Maria Popova and Natalie Batalha
Cosmic Imagining, Civic Pondering
Natalie Batalha is a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She served as the project scientist for NASA's Kepler mission from 2011 to 2017.
Maria Popova is the creator and presence behind Brain Pickings, which is included in the Library of Congress’s permanent digital archive of culturally valuable materials. She is the author of Figuring and hosts “The Universe in Verse” — an annual celebration of science through poetry — at the interdisciplinary cultural institute Pioneer Works in Brooklyn.
Krista Tippett, host: Maria Popova and Natalie Batalha — an astrophysicist with an eye to cultural evolution towards good, a literary thinker who takes what she calls a “telescopic view of time.” What unfolds between these two is joyous and expansive — rich with cosmic imagining, civic pondering, and even some fresh definitions of the soul.
Maria Popova: I do not believe in a solid self, as I don’t believe in a soul that outlives the rest of the constellation of being, the physical being that is us. But, at the same time, it is where we spring from. The “us”-ness of us is rooted in this very complex interplay of values, beliefs, ideas, friends, places we’ve been, smells we’ve remembered. And it’s impossible to be a person without that.
Natalie Batalha: It took 13.7 billion years for the atoms to come together to create the portal to the universe, which is my physical self. So in that statement is this idea, or the fluidity of time and space. And I kind of see it all at once.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Ms. Tippett: I sat with Maria Popova and Natalie Batalha at the first-ever On Being Gathering, amidst the redwoods of the 1440 Multiversity in Scotts Valley, California.
Ms. Tippett: Natalie Batalha’s Twitter profile is “eukaryote.”
Ms. Batalha: Eukaryote, yeah.
Ms. Tippett: “Eukaryote on planet Earth using self-awareness and empathy to experience love and seek knowledge. Astronomer involved in search for life on exoplanets.” [laughs] She leads the science investigation effort for the Kepler space telescope, which is NASA’s first mission to find earth-size planets beyond our solar system which are potentially habitable.
And Maria Popova is — I don’t know how to — it’s hard to describe either one of these women. She describes herself as a “reader, writer, interestingness hunter-gatherer, and curious mind at large.” And Maria also single-handedly reminds us that the internet and social media can be places where we trade wisdom and sustenance and substance and deep learning and deep thinking; and that even that kind of exchange and experience online can have millions of followers.
So we have here an astrophysicist who writes about love and empathy, and a literary thinker who takes what she calls a “telescopic view of time.”
I’m so excited to have the two of them together. And I want to start by hearing from each of you — I don’t know. Maria, let’s start with you — something in however you would define the spiritual background of your life that is especially present to you now, in the sense of nourishing or troubling or animating, or all three.
Ms. Popova: Well, I am an atheist who finds a lot of meaning and nourishment and spiritual sustenance in nature — particularly in, I would say, the cosmic nature of reality, the cosmic aspect, but also, very much, the earthly, the — being out in these beautiful redwoods today. And I don’t think it’s an accident it’s called a “cathedral” down there. I don’t know how many of you went — I really recommend it. I suppose more of the Whitman bent; of: When all else is exhausted, and society and business and politics — what remains? Nature remains. And of course, we are part of nature; and this connection between the rest of the natural world and ourselves I find the most elemental nourishing force that there is.
Ms. Tippett: And Natalie, what about you?
Ms. Batalha: I had a feeling you were gonna ask a question like that. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, well, you had a little warning.
Ms. Batalha: First of all, as a scientist — are there any scientists in the audience? Oh, I feel less alone. Thank you. That’s fantastic. I do consider myself to be a spiritual person, but I’ve grappled a lot with what the definition of “spirituality” is. I’m not sure that we have a common definition. I guess my spirituality can best be characterized as a deep reverence for mystery. And I ask myself, well, do I have any kind of faith? That’s another word that I kind of grapple with. And I think, at the crux of it, even a scientist does have a faith, of sorts.
For example, I live my life with the idea that the universe can be described by a set of physical laws that are quantifiable and knowable, and that they apply anywhere in the universe. And that’s an assumption. A scientist doesn’t really have a notion of an absolute truth, but that is a core assumption. And in fact, I would take it a step further and say that I live my life as if every mystery can be revealed and that there is no limit to our knowledge. And that’s a controversial statement, but I just love living that way, because to me, it opens up possibility. And it drives me. And I find it very compelling and exciting.
