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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.

Taking the Pulse of Caprica
Colleen Scheck, senior producer

Are you watching Caprica? We’ve heard from many of you who were Battlestar Galactica (BSG) fans — including our host — so I’m guessing some of you are tuning in to this prequel series. If so, you may be interested in the comments of Diane Winston, who was part of our program "TV and Parables of Our Time." Along with three other religion and culture observers, Winston is contributing to a new weekly feature devoted to delving into “deep exegesis” of Caprica:

"We loved BSG because in the post-9/11 moment, it captured our consternation and confusion. Why do they hate us? Can we justify torture? What makes us human? When can we stop fighting? Moreover, it lodged these questions in the space between human passion and species survival, mediating the religious quest for meaning with the political will to win.

Caprica, going back to how this came to be, meets us in the present. This is what we face, too: religious extremism, economic inequality, anti-immigrant fervor, a military increasingly dependent upon drones, the lure of the virtual worlds, and the comfort of slick surfaces. Like BSG, Caprica asks, “What makes us human?” But this time, the answers seem a lot closer to home.”

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"Listen, punk. Hysteria is the best rock album ever made, and don’t you forget it!”
Mary Doria Russell
» download (mp3, 13:13)
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer

A couple of weeks ago when we were taping Krista’s interview with novelist and retired paleoanthropologist Mary Doria Russell, the conversation briefly touched on some of her musical tastes. Intrigued by what I had heard, I did some further research and learned that, growing up, Mary Doria Russell was the kind of kid who “liked the Stones better than the Beatles, Beethoven better than Mozart, and orchestral music better than string quartets.” These days, she says, her “calm, well-ordered and intensely bourgeois life” apparently continues to seek refuge in large-scale, emotionally-charged, musical productions.

As someone who was coming of age in the 80’s, I was surprised to learn that Ms. Russell, who is approaching 60, is quite a fan of what she calls the “big hair” bands of those days, and even claims to have “worn the oxide” off her cassette copy of Def Leppard’s 1986 release, Hysteria. On one of the e-mail exchanges I had with her she said, “Listen, punk. Hysteria is the best rock album ever made, and don’t you forget it!”

So, I decided to give her a call, hoping that we might get a little deeper insight into the musical affections of a “well-ordered” novelist — affections that include Beethoven, Chopin, and Puccini but also Van Halen and, of course, Def Leppard.

In all seriousness, Mary Doria Russell has been very open and on record about her tastes in music. I appreciate her being such a good sport about it in this conversation.

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Mary Doria Russell on the Music of Little Green Men
» download (mp3, 2:12)
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer

We’re all excited about this new program we’re working on featuring anthropologist-turned-novelist Mary Doria Russell. She frequently writes historical fiction, but Krista one day picked up her sci-fi epic The Sparrow (and its sequel Children of God), and was hooked. I guess being a fan of Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek influenced her a wee bit as well.

The premise of Mary Doria Russell’s epic is that music from another planet is detected by SETI scientists here on Earth. That’s how first contact is made. This leads to a group of astronauts being sent into space in search of the music’s source.

The idea of music traveling across the universe is not remotely fantastical. We’re already beaming transmissions from Earth into space in hopes of making contact with an alien civilization. In the 1970s, we sent out the Pioneer and Voyager probes to study the solar system. The two Pioneer probes each carried a plaque showing where the probes came from.

The Golden RecordThe two Voyager probes carried something far more ambitious: a cosmic message in a bottle known as the Golden Record. Although the potential aliens would need to build a device to read the record, once they do, they’ll find directions to Earth, and a wide sampling of sounds, music and images from life on this planet. That’s our attempt at making contact. So in this produced program with Mary Doria Russell, it seemed appropriate that we lay in some of that Golden Record music.

Here’s a short clip that ultimately was cut from the program, about Mary Doria Russell’s fascination with music. Enjoy. The full show will be up next Thursday.

