Mario Livio — Who Ordered This? New Mysteries of an Expanding Universe
December 8, 2011

Astrophysicist Mario Livio works with science the Hubble Space Telescope makes possible. He is not a religious person. But he's fascinated with the enduring mystery of the very language of science, mathematics.

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The Carina nebula, which is about 7,500 light-years from Earth. On the left, a composite infrared portrait and on the right a composite visible-light portrait. See Science News for a more complete explanation of how these images were generated.

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just a point for clarity's sake a "mystery" in science is a puzzle which has yet to be solved but which is taken as an article of faith to be potentially solvable, whereas a "Mystery" in religious terms is usually understood, as an ontological article of faith, to fundamentally exceed the grasp of human understanding, not a puzzle to be solved but something to which reason must submit, become resolved to living under or at least seeing through.

Astronomical #s x10^2 (or more) * I emailed this thought to my usual clan * Today's "Speaking of Faith" was really interesting, focused on the cosmos. http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/index.shtml Mario Livio had lots of fun facts and insight: Is math a discovery or invention - pointing to imaginary #s as an example of invention (not [immediately] a product of observing the universe, but rather later applied to it). He pointed out that there are something like 200b known galaxies. Think about that. You could steal $100 from each of those slave galaxies, and have enough to cover the [public-acknowledged] national debt. Yet, you'd still be short on other federal obligations, not to mention states, counties, cities, schools, metros, banks, personal... and the rest of the planet's mess. Perhaps the universe just isn't big enough to loot for this brood of spenders.

First of all, this is a fan letter. SOF is the high point of my Sunday AM: the diversity of topics is marvelous; the hour is both exciting and restful. In contrast with news talk and interview shows, you engage rather than debate with guests, let them finish their thoughts and respond to them. A thought on discovery vs invention: in ecology we create measures that we think increase understanding such as numbers of species in relation to area or climate. But we also can create nonsense measures such as the Levins index #1, the ratio of endemic species in a country to the number of deputies in the national assembly. Once created it is real-- we can measure it, map it by continents and latitudes, etc. But what makes it nonsense is that it tells us only about itself.Indices of species diversity have the same status as the Levins Index #1, they are both human creations and in that sense real, but the diversity measure throws light on other thing s--evolution, geography, coexistence, etc. So we invent and then discover what our inventions teach us, if anything.

The word Number is used thousands of times in the BIble. example: He numbers the stars and calls them by name. From Psalm 147:4...

I listen to Ms. Tippett every Sunday morning on WKSU (Kent, Ohio). As a teacher of physics, I especially enjoy her conversations with folks from scientific fields. But.

K.T.'s attempted colloquy with Mario Livio over the meaning of the word "God" was alternately amusing and embarrassing, especially given the backgrounds of the two participants.

Might I suggest that Krista have to hand Nishida Kitaro's handy and virtually unassailable definition whenever she discusses the G-word with guests whose affinities generally preclude supernatural deities. To wit: "We call the foundation of the universe God."

Obviously this makes instant room for, e.g., Einstein's "old one", dark energy, universal intelligence, and other such notions.

Further, there is no delineation between the physical "world" and that of "consciousness". Both are manifestations of the original energy substrate and gain their respective properties through accretion over time. Eventually particles, eventuall intelligence.

Years ago I sent you a copy of my memoir (Before I Go) which devoted a chapter entitled 'Ontolocon' to these ideas. Kitaro's quote was my epigram at its beginning.

Thanks for SoF. jim walker Massillon, Ohio

He discussed symmetry as an attribute of beauty but I wonder if he disregards the beauty of assymetry so admired in the East and also by those with more sophisticated tastes in the West?

Are the newer math concepts taking assymetry more into account, i.e. fractals and other new thinking?

I enjoy listening to your interesting and valuable programs.

Aloha, namaste,

Frank Luke

I am listening to your interview with Mario Liviu (the original spelling of the Romanian-Israeli, Jewish person). Livio is a very fine popularizer of science and let's leave it at that. Your forcing the God issue into the discourse and makes my stomach turn over. Is this because of the sponsors of your shows?
You are trivializing this whole issue and you seem to have not much knowledge about history of science and philosophy in relationship to religion .
Newton and Darwin never confronted the Church because they would not have dared to do this in their times. No matter what they thought or believed they had to pay lip service if they wanted to function in society.
Finally, I hope this is not insult. Every time you identify yourself you are lisping your name. You sound like an 8 year old who is forced by a parent to introduce herself to strangers.

