the most heated debates might have been avoided.

She has often encountered the false impression that the stem cell lines used for research came from aborted fetuses. In fact, as she says, “fetal cells” are too old for the work she does. And the “embryonic cells” she uses have all come from eggs fertilized by way of in vitro fertilization (IVF) that would otherwise be destroyed. This insight, of course, does not address moral quandaries over embryos and IVF technology.

But much of the research Doris Taylor and others are doing might one day circumvent all of these issues. If she could build me a heart by way of the process she and her colleagues are refining in the University of Minnesota Center for Cardiovascular Repair, she would use my heart stem cells to do so.

From my visit to Doris Taylor’s lab, you can see elaborate architectural glass bulbs with tubes feeding suspended rodent hearts — one lifeless with old cells; another one stage farther, a pale “scaffold” ready for stem cells to be injected; and finally a regenerated heart pink, pumping, alive and beating on its own. Also, hear the story of the man with a heart disease that told Taylor she is “building hope.”

Seeing the untold story of stem cells beyond the lightning rod, moral issues clears my vision to see unexpected spiritual implications of this work. The genius of Doris Taylor’s work is in its simplicity — in realizing that there was no need to “build” a heart from scratch. Instead, she works with a dead heart, extracted from a cadaver — nature’s cardiac “scaffolding,” as she thinks of it. She washes the lifeless heart, cleans it, and injects the decellularized scaffold with cells that know how to colonize it — and begin to beat and live again.

Doris Taylor echoes one of my favorite themes: beauty is essential to life itself — beauty as a core moral value — as she describes the architectural perfection of nature that she honors and works with. In an exhilarating “field trip” to her lab, I was able to hold the translucent heart of a pig in my hand and see its exquisite intricacy — at once delicate and muscular — for myself.

Approaching the mechanics of life at this level inevitably raises questions about life’s mystery. Doris Taylor says she is passionate about “regenerating heart on a lot of different levels.” And as she considers how new knowledge about stem cells might one day change the way we think about health across the life span — facing aging, for example, or cancer — she is studying how spiritual technologies like prayer and meditation might support that. She describes a very simple test she did on the Buddhist spiritual teacher Matthieu Ricard. She measured a vast increase in stem cells in his blood after just 15 minutes of meditation.

All of this said, the fascinating science of stem cell research still comes with a world of real and complex moral uncertainties. We hope this conversation with Doris Taylor might broaden existing conversations and inform fresh thinking on the moral and ethical questions her science touches. Let us hear your thoughts — either as they’re sparked by this conversation or through your own experiences and knowledge.

 

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Helping One Person Matters More than Saving Thousands

by Shubha Bala, associate producer

"If I look at the mass I will never act."
—Mother Teresa

It’s hard for people to relate to statistics and big numbers when hearing about disasters and people suffering. The question for advocates, and journalists, is how big is too big? Paul Slovic says the magic number is two.

In a study from the Decision Science Research Institute, Slovic and his team presented some people with the opportunity to donate to a starving girl named Rokia, and others to a starving boy named Moussa. People responded compassionately to their cause. He then presented a third group of people with the opportunity to donate to both Rokia and Moussa, helping both of them equally. Surprisingly, people were less likely to donate anything at all when they were presented with two starving children.

For New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, our guest on next week’s show, this has meant focusing on one person’s story. Devoted to raising awareness of human rights and poverty, he told Krista, “My job as a journalist is to find these larger issues that I want to address but then find some microcosm of it, some Rokia who can open those portals and hopefully get people to care.”

In the non-profit world, some organizations have found success by creating a model around this idea — child sponsorship organizations or Kiva, for example. Microfinance organizations weren’t new, but a model in which one could seemingly loan directly to an individual was. As a result, Kiva exploded onto the American donor scene. Even though in both of these cases donations aren’t going directly into the hands of the recipient, Kiva capitalized on the human instinct to take action to help one person in need. Organizations like DonorsChoose.org have used this same model to fund education projects within the United States.

