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If we didn’t have vast civilizational challenges upon us, we might be living in a constant state of wonder at what science in this century is learning and showing us about the cosmos and about ourselves — the new questions it’s giving us to live. We are the generation of our species to map the genome, to detect black holes colliding, to hear gravitational waves. The physicist Brian Greene is one of our greatest interpreters from the human enterprise that is science. And in his most recent thinking and writing, there’s a stunning evolution in his own approach to science and life and the matters of purpose and meaning. We delve into his exuberant, cosmic lens on living in the here and the now.

There’s dark matter in the cosmos, and inside us, and hidden beneath our feet. Robert Macfarlane is an explorer and linguist of landscape and his 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.

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 co-founder 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 classic economic theory embedded in western democracies holds an assumption that human beings will almost always behave rationally in the end and make logical choices that will keep our society balanced on the whole. Daniel Kahneman is the psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for showing that this is simply not true. There’s something sobering — but also helpfully grounding — in speaking with this brilliant and humane scholar who explains why none of us is an equation that computes. As surely as we breathe, we will contradict ourselves and confound each other.

The light at the end of the COVID tunnel is tenuously appearing — yet many of us feel as exhausted as at any time in the past year. Memory problems; short fuses; fractured productivity; sudden drops into despair. We’re at once excited and unnerved by the prospect of life opening up again. Clinical psychologist Christine Runyan explains the physiological effects of a year of pandemic and social isolation — what’s happened at the level of stress response and nervous system, the literal mind-body connection. And she offers simple strategies to regain our fullest capacities for the world ahead.

The ornithologist Drew Lanham is lyrical in the languages of science, humans, and birds. He’s a professor of wildlife ecology, a self-described “hunter-conservationist,” and author of the celebrated book The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. His way of seeing and hearing and noticing the present and the history that birds traverse —through our backyards and beyond —is a revelatory way to be present to the world and to life in our time.

This conversation is part of the 2021 Great Northern festival in On Being‘s hometown of the Twin Cities.

“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.

We’ve realized in 2020 that the way we’ve organized culture — from the economy to race to work — could be done radically differently. We’ve been modeling our life together on “survival of the fittest” long after science itself moved on from that. And we’re learning to see that in every sphere of life we inhabit ecosystems. Agustín Fuentes brings spacious insight into all of this as a biological and evolutionary anthropologist, exploring how humans behave, function, and change together. In this conversation, he is full of refreshingly creative and practical fodder for the necessary reinvention ahead.

“The sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us may well be the most serious business of all,” Michael McCarthy writes. He is a naturalist and journalist with a galvanizing call — that we stop relying on the immobilizing language of statistics and take up our joy in nature as our defense of it. And he reminds us that the natural world is where we first found our metaphors and similes and it is the resting place for our psyches.

As a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer joins science’s ability to “polish the art of seeing” with her personal, civilizational lineage of listening to plant life and heeding the languages of the natural world. She’s an expert in moss — a bryologist — who describes mosses as the “coral reefs of the forest.” And she says that as our knowledge about plant life unfolds, human vocabulary and imaginations must adapt.

Dario Robleto has been called a sculptural artist, a philosopher, and a “materialist poet.” He works with unconventional materials — from dinosaur fossils and meteorites to pulverized vintage records — and has been a creative partner to an eclectic range of projects. At the heart of his work is a fascination with human survival and the creative response to loss.

Jane Goodall’s early research studying chimpanzees helped shape the self-understanding of our species and recalled modern Western science to the fact that we are a part of nature, not separate from it. From her decades studying chimpanzees in the Gombe forest to her more recent years attending to human poverty and misunderstanding, she reflects on the moral and spiritual convictions that have driven her, and what she is teaching and still learning about what it means to be human. Read an edited version of their conversation in Orion magazine

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 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.

Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk is an innovator in treating the effects of overwhelming experiences. We call this “trauma” when we encounter it in life and news, and we tend to leap to address it by talking. But Bessel van der Kolk knows how some experiences imprint themselves beyond where language can reach. He explores state-of-the-art therapeutic treatments — including body work like yoga and eye movement therapy — and shares what he and others are learning on this edge of humanity about the complexity of memory, our need for others, and how our brains take care of our bodies.

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.

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.

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.

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