I identify with the Archetypal Muse, therefore, the title of this episode and message behind it, speaks of that humorous play of mankind that I adore. My inner Muse is saying to whoever ordered this "right on!" More creative fun and non-stop entertainment!

I actually really loved it when Krista pointed out how rich the experience of asking a question is! My whole career revolves around asking the right questions that are answerable to a certain degree. And this single comment made me realize that the reason I seek the answers is so that they can explode into a myriad new questions, ad infinitum. Is this joy in the richness of formulating questions what separates homo sapiens from others?

At first, “Who Ordered This?” sounded pretty much like a self-indulgent riff into chicanery. However, that hat was soon resolved for me by Mario Livio’s describing a “mixture of discovery and invention.”
While Mathematics is only our coherent, structured, syntax of expressions about perceived experiences and relationships—both religion and science can perpetrate (and could perpetuate) some certain “homo ludens” activities--detours during intermission/intervals of respite from “Major Events.” Does God Play Dice? Well, we ourselves have been known to do so, on occasion. So that should tell us something about reality, at least! Who isn’t hoping to get by—and perhaps too often—by the skin of our teeth?
By comparison, looking closely at the wonder of Language to describe our perceived and reflective experiences of relationships in the known universe--is pretty much beholding a miraculous phenomenon, too. Both Mathematics and Language are communication tools which depend upon repeatable patterns as means to impart meaning. The universe consists of periodic activities; yet these provide the fundamental basis for all sharing. Include also our recurring experiences of dream narrative, story, fable, parable, and festive holiday observances, as well as the traditional rivalries of athletic competitions.
These renderings can be physical, mental, emotional, intuitive constructs (C.G. Jung’s model), and are readily extended to Useful, and/or Ritual, representations: “Macy-Day Balloons,” Fourier or Laplace Transforms, sculptures and architectures, performances like drama, poetry, ballet, Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, and the Eucharistic Banquet manifested at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
“Meaning” is inherent within patterns of repetition: the rhythm of beating hearts re-echo the different “vocabularies” in frequencies of light, or sound, or the tides, or the seasons; so the music of the spheres itself wants to dance a rhapsody with all who swim through the firmament. The Universe contains universes: a Master Set of Mandelbrot Fractal Patterns, singing from Macrocosm to Microcosm.
Perhaps it could be said that these innumerable vessels of meaning are kissed with an aura of profound simplicity, or of the divine, or of both. One man’s awe is another man’s charade, or another’s daily bread: As Oliver Twist said of his pablum/gruel, “Please, sir, may I have some more?”
Saul Steinberg’s famous cover illustration for the 29 March 1976 NEW YORKER could be understood as a benignly smiling Voltairian refutation of Galileo’s great premise (with an unintended, but still satirical, vindication for the parochial Inquisition’s chicanery?). Ah, the levels of irony are like the rungs on Jacob’s ladder! However, Steinberg’s subtle reprieve proved to be comparatively short-lived, for as we’ve learned in the last two years, the Real Center of the Known Universe is not Ninth Avenue and 43rd St, Manhattan—but Capitol Hill and K Street, Washington, DC!
Everyone still knows the sun comes up in the East and goes down in the West! However, not everyone wants to step up to the implications, and our responsibilities, of being at The Center of Hope for Existence as we know it. Any other possibility seems far removed by light years across the “empty” “darkness” (if we only knew!) The global Climate Negotiations in Durban, South Africa this week, prompts us “to consider too curiously to consider so.”
Is the Universe really expanding—or is our current knowledge base just the consequence of our present abilities to observe light? Could the Red Shit be a result of gravitational acceleration force, distending the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation coming toward us, and so presenting us with a cumulative “retarding” effect, which prolongs each individual pulse—thus reducing the overall frequency rate within each pulse-series? (If we only knew!)
Perhaps this personal riff is tending toward chicanery.
We are only such stuff as dreams are made on….
- Ralph Palasek, Arlington Virginia

Dear Krista,

Interesting program. First time I've heard it.

During your conversation with Dr. Livio you said, "You can say that our minds give rise to mathematics, but then mathematics are found to explain the physical world, which is a very mysterious thing to think about."

