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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.

Robert Macfarlane is an explorer and linguist of landscape. His newest book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey, is an odyssey that’s full of surprises — from caves and catacombs under land, under cities, and under forests to the meltwater of Greenland. “Since before we were Homo sapiens,” he writes, “humans have been seeking out spaces of darkness in which to find and make meaning.” Darkness in the natural world and in human life, he suggests, is a medium of vision and descent, a movement toward revelation.

Science writer and reporter Erik Vance says today’s brain scientists are like astronomers of old: They’ve unsettled humanity’s sense of itself by redrawing our picture of the cosmos within our own heads. Vance has investigated the healing power of stories and the “theater of medicine” (white coats included). It turns out that the things that make us feel better are often more closely connected to what we believe and fear than to the efficacy of some treatments. In fact, most drugs that go to trial can’t beat what we’ve dismissively called the “placebo effect,” which is actually nothing less than an unleashing of the brain’s superpowers.

With his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman emerged as one of the most intriguing voices on the complexity of human thought and behavior. He is a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics for helping to create the field of behavioral economics — and is a self-described “constant worrier.” It’s fun, helpful, and more than a little unnerving to apply his insights into why we think and act the way we do in this moment of social and political tumult.

The emerging science of implicit bias is one of the most promising fields for animating the human change that makes social change possible. The social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji is one of its primary architects. She understands the mind as a “difference-seeking machine” that helps us order and navigate the overwhelming complexity of reality. But this gift also creates blind spots and biases, as we fill in what we don’t know with the limits of what we do know. This is science that takes our grappling with difference out of the realm of guilt, and into the realm of transformative good.

“The rocks are beyond slow, beyond strong, and yet yielding to a soft green breath as powerful as a glacier, the mosses wearing away their surfaces, grain by grain bringing them slowly back to sand. There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents.”

 

This is how Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about moss, which she studies as a botanist and bryologist. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she joins science’s ability to “polish the art of seeing” with her personal, civilizational lineage of “listening” to plant life — heeding the languages of the natural world. This gives her a grammar not of feminine and masculine but of animate and inanimate — a way into the vitality and intelligence of plant life that science is now also seeing. It opens a new way for us to reimagine a natural reciprocity with the world around us as “a generative and creative way to be a human in the world.”

Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek sees beauty as a compass for truth, discovery, and meaning. His book A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design is a long meditation on the question: “Does the world embody beautiful ideas?” He’s the unusual scientist willing to analogize his discoveries about the deep structure of reality with deep meaning in the human everyday.

“The sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us,” Michael McCarthy writes, “may well be the most serious business of all.” He is a naturalist and journalist, and this is his delightful and galvanizing call — that we can stop relying on the immobilizing language of statistics and take up our joy in the natural world as our civilizational defense of it. With a perspective equally infused by science, reportage, and poetry, he reminds us that the natural world is where we evolved, where we found our metaphors and similes, and it is the resting place for our psyches.

“We don’t understand the world as made by stones — by things. We understand the world made by kisses, or things like kisses: happenings.” Carlo Rovelli offers vast, complex ideas beyond most of our imagining — “quanta,” “grains of space,” “time and the heat of black holes” — and condenses them into spare, beautiful words that render them newly explicable and moving. He is the scientist behind the global bestseller Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, and for him, all of reality is interaction — an everyday truth as scientific as it is philosophical and political. His physicist’s way of seeing the world helps make sense of what he calls “the huge wave of happenings” that is the human self.

A literary thinker with a “telescopic view of time”; an astrophysicist with an eye to “cultural evolution towards good.” What unfolds between these two is joyous, dynamic, and unexpectedly vulnerable — rich with cosmic imagining, civic pondering, and even some fresh definitions of the soul. A live taping from the inaugural On Being Gathering at the 1440 Multiversity in California.

Oceanographer Sylvia Earle was the first person to walk solo on the bottom of the sea, under a quarter mile of water. She has watched humanity’s enduring fascination with “outer space” while she has delighted in “inner space” — the alien and increasingly endangered worlds beneath earth’s waters. These frontiers, as Sylvia Earle points out, are our very life-support system. She takes us inside the knowledge she’s gathered from a lifetime of research and literally swimming with sharks.

Her unconventional studies have long suggested what neuroscience is now revealing: Our experiences are formed by the words and ideas we attach to them. Naming something play rather than work — or exercise rather than labor — can mean the difference between delight and drudgery, fatigue or weight loss. What makes a vacation a vacation is not only a change of scenery, but the fact that we let go of the mindless everyday illusion that we are in control. Ellen Langer says mindfulness is achievable without meditation or yoga. She defines it as “the simple act of actively noticing things.”

“When it comes to moral judgments, we think we are scientists discovering the truth, but actually we are lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means.” The surprising psychology behind morality is at the heart of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s research. He explains “liberal” and “conservative” not narrowly or necessarily as political affiliations, but as personality types — ways of moving through the world. His self-described “conservative-hating, religion-hating, secular liberal instincts” have been challenged by his own studies.

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.

Human memory is a sensory experience, says psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk. Through his longtime research and innovation in trauma treatment, he shares what he’s learning about how bodywork like yoga or eye movement therapy can restore a sense of goodness and safety. What he’s learning speaks to a resilience we can all cultivate in the face of the overwhelming events — which, after all, make up the drama of culture, of news, and of life.

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.

Xavier Le Pichon, one of the world’s leading geophysicists, helped create the field of plate tectonics. A devout Catholic and spiritual thinker, he raised his family in intentional communities centered around people with mental disabilities. He shares his rare perspective on the meaning of humanity — a perspective equally informed by his scientific and personal encounters with fragility as a fundament of vital, evolving systems. Le Pichon has come to think of caring attention to weakness as an essential quality that allowed humanity to evolve.

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