Ms. Tippett: Maria, when you and I spoke a couple of years ago, you said something so interesting. You talked about a way you think about the work you do with Brain Pickings, which — Brain Pickings is a way of sharing what you’re reading and thinking; and connections between these things. You said you feel like, sometimes, you’re engaged in a kind of spiritual, generational re-parenting, in the sense that — and this is what you said — “caring for these bygone thinkers while at the same time imbuing the present generation with their hand-me-down wisdom and their most enduring ideas.”
And recently — I think this is a good example — actually, this year, you were writing about Zadie Smith on optimism and despair — a contemporary writer. You said, “James Baldwin knew, when, in considering why Shakespeare endures, he observed, ‘It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.’”
Ms. Popova: And in that piece on Shakespeare, Baldwin also said, “The greatest poet in the English language found poetry where poetry is found — in the lives of the people.”
Ms. Tippett: Something that’s interested me, also, recently — I feel that you are — you’ve been writing and speaking a little bit more about Bulgaria — about where you came from, and how, even though you are young — not yet an elder like me… [laughs]
I’m serious — you still lived through the world utterly changing — the world of your childhood. But you’ve made an interesting connection between living through a communist dictatorship, having — this is how you said it — “having seen poems composed and scientific advances made under such tyrannical circumstances,” but also, recalling, not just for yourself but for the rest of us, this point of pride is that there is a Bulgarian folk song above the Voyager spacecraft. And in this context, you’ve been thinking about — and I’ve really been taking sustenance from this and quoting it everywhere — how important it is — and it so relates to what you do, Natalie — taking a “telescopic view of time” as a way to inhabit this moment with some calm.
Ms. Popova: Well, there are so many layers. I think the Voyager is one of the greatest allegories for so much that we’re grappling with today. And as a scientific feat, Natalie can speak to, but it is the first human-made object to exit the solar system and to go into interstellar space. But as a poetic feat, aboard it was the Golden Record, which — the scientific purpose was to communicate to some other civilization who we are, in this packet of music, recordings of languages, and photographs.
Ms. Tippett: Bach and a kiss and a volcano erupting.
Ms. Popova: And the humpback whale and…
Ms. Tippett: And a Bulgarian folk song.
Ms. Batalha: Brain of a woman in love…
Ms. Popova: …who was the creative director of the Voyager spacecraft, of the Golden Record: Annie Druyan, who fell in love with Carl Sagan in the course of this mission.
Ms. Tippett: I think it was their kiss, right — that kiss?
Ms. Popova: No, the kiss is not their kiss — the kiss was Annie kissing her palm, because they figured out that an actual kiss doesn’t make an expressive enough sound. So this was the one staged thing.
Ms. Tippett: That they manufactured? [laughs]
Ms. Popova: That they manufactured. But there were so many things about the Voyager that really ground you back into this longer view of time, one of which is, for example, this was happening in the middle of the Cold War. So to me, the more significant purpose of the Golden Record, the probability that another civilization would find it — it’s very small. But it mirrored back to humanity who we are, in this moment when we were so conflicted and polarized and had forgotten that we share this tender planet.
And the Bulgarian folk song, which was one of the pieces of music, is this centuries-old, shepherdesses’ a capella song. And Bulgaria is a very old country, 14 centuries old, five of which were spent under Ottoman occupation, during which there was tremendous violence that was regular, that was normalized. Massacres and rapes and murders, and kids kidnapped from their homes, trained to be soldiers in the Ottoman army and sent back to murder their own families — really awful things that people survived for 500 years. And that song encodes that truth beyond language, beyond — you don’t have to speak Bulgarian or know European history to hear those sounds and receive, in your body, in your bones, both the sorrow and the persistence and the resilience that carried people through that.
Ms. Tippett: One of the things you’ve noted when you were writing about that — you wrote: “It’s worth keeping the Voyager in mind as we find our capacity for perspective constricted by the stranglehold of our cultural moment.” And including the fact that — there was, actually, recently, this report — you were talking about the proportion of the news and how much else is happening that is not — that we’re not talking about. And in fact, on scientific frontiers, these have been an astonishing, beautiful couple of years. You said, “What imperceptible fraction was devoted to the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics awarded for the landmark detection of gravitational waves.”