It is not altogether shocking that we feel more compassion when we have relatable stories. But what stands out in Slovic’s paper is a study in which groups were either given the story of Rokia, a list of statistics, or the story of Rokia combined with more general statistics.

"Donations in response to the identified individual, Rokia, were far greater than donations in response to the statistical portrayal of the food crisis. Most important, however, and most discouraging, was the fact that coupling the statistical realities with Rokia’s story significantly reduced the contributions to Rokia. Alternatively, one could say that using Rokia’s story to ‘put a face behind the statistical problem’ did not do much to increase donations.”

And, this is one of the points Nicholas Kristof makes in next week’s show — how to make us care enough about massive, global tragedies to act.

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Fact-checking Climate Change

Colleen Scheck, Producer

Page of Annotated Script for "The Moral Math of Climate Change"The image to the right (larger version) is a scan of one of the pages from our script that I marked up during our last editorial listen for "The Moral Math of Climate Change." It may not seem like it, but one of the very interesting aspects of working as a producer is fact-checking scripts and interviews to ensure that what we present to our audience is accurate and credible. This felt like a somewhat daunting task for this week’s program with Bill McKibben.

Climate change is a very broad topic, heavily covered, with many details, points of debate, and advocates from all directions. For example, a good start is simply clarifying the use of the phrase "climate change" versus "global warming" — phrases that are sometimes used interchangeably though they have distinct meanings.

For me, the most important aspect of this task is making sure Krista’s script is accurate, and that’s why I value our highly collaborative process of multiple reviews and refining. It starts with simple points, such as the use of quoted material:

First script draft:
He’s currently focused his energy on 350.org, an international campaign that he founded, with a mission to build a movement that can quote “unite the world around solutions to climate change that both science and justice demand” unquote.
Second script draft (after reviewing the mission statement posted on 350.org):
He’s currently focused his energy on 350.org, an international campaign that he founded, with a mission to build a movement that can quote “unite the world around solutions to the climate crisis — the solutions that science and justice demand” unquote.

But also often includes more nuanced points:

First script draft:
This became personal for Bill McKibben in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2007 when he caught Dengue fever — one of several mosquito-borne diseases that are rapidly spreading in Asia as a direct result of a warmer planet.
Second script draft:
This became personal for Bill McKibben in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2007 when he caught Dengue fever — one of several mosquito-borne diseases that are spreading to new areas of the world in part as a result of rising temperatures.

That evolution happened after one of our listen sessions where the phrase “direct result of a warmer planet” was questioned (Is the correlation that direct? And exclusively the result of a warmer planet? Is “warmer planet” an accurate phrase to use in this case?). Further research (such as articles like this from the Natural Resources Defense Council) yielded better language.

Beyond our script, there’s considering the accuracy of statements of the guest. Here we are careful to respect the guest’s authority, expertise, and personal experience while at the same time seeking clarity about the information they share in an interview. A good example this time was Bill McKibben’s "90-second course in climate science” (actually closer to four minutes).

We were all impressed by his succinct explanation of the history of global climate change, so much so that we’ve isolated it and invited you to share it with others. But we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t ask “Does he get it all right?” We put that question to our colleague Ben Adair, the editorial director of sustainability and global climate change coverage for American Public Media, who has been steeped in the details of climate change for a few years. Though McKibben’s information is accurate, Ben responded, it is incomplete in that it is focused primarily on the history of how the target figure of 350 parts per million came to be. There’s much more to tell, but what McKibben shares is very compelling and a reflection of his own focus and intersection with the issue.

Finally, there are things discussed in an interview that just make you want to know more. Our fascination with this was borne out for a while in the “Particulars” section we produced for each program. Unfortunately, we eliminated that section due to time constraints, its labor-intensive nature, and changes in the focus of our work. Every now and then, though, we hear a program that begs for particulars (such as next week’s production on Sitting Bull), and this is one of them.

