Tag: cosmology

The Terry Lectures Series: A Vital Conversation

The Dwight H. Terry Lectures are an annual two-week lecture series that presents leading scholars in religion, science, and philosophy who reflect on how religion can embrace advances in scientific fields of inquiry and remain applicable in our everyday lives. Yale University Press publishes a print accompaniment to the lectures in The Terry Lectures Series; the most recent installment, The Scientific Buddha, by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., is published this month. Recent Terry Lectures Series publications also include: The New Universe and the Human Future, by Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack, and Absence of Mind, by Marilynne Robinson.

Although The Terry Lecture Series began over a hundred years ago in 1905, its teachings remain ever relevant. The Scientific Buddha is particularly noteworthy because it is the first address in the lectureship’s history to focus on a non-Abrahamic Western religion. It is also a very timely address, now that Buddhism has fully established itself in the 21st-century consciousness. The word “karma” is an official entry in the English dictionary, yoga and meditation classes are as commonplace as ballet classes, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama is frequent guest speaker at the United Nations. But this is not the first time that Buddhism has been in vogue in the West. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. discusses the emerging popularity of Buddhism in the 19th-century European imagination, a trend that prompted what he describes as the “birth” of the Scientific Buddha. This Westernized interpretation of Buddhism was appealing because it was the one religion that could reconcile spiritual faith and science, especially with the emergence of Charles Darwin’s theory of human evolution. But Lopez sheds light on how Buddhism may not be the “alternative savior” the West has believed, or wished it to be.

What the West has learned from the Scientific Buddha are teachings that actually depart from the original ideas propagated by the Buddha of 2,500 years ago. What’s more, our collective understanding of the terms “Buddhism” and “science” have evolved from the 19th century, which puts into question their compatibility in the present day. The branch of Buddhism that resonates with us today is actually Tibetan Buddhism, a sect that was formerly deemed “a superstition so degenerate that it did not deserve the name Buddhism, but was referred to as Lamaism.” And our collective understanding of “science” has shifted its focus from quantum physics and cosmology to neuroscience and meditation. What the Scientific Buddha effects, according to Lopez, is a gathering of followers who misguidedly view Buddhism as a collection of self-help techniques and fail to grasp the intended purpose and significance of the Buddha’s core teachings. However, were it not for the Scientific Buddha’s 19th-century celebrity, the religion may have ceded its influence in Asia to Christian evangelization. The Scientific Buddha critiques but also contextualizes the impact of this Westernized seminal figure, proposing that we refocus our devotion on the 2,500 year old Buddha whose philosophy provides valuable lessons, even if they do not fully accommodate scientific ideas.

Indeed, the enduring clash between science and religion is far from over, especially when prominent scientific scholars such as Richard Dawkins declare that “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.” While religion represents ancient, universal tradition, science is a predominantly Western manifestation of innovation and improvement. But does the innovation necessarily denote improvement? In positivists’ secular crusade to do away with religion, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson argues that they would also take away a crucial component of our being: the complexity of human consciousness. In her book Absence of Mind, she is not out to reject scientific discoveries and theories, but rather the attitude that science provides absolute answers and trumps alternative views. Rather, Robinson believes that positivists who seek to discredit the non-empirical foundations of religious faith also devalue “the whole enterprise of metaphysical thought.” A fundamental component of faith is not only belief but also contemplation, an activity that is the source of innovation.

As a renowned novelist, Robinson provides keen insight into the damage that aggressive positivism—a movement whose force is ironically comparable to that of a sectarian campaign—can cause to the arts and humanities. Are we to dismiss the importance of Michelangelo’s inimitably sublime masterpieces as little more than classified ads for a mate? While science can help us understand and preserve our world, proclaiming that science is the dominant factor in our lives can inhibit our creative potential as complex, thinking humans, which in turn helps us find mean­ing in our existence. The products of our human minds are history and civilization, the arts, sciences, and philosophy. But advances in sciences would not have been possible if our world did not foster creative thinking to interpret findings. In her thought-provoking book, Robinson presents a more nuanced humanism, one that champions our human achievements and existence not in the face of overbearing religion but of science. “Our species is more than an optimized ape…if this is merely another fable, it might at least encourage an imagination of humankind large enough to acknowledge some small fragment of the history we are.” Robinson was invited to speak about Absence of Mind on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2010. You can watch the interview here.

Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack would agree with Robinson that we are a small fragment of a very long history. In The New Universe and the Human Future, they discuss how thinking about our existence in terms of the grand scheme of things, the cosmos, conveys how we humans are in the middle of an extremely lengthy chain of being that extends from parallel universes to dark energy. Lopez states that science has seen a shift in focus from cosmology to neuroscience, from the immense to the infinitesimal. But Abrams and Primack propose a return to cosmology, to studying the universe as a whole, as a way for humans to interpret our existence, a task that requires both religion and the complexity of human creativity. To understand our beginnings, though, what if we were to create a new creation story, a scientific origin story? They emphasize that we actually need a type of creation story, a narrative that can help us understand why we matter, how we connect to what’s “out there,” and what we can do to better the world we inhabit. And a scientifically-based creation story is now a plausible consideration because of three recent discoveries: the Big Bang, dark matter, and dark energy. Advances in sciences have reached a point where researches must work with what invisible forces, and accept that as the universe expands the visible universe is shrinking. As a result, we need to utilize a scientific-based imagination, which borrows from both traditional religion and our creativity.

Abrams and Primack readily admit that scientists need to borrow many ideas and images from religions because they, as cultural meditations of the cosmos, have ideas that resonate with us more than anything else. And what helps drive both religion and this scientific-imagination is our unique capacity to illustrate abstractions through metaphor. “Metaphor is our only entrée into our invisible reality.” Indeed, religion and the human mind can help science understand the evidence rather than ignore it as Dawkins suggests. And using those tools to help develop a cosmic approach to life based a scientific-origin story can help provide us with a way to connect with the bigger picture, that we are not a grain of sand in the vast beaches of the universe. History has demonstrated that having a shared cosmology can unify and inspire a culture. With a society united by a common understanding of our origins, we can do our part by preserving this world that has been the home to one of the most extraordinary creations in the universe, us. In 2011, Abrams and Primack were guest speakers at a TEDxSantaCruz conference, where they elaborated on the ideas discussed in The New Universe and the Human Future.

In cosmology, both the distant past and the distant future are ahead of us; the former to be discovered, the latter to be determined. The same can be said for the dialogue between science and religion. To understand and reconcile the value and differences of both, we can interpret their relationship in hindsight. But knowing that what’s ahead, in terms of new ideas or discoveries that can change the entire course of the conversation, which is what charges the Terry Lecture Series with vitality, provokes discussion that is stimulating and necessary. The books are not meant to be read in a particular order, but one gets a sense that they nevertheless speak to each other and continue the conversation in print to a global audience.

The Terry Lectures Series speaker this year is Keith S. Thomson, who is discussing the relationship between science and religion between the 18th and 19th centuries through the lives of Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin, two of the period’s most illustrious figures. Thomson is a distinguished historian of science who has authored over 200 papers and 12 books, including The Young Charles Darwin, which was published by Yale University Press in 2009. His latest book Jefferson’s Shadow: The Story of his Science, also published by YUP, will be released in November 2012.

3@2 Interview: Nancy Abrams and Joel Primack on The New Universe and the Human Future

Nancy Ellen Abrams & Joel R. Primack, credit Paul Schraub

The newest 3@2 Interview brings Terry Lecturers Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack, authors of The New Universe and the Human Future, to discuss the new scientific picture of the universe and its meaning for our lives, societies, and long-term future as a species.


Yale University Press: Why does it matter to have an accurate picture of the universe? What is the new picture?

Nancy Ellen Abrams & Joel R. Primack:  We need an accurate map of reality to protect ourselves and our species in our increasingly technological world in the difficult times that are coming.  Part of that accurate map is understanding how we humans arose out of this strange universe.  When we discover the underlying principles of reality, they help give us a cosmologically long term view.  When our consciousness expands to absorb that, it changes our sense of what we are and makes it not only more exciting but more accurate and thus more likely to succeed in the real world.