And then, Natalie, on Facebook, you posted the first image of a dark matter web that connects galaxies. And you said: “Your friendly reminder that dark matter comprises 25 percent of the mass energy budget of the cosmos, while dark energy comprises 70 percent, and the normal matter that you and I are made of is just a wee 5 percent. And it’s all connected by a cosmic web of filamentary bridges that stretch across millions of lightyears. Carry on.”
I’m Krista Tippett, at the 2018 On Being Gathering, with astrophysicist Natalie Batalha and Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova.
Ms. Batalha: I’m glad Facebook is good for something. [laughs]
Yeah, it gives you perspective, doesn’t it?
You used this word, “calm,” with regards to science. And somebody else used that word with me yesterday, saying that they find — in this moment in time, they find science to be calming; to give us perspective. And certainly, I am afforded that every day, because everything we do and we’re learning forces you to think big picture. So you’re stepping outside yourself, and you’re going back in time, and you’re thinking about the furthest reaches of the galaxy and just looking at where we’ve been, from the eukaryotes on, or even before.
However, I find myself extremely conflicted, because I, myself, don’t want to feel comfortable right now. I want to feel uncomfortable, and I want to get out of that comfort zone. And I’m starting to feel more and more like science is almost an indulgence at this moment in time. And I’m feeling more and more pulled towards the civic realm. And this individual, yesterday, who used the word “calming” and said how it brings her back down, and said, “OK, this is just a blip, this is just a blip in time; this is insignificant” — and then, frankly, who to better understand than somebody who works at NASA, that NASA is much more than any one president? We carry on; we do our things. We’ve got our decadal review — scientists who come up with a strategic plan that stretches decades into the future. And we’re gonna keep our eye on that prize. And presidents come and go. And so I feel that. But, at the same time, there is a certain urgency, especially with regards to the sustainability of life here on our own planet. And where do I draw the line?
Ms. Popova: I agree and disagree, because I think, in a way, it’s not separate. It’s not — the moment we separate science from life, including the civic aspect, we diminish both. And I’ve, in the last year, spent a lot of time with the papers of Rachel Carson, the great marine biologist and writer, who — her 1962 book, Silent Spring, we can basically thank for the modern environmental movement. And it’s really interesting, because she used science to incite, first of all, a public conscience that was just not there before that. And she’s somebody who started out as a poet and ended up doing biology, but never relinquished poetry, so she ended up becoming an incredibly poetic writer of science that, in addition to changing culture and policy — the creation of the EPA was a direct consequence of Rachel Carson’s work, the first Earth Day. But in addition to that, she also created a cultural aesthetic of thinking and writing about science in poetic terms that, I think, enlarged both.
And I do think there is a responsibility in that; and especially for you, Natalie, because you think so beautifully and poetically, I think you do both in your work. And by “your work” I mean not just your NASA work, but what you write on Facebook, what you say here. I think it achieves both.
Ms. Tippett: I was thinking — because I’m aware of that tension in you, and it made me think — and I actually went back and looked at the transcript of when I interviewed Brother Guy Consolmagno, who is at the Vatican Observatory. You do exoplanets, and he does asteroids.
Ms. Tippett: And he tells this story about how — he’s a Jesuit, so he has a religious calling; and he always wanted to be an astronomer. But then, at some point — when he was in his 20s, I think — he went into the Peace Corps, because he felt like “This isn’t the real work; this isn’t the human work. Am I really making lives better?” And how they sent him to Kenya, and they had him teaching, and then, on the weekends, he would go out to visit other Peace Corps volunteers just not in the city. And he always had a little telescope with him, because that’s who he was. And he had slides with him that could be powered by car batteries. And so, he thought, now he was helping people in the Peace Corps, and all — everybody wanted to look through the telescope.
And actually, I pulled this out, what he said to me. He said, “Everybody” — and then they would ask him to give talks. And, he said, and they would show “exactly the same ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs,’ looking at the craters of the moon or the rings of Saturn, exactly the same as when I set this up back in Michigan. And it suddenly dawned on me, well, of course. It’s only human beings that have this curiosity to understand, ‘What’s that up in the sky? How do we fit into that? Who are we? Where do we come from?’ And this is a hunger that is as deep and important as a hunger for food, because if you starve a person in that sense, you’re depriving them of their humanity.” And he said, “That’s why we do this.”
And I just feel that that radiates from you too — I agree with Maria.
