Physics, Astronomy & Math


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“Having tasted beauty at the heart of the world, we hunger for more.” These are words from Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek in his book, A Beautiful Question. It’s a winsome, joyful meditation on the question: Do cosmic realities embody beautiful ideas? — probing the world, by way of science, as a work of art. He reminds us that time and space, mystery and order, are so much stranger and more generous than we can comprehend. He’s now written a wonderful new book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality.

Physicist Carlo Rovelli says humans don’t understand the world as made by things, “we understand the world made by kisses, or things like kisses — happenings.” This everyday truth is as scientific as it is philosophical and political, and it unfolds with unexpected nuance in his science. Rovelli is one of the founders of loop quantum gravity theory and author of the tiny, bestselling book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and The Order of Time. Seeing the world through his eyes, we understand that there is no such thing as “here” or “now.” Instead, he says, our senses convey a picture of reality that narrows our understanding of its fullness.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — or SETI — goes beyond hunting for E.T. and habitable planets. Scientists in the field are using telescopes and satellites looking for signs of outright civilizational intelligence. One of the founding pioneers in this search is astronomer Jill Tarter. She is a cofounder of the SETI Institute and was an inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact, based on the novel by Carl Sagan. To speak with Tarter is to begin to grasp the creative majesty of SETI and what’s relevant now in the ancient question: “Are we alone in the universe?”

The wise and beloved Vatican astronomer Father George Coyne died last week. Like most of the Vatican astronomers across history, he was also a Jesuit. More than 30 objects on the moon are named after the Jesuits who mapped it and ten Jesuits in history have had asteroids named after them. Father Coyne was one of the few with this distinction, alongside his friend and fellow Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno. In a conversation filled with laughter, we experience the spacious way the two of them approached life, faith, and the universe.

Novelist Marilynne Robinson and physicist Marcelo Gleiser are both passionate about the majesty of science, and they share a caution about what they call our modern “piety” toward science. They connect thrilling dots among the current discoveries about the cosmos and the new territory of understanding our own minds. We brought them together for a joyous, heady discussion of the mystery we are.

Astronomer Natalie Batalha embodies a planetary sense of what “love” is and means. She says her experience searching the universe for exoplanets — earth-like bodies beyond our solar system that could harbor liquid water and life — fundamentally shifted how she thinks about the human experience on this planet. “You see the expanse of the cosmos, and you realize how small we are and how connected we are,” she says. “And that what’s good for you has to be good for me.”

“When it comes to the world around us,” Lisa Randall has written, “is there any choice but to explore?” As one of the most influential theoretical physicists working today, she’s interested in the interconnectedness between fields that have previously operated more autonomously: astronomy, biology, and paleontology. She’s pursuing a theory that “dark matter” might have created the cosmic event that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs — and hence humanity’s rise as a species. We learn what she’s discovering, as well as the human questions and takeaways her work throws into relief.

A philosopher’s questioning and a scientist’s eye shape Enrique Martínez Celaya’s original approach to art and to life. A world-renowned painter who trained as a physicist, he’s fascinated by the deeper order that “whispers” beneath the surface of things. Works of art that endure, he says, possess their own form of consciousness. And a quiet life of purpose is a particular form of prophecy.

Fundamental forces of physics somehow determine everything that happens, “from the birth of a child to the birth of a galaxy.” Yet physicist Leonard Mlodinow has an intriguing perspective on the gap between theory and reality — and the fascinating interplay between a life in science and life in the world. As the child of two Holocaust survivors, he asks questions about our capacity to create our lives, while reflecting on extreme human cruelty — and courage.

The Hubble Space Telescope, which turns 25 this year, has brought the beauty of the cosmos into our lives. Mario Livio works with discoveries it makes possible, studying things like dark energy, extrasolar planets, and white dwarf stars. He’s fascinated with the enduring mystery of mathematics, the language of science. He describes the cosmic puzzles that accompany our greatest scientific advances.

An astrophysicist who studies the shape of the universe, Janna Levin has also explored her science by writing a novel about two pivotal 20th-century mathematicians, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing. Both men pushed at boundaries where mathematics presses on grand questions of meaning and purpose. Such questions, she says, help create the technologies that are now changing our sense of what it means to be human.

A mission scientist with NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, Natalie Batalha hunts for exoplanets — Earth-sized planets beyond our solar system that might harbor life. She speaks about unexpected connections between things like love and dark energy, science and gratitude, and how “exploring the heavens” brings the beauty of the cosmos and the exuberance of scientific discovery closer to us all.