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The Rapture of the Geeks Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
I recently stumbled upon a link to the latest issue of technology magazine IEEE Spectrum, which has a special report on technological singularity (often referred to simply as “the singularity”). In his article "Waiting for the Rapture," Glenn Zorpette describes the basic concept:
"The singularity is supposed to begin shortly after engineers build the first computer with greater-than-human intelligence. That achievement will trigger a series of cycles in which superintelligent machines beget even smarter machine progeny, going from generation to generation in weeks or days rather than decades or years."
What’s interesting to me is that much of the rhetoric around this subject seems to sound more like prophesy then scientific hypothesis. A lot of the discussion focuses on the transcendent possibilities of “the singularity” — imagining a time when human consciousness can become downloaded and stored by advanced technology, eventually leading to immortality (that is, until somebody trips over the cord).
I can’t help but try and relate this to my current relationship with technology — one that seems to alternate between embracing and rejecting the newest tools and toys. There’s a short distance between the exciting and the invasive when it comes to this stuff: while I’m still hesitant to broadcast my every move through something like Twitter, but I have no trouble broadcasting my every other move on Facebook.
Maybe this is something to consider when thinking about such extreme models for technological development; even if innovation happens at a breakneck pace, how quickly will we be willing to let technology invade our physical — and perhaps, eventually — spiritual domains?
(image: “Dante Cyborg,” a digitally manipulated version of Botticelli’s “Portrait of Dante” by Roberto Rizzato, via Flickr)

The Rapture of the Geeks
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer

I recently stumbled upon a link to the latest issue of technology magazine IEEE Spectrum, which has a special report on technological singularity (often referred to simply as “the singularity”). In his article "Waiting for the Rapture," Glenn Zorpette describes the basic concept:

"The singularity is supposed to begin shortly after engineers build the first computer with greater-than-human intelligence. That achievement will trigger a series of cycles in which superintelligent machines beget even smarter machine progeny, going from generation to generation in weeks or days rather than decades or years."

What’s interesting to me is that much of the rhetoric around this subject seems to sound more like prophesy then scientific hypothesis. A lot of the discussion focuses on the transcendent possibilities of “the singularity” — imagining a time when human consciousness can become downloaded and stored by advanced technology, eventually leading to immortality (that is, until somebody trips over the cord).

I can’t help but try and relate this to my current relationship with technology — one that seems to alternate between embracing and rejecting the newest tools and toys. There’s a short distance between the exciting and the invasive when it comes to this stuff: while I’m still hesitant to broadcast my every move through something like Twitter, but I have no trouble broadcasting my every other move on Facebook.

Maybe this is something to consider when thinking about such extreme models for technological development; even if innovation happens at a breakneck pace, how quickly will we be willing to let technology invade our physical — and perhaps, eventually — spiritual domains?

(image: “Dante Cyborg,” a digitally manipulated version of Botticelli’s “Portrait of Dante” by Roberto Rizzato, via Flickr)

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The Prophetic Voice of Science Fiction

Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer

In the next few days, we’ll be rolling out a new program exploring the tradition of humanism. During Krista’s interview with Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University, he mentions how he looks to modern literature as a source of understanding.

The next book on my personal reading list is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s a work of science fiction. Like “atheism” or “spirituality,” the term “science fiction” has been painted into a corner. It has come to mean aliens and lasers and space ships. (I’m looking at you, Star Trek…)


(photo: TM Russia 1963, c/o Avi Abrams/Flickr)

But I think more broadly of science fiction as speculative fiction, a protracted thought experiment. Against the utopian dreams of flying cars, world peace, robot butlers, and unlimited scientific progress was set another batch of science fiction. I think of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I think of the German silent film Metropolis, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (which I can’t stand), and the recent Children of Men.

These represent a hell created by us, not the Hell of Scripture. So these prophetic dystopias are relevant to us in a way that parables of hyperdrives and aliens aren’t. And perhaps for many people, the dystopias may be more relevant than parables of miracles and angels.

We look at an Orwell or a Bradbury or a Huxley and ask, “If we’re heading in directions explored by these dark modern prophets, do we know how to turn around?” But is looking into a funhouse mirror enough? Is it even a start?


(photo: ©Universal)

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