Ms. Batalha: I certainly feel that. Besides our innate need to push frontiers and learn, and the joy — Carl Sagan’s “Understanding is a form of ecstasy” — I think understanding, knowledge, learning about the reality of our universe is a spiritual experience, in and of itself. I like to think that knowledge brings empathy. Science has the opportunity to do good — and to do bad, of course, and we’ve seen examples of that. But I would contend that when we learn that the atoms that make up our cells were manufactured in the cores of stars, empathy grows, because you realize the connectedness not just of all humans, but of all humans and all living creatures, everything in our biosphere, our shared biosphere. Here we are, looking for life: Is there life out there? That’s also going to change our sense of otherness and how we see us as sentient beings with awareness, the universe itself becoming aware. And I value that, I really do.
But there’s a certain irony about looking for life out in the galaxy while, at the same time, you know that you’re potentially destroying the potential for life here on planet Earth. There’s an irony in that. And I really am struggling with it. I’m not gonna lie.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, but I see that, also, as a function. You’ve said your civic thought is shaped to a large degree by your work, studying the universe and thinking about the origins of life. That — again, that is a perspective, and even a critique, a concern, that flows from the science you do.
Ms. Batalha: One practical thing that we can do is, we study planetary habitability, actually. We have to think about the limits of life. What are the boundaries? How far can you push a planet before it becomes uninhabitable? And so we look at planets like Mars and Venus and ask ourselves what happened in those cases. So every time you go out and you study the universe, you learn something about yourself. And in this case, we’re learning about our own planet and its propensity for life, and that’s related to the sustainability — or, the climate change issue. So when I go out and speak to the public, I do have an opportunity to engage them in that kind of a conversation; to circle the conversation back to who we are.
Ms. Tippett: You are both two people who are not religious in a traditional sense; 21st-century people. Maria, you said that you were atheist, and Natalie, that spirituality is something that you — it’s complex. And honestly — you’ve said we don’t have a definition. I think there are as many definitions as there are lives in a room, and that it’s never static. So it’s all, always, evolving.
And yet, both of you ponder and use the language of the soul. And I find that fascinating, and I just want to talk about what that is. What are we talking about? Maria, you actually spoke — you did a commencement address, was it last year?
Ms. Popova: I think, two years ago.
Ms. Tippett: At Penn, your alma mater, Annenberg School at Penn, and it was — the soul was the heart of it. What do you — here’s some language from that: “I mean ‘the soul’ simply as shorthand for the seismic core of personhood from which our beliefs, our values, and our actions radiate.” And you’ve also said that “The people most whole and most alive are always those unafraid and unashamed of the soul.” So what is that?
Ms. Popova: There are certain words that have been vacated of meaning by overuse and misuse. And we have the choice of either relinquishing them altogether or trying to reclaim them in some way. And “soul” is one of those words. I chose to go with trying to imbue it with the meaning that I live with in relation to it. It is, of course, related to the notion of the self. Now, I do not believe in a solid self, as I don’t believe in a soul that outlives the rest of the constellation of being, the physical being that is us. But, at the same time, it is where we spring from. The “us”-ness of us is rooted in this very complex interplay of values, beliefs, ideas, friends, places we’ve been, smells we’ve remembered. And it’s impossible to be a person without that. And because of that, it’s impossible to be a decent person without tending to it the way you would tend to a garden that you want to bloom beautifully.
Ms. Tippett: Natalie, I don’t know if you meant this as a definition of the soul, but it strikes me as a way in: “We are that complexity. We are the universe becoming self-aware.”
Ms. Batalha: It took 13.7 billion years for the atoms to come together to create the portal to the universe which is my physical self. So in that statement is this idea, or the fluidity of time and space. And I kind of see it all at once. And I don’t know what “me” is. I just feel part of everything. And I feel such deep gratitude for being able to take this conscious look at the universe — at myself as being part of the universe.
So that perspective, and this idea of the universe evolving from energy into simple matter into gradual complexity into microbes on planet Earth and then, two billion years later, the symbiotic merger of a bacteria and an archaea, to create a eukaryote, which exploded complexity, creating us — the complexity and intelligent life that we have today — that vision and just how improbable is my birth and this opportunity just fills me with deep gratitude and sustains me through the darkest moments.
I don’t know what that means, in terms of a soul. I don’t prescribe to anything more. I don’t need anything more, frankly. I’m completely at home with the idea that I’ve had this ephemeral time here to do this, and I’m just so grateful. And that’s enough.
Ms. Tippett: I think that deserves applause.
