Margaret Wertheim
The Grandeur and Limits of Science

A passionate translator of the beauty and relevance of scientific questions, Margaret Wertheim is also wise about the limits of science to tell the whole story of the human self. Her Institute for Figuring in Los Angeles reveals evocative, visceral connections between high mathematics, crochet and other folk arts, and our love of for the planet.

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is co-founder and director of the Institute For Figuring in Los Angeles. She is the author of Pythagoras’ Trousers, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, Physics on the Fringe, and co-author, with her twin sister Christine Wertheim, of Crochet Coral Reef.


February 16, 2017

Ms. Margaret Wertheim: People kept coming up to me at dinner parties and saying, “Margaret, you’re studying physics. I bought this book A Brief History of Time, and I can’t get past chapter one.”

Krista Tippett, host: [laughs] Right. Yeah.

Ms. Wertheim: “Can you tell me a book about physics that I can actually understand?” And I think what happens is that people buy one, they can’t get past chapter one, and then they feel, “Oh, physics isn’t for me. I just don’t have that kind of a mind.” And I don’t believe this. And so I thought, “Well, what’s the problem here?” The problem with most books about physics is that they tell you the answers, and they focus on the answers. But they don’t explain the questions and why the questions matter.

Ms. Tippett: Margaret Wertheim became a science writer in order to translate the thrill of scientific questioning across human history and culture and its relevance for all of us. She’s also wise and provocative in equal measure about the limits of science to tell the whole story of the human self. Her Institute For Figuring in Los Angeles reveals beautiful, visceral connections — connections you can play with — between high mathematics, crochet and other folk arts, and our love of the planet.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

Ms. Tippett: I interviewed Margaret Wertheim in January of 2015 before an audience at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Ms. Tippett: Margaret, I always start my conversations by wondering about the spiritual background of someone’s early life. And it seems to me, from reading about you, that you were raised Catholic. But also that your mother was such an important presence and that she communicated Catholicism but much else that one might call spiritual formation.

Ms. Wertheim: Yes. My mother was raised a very, very strict Catholic. And to show you how strictly, she had six children in five-and-a-half years.


Ms. Wertheim: So in 1964, after the birth of her sixth child, she decided that even God couldn’t want her to have any more children so quickly. So she decided to go on the Pill, and that meant leaving the church. But I feel that my mother’s Catholicism has been one of the greatest and deepest influences on everything I do — basically believing that we all have a moral mission on Earth to try to make things better for people less fortunate than ourselves. And although I’m by no means a practicing Catholic anymore, I believe that Catholicism — that in some sense, in my heart, I will always be a Catholic because of that social justice issue that I got from my mom.

Ms. Tippett: And you’re also — you are an identical twin. Is that right?

Ms. Wertheim: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: So I’m sure we’ll weave in and out of this, but, I mean, one of the questions you’re always teasing out of the interaction between science and culture is this question of the self and the reality of the self. And I just wonder how you reflect on how being an identical twin maybe primed you to be attentive to that distinctively, that matter, the meaning of the self.

Ms. Wertheim: It’s very insightful of you, Krista, because I think the experience of being an identical twin is the primary experience of my life. I always say to people it’s like being married from the moment of conception with no possibility of divorce.


Ms. Wertheim: And my sister Christine has led, in some ways, a very different life to me. We spent the first 16, 17 years of our life never being separated, ever, for more than 36 hours. But after we left high school, I went to university and studied physics and mathematics, and she went to art school. And we both feel that we’ve had the opportunity to live two lives. So through her, I’ve learned about art. And through me, she’s learned about science. And the funny thing, to me, is that most people’s fantasy of having an identical twin is that you get to have someone who lives the same life as you, but Christine and I believe the real value of it is that you actually get to live two lives.

Ms. Tippett: That’s so interesting because I feel like where you’ve come in your career is very creative — and actually, you’re now working with Christine, creatively merging science and the arts, but in a very 21st-century way. And you got there by traversing some of the great questions of science and life in our time. You talk about always being — what did you say — fascinated with physics when you first heard about it before you really understood it. You had an early love of mathematics, you always “got” math, and an obsession with space. And then you studied physics.

Ms. Wertheim: Well, I think as a little child, I was obsessed with the question of how mathematical concepts seem to appear in nature. So I can remember, when I was maybe 6 or 7, lying on the grass and staring up at the sun. And we’d just had a lesson at school about pi, the number embedded in circles. A circle, in some sense, is defined by the concept of pi. And I thought, “Is pi real? What does it mean that there’s this sort of mystical number at the heart of the sun or in a hubcap or any circular thing that you see?”

And when I went to university and studied physics — physics is the science that tries to articulate mathematical descriptions of the world or to tease out the mathematics that somehow is valuable descriptively. And the more you study physics, the more astounding are the examples of that, that math is everywhere in the world. And how do we interpret that? What is the meaning of the fact that there are these incredibly complex equations that describe phenomenon like lasers? And that, therefore, the understanding of those equations then leads us to have technologies like microchips? And I think it’s the great philosophical question that I want to understand in my life. What does it mean that the math is in the world in some sense?

