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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.

The Echoing Silence of Your Mind

by Hudson Gardner, guest contributor

Separating oneself from the natural, real world is like uprooting a plant,
putting it in sandy soil,
watering it only to keep it alive:

you may find yourself growing,

and living,

and acting,

but there will always be something beyond,
another sort of subtleness,

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Being Comfortable in the Presence of Mystery

by Krista Tippett, host

Livio_CMYKMario 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.

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Commenting on Our Consciousness through Studying the Deepest Meaning of Human Language

by Krista Tippett, host

Infographic displaying languages by number of speakersThere’s a quality I’ve experienced during the years in some people who work lovingly with children across a long life. They nurture and retain an exuberance, a playfulness, in themselves. And they merge that with a delving intellect and spirit. Robert Coles, the psychiatrist who wrote famously about the moral, political, and spiritual lives of children, gave me the phrase “delving spirit” and embodied it:

"It’s our effort on this planet as creatures who have a mind and use language to ask questions and answer them through speculation, through story-telling, to explore the universe and answer those fundamental questions: Where do we come from? What are we? And where, if any place, are we going?"

It interests me, looking back now, to see how Robert Coles stressed language as inextricably bound with spirit. Jean Berko Gleason is, like him, a wisely child-like delver. A professor emerita of psychology, she continues to imprint and expand the field of psycholinguistics that she helped to create — the exploration of how human beings acquire language and what this says about who we are.

She began to make her mark on linguistics decades ago with a test that looks, on the surface, like it’s about basic grammar. She created the wug, a simply drawn mythical creature. This, it turned out, was a savvy tool for demonstrating that young children could apply complex grammatical rules and form new words that no one had ever tried to teach them. Even after 50 years in her field, Jean Berko Gleason remains amazed and delighted at the extremely ordinary human capacity to learn language and work with it. She infects me with that amazement.

She also brings us up to speed on the evolution of this scientific field’s “nature versus nurture” debate. Every discipline, it seems, has one. When I was in college, the MIT linguist Noam Chomsky had taken the intellectual world by storm with his suggestion that we are born with universal, innate language templates that only need to be triggered for humans to speak.

Looking at the “wug test,” you might suspect that it tells some of the same story — of an innate skill that is biologically, not socially, rooted. But as Jean Berko Gleason has grown in her field and watched it grow with her, she has become increasingly fascinated by what we are learning about the intense interaction that draws forth, inspires, and hones that biologically-rooted capacity in all of us as children.

Moreover, Jean Berko Gleason suspects, there is something instructive in the adult human’s compulsion to speak with children, to engage them in language. In ways we’ve barely begun to scrutinize and study, she says, we are unfolding with children as we help them unfold language. The technologies we now have to study the brain are showing us remarkable things — like the physical markers of babies born in bilingual households with bilingual brains. But these technologies, Jean Berko Gleason insists, will never replace our need to observe the miraculous results of mothers talking to their babies.

While we were producing this week’s show “Unfolding Language, Unfolding Life,” a number of us tested this theory on our kids, with varying results. Putting a microphone in front of a five year old, or a thirteen year old, is not the straightest route to natural interaction. But I was amazed, for example, when my teenager, after he’d stopped being reluctant and sarcastic, began to reflect in quite a sophisticated way on the word “human” as “plural” — as pegging us not just as individuals but as part of something, as part of humanity. Which means, he says, that we also “have to do our part.”

This is a fascinating echo of a big idea Jean Berko Gleason leaves me with. In recent years, she’s delved into the fact that children in every language and culture studied by linguists have huge animal vocabularies. She’s puzzling, these days, over what that says about us as human beings. Certainly, we are drawn to life, to living beings. And more and more, we are aware that these beings think and may be conscious. We can’t fathom that, because they can’t tell us about it. But we are given a vast gift in our ordinary, inborn skill of language. Alone among the creatures, as Jean Berko Gleason puts it, we are able to reflect, to be conscious of ourselves, and to comment on that.