Maria, here’s something else you said in that speech, just extending that — you said, “Cynicism is a hardening, a calcification of the soul. Hope is a stretching of its ligaments, a limber reach for something greater.”
Ms. Popova: I do think that cynicism is — it’s easy to judge it harshly, but really, it’s a defense mechanism, a maladaptive defense mechanism when we feel bereft of hope. And to live with hope in times that reward cynicism and, in many ways, call for cynicism, I think, is a tremendous act of courage and resistance.
[music: “Sea Smoke” by Jacob Montague]
Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Maria Popova and Natalie Batalha, through our website, onbeing.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Sea Smoke” by Jacob Montague]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, taking a telescopic view of this moment we inhabit and imagining cultural evolution towards good. I’m with astrophysicist Natalie Batalha and Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova at the 2018 On Being Gathering, amidst the redwoods of the 1440 Multiversity in Scotts Valley, California.
Ms. Tippett: I find it just, overall, fascinating — one of the projects we have — or, we have something we call “Public Theology Reimagined,” which is really just a body of work within our body of work. But I think it’s also an idea. And it’s how, in the 21st century, we are — people like you are picking up questions and language and ideas that, in previous centuries of human history, were the domain of, pretty strictly, of theologians and philosophers: What is the soul? And — I don’t remember. Natalie, you were talking to me about how you thought about love like dark matter — knowing about dark matter helped you think about the nature of love, or hope. You also have been writing openly about — you have four children, and your — is it your youngest daughter who is 15?
Ms. Batalha: 16 now.
Ms. Tippett: 16 — who has M.S. And I see you reflecting on that; also, just reflecting on how she is living with that and becoming a human being with and through that, and you being at a gathering where scientists, I think, were discussing ethical issues relevant to modern-day society — do you know what I’m talking about? This post you wrote?
Ms. Batalha: I’m sorry — ethical issues with regard to…
Ms. Tippett: Relevant to modern-day society, and somebody was talking about the future of human reproduction and freezing — genetic testing to select offspring. And you were reflecting on how our weaknesses are also our strengths. And our weaknesses open up potential for new knowledge and empathy and “cultural evolution toward goodness.” And that’s you as a mother, and it’s also you as an astrophysicist.
Ms. Batalha: It is, yeah, absolutely. Can I just warn everybody, I’m a total crier?
So if I can’t speak anymore, because we’re getting heavy now… [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: And if you don’t want to talk about this, that’s OK too.
Ms. Batalha: No, I don’t mind; it’s just, I am a crier, so be warned.
Ms. Tippett: You can cry in this room.
Ms. Batalha: You’re bringing this stuff out. Gosh. It’s funny how these bigger questions — the science that I do and what I’m living at home and the civic realm — are so interconnected, also shaped by, just, thoughts about Western culture and our definition of success and our aversion to failure and — all of those things are connected.
And that piece that you’re drawing from tried to bring those ideas together. So yes, I have a daughter who’s living with M.S., and it’s been very difficult, and she has a lot of questions about it. And the story that Krista’s referring to is — I was at a dinner with some very interesting people. It was kind of a think tank. And we started talking about genetics and the idea that we’re getting to the point in genetics where we could test our genetic material of our eggs, our embryos, and we could actually pick the child that we want to give birth to. And I started to wonder, well, would my daughter choose to not give birth to a child that had a propensity for M.S.? We don’t even know what causes M.S. And so it begged the question: When is a bug considered a feature? There was actually an engineer-mathematician there, who said, “Oh, well, yeah, what is her role in society? Her existence inspires us to go out and push the boundaries of what we know. We’re studying the brain, in part, because she exists. And we will learn things that will benefit everybody.” So she has a role. And so when does a bug like that become a feature? And it just really inspired a lot of questions.
Ms. Popova: And also, I think our definition of — people of different abilities have always been instrumental to creative culture. When you look at the history of why we’re here, through the great breakthroughs in art and science and philosophy — so many people had mental illness, physical disability. Where do you draw the line? According to the DSM, half a century ago, I would’ve been an aberration. Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder and some — Alan Turing was basically killed for it, as was Oscar Wilde, indirectly. That kind of thing — where do you draw the line? And Temple Grandin, she’s been doing really beautiful work. And basically, she says, “People with autism or on the spectrum are responsible for Silicon Valley; without us, there would be no technology as we know it.”