Ms. Tippett: It seems to me that behind the way you just talked about that puzzle is — and I think you’ve said this in places — that the ultimate question that’s driven you is, “What is reality?” And what is the language we use to describe reality? And which articulations of reality are taken seriously and how that also changes across time? And your telling of the history of science, which you did especially in your first book, Pythagoras’ Trousers, is this long encounter with and constant revision of that question.

Ms. Wertheim: Well, my first book, which is called Pythagoras’ Trousers, is basically a cultural history of physics that focuses on the historical relationship between physics and religion. Physicists have been engaged with the God question deeply from its origins basically in Pythagoreanism two-and-a-half thousand years ago. So Pythagoras believed that the numbers were literally gods and that — when we found mathematical relationships inherent in the world around us — that what we were discovering was, as it were, the true reality behind the material phenomena. And it’s the vision that really gave birth to modern physics, which efflorescens into being as we all know in the 17th century.

When I set out to write my book, I had no intention of writing about religion. I wanted to write a book about the cultural history of physics because I wanted to explain physics to my friends. And people kept coming up to me at dinner parties and saying, “Margaret, you’re studying physics. I bought this book A Brief History of Time, and I can’t get past chapter one.”

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right. Yeah.

Ms. Wertheim: “Can you tell me a book about physics that I can actually understand?” And I think what happens is that people buy one, they can’t get past chapter one, and then they feel, “Oh, physics isn’t for me. I just don’t have that kind of a mind.” And I don’t believe this. And so I thought, “Well, what’s the problem here?” The problem with most books about physics is that they tell you the answers, and they focus on the answers. But they don’t explain the questions and why the questions matter.

Ms. Tippett: And the questions, which could not be more exhilarating.

Ms. Wertheim: Yes. So here is a simple one: when Copernicus said it’s the Sun, not the Earth, that’s at the center of the universe — it was a fundamental shift in how human beings saw themselves. So in the medieval universe, people saw themselves at the heart of an angel-filled universe with everything connected to God. In the Copernican and Newtonian universe, we ultimately became — the Earth’s position was a planet floating around a Sun in a vast empty void.

Ms. Tippett: And then interestingly, we get into the modern era where there’s kind of this assumption that all that matters is matter.

Ms. Wertheim: Yes. Well, what we keep doing in the West, and particularly through the discourse of physics, is coming back to what’s generally called Platonism — that should be called Pythagoreanism, but it’s usually called Platonism. And that’s the idea that the true reality is a set of ideal forms. And in the physics version of it, the ideal forms are basically mathematical forms, which is now put in terms of the equations. And I love mathematics and deeply believe in its validity for describing lots of physical phenomena, but I fundamentally reject Platonism. I think we are, first and foremost, embodied beings. And we have minds. And I think the embodiment of ourselves is the primary reality.

Ms. Tippett: And do you have this conversation with physicists?


Ms. Wertheim: Not very often. Sometimes. Part of the problem is that Platonism is so ascendant in our time. Because, as you said, physics has become so incredibly successful. There’s so much of the universe that we have described in mathematical terms. And I don’t think that that’s most people’s experience of being. Pain is real. Happiness is real. Emotionality is real.

Ms. Tippett: And we articulate and sense reality through experience.

Ms. Wertheim: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: It’s also there in this tension — which actually recurs in many fields — kind of the supremacy of hard science when that gets invoked over other soft things like experience.

Ms. Wertheim: And when we use — it’s ironic because when we use the word “hard sciences,” that means the mathematical sciences. The more hard a science is, the more mathematical it is. Which is totally ironic because mathematics is the least material, or the least hard thing at all. I mean, it’s the least solid thing.

Ms. Tippett: Right. No, I like…

Ms. Wertheim: It’s hard…

Ms. Tippett: It’s — you said it’s mystical in a sense.

Ms. Wertheim: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: It began as something mystical, and there’s a sense in which it remains this.

Ms. Wertheim: I mean, I think the connotation of hardness comes from the historical notion that the mathematical aspects of the world are the most unchanging. So four mountains will eventually crumble. Four civilizations will fall. Four apples will rot. Four of anything will eventually disappear. But four — in this philosophy, four is forever. But is that true? What is the origin of fourness? What is the origin of the mathematical equations that physicists discovered? Do they have a transcendent existence? I don’t believe they do.

[music: “Plucky” by Atusi Assiv]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, in a public conversation with science writer and curator Margaret Wertheim. We’re at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where part of her Institute For Figuring’s Crochet Coral Reef has been on exhibit.

[music: “Plucky” by Atusi Assiv]

Ms. Tippett: So let’s talk about this way — you actually studied physics, but you became a science journalist. And one of the things you — a kind of driving curiosity that you’ve described from your earliest life is, “What do scientists know that we’d all like to know?” I guess you described that when you talked about why you wrote your books. And I feel like what you’re doing now, which brings all kinds of parts of you together, including your sister who studied art, is this Institute For Figuring.

The LA Weekly called the Institute For Figuring “a kind of rogue physics laboratory.” [laughs] Which is interesting because you’ve also thought a lot about the history of “outsider scientists,” and we kind of think of this as a priestly class. And it’s always been more fluid. So I find that interesting because I’ve kind of come to think of you as an outsider scientist. And you’ve also said that outsider science is a new kind of folk art.

