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)
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.
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.
Fortunately 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.
Yenne (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.
Sitting Bull: Sharing Our Research
by Trent Gilliss, online editor
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.
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
Katherine Marshall, who has spent three decades in international development, sounds like a really interesting voice. Later this week, she’ll be co-moderating a panel in Washington with Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals. It’s a meeting of American Evangelicals and Moroccan Muslims who are both concerned about global warming. I introduced myself and she says she’s got tons of stories. I’d love to hear more about this Moroccan thing. Anyway, out to lunch now.
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
Spending the day here at the first day of the PUSH Conference in Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center. I’m actually on the beat for our show idea on the ethics of international aid and development. PUSH, in the words of organizer Cecily Sommers, is about looking at the polarizing forces in our world, and what the space in between those poles offers (sounds familiar). PUSH is an ideas conference that brings together interesting thinkers who have inspiring ideas. Some of our past guests can be found here, like Eboo Patel and Anthea Butler. I think I saw Nathan Dungan in conversation with someone.
The space between those poles is what they’re calling The Fertile Delta, which is the theme of this year’s conference. This morning’s “pole” is economics. Some pretty inspiring stuff so far, and I hope to have some more thoughts later on in the day.
Summer ‘08 Lineup
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
These are just some ideas we’ll be researching this summer:
- The ethics of international aid, the moral impulse behind it, and the relationship between wealthy and poor countries as a matter of policy
- Music… The “music show” idea just won’t die, but we just can’t seem to find a way to pin down such a broad topic
- The spiritual scene in China right now as its economy soars and it hosts the Olympics
- Gay marriage, as Kate posted earlier
- The relationship between humans and animals, the bonds that exist there
- The ups and downs of the faith angle in the U.S. presidential campaign/marathon/extended director’s cut of Lord of the Rings
We’re digging up some great names and speakers, but don’t be shy about suggesting someone.