So it’s a really, I think — morality always lags behind the technologies that become possible. And so now, as we’re looking into genetic engineering and AI and these questions, the moral panic that follows is only building up, and we’re nowhere close to answering the moral questions that are pragmatically possible with the technology; but are they permissible?
Ms. Batalha: And just tying this back to the civic realm, we’re living in a moment right now where the underprivileged are demonized. And I am finding that so alarming. There’s no space for failure or — even this word, “failure.” It’s not the right word. There’s no space for that. And I just have a real problem with that. And it does relate to my daughter in this fundamental way.
And then you brought up this idea of evolution towards goodness.
Ms. Tippett: Yes, I just — that phrase, “cultural evolution towards goodness.”
Ms. Batalha: Cultural evolution towards goodness.
Ms. Tippett: That’s your phrase.
Ms. Batalha: What’s that?
Ms. Tippett: It’s your phrase, by the way. [laughs]
Ms. Batalha: I did say that, yeah. Right, I remember now. Well, let’s go back to this idea of the evolution of complexity, the arise of complexity, and here we are, the universe become aware. And let’s take that a step further and think about emergent behaviors and what we can become. What can we become? What potentials are yet to be realized? What do we know about the empathic brain? How are we evolving, and what about the decisions that we make now, in the civic realm, that decide who lives and dies? And how does that affect our evolution? Because it will, because these are life and death situations. So what we do in the civic realm does effect cultural evolution. But cultural evolution leads to biological evolution. And it can go many ways. I don’t think that there’s a law to the universe that says there is an evolution towards goodness. That, we decide. That, we decide.
[music: “Kandaiki” by Mammal Hands]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, at the 2018 On Being Gathering, with astrophysicist Natalie Batalha and Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova.
[music: “Kandaiki” by Mammal Hands]
Ms. Tippett: The whole notion of mystery and uncertainty — which, for us, the three of us and, I think, everybody in this room — we have enough ground beneath our feet for mystery and uncertainty to be even, sometimes, thrilling — not always thrilling. No, that’s a ridiculous statement, because I don’t like uncertainty. I like mystery; I don’t like uncertainty…
…unless I’m just really rested, maybe.
But I think a feature of this moment, in fact, that maybe led us to this moment where now we’re creating real crisis, is — because we had this period, because we just live in this moment, this century that opened with just these vast, open questions, we can see what’s failing. We can see that schools don’t make sense, and politics doesn’t make sense, and the economy doesn’t make sense, and medicine doesn’t make sense. And right now we’re in that in-between time of — it’s very clear what’s broken, and it’s not so clear what will follow.
And science is all about delighting in the, just — OK, so you answered this question, and then you’re just so excited about what questions this new thing raises. And I’m aware that this is also a divide in our culture, because — I think this thing you’re talking about — there are so many people who are really vulnerable, really on the edge. They’re uncertain about whether they’re gonna be able to eat, or — the ground has been pulled out, in a very short period of time, from what they thought they might be able to expect for their children, just in terms of having a livelihood.
I’m just throwing that out there. I think about this a lot. And I don’t want to use the word “privilege” in a way that this should shame us, but just — those of us who are safe enough to love uncertainty and mystery, but that this is part of our divide, at some deep psychological and biological level.
Ms. Batalha: I’ve been thinking about this all week. I feel — I do feel privileged to be here, sorry. And I do feel guilty about it. Not guilty; let me rephrase that. I’m keenly aware that having space and time for contemplation is a luxury. I’m deeply aware of communities that don’t have that space and time; that every day is just survival. I lived in Brazil for five years; it was undergoing a very harsh political reality at that time. So I’m just tied into that, and I keep thinking about those people as we’re here, over this weekend, talking about contemplating poetry and the meaning of love and all of these great, grandiose questions.
I kept thinking, how do we push that out? And I’m thinking about increasing diversity in science. We’ve got such a problem with a lack of diversity in science, and how can I use my small influence to maybe help that? And what could be my role, and do I even have the right to do that? And what’s my language? And what’s my empathic connection to these communities? And knowing, in the background, that they don’t have the space and time to think about these things is just — I don’t have any answers. But it’s very much on my mind.
Ms. Tippett: That’s a question we’re living — because there’s not an answer we can live right now. Or at least, not collectively — one by one, we can live that.
Ms. Batalha: These are the hard questions, right?