And you’re really — you’re making that real through this Institute For Figuring. And you talked about the reality for you of embodied being. And one way you’ve described what the Institute For Figuring is doing is helping non-scientists, ordinary people learn the language of mathematics by experiencing it in embodied ways. So it’s really fascinating. Well, just talk about how this came to be.

Ms. Wertheim: About 10 years ago, I had been working for a long time as a science journalist and science writer. And I became very frustrated by the fact that, as a science journalist, I was having trouble convincing magazine and newspaper science editors to let me write about certain things that I thought were fascinating. And I’m a huge lover of the beauty and the poetic enchantments in science and mathematics. I think most scientists, particularly most physicists, go into the field because they are absolutely captivated by the beauty of it. And I thought, “I think there needs to be a framework in which the beauty and poetic wonder of science can be foregrounded.”

Ms. Tippett: How did you come up with the term “figuring?” It’s not a common word.

Ms. Wertheim: Well, Chrissy and I talk a lot about the word “figuring.”

Ms. Tippett: Chrissy is your twin sister.

Ms. Wertheim: Chrissy is my twin sister. Because figures are numbers. Figures are scientific diagrams. We all — artists do figurative drawing. We all have a figure as a body. And we figure things out. So figuring is a word that immediately connotes art, science, mathematics, and cognition. So as soon as I had the idea for an organization, the thought popped into my head it should be called the Institute For Figuring. And its acronym, IFF, is the logical symbol for “if and only if.”


Ms. Tippett: And a lot of what — you’re actually working with geometry. A lot of what you’re doing is working with — which is that kind of evidently beautiful to ordinary human senses aspect of mathematics, which we don’t necessarily think of when we think of equations which we can’t understand and didn’t learn in school. I mean, it’s so interesting. You talk about objects that are a part of life, and in fact, many of them very playful and whimsical and intriguing like soccer balls and origami and sponges and snowflakes. I mean, just in that, you remind us that we encounter these forms of mathematics and actually work with them all the time but don’t think of it that way.

Ms. Wertheim: Yes. One of the Institute For Figuring’s primary goals is to give people an experience of maths and science. So instead of having them just sit passively and listen to a lecture by a scientist — which it may actually be absolutely fabulous — we want people to have an experience of making and doing science for themselves.

So the project that we’re most well known for is the Crochet Coral Reef project, which is all based on the fact that corals and sponges — sea sponges and lots of other reef organisms — all those frilly crenellated structures that you see are actually biological manifestations of a kind of geometry called hyperbolic geometry. And although brainless corals can make hyperbolic forms literally in the bodies of their beings, it’s very difficult for humans to make models of this. And in fact, the best way to do it is with crochet.

Ms. Tippett: And it was a scientist who discovered that, right?

Ms. Wertheim: It was a mathematician.

Ms. Tippett: A mathematician who discovered that crochet was the best way to demonstrate this geometric principle.

Ms. Wertheim: Yes. Dr. Daina Taimina, a Latvian mathematician who had grown up knitting and crocheting. She heard about this issue that mathematicians understood, theoretically, hyperbolic surfaces, but they didn’t really have a way of making models of it. And it turns out that the swooping crenellated forms that corals make, they’re embodiments of negative curvature space, which has come to be called hyperbolic space — hyperbolic geometry. Now, mathematicians spent hundreds of years trying to prove that anything like this was possible. So what Dana did was she basically gave us a way of having a model of this mathematical construct. So it didn’t invent new mathematics, but she gave us a physical representation of it.

And that’s a remarkable thing. Because when you can see it and feel it and hold it in your hands, you can get a sense of its visceral being. And you can actually stitch mathematical theorems onto the surface of these hyperbolic surfaces that are crocheted and demonstrate to students that the angles of a triangle don’t add up to 180 degrees. And I studied hyperbolic geometry in math class at university, and we just had to take it as this theoretical thing. And it’s so powerful.

Ms. Tippett: OK. Can I just confess that I’m trying to follow what you’re saying, and I feel a little bit like…


Ms. Tippett: And I feel a little bit like I did when I tried to read A Brief History of Time. But…

Ms. Wertheim: Well, you sort of need to see it. You need the visuality too.

Ms. Tippett: And people listening on the radio won’t be able to see this beautiful, bright — is that a part from the reef project?

Ms. Wertheim: Yeah. I’ll tell you an example that everybody in this audience will have seen and that your listeners will know. Think of a calla lily.

Ms. Tippett: Think of what?

Ms. Wertheim: A calla lily. You know, the flowers that the Virgin Mary holds. Actually, no, it’s not a calla lily that she holds. It’s a different kind of lily. But think — a calla lily is the swirling lily that sort of wraps around like in a spiral. Actually, there were versions of them in the film Avatar, in that fabulous forest on the Pandora world. They walk through a forest, and there are these swirling, curling flowers. Those flowers are actually making hyperbolic surfaces. So a lot of things in nature make these hyperbolic forms. And corals with their wavy, curly — think about what you know about a coral reef. Those forms are hyperbolic surfaces.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Well, and — so I have to say, I did look at images of — pictures online. And there’s a wonderful presentation you gave that I know we’ll put up on our website where you go through some of the project, the coral reef project. And it’s lavishly beautiful and wild and — actually, one thing that — some of the things that I heard you say about this that helped me understand is you said that the idea is to literally embody ideas so you can play with them, which is a phrase we use, playing with ideas. But there’s something so whimsical, and something else that really helped me is you noted that you and your sister loved Cat in the Hat. And those — these colors, these wild colors, which are also found in nature. Right? I mean, which nature does better than we do.