There are many fascinating points to explore, including:

October 24 and the story of Noah:
McKibben mentions that he was pleased to note the Torah reading for October 24, 2009, the global day of action organized by 350.org, was the story of Noah. It’s true that the Torah portion for that day is Parashat Noach, readings from Genesis 6:9-11:32. Indeed the biblical flood story is a powerful metaphor for climate change. If you consider the triennial cycle observed by some synagogues, however, then the Torah portion for October 24 is not about the flood itself, but the final third of Parashat Noach that begins with the Tower of Babel. It’s a story of God’s contempt for human pride, and also a story of the division of nations and languages, both interesting metaphors for climate change.

Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad Gita:
McKibben also mentions that J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted from the Bhagavad Gita when he watched the first test detonation of the atomic bomb. Video of his quote is online: ”Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds” Like all scripture, the Gita is subject to translation and interpretation. One translation online has the quote as: “Time I am, the great destroyer of the worlds, and I have come here to destroy all people.”

In the end, there’s never enough time to dig in as deep we would like to, and so we do our due diligence and move on to the next topic. But that’s where we enjoy hearing from you. We’d like you to contribute your own knowledge and experience with this vast topic. Are there sources of information on climate change that you’ve found credible and helpful as you consider this issue on different levels both practical and moral? What did we get wrong? What could we have phrased better for the tight format of the radio? Even, what did we do right?

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Climate Change Explained in Four Minutes
» download (mp3, 3:55)
Trent Gilliss, online editor

Today, we will be releasing our latest show called “The Moral Math of Climate Change” with Bill McKibben. He’s an environmentalist who has been studying and writing about issues of global warming and sustainability for more than 20 years. Most recently he founded 350.org, aimed at raising awareness about climate change and ground-up solutions around the world.

During Krista’s interview with McKibben, she asked if he could give her a better understanding of the history of climate change and how climate scientists have arrived at their conclusions. I wasn’t able to listen to the conversation while it was happening, but the first thing Krista mentioned when she emerged from the studio was how helpful his “four-minute” explanation was.

Although McKibben’s explanation isn’t a complete, comprehensive history, he provides a good overview and a basis for discussion. And, he leaves a lot of space for asking more questions.

I’ve heard from many of you who are deeply invested in this topic, and many others who are struggling to understand and better talk about sustainability issues in moral and spiritual terms. Perhaps this is a place to continue this discussion, this exploration and what it means to move forward conscientiously and culturally. Or, share this mp3 with your friends, family, and neighbors. I’d love to hear where you take this dialogue.

As the Copenhagen conference takes place and then recedes — and with it the news coverage, to a degree — that’s when we here at SOF would like to pick up our coverage and extend this conversation by recording and retelling your stories for others to hear:

  • What would it feel like to live in a world that — spiritually, psychologically, philosophically — meant something different?
  • How has climate change affected your “moral imagination?” And, in turn, how has it also changed the way you live your life on a day-to-day basis?
  • Do your family, cultural, and spiritual backgrounds factor into this understanding?

These are some of the questions were asking. Perhaps you have others that you’ve explored and thought about. Share your thoughts with us using our traditional form; and, we’re experimenting with our Google Voice number and widget to capture more audio, more voices of those who are actually thinking about the story. Click the widget below and talk to us using your phone.

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Weights & MeasuresAndy Dayton, associate web producer
Above is a 1920 obituary from The New York Times for Dr. Duncan MacDougall, who as you can see was best remembered by a particular experiment he did attempting to weigh the human soul. I heard his story on a recent episode of  Radiolab, and it caught my attention because I had just read about another scientific study involving weight — an attempt to test how physical weight effects the way we think.
ScienceBlogs writer Ed Yong sums up the study, where volunteers hold either a heavy or a lighter clipboard while executing four different tasks. The last task was to weigh in on a controversial subway being built at the time:

In all cases, the volunteers agreed more with the strong arguments but especially so if they held the heavier clipboards. This group were also more confident in their opinions and were more likely to be clearly in favour of the subway or against it, rather than dawdling on the fence.