Everything astronomers can see with the most sophisticated instruments in every wavelength — all the stars, planets, gas, dust, and hundreds of billions of distant galaxies — totals less than half of one percent of what’s out there.  A few percent are atoms of hydrogen and helium floating around, which are invisible because they are unlit by stars.  But over 95% of the content of the universe consists of two mysterious presences that are invisible in principle because they do not interact with light.  Dark matter (23%) holds the galaxies together and protects them from dark energy (72%), which is accelerating the expansion  of the universe and tearing apart the space between gravitationally bound regions (like galaxies or clusters of galaxies).  The invisible drama between these two has at last been discovered.  It is a large part of our origin story.

YUP: Where do we come from?  What are we made of?  How do we humans fit into the Big Picture?

NEA & JRP:  Understanding the scientific story is step one.  After that, we can begin to feel our identity in the universe by sending our consciousness backward through time, down past our parents and grandparents, past the countless generations before them, our ancestors roaming from continent to continent, our primate ancestors, down through all the animals that preceded them, back through the earliest life, into a single cell, down into the complex chemicals that made it possible, down into the molten planet and the forming solar system, back to the birth of our carbon and oxygen and iron atoms in exploding stars far across the galaxy, back to the formation of the galaxy itself deep inside a giant halo of dark matter, back through the universal expansion to the creation of our elementary particles — the particles we are made of at this very moment — in the Big Bang.   We are made of history. Who we are is the sum total of our history.  How far back we understand that history—how much of our own identity we claim—is up to us.  No humans had this choice before.  We are the first to know our real origin story.  This is a very special moment.

YUP:  What is the connection between a scientific picture of the universe and the future of humanity?

NEA & JRP:  The human species is at a turning point.  We are living through the last decades of exponential growth in resource use worldwide and hitting limits.  We are changing the climate, acidifying and overfishing the oceans, and killing entire species of plants and animals at the greatest rate since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.  These problems can only be solved on a planetary level, but for that we need some common ground.  It is possible that a unifying story of our origins, based on science, combined with a truly long-term perspective “could solidify the bonds of humankind,” to quote Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy, who was commenting at a conference of federal judges on our earlier book, The View from the Center of the Universe.  There are also many ways that cosmological concepts can become an entirely new metaphorical language that can help free us from narrow habits of thinking about politics, economics, and identity.


Nancy Ellen Abrams is an attorney, philosopher of science, and lecturer. Joel R. Primack is Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy. Both are at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Watch the authors in conversation with Deepak Chopra on Deepak HomeBase or their TEDx Santa Cruz talk.

Finding Our Place in the Universe on the Page and Screen

In our age of calculators, computers, and the fifteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, most questions are pretty easy to answer. Why is the sky blue? What is the cube root of 1331? Who was Fredrick the Great of Prussia?

Still, in some areas, uncertainty lingers—even though we have more information at our disposal than ever before. Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker pose several of these lingering questions at the beginning of their book Journey of the Universe. “Where did we come from? Why are we here? How should we live together?” they ask, going on to offer an elegant response in the form of a history of the universe that draws on science and a broad religious and humanist tradition.

Swimme and Tucker, an evolutionary philosopher and a historian of religions respectively, take the reader on “a journey into grandeur that no previous generation could have fully imagined,” describing a human destiny modeled on the patterns of the universe in which each of us embraces the larger Earth community to come up with creative and cooperative solutions to the problems we face. Scientific terminology—nucleotide, cellular membrane, protostar—is not avoided; rather, it is framed in the context of a story to which we all can relate. Swimme and Tucker lead the reader from the vastness of the cosmos to the particularities of life on earth, drawing out similarities: how the life cycles of stars resemble the development of each human being, and how supernovae show us the way in which the very existence of life depends on moments of breathtaking destruction.

Swimme and Tucker’s book is part of their larger Journey of the Universe project, which also includes a film that richly renders the story of the universe they describe. Film screenings around the country are scheduled throughout the next few months, leading up to the film’s national broadcast on PBS in the beginning of December. To learn more about the film, check for screenings in your area, or watch the trailer below and visit the Journey of the Universe website.