Ms. Wertheim: Well, the Crochet Coral Reef project is a project where we’re literally making a coral reef, and sometimes these get to be really huge installations. Chrissy and I work with communities around the world. We teach lots of people how to do these crochet hyperbolic forms, which immediately looked like coral reefs. Because whenever you make frills, it tends to look like corals.

Ms. Tippett: Frills. Right.

Ms. Wertheim: Basically, corals are frills.

Ms. Tippett: Right. [laughs]

Ms. Wertheim: And they’re sort of nature’s fancy work is the way we like to think of it. And when you get hundreds or thousands of them together, you can form them into vast coralean landscapes. And we — Chrissy and I started the project in 2005, about the time when scientists were beginning to realize that coral reefs around the world were being devastated by global warming.

And we grew up in the state of Queensland, Australia, which is where the Great Barrier Reef is. And we joked to ourselves at the time that if the Great Barrier Reef ever died out, our crochet reef would be something to remember it by. In 2005, that was a joke. Just this week, NOA scientists have released a report warning that this year may be the worst coral bleaching and die-off in the history of humanity. And scientists are talking about the very real possibility that coral reefs might actually die out if we don’t stop putting so much CO2 into the atmosphere.

Ms. Tippett: Last week, I was with Mary Oliver, the poet, who doesn’t give interviews very much. And she talked a little bit about how distressed she is at the state of the Earth. And of course, it’s hard to hear that from Mary Oliver because so much of her poetry is about the beauty and grandeur and mystery of the natural world. And she said, “Other people write about that distress and what’s going wrong. But I’ve chosen for my contribution to be just making people aware of the beauty of it.”

And I was thinking about that when I was thinking about this project because this is also a different approach to science communication because we do get these devastating news reports. And it seems to me that you are actually bringing people into some kind of contact with the notion of coral reefs as embodied and vividly beautiful.

Ms. Wertheim: One of the things about the reef project that I feel is important is that it’s a constructive response to a devastating problem. I think most people, as I am, are completely freaked out about the problem of global warming. What can we do? Can we do anything?

And the reef project — the Crochet Coral Reef project is a metaphor, and it goes like this: if you look at real corals, a head of coral is built by thousands of individual coral polyps working together. Each coral polyp is a tiny insignificant little critter with almost no power of its own. But when billions of coral polyps come together, they can build the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living thing on earth and the first living thing that you can see from outer space.

The Crochet Coral Reef is a human analog of that. These huge coral reef installations that we build with communities are built by hundreds and sometimes thousands of people working together. So the project capitulates, in human action, the power and greatness of what corals themselves are doing. And I think the metaphor of the project is, “Look what we can do together.” We humans, each of us are like a coral polyp. Individually, we’re insignificant and probably powerless. But together, I believe we can do things. And I think the metaphor of the project is we are all corals now. We are all at risk.

Ms. Tippett: And I think it is also empowering that there is beauty and playfulness in the act of creating, in that response.

Ms. Wertheim: Yes. But at the same time, that they are doing a pleasurable activity. It’s very pleasurable to do handicrafts like crochet. It’s meditative, and you’re producing beautiful things. And I think we urgently need that. We will not solve global warming and ocean acidification if we just freak ourselves out and end up huddling in corners in fear. We must find ways to collectively act and constructively and positively act.

[music: “Scale and Ratio” by Ryan Teague]

Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Margaret Wertheim through our website, I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Scale and Ratio” by Ryan Teague]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, in a public conversation at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, with science writer Margaret Wertheim. She distinctively opens the history and meaning of science — its grand questions as well as its answers — to modern people. At the Institute For Figuring, which she created and curates with her artist twin sister in Los Angeles, she also explores the intersection of folk art, high mathematics, and human interaction with the natural world.

Ms. Tippett: Another subject we could have spent half an hour on that you’ve written and reflected on in a very unique way is space, and the history of our sense of space, and the meaning of space, and how cyberspace — and I mean, I have to confess, I’d never actually pondered the space part of the cyberspace notion — it’s a new way we’re playing with that idea and also corrective. So can you just say a little bit about that?

Ms. Wertheim: Well, my second book is called The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace. And I’m interested in this book in the ways in which, as our thinking about space changes, so do our ideas about the conception of the self. So a simple way of thinking of this is that, for medieval people, prior to the Scientific Revolution, people saw themselves as twofold. They had a body and a soul, and each of those aspects of human self had a space of being. So the body existed in the physical, material cosmos. And the soul existed in the realm of the afterlife, which was so beautifully articulated by Dante in the Divine Comedy with the three realms of heaven, hell, and purgatory.

