Maria Popova is the creator and editor of one of my regular visits, Brain Pickings. Natalie Batalha is an astrophysicist at NASA’s Ames Research Center and the project scientist for NASA's Kepler Mission. Together they join Krista Tippett for an unfolding conversation that is joyous, dynamic, and unexpectedly vulnerable — rich with cosmic imagining, civic pondering, and even some fresh definitions of the soul. I was surprised how much I enjoyed listening in.
Here’s an excerpt from the transcript, but I have to say that in a similar way to listening to poetry, rather than reading it on the page, this conversation is richer for being heard.
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?
POPOVA:I think, two years ago.
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?
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.
TIPPETT: 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.”
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…”
You’ll find the podcast here.