I’m grateful that she is out there studying the deepest meaning of human language, and I now appreciate it in a new way in my ordinary, day-to-day life.

Infographic courtesy of John Pasden/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0.

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Compassion Is a Skill to Be Developed Through Practice

by Krista Tippett, host

Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche makes a point, Childrens and Young People's Audience and Blessing, Matthieu Ricard, students, Longhouse, Vancouver BC, Lotus Speech CanadaMatthieu Ricard looks on as Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche makes a point to children in Vancouver, Canada. (photo: Linda Lane/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

The title we’ve given this week’s show, “The ‘Happiest’ Man in the World,” is slightly tongue-in-cheek. It appeared in a British newspaper after the publication of scientific study results on Matthieu Ricard’s brain. He dismisses this label and has issued many good-natured disclaimers. We’ve revived it here, however, because of the lovely way in which Matthieu Ricard fills that phrase with a whole new range of savvy, satisfying meaning.

I certainly found myself identifying with Ricard’s descriptions, in his own writing, of his youthful, worldly-wise dismissal of “happiness” as a goal. I too was dismissive, well into adulthood, of the very word “happiness” and its overwhelming associations with the dream-come-true state that ends movies, for example, or the happiness as “having it all” American way.

But Matthieu Ricard puts words to what I’ve learned as I’ve grown older. He accomplishes that as much with his ideas as with his presence. He is a slightly incongruous yet wholly comfortable Frenchman SoundSeen: Unedited Interview with Ricardswathed in the lavish gold and red of Tibetan monastic robes, with practical shoes beneath. He is at once sophisticated and mischievous, intellectual and childlike — something, that is, like his teacher the Dalai Lama. It was a privilege to experience them both at a series of gatherings in Vancouver, British Columbia, where they were in conversation with Nobel laureates, scientists, social activists, and educators. We converted a tenth-floor suite at the Shangri-La Hotel, aptly named and somewhat surreal, into a production suite for this interview, which you can view as well as hear on our site.

I am fascinated by the way in which science is interwoven with Matthieu Ricard’s life story as well as his current work with the Dalai Lama and his very definition of the spiritual quest. He is one of those so-called “Olympic meditators" — people who have meditated tens of thousands of hours and whose brains have been studied and yielded important new insights into something called neuroplasticity — the human brain’s capacity to alter across the life span. This is a fairly recent and fairly dramatic — and not uncontroversial — discovery that came about as a result of research involving the Mind and Life Institute — a fascinating dialogue with scientists from many disciplines that the Dalai Lama has been hosting for many years.

Matthieu Ricard actually began his life as a molecular biologist, working with a Nobel Prize-winning biologist at the prestigious Pasteur Institute in Paris. His decision to leave France for a Buddhist monastic path greatly perplexed his father, Jean-François Revel, a philosopher who was a pillar of French intellectual life. But as he describes in a literary dialogue with his father that was published as The Monk and the Philosopher, Tibetan Buddhism was less of a departure in his mind than in his father’s.

The Impressionable Faces of Buddhist SilenceHe had become drawn to the spiritual masters, who would later become his teachers and eventually his peers, leading lives of integrity. And there was a very personal, full-circle integrity in his love of the natural world that had manifest itself in part in biological research — and in his appreciation for Buddhist spirituality as a life shaped by what he describes as “contemplative science.” I am utterly fascinated by the echoes between science and spirituality that Matthieu Ricard has continued to pursue and that we discuss together in this show.

Will neuroscience one day be able to not merely describe the movement of neurons and brain chemistry but add its own vocabulary to the meaning and nature of human consciousness, as related to or distinct from the brain? And how can we not be fascinated by the evocative echoes between the way quantum physicists have come to describe energy and matter and the way Buddhist philosophy has always described the interconnectedness and impermanence of human experience and all of life? Our understanding of the intersection of mind, life, body, and however you want to define the human spirit continues to unfold and develop, and is one of the most intriguing frontiers of this century.

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