With the coming into being of Newtonian cosmology, our conception of space became purely physical. And I think this is the fundamental trauma at the heart of the modern Western world. It’s usually said to be because we reconceived of the world as a mechanical system. I think it’s because we reconceived the world as a spatial system which no longer had any way of describing the psychological or spiritual aspects of our being.

Ms. Tippett: And cyberspace is kind of a place where — is a space of being?

Ms. Wertheim: Well, we do so much online. We’re in chat rooms. We’re in video games. I think generations of people bought up experiencing literally a sense of themself existing or being and acting in a virtual universe. I think that generation will not accept pure materialism. And I think this is the great revolution of the cyber era. The coming into being of virtual realities is representing that reality is not just matter in motion through physical space. And I think that’s absolutely wonderful.

Ms. Tippett: [laughs]

Ms. Wertheim: So I think we now, actually, in a sense, are reconceiving medieval dualism. Medieval people considered themselves in some ways to have two realities, the reality of the body and the reality of the soul, which was very real to them because they thought they were going to go to heaven or hell. We now, with the internet and cyberspace, experience that multiplicity of reality.

Our physical body is in the chair, but I’m here in the virtual world playing the video game or in “Second Life,” whatever it is you’re doing. So you, in some sense, are a multiple being, the body and the self. The difference between the contemporary cyber version of it and the medieval version of it is that the cyber version of it is untethered from any notion of morality.

Ms. Tippett: And that is our work, right? Do we manage to create that — a moral sensibility in cyberspace?

Ms. Wertheim: Yes, when cyberspace as a construct first started to come into being about 20 years ago, there were a lot of people talking about how because it was, as it were, engaged on the level of the self, that it was ipso facto going to be a powerful force for moral enrichment and improvement. I have to say, I see little evidence of that.


Ms. Tippett: I’ve had some conversations in the last few years with physicists, especially with Brian Greene, who will essentially say that in ways we don’t yet understand and cannot perceive with our five senses, the laws of physics are determining everything that we do. And that our sense of self and our sense of control and of choice is an illusion. But what strikes me in that kind of perception is that it’s really just reinventing kind of the Calvinist notion of predestination, right? Like the laws of physics are as tyrannical as the most primitive God.

Ms. Wertheim: Well, this is the fundamental problem with the deterministic view of science is if everything is predetermined, then there’s no such thing as free will. And why is that a problem? If there is no free will, then we cannot be responsible for our acts. And this is — again, it’s a fundamental issue of Christianity that — basically, the fundamental claim of Christianity is that you have a will, and you can decide how you act. And if the world is purely deterministic, and you have no free will, then there is no concept, really, of morality. Because we’re all just machines playing it out.

Ms. Tippett: Well, I mean, Christianity and every spiritual tradition with different vocabulary and different practices is driving at that capacity we have to grow and change and shape our presence in the world.

Ms. Wertheim: Yes. I mean, I think that the deterministic view basically turns us into, not immoral, but amoral beings. We have no moral choice. And I think most people cannot accept that, and nor should they. And so the problem, if you disagree with Brian Greene, is what do you think the laws of physics — if they’re not the cosmic blueprint, what are they? But also, the question then also becomes, “Can the laws of physics account for everything? Can they account for our subjectivity?” And that’s — I don’t believe that they can describe subjectivity.

Ms. Tippett: And what did you say when we first started speaking? That pain is real. That happiness is real. That beauty — these perceptions we have. It’s also very uninteresting if we just decide that they’re right. So what do we do? Just go home? I mean…


Ms. Wertheim: Yes. I mean, this issue of the laws of nature and subjectivity was really a central question in the Scientific Revolution because it was realized very early on that it could threaten the notion of morality and free will. That was why it was such a problematic notion in the early 17th century. And that was why Descartes, who was completely activated by this question, asked himself, “What can the laws of nature — what can mathematical laws of nature describe?” And Descartes’s answer to the question was the physical laws of nature can describe matter in motion through space and time. That’s what he called the res extensa.

But he said there is another aspect of beingness which is what he called the res cogitans, the realm of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and spiritual experience. And Descartes said these are two aspects of reality. They are both legitimate. They are both foundational. And the mathematical laws of nature have nothing to say with the realm of what we would call the human psyche and the human soul. But in the 18th century, champions of mechanism said, “We don’t need that spiritual realm anymore. We’ll just get rid of all of that.”

Ms. Tippett: That’s interesting because we think — I mean, I’ve said recently, I think Descartes has a lot to answer for because we can’t just reduce ourselves to thinking. But what you’re pointing out is that he was responding to a different way of dividing ourselves up.

Ms. Wertheim: Descartes was trying to rescue the situation, and he had a brilliant — nobody can prove to you that there is only matter in motion. So what has happened with the modern world is that, unlike the medievals, we don’t really have a language for discussing our self — the selfness of ourselves — in relation to the material world. So we’ve got neurologists and neurophysicists and neuroscientists are now trying to explain all psychological phenomena in terms of physiological things.

Now, I believe you could — there’s a lot of neurological correlates to psychological states, but I claim, as the philosopher David Chalmers does, that the experience of redness, the experience of pain, is fundamental. And it is just as much of the fundamental phenomena as the neurons firing and the circuitry going and the neurotransmitters. So this is the foundational philosophical question in relation to modern science.