Ms. Popova: I think the — our being here — on Friday night, during the opening, the gentleman from 1440 Multiversity said, “I don’t know why we’re here, but it’s not an accident.” And I thought: Oh, yes, it is. We have to come to terms with the fact that it is chance. I spent 18 years in a developing, third-world country, and if I begin to think that I’m somehow special, or I have merited my way here, as opposed to all the people who didn’t? There’s so much chance that played into it. There’s so much chance in what you were saying — in the evolution of life.
We are a cosmic accident. And so those of us who have been lucky — meaning: have benefited from the flipside of chance that people who are of less advantage have benefited from the other side of chance — we have the responsibility to expand that beyond our own chance-bound privilege and keep thinking of how we can expand that and grow that, because — the commencement address you cited was actually — I started thinking about it on the bike path, when I was overtaken by a man who — I just had all this rage of “How dare he?”
He was on an electric bicycle, and I felt like I was honestly pedaling, and suddenly, this guy has this existential advantage.
And I — just as I’m getting really indignant, I see on the back of his jacket, there’s a restaurant delivery sign. And I think, oh, he’s just doing this to survive. He doesn’t have some upper hand on me. And I’m an immigrant from a poor country. I could’ve been the delivery person on the bicycle. How did I end up here? I have no idea. So much chance. And of course, chance and choice conspire in our lives, and I think about that all the time, but — OK, so we have had a certain hand that’s been dealt to us, of chance. And what we make of that, with our choice, including the choice to be here — that is how we expand chance for everyone else. That’s all we can do. That’s the most we can do.
Ms. Tippett: And — I love this place we’ve come to right now, and it exists in a creative tension, also, with the beauty and the grandeur of the science you do, and the beauty and the grandeur of the ideas and people and teachers you bring to us. And so, Maria, you’ve been working on this “Universe in Verse,” bringing together poetry and science. And I wanted to talk about that, and here we are, drawing to the end of our time, and it doesn’t, in any kind of organic way, follow from what’s just been put into the room. But how does it? How does it? It’s connected in you.
Ms. Popova: It absolutely does. So The Universe in Verse was an event that I hosted last year, which was very much in response to what was — to, basically, the morning after the election. And I thought it was this weird, esoteric idea that would get — 15 geeky people show up, and we’d all clap for each other — and the line was thrice around the block. 900 people was all we could fit. We had thousands on the livestream. It was profound.
And for me, personally, it was the best-spent two months of my life, planning it and — just the most uplifting experience. We had Elizabeth Alexander, who you’ve had on the show, and just beautiful people.
Ms. Tippett: You had so many people.
Ms. Popova: We had such lovely people.
Ms. Tippett: And you were writing about it from afar, from California.
Ms. Batalha: It was amazing. I feel like it’s so important, what she’s done here. If there’s one message I can communicate during this conversation, it’s that at the nexus of spirituality and science is wonder. And I just want to make sure that people understand that that’s a common experience to both.
I’ve been very impressed this week with your words — just words in general. The poetry, the lyricism, the way the words roll off of your tongues. My point is, I come from a side — a different language: a language of numbers; or language of explaining the physical phenomena in our universe. And if we can get common language, or if we can understand each other, I think that’s so tremendously important.
I had the opportunity to speak to some of the poets who are here and who have shared their poetry, and one in particular mentioned a certain anxiety about talking about science, but yet, feels all of that wonder. And it puzzles me, and I’m wondering if it’s just a language barrier.
There are some examples, in our times, of people that have married the two so spectacularly, and the one to bring up…
Ms. Popova: Would you read some? Do you have a moment from some — [laughs]
Ms. Batalha: [laughs] …is Diane Ackerman and Carl Sagan, who happened to be at Cornell at the same time — Diane from the perspective of a naturalist, and she was in the humanities, I think, ultimately; Carl Sagan from the science side. And they both met at this nexus of wonder and brought their different languages and combined them in such a special, fantastic way.
Ms. Popova: And he was her doctoral advisor. She’s one of very few working poets who has a science background — she has a Ph.D. And now a lot of her vast body of work is infused with this poetic love of nature and — we call nature something outside of ourselves, and I have such a problem with this notion of the “environment,” as if it’s the thing that surrounds us.
Ms. Tippett: Which separates us from it.
Ms. Popova: There’s Ptolemism in this.
Ms. Tippett: I just recently learned, this year — because I read this beautiful biography of Alexander von Humboldt, which I know you read, as well — what’s the name of it? Andrea Wulf.