Think Cosmically, Act Globally

In his review of The New Universe and the Human Future for the Huffington Post, Deepak Chopra writes that authors Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack are “not aiming to reclaim old religious ideas;” rather, they “put great store in the unique scale of the human world and how our minds have turned to explain ourselves as well as the cosmos.” Considering the current state of science and religion, and cosmology and theology, this is a bold move to explain the origins and meaning of human life. But as the authors write:

There is a gaping hole in modern thinking that may never have existed in human society before. It’s so common that scarcely anyone notices it, while global catastrophes of natural and human origin plague our planet and personal crises of existential confusion plague our private lives. The hole is this: we have no meaningful sense of how we and our fellow humans fit into the big picture.

The story they construct, a combination of biological, religious, and cosmological thinking, relates the discoveries of the modern age with various creationist stories of our universe, observing that:

Many religious believers are convinced that the earth was created as is a few thousand years ago, while many people who respect science believe that the earth is just an average planet of a random star in a universe where no  place is special. Neither is right.

Nancy Ellen Abrams & Joel R. Primack, credit Paul Schraub

Instead, the authors argue that there is a solution to the contrasting opinions: we are all part of the universe and occupy a specific role within it, one that determines our relationship with the planet and the cosmos. Furthermore, a shared idea of our origins and how we can affect the changing universe around us is the key to solving global problems in this age where natural and man-made disasters present a growing challenge to our society. Recently Abrams and Primack have written on the subject for the “City Brights” blog on SFgate.com. Their latest piece addresses the inequality of wealth and how it has led to current economic problems, linking to two previous posts, “Gravity is the ultimate Scrooge principle” on how astronomy relates to financial issues.

Images of Space: Then and Now

Astronaut Ron Garan, Jr., as well as the rest of the crew of Expedition 27, watched this month’s Perseid meteor shower from the International Space Station, a better vantage point than that of most Earthlings. The Atlantic showed a picture that Garan tweeted from space of one of the meteors from above the shower, exciting not just his Twitter followers and science bloggers but space junkies all over. You can check out more of Garan’s amazing space twitpics here.

Expedition 27’s crew follows a long tradition of science and art blurring boundaries between each other. The Perseid photo has an intrinsically aesthetic value as well as a scientific one; it was taken by an amateur photographer and professional scientist. As curator Susan Dackerman argues in Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe, the catalog for Harvard Art Museums’ exhibition opening September 6, art and science often have a close relationship with only vaguely definable boundaries. Print-makers in the sixteenth century worked with scientists in a collaborative exchange of ideas rather than just as illustrators for the scientific community’s ideas.

The beautiful photos from space that modern technology has allowed since the launch of the Hubble Telescope is similar in intent to the work produced by sixteenth-century cosmographers and print-makers. Like digital photographs in our era, the rise of print-making marked a huge improvement in the distribution of artistic images. The same picture could be reproduced hundred or even thousands times by the same wood block. In the early 1500s, artists and astronomers produced woodcuts of the constellations and celestial globes depicting the skies of both hemispheres. While science could determine the configurations and placements of the constellations, art had the responsibility of visually interpreting the information.

In 1517, Johann Schöner, a mathematician, cosmographer, astronomer, and globe-maker issued the first printed celestial globe. The globe followed the woodcut celestial charts—“the first replicable image of the starry skies”—that Albrecht Dürer had created two years earlier. Both included impressive drawings of the constellations, including human figures for Orion and Andromeda and detailed animals for Sagittarius and Scorpio. Schöner’s globe, however, used a more “luxurious medium,” including gold leaf stars, individually labeled stars along with the constellations, a movable bronze meridian and stand, all the result of woodcuts and printing. The artists Schöner used re-imagined the charts Dürer made, continuing the constant conversation between art and science that even Twitter is part of today.

Journey of the Universe Book and Documentary Film

Journey of the Universe: Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker This spring and summer marks the premiere of the film and companion book, Journey of the Universe, by Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, an evolutionary philosopher and a historian of religions, respectively. Their science-based narrative tells the epic story of the universe, leading up to the challenges of our present moment. The authors describe the origins of humans on Earth, how we developed a symbolic consciousness, and how our ability to communicate using symbols make humans a “planetary presence.”  As the dominant species, humans have become increasingly adept at adapting to, and now commodifying Earth.