[music: “Snow” by Yuki Murata]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, in a public conversation at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I’m with science writer and Institute For Figuring curator, Margaret Wertheim.

[music: “Snow” by Yuki Murata]

Ms. Tippett: So, I always like this fact that light can be a particle or a wave depending on what question you ask of it as kind of a way of demonstrating, I think — something we all also experience, that contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true.

And I just want to read something quite beautiful that you wrote: “Wave particle duality is a core feature of our world. Or rather, we should say, it is a core feature of our mathematical descriptions of our world. But what is critical to note here is that, however ambiguous our images, the universe itself remains whole and is manifestly not fracturing into schizophrenic shards. It is this tantalizing wholeness and the thing itself that drives physicists onward like an eternally beckoning light that seems so teasingly near yet is always out of reach.” That’s very beautiful. Do you want to say anything about that thought?

Ms. Wertheim: Yes. Physics, for the past century, had this dualistic way of describing the world. One in terms of waves, which is usually conceived of as a continuous phenomena. And one in terms of particles, which is usually conceived of as a discrete or sort of digitized phenomena. And so quantum mechanics gives us the particle, as it were, discrete description. And general relativity gives us the wavelike, continuous description. And general relativity operates at the cosmological scale. And quantum mechanics operates so brilliantly at the subatomic scale. And these two theories don’t currently mathematically mesh.

So the great hope of physics for the last 80 or so years has been, “Can we find a unifying framework that will combine general relativity and quantum mechanics into one mathematical synthesis?” And some people believe that that’s what string theory can be. And it’s often — when contemporary physicists write about the world, they talk about this as being a fundamental problem for reality. But it’s not a fundamental problem for reality. It’s a fundamental problem for human beings. The universe is just getting on with it.


Ms. Wertheim: And so I think the universe isn’t schizophrenic. It’s not having a problem. We’re having a problem. And I don’t think it means that there’s anything wrong with what physicists are doing. Quantum mechanics and general relativity have both been demonstrated to be true in their demands of expertise to 20 decimal places of experimentation. That’s a degree of success which is mind-blowing and awe-inspiring. But the fact that these two great, fabulously functional descriptions don’t fit together means we haven’t, by any means, learned all we’ve got to know about the world.

Ms. Tippett: So you’ve — I think you’ve pointed at this, but I want to explicitly go here with you. You’ve said that you don’t think neuroscience is also finally going to have a theory of everything that explains us to ourselves, that explains happiness and love and pain and why we do what we do or whether we have a choice to do it. But you said you think there is something more that remains — that will remain. But I also want to say, you’ve spoken a lot and very movingly about your Catholic — about that legacy of Catholicism. But you also are atheist, is that correct? Now? I’ve heard you say that.

Ms. Wertheim: I — no, I’m not an atheist.

Ms. Tippett: OK. You have to be careful what you say because it has eternal life online.


Ms. Wertheim: It has eternal life online. And when I was preparing for this interview, Krista, I thought, “I know this question’s going to come up. I know it’s going to come up, and what am I going to say?”

Ms. Tippett: Well, yeah. I don’t need you to declare yourself unless you want to. But I…

Ms. Wertheim: I want to say very publicly I’m not an atheist.


Ms. Tippett: OK. All right.

Ms. Wertheim: So what is my beliefs? And I’d like to put it this way: I don’t know that I believe in the existence of God in the Catholic sense. But my favorite book is the Divine Comedy. And at the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante pierces the skin of the universe and comes face to face with the love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe in Dante’s vision. And so, in some sense, perhaps I could be said to believe in God.

And I think part of the problem with the concept of, “Are you an atheist or not?” is that our conception of what divinity means has become so trivialized and banal that I think it’s almost impossible to answer the question without dogma. And I think it’s a very — I’m very, very saddened by the fact that militant atheism has become so to the fore of our society. I think it’s destructive and unhelpful, and I don’t think it does science any service.

Ms. Tippett: I hear you saying, also, that the language of God itself is — it’s, like the language for a lot of really important things, gets ruined. We turn it into cliche or we fight about it. But — so whether you use that language or not, I almost feel like with your history and the history you have delved into, our human history of science, that you don’t speak about the God of religion but you almost — you speak about a beyond that is somehow kind of a third-way behind the God we’ve thought about, and who is discredited in some ways by us or the cold, hard materialism of the scientific worldview.

Ms. Wertheim: Well, one way I think we can understand the God question in relation to science is this: that prior to the coming into being of modern science, the Christian conception of God — God had two functions. God was the creator of the universe, but he was first and foremost the redeemer of mankind. And with the coming into being of modern science, God’s position as redeemer got shoved into the background, and all of the questions and the public discussion became about God the creator. And that was why Darwinism was so critical because he appeared to challenge the idea of God as the creator of man.

And we, I think, in the West — the modern West, we focus so much on the debate about the creative function of God that, outside of theological circles, we don’t seem to be able to discuss, as it were, the concept of redemption. And I think we need to be able to discuss that. And I don’t know how we can do it. I think we need to start thinking about that.