With similar results from the other two tasks, the conclusion is that holding the heavier clipboard caused individuals to “think of situations as more important and they invest more mental effort in dealing with abstract issues.”
Yong identifies a few similar studies that all seem to share the common attribute: they display what most would consider a purely metaphorical relationship (clean = moral, warm = sociable, etc.) as a psychological reality. If we accept these conclusions to be true, then it seems like a case of science catching up with the arts — the metaphors poets and other artists have been using for years suddenly seem a little more relevant, right?
Then again, this line of research could also go the way of Dr. MacDougall’s attempt to weigh the soul — as a clever, interesting, but ultimately unconvincing page in the book of scientific history. What do you think?
(image courtesy of The New York Times)
Weights & MeasuresAndy Dayton, associate web producer
Above is a 1920 obituary from The New York Times for Dr. Duncan MacDougall, who as you can see was best remembered by a particular experiment he did attempting to weigh the human soul. I heard his story on a recent episode of  Radiolab, and it caught my attention because I had just read about another scientific study involving weight — an attempt to test how physical weight effects the way we think.
ScienceBlogs writer Ed Yong sums up the study, where volunteers hold either a heavy or a lighter clipboard while executing four different tasks. The last task was to weigh in on a controversial subway being built at the time:

In all cases, the volunteers agreed more with the strong arguments but especially so if they held the heavier clipboards. This group were also more confident in their opinions and were more likely to be clearly in favour of the subway or against it, rather than dawdling on the fence.

With similar results from the other two tasks, the conclusion is that holding the heavier clipboard caused individuals to “think of situations as more important and they invest more mental effort in dealing with abstract issues.”
Yong identifies a few similar studies that all seem to share the common attribute: they display what most would consider a purely metaphorical relationship (clean = moral, warm = sociable, etc.) as a psychological reality. If we accept these conclusions to be true, then it seems like a case of science catching up with the arts — the metaphors poets and other artists have been using for years suddenly seem a little more relevant, right?
Then again, this line of research could also go the way of Dr. MacDougall’s attempt to weigh the soul — as a clever, interesting, but ultimately unconvincing page in the book of scientific history. What do you think?
(image courtesy of The New York Times)

Weights & Measures
Andy Dayton, associate web producer

Above is a 1920 obituary from The New York Times for Dr. Duncan MacDougall, who as you can see was best remembered by a particular experiment he did attempting to weigh the human soul. I heard his story on a recent episode of Radiolab, and it caught my attention because I had just read about another scientific study involving weight — an attempt to test how physical weight effects the way we think.

ScienceBlogs writer Ed Yong sums up the study, where volunteers hold either a heavy or a lighter clipboard while executing four different tasks. The last task was to weigh in on a controversial subway being built at the time:

In all cases, the volunteers agreed more with the strong arguments but especially so if they held the heavier clipboards. This group were also more confident in their opinions and were more likely to be clearly in favour of the subway or against it, rather than dawdling on the fence.

With similar results from the other two tasks, the conclusion is that holding the heavier clipboard caused individuals to “think of situations as more important and they invest more mental effort in dealing with abstract issues.”

Yong identifies a few similar studies that all seem to share the common attribute: they display what most would consider a purely metaphorical relationship (clean = moral, warm = sociable, etc.) as a psychological reality. If we accept these conclusions to be true, then it seems like a case of science catching up with the arts — the metaphors poets and other artists have been using for years suddenly seem a little more relevant, right?

Then again, this line of research could also go the way of Dr. MacDougall’s attempt to weigh the soul — as a clever, interesting, but ultimately unconvincing page in the book of scientific history. What do you think?

(image courtesy of The New York Times)

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Rapping the LHC
Marc Sanchez, Associate Producer

I was recently doing some research on Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Frank Wilczeck. Truth be told, I can barely spell “physics” much less grasp the concepts he works with, like quantum chromodynamics (QCD).

Currently, Mr. Wilczeck is trying to combine the theories of how to measure the four forces of nature — gravity, electromagnetism, strong force, and weak force — into one, unified theory. To help solve this problem, he has enlisted the help of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). That’s the gigantic particle accelerator that got people in a tizzy about sucking the Earth into a self-made black hole.