Suddenly, we are faced with a new dynamic—one where the survival of the species and entire ecosystems depend primarily on human activity, and the choices humans make.

Weaving together the findings of modern science together with enduring wisdom found in the humanistic traditions of the West, China, India, and indigenous peoples, the authors explore cosmic evolution as a profoundly wondrous process based on creativity, connection, and interdependence, and they envision an unprecedented opportunity for the world’s people to address the daunting ecological and social challenges of our times.

Tomorrow, the documentary film will be broadcast on KQED TV in northern California, and it will premiere nationally on public television in September 2011. (Check your local listings). In the meantime, you can visit the Journey of the Universe website to learn more about the exciting project and get started with the film trailer.

Congratulations, Graduates! Keep Your Eye on the (Cosmic) Roads Ahead!

We’ve got graduation on the mind here at Yale today. This morning, President Richard C. Levin and many other speakers addressed the crowd assembled on Yale’s Old Campus for the university’s 310th Commencement exercises, complete with mascot, Handsome Dan.

The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World: Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack Always an occasion to reflect on past experiences and new beginnings, graduation sets us looking out towards change—how it happens, how we ourselves can effect it. This is certainly the perspective of a new book, The New Universe and the Human Future, by Nancy Abrams and Joel R. Primack, interpreting what our human place in the cosmos may mean for us and our descendants. Their incisive analysis of how far we have come in modern cosmology and biology leads to a startling conclusion: we are at a stage in both that allows for the invention of a shared creation story.

“There is a gaping hole in modern thinking that may never have existed in human society before,” the authors write, “we have no meaningful sense of how we and our fellow humans fit into the big picture.” They explore this problem as they conceive a vision of the future, with an emphasis on building a cosmic society, following the mantra that “To act wisely on the global scale, we need to think cosmically.” Within this thinking are approaches for how to solve the greater problems of our civilization and how we relate to the natural world around us. This is a lesson for all graduates today, for the book “is not about science per se. It’s about us and what we as a species need to do, now that we understand for the first time where we are in time and space.”

Be sure to check out the Cosmic Society on Facebook, and you can see a full list of YUP’s graduation gift suggestions here. Congratulations to graduates worldwide as they prepare for the challenges ahead and help us bring about the vision of tomorrow!

For the Moon, and the Stars, and the Sky

Well, someone is having the best day ever. After last night’s total lunar eclipse in the Western hemisphere, the moon continues to occupy center stage as tonight’s winter solstice approaches for those of us north of the Equator. Here in New Haven, the sun rose at 7:15am and will quickly be on its way out at 4:25pm, giving us just a little over 9 hours of daytime before the long moonlit night ahead.

Why so much attention? From the dawn of human existence, the Moon has hung in the sky as an object of human obsession, mystery, ritual, and marvel, creating a ­wealth of mythology and wonder that once, perhaps, rendered our nearest celestial neighbor the farthest from our scientific Moon: A Brief History: Bernd Brunner understanding. In his new book Moon: A Brief History, Bernd Brunner tells this cultural story and offers some insight into the traditions—both popular and scientific—that have contributed to our portrait of the Moon.

Writing for Kirkus Reviews, Greg McNamee ponders: “Imagine if we had no moon. The night sky would be cold and dark, and Pink Floyd would have had that much less to sing about. Bernd Brunner serves up a learned but fluently written almanac of things lunar, with less emphasis on the science of the whirling orb than on the uses we have made of it in art, literature, folklore and the imagination over time.”

The scope of Brunner’s book is a wide, global history, and he is not shy about presenting everything about the Moon from the perspective of the Maori in New Zealand to the skepticism expressed by critics of modern lunar programs. There is even a chapter called “Lunar Choreography” that explores the gravitational effect of the Moon with respect to biological behavior and tectonic activity, which is often eclipsed by the more popularly known lunar effect on the tides.

Have your moment now, Moon. Tomorrow, the sun starts making a comeback.