Ms. Tippett: “Redemption” and “redemptive” is actually a wonderful word to think about in the context of this question of how we rise to the occasion of climate change.

Ms. Wertheim: Exactly. I mean, I think redemption doesn’t have — you don’t have to believe in an idea of original sin. I don’t think that humans are innately sinful, but I think we all make mistakes. Every single one of us. And collectively, we’re making massive mistakes. And the question is, “How can we redeem ourselves in the sense of making amends?”

Well, one way you can look at this is, in the early 18th century, the philosopher John Locke made, basically, the claim — he said, “So now we’ve got this fabulous new science of the material world and ourselves as embodied beings.” And Locke predicted that humans would eventually need a science of mind. And neuroscience is now trying to have a science of mind too. And I agree with John Locke. We do need a science of mind. I think we can find interesting things from studying neurophysiology, but we still need a science of mind, not just of brain.

[music: “Flow & Branch” by Keith Kenniff]

Ms. Tippett: Margaret Wertheim is the co-founder and director of the Institute For Figuring in Los Angeles. Her books include Pythagoras’ Trousers and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet. The Institute For Figuring also sells a Crochet Coral Reef book, which includes essays as well as photos from installations at art galleries and science museums around the world.

[music: “Flow & Branch” by Keith Kenniff]

Staff: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Mann, Selena Carlson, and Rigsar Wangchuk.

Ms. Tippett: Special thanks this week to Elizabeth Armstrong as well as to Susan Jacobsen and Nicole Soukup at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

[music: “Powder” by Benevento/Russo Duo]

Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoe Keating. And the last voice you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.

On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at

Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.

The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.

The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.

Books + Music

Recommended Reading

Author: Stephen Hawking
Publisher: Bantam
Binding: Paperback, (212)Pages
Author: Margaret Wertheim
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Binding: Paperback, (320)Pages
Author: Margaret Wertheim
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Binding: Paperback, (336)Pages
Author: Marion Endt-Jones, Leslie Dick, Anna Mayer
Publisher: Institute for Figuring
Binding: Paperback, (208)Pages

Music Played

Artist: Zoe Keating
Label: Zoe Keating
Label: Extreme Music
Label: Village Green
Label: Extreme Music
Label: Village Green
Artist: Benevento Russo Duo
Label: P-Vine Japan

Share a Reflection

  • Gabby

    I found quite intriguing a variety of dimensions of this conversation, in part because I share some common experiences with Ms. Wertheim that are not altogether common in the general population. I too am an identical twin who studied mathematics while my sister pursued humanities, am a person drawn to the tangible experience of craft including textile, and have long been a woman with a mission of bringing the beauty of mathematics to a broader audience by tapping into its simplest visual expressions.
    The experience of being an identical twin is a primary experience of my life as well, but I wouldn’t say it has made me consider the question of identity very differently from a singleton. I say this because I think people pass very quickly the point of seeing physical appearance, or even the pacing of our spoken language or the way we cock our heads, as the primary aspects of identity. Perhaps twins come to that realization sooner or find it convincing sooner.
    Another perspective I hold that is different is that my experience of learning mathematics and natural science has not been one in which I would say there has been a focus on the answers rather than on the questions. My experience, rather, is that in formal settings we start with questions, then gather some vocabulary and tools along with practice answering some questions we can newly address with those tools, and then move outward into areas and questions we can understand in a richer way given those fundamental tools.
    I would have said that physics books written for a popular audience focus on questions, particularly those which are at the frontiers. This has launched so much citizen science in which people with a broad range of training and experience pursue the great questions of science with relish and in their own sometimes wild ways.
    I loved the crocheted coral reef when I first encountered it on TED as well as comparable endeavors to bring the beauty of mathematics to a broader public through origami and paper arts. I will continue to follow the Wertheims’ work!

  • Susan Lombardo

    This conversation is absolutely fascinating! How lovely to be drawn into the swirl of math, physics, fiber art crochet, the universe, beauty, spirituality, the environment, meditation, intellection, creativity, diversity, and philosophy. I’ve been crocheting hyperbolic pieces for several years, and was doing so while listening to this episode. There is something so infinite and magical about creating a physical model of hyperbolic geometry. And I find myself pondering the idea that it is possible and natural to seek both a scientific and a spiritual understanding of the universe.

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  • Niraj Kumar

    I am an engineer from India, in US for a long time. This conversation was interesting however what Martha said about needing to find a way to discuss about mind/self and language to be able to do that etc. has been there already.
    In my opinion, and I am still a seeker and still learning about Spiritual and Real-World, I would say the Sanskrit language and Vendanta scriptures have been about this for centuries. There are a dozen words describing (aspects) of self and mind in that language and elaborated in Vedanta scriptures.
    I am not sure if a reference is appropriate here but I can respond with you tube video link if there is an interest.

    • I would say the Sanskrit language and Vendanta scriptures have been about this for centuries.

      Which means that there is a a confirming voice of the elders, as we discover how to describe, and more essentially, Realize the singularity of THIS, in the contemporary context. That, being Materialist, skeptical, and hyper relativity bound.