Physicists, including Mr. Wilczeck, have assured us that our universe is safe, but I still needed to wrap my head around the LHC. Enter Kate MacAlpine, an employee who works with the particle accelerator in Switzerland. She put together a rap that actually does a really good job of breaking down the science.

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It’s the Journey and the Destination

Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer

Over the summer, I’ve been doing research for an upcoming program we’re producing on the spiritual legacy of Sitting Bull. I’ve been on board with Speaking of Faith for under a year and so far, and all the shows I’ve worked on have featured guests who are alive — people like novelist Mary Doria Russell and torture expert Darius Rejali who can speak in the first person about their life and ideas. But this upcoming Sitting Bull show is different. Here we’re trying to find the right voice(s) to illuminate an iconic historical figure. At times I’ve felt like a detective as I’ve sifted through names and followed one lead to the next, keeping my fingers crossed that someone would return my phone calls.

Sitting Bull book coverFortunately I’ve encountered some helpful and responsive guides who’ve helped steer the search. One of those is biographer Bill Yenne, author of Sitting Bull. He was nice enough to take time out of his day recently to answer my questions and offer big-picture advice.

One thing that sticks with me from our conversation is Yenne’s gentle caution about using terms like “spiritual legacy” or “Lakota spirituality” (Sitting Bull was Lakota Sioux) when talking to people — that my understanding of those terms might not translate well across cultures. Honestly, I haven’t resolved this as I’ve reached out to Lakota contacts in South Dakota and beyond. Being an outsider to Lakota culture, I’m still learning to find language that’s respectful and appropriate.

Bill YenneYenne (pictured here) also advised me to do more listening than talking and to get over a deadline-driven expectation that things are going to come together quickly. He recommended traveling to the Pine Ridge and Standing Rock reservations in South Dakota with a willingness “to sit down and hang out.” And not just hang out but also to give people gifts of tobacco as an offering. He said the legacy of Sitting Bull is complicated and we’re not going to get the story from one person.

Coming out of that conversation I was convinced that Mitch and Trent needed to make their way west to South Dakota with tobacco in hand. But Kate, our sage managing producer, shook me from this reverie. She said the demands of our weekly program couldn’t support such a plan, one that had no guarantee of finding the voices we needed.

So, with that, I regrouped with my colleagues to figure out where to go next. I’ll be sharing more of that journey, including conversations with former SOF guest David Treuer and University of South Dakota law professor Patrice Kunesh in the coming weeks and months. Our plans are still coming together, but, with each conversation, the path forward gets a little bit clearer.

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Sitting Bull: Sharing Our Research

by Trent Gilliss, online editor

Sitting Bull (1885)In the past few years, we’ve produced shows for a biographical series, generously funded by the NEH, profiling well-known and lesser-known historical figures: Rumi, Niebuhr, Semple McPherson, Einstein, Heschel, Darwin. Many hours of research and speaking with scholars about these dynamic characters informs our radio and online productions. And each treatment reveals its own journey to that greater understanding.

As we are quickly learning, Sitting Bull’s legacy has many threads, many truths. We want to present you with the varieties we encounter. More than a matter of transparency, reporting what scholars and ancestors of this legacy share and how we wrestle with these dichotomies and mutual understandings is to present an in-depth look at this great man and the complexity of that heritage. And, in the process, we hope to demonstrate our due diligence and the important work of the many scholars who bring Sitting Bull to life.

I’ve asked our production staff to document and share with you, on this blog, what we’re learning about Sitting Bull — and the editorial decisions we make in the process, including what we choose not to do. We’ve done a fair amount of research over the years and delayed production so we could find the right voices that can speak to the themes, the ideas we want to tease out.

Nancy Rosenbaum, our associate producer, was tasked with making this happen and finding those voices. She’s done an admirable job, and we’re well on our way. Look for a series of posts from her (and others) in the coming weeks in which she’ll share more about her conversations with scholars and storytellers and family members.

And, if you have an feedback or recommendations, please leave a comment or contact us. We welcome good advice.

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