Ms. Popova: Something in Nature — yeah, Andrea Wulf.
Ms. Tippett: The Invention of Nature.
Ms. Popova: The Invention of Nature.
Ms. Tippett: And he’s the one who coined the term “cosmos” the way we — or picked it up in modernity.
Ms. Popova: I didn’t know that.
Ms. Tippett: But it didn’t mean “the universe out there.” It meant —
Ms. Popova: And you know who coined that? A poet: Milton.
Ms. Tippett: He did? Was it out there?
Ms. Popova: The first use of the word “space” in the English language appears in —
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Celestial.
Ms. Popova: Yes, line 652 of Book I of Paradise Lost.
Ms. Tippett: I give you Maria Popova.
Ms. Batalha: And there it is, her encyclopedic memory. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: But Humboldt meant the cosmos was us. It was the cosmos of humanity and the natural world and everything out there. But there was no division. There was no “environment,” as you say, because there was no separation.
We have to finish, which is so sad.
But we’re gonna draw it out.
Ms. Tippett: I would actually love for each of you to read a poem. And we have a collection up here. And I have a bunch of them printed — Natalie, you had written about this poem of Diane Ackerman’s, “School Prayer,” which is a possibility.
Ms. Batalha: There’s another piece here that I think I’m going to actually prefer. And the reason I’m doing this is because it relates to the search for life, and that’s what I do. That’s the long-term goal. So again, this is a passage — one snippet from the larger poem called “Pluto.”
“The bread mold and I / have much in common. / We’re both alive. / The wardrobe of our cells / is identical. We speak / the same genetic code. / The death of a star / gave each of us life. / But imagine /a brandspanking new / biology. Just as / when a window / abruptly flies open / the room grows airy / and floods with light, / so awakening to / an alien life form / will transfigure / how we think of ourselves / and our lives. / In my bony wrist alone, / the DNA could spin a yarn / filling thousands and thousands / of library volumes. / But one day we’ll browse / in the stacks of other galaxies. / Given the sweet generosity of time / that permits the bluegreen algae / and the polar bear, / the cosmic flannel / must be puckered with life.”
Ms. Popova: Now I’m going to read a poem by Denise Levertov, who is one of my favorite poets; but also, she said: “The purpose of poetry is to awaken sleepers by means other than shock.” And it is so precise and so perfect. And this is a poem that I’m including this year, in The Earth in Verse, and it’s called “Sojourns in the Parallel World.”
“We live our lives of human passions, / cruelties, dreams, concepts, / crimes and the exercise of virtue / in and beside a world devoid / of our preoccupations, free / from apprehension—though affected, / certainly, by our actions. A world / parallel to our own though overlapping. / We call it “Nature”; only reluctantly / admitting ourselves to be “Nature” too. / Whenever we lose track of our own obsessions, / our self-concerns, because we drift for a minute, / an hour even, of pure (almost pure) / response to that insouciant life: / cloud, bird, fox, the flow of light, the dancing / pilgrimage of water, vast stillness / of spellbound ephemerae on a lit windowpane, / animal voices, mineral hum, wind / conversing with rain, ocean with rock, stuttering / of fire to coal — then something tethered / in us, hobbled like a donkey on its patch / of gnawed grass and thistles, breaks free. / No one discovers / just where we’ve been, when we’re caught up again / into our own sphere (where we must / return, indeed, to evolve our destinies) / —but we have changed, a little.”
Ms. Tippett: Thank you, Natalie Batalha and Maria Popova.
[music: “Where Dirt Meets Water” by Codes in the Clouds]
Ms. Tippett: Maria Popova is the creator and presence behind brainpickings.org. And she’s an MIT Futures of Entertainment fellow.
Natalie Batalha is an astrophysicist at NASA Ames Research Center and the project scientist for NASA’s Kepler Mission.
[music: “Where Dirt Meets Water” by Codes in the Clouds]
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Malka Fenyvesi, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Brettina Davis, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, and Jeffrey Bissoy.
[music: “You Found Me” by Miaou]
Ms. Tippett: Special thanks this week to the wonderful 1440 Multiversity team, especially Susan Freddie, Susan Coles, Janna Smith, Michelle MacNamara, Steve Seabock, Avery Laurin, Joshua Greene, and David Dunning; also, our colleague, Zack Rose, for his superb audio production skills and his superb companionship, too.
Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë 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 fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.
Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.
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.