  • 2PenniesMore

    This excruciating exercise of mind-over-matter-ism reminded me of Narcissus leaning over his reflection and eventually drowning into it. I cringed when your guest said “If the Great Barrier Reef ever died out, our crochet reef would be something to remember it by”… Really? Then let us get busy crocheting giraffes and elephants and polar bears because they too are dying out, and let’s apologize to the 3 species that became extinct during this program without us having time to crochet a memorial. Sorry, but mathematical acumen or blending virtuality with reality will not get us out of the dead-end the industrial trance has led us into. More heart, less brain might. What if, instead of being everywhere in nature, mathematics were a mere color coat on the lenses through which some minds observe the world?

  • Lori Lipkind

    This interview moved me to tears. I’ve always been fascinated with physics and its relationship to metaphysical/spirituality but lack the mathematical skills to comprehend as I would like. Dr. Wertheim’s humanity, poetry, and comprehensive knowledge of philosophy, literature, and art show such passion for life and a truly beautiful worldview. Her rejection of dogma while stating her belief that the universe does indeed have a moral center of love gives me hope that science and religion can co-exist. And why not? If God has a universal language, it most certainly would be the mathematical laws of physics. Thank you, Ms. Tippett and Dr. Wertheim, for such a beautiful and hopeful conversation.

  • beartoe

    I listened to the discussion this morning (WAMU-Washington DC) and was fascinated by Ms. Wertheim’s effortless weaving together of science, maths, and the history of philosophy. I especially liked her descriptions of parallel ‘spaces’ and Danté, Newton, Déscartes, and Darwin. (Surely we could have had a little Galileo thrown in there also 🙂

    What really caught me, though, was the discussion on coral polyps and hyperbolic geometry. I wonder if Ms. Wertheim is familiar with the work of her own countryman, Mark Burry, who has undertaken the completion of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona? Seven years ago, I saw Burry give an absolutely riveting talk on the history of Gaudí, wherein he revealed his discovery that Gaudí had made a conscious decision that all the geometric surfaces in the basilica would be derived either from hyperbolic paraboloids or hyperboloids. (This was done for purposes of manufacture, as these shapes are “doubly ruled” and therefore could reliably be fabricated without excessive test-fitting.)

    Take a look at some of the forms here:

    You know, if you look at Sagrada Familia just so, with your eyes out of focus, it really does begin to resemble the forms of a coral reef…

  • CrummyVerses

    On the Institute For Figuring website ( there’s the statement “math may be seen as a kind of performance akin to playing music.” As a musician, as well as a former lover of mathematics, I can relate. It just kinda flows out of me, this inherent desire to create, understand, express.
    In the interview, “I think we need to be able to discuss (redemption.) And I don’t know how we can do it. I think we need to start thinking about that.” Amen sister. I’m not a Christian but clearly that Creator message is from the Old Testament. Do we need yet another 2000 years to wake up to the New Testament message of redemption? One doesn’t need to be a Believer to figure that one out, albeit a tough nut to crack given the circumstances we’ve placed ourselves in, e.g., the Great Barrier Reef endangered.

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  • Janet Whitesides

    I was intrigued and following the conversation until Ms. Wertheim referred to “militant atheism”. Who is this group and why didn’t Krista ask her to explain the term?

    • Gabby

      If you look on the website, or if you just search the internet for “militant atheism,” you will find a 2002 talk by the well known biologist Richard Dawkins. He is one of a small group of scholars who believe that atheists, rather than simply steering clear of discussions of faith, as those who are not believers usually do, should assertively argue in the public arena against religiosity but particularly against incursions of organized religion into political life.
      I think Richard Dawkins’ statements are a good place to learn what that small movement is about. Sam Harris is another scholar associated with it. Sam Harris, I believe, embraces spirituality but not Deism.

      • Janet Whitesides

        I know who Richard Dawkins is and assumed that is whom the comment was directed. I don’t consider arguing in public arena as militant at all; we need more of it.

  • Sonora Walker

    The theme of wholeness is here for me both metaphor and embodied inspiration for a deeper integration of the self–twins or triplets: mind, body, heart/soul. These take on inside of me as in the universe, schizophrenic lives, me so disconnected (a fracturing, yes, nurtured by both my choices and my sorrows): my mind and my heart each going their own way, ripping my body in two (or less dramatically said: killing it). The coral is what suffers in the universe. This separation of twins results not only in a destructive disembodiment, but a series of foolish and dualistic questions one cannot hope to answer let alone live by: am I an artist or a scholar? shall I love or shall I leave? me or you? save the world or save myself? live or die? Siiiiiiiiisteeeeeeeeer….? siiiiiisteeeeeeer……?
    I am completely serious in my hope and cry for integration and wholeness in myself so that I can save the coral, etc.

    This fascinating interview also made me smile because (though my love is yet unrequited) I love someone who is very good at math and is even smarter in a brainy sort of way than I once imagined and collaboratively and creatively gifted to the nth degree (revealing further progress, one might suggest, on the personal integration journey which I also aspire to (see above paragraph))…while I enjoy the fiber arts now and again. High math/folk art. I like to think we are twins of the romantic sort and in utter sincerity I use the term soulmate to reflect this ( though many intellectuals disparage the term, I am just foolish enough to embrace it, on a case-by-case basis).