I do not think it is at all mysterious that concepts humans develop explain the natural world. The human brain is a product (both materially and developmentally) of that world. Therefore, it is not surprising that people discover (and I think "discover" is the appropriate word) relationships that exist in, fit, describe and explain that world. How could it be otherwise? Things that develop in the same universe *must* fit, otherwise they could not exist the same universe. "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree."

Listening to you talk I get the impression that you are so attracted to and captivated with the feeling of "mystery" that you would prefer to maintain the mysteriousness about something rather than find an explanation that would dispel that feeling.

You asked if there is something revealing in the fact that even non-religious scientists use the word "God" when trying to explain things they cannot yet explain. While I am not a scientist, I suspect that non-religious scientists use the word "God" because the concept of a creator is so ingrained into our culture and our heads that it's difficult not to use, and for lack of a better or more succinct way of saying, "Whoever or whatever created the universe..." or "However the universe developed..." Using the word "God" is also more "catchy". "Is God a Mathematician?" is certainly more marketable than say, "Did The Universe Develop According To Laws That Can Be Described Mathematically?"

Personally, I am inconsistent about a belief in God. Objectively, I do not believe there is a supernatural being. On the other hand, when I have something difficult to cope with I catch myself unconsciously hoping God will intervene somehow. It's like a form of hope that things will turn out fair and right.

I liked Dirk Felleman's comments about mysteries.

Dear Krista,

Interesting program. First time I've heard it.

During your conversation with Dr. Livio you said, "You can say that our minds give rise to mathematics, but then mathematics are found to explain the physical world, which is a very mysterious thing to think about."

I do not think it is at all mysterious that concepts humans develop explain the natural world. The human brain is a product (both materially and developmentally) of that world. Therefore, it is not surprising that people discover (and I think "discover" is the appropriate word) relationships that exist in, fit, describe and explain that world. How could it be otherwise? Things that develop in the same universe *must* fit, otherwise they could not exist the same universe. "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree."

Listening to you talk I get the impression that you are so attracted to and captivated with the feeling of "mystery" that you would prefer to maintain the mysteriousness about something rather than find an explanation that would dispel that feeling.

You asked if there is something revealing in the fact that even non-religious scientists use the word "God" when trying to explain things they cannot yet explain. While I am not a scientist, I suspect that non-religious scientists use the word "God" because the concept of a creator is so ingrained into our culture and our heads that it's difficult not to use, and for lack of a better or more succinct way of saying, "Whoever or whatever created the universe..." or "However the universe developed..." Using the word "God" is also more "catchy". "Is God a Mathematician?" is certainly more marketable than say, "Did The Universe Develop According To Laws That Can Be Described Mathematically?"

Personally, I am inconsistent about a belief in God. Objectively, I do not believe there is a supernatural being. On the other hand, when I have something difficult to cope with I catch myself unconsciously hoping God will intervene somehow. It's like a form of hope that things will turn out fair and right.

I liked Dirk Felleman's comments about mysteries.

Krista,

Congratulations on featuring a nonreligious scientist on your show. It was nice to hear a logical speaker.

Alan

It's interesting to me that in general scientists admit their past inabilities and mistakes, and that they may still be missing something big, for example that quantum mechanics and General Relativity and Edwin Hubble's work caused complete revisions of our understanding of the universe time after time and that what we might learn about "dark energy" may well do it again, but that many religions don't update and still use the texts and logic that prevailed before, for example, the general abolition of slavery, which doesn't seem to have much merit to me. No, I'm never going to be one of the unquestioning "allah akbar" dudes but I still love your program.

Mario Livio made the most commom mistake of all in today's modern world--that is, a naive separating the truths of science from the truths of being as if they are two separate worlds with different ways of knowing. However, there is one scientific tenet which is important to both worlds (if they are separate): Ask the right question if you want to get a meaningful answer.

Instead of the unanswerable question "Does God exist?" I prefer to rephrase the question to "Does the universe exist?" If the answer to that question is "yes" then the clincher is "what is the nature of the universe?" Anwser: "more strange than any of us can imagine." And in that strangeness, who is to say there are two separate realms of knowning or being?

Voices on the Radio

is an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute. His books include Is God a Mathematician?

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Host/Producer: Krista Tippett

Executive Producer: Kate Moos

Producer: Nancy Rosenbaum

Assoicate Producer/Online: Susan Leem

Technical Director/Producer: Chris Heagle

Senior Editor: Trent Gilliss

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Funding provided in part by the John Templeton Foundation.

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