Archive for December, 2010

As I write this post, Christmas is just days away, and despite the overworked (though still valid) lament that it’s all about commerce, hundreds of millions of Christians will take the time to go to church and turn their thoughts to the Divine.

This will undoubtedly drive a small group of true believers nuts.

I’m not talking about Jews like me. When I was growing up, Christmas wasn’t a time for minority outrage; it was a blissfully quiet day when we might go out for Chinese food and then to a nicely uncrowded movie. I’m not talking about Muslims, either; Islam recognizes Jesus as a great prophet, and while some extremists are still furious about the Crusades, most Muslims find Christmas pretty uncontroversial.

I’m talking about the New Atheists — people like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. What makes them New is that they’re not merely non-believers. They’re evangelists—missionaries out to convince religious folks that belief in God is not only misguided, but ignorant, superstitious, dangerous and just plain stupid.

I should say at this point that I’m more or less an atheist myself. Actually, I’m technically an agnostic. I don’t claim certain knowledge that God doesn’t exist, and doubt there would be any way to prove such a proposition (for the record, I don’t buy any of these “proofs“). But as an old friend pointed out to me a few years ago, I must at least have a default assumption about God’s existence, and that assumption is what scientists call the “null hypothesis,” meaning that he doesn’t. Carl Sagan once said that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” — but he didn’t specify what counts as an extraordinary claim. For me, the notion that a supernatural, invisible, all-powerful being exists seems pretty extraordinary. The idea that he, or He, is aware of my every thought and has a plan for my life is even more far-fetched.

But the New Atheists are the genuine article. They’re quite convinced that God doesn’t exist, and they’re not shy about letting you know it. “Tolerance of pervasive myth and superstition in modern society is not a virtue,” it says on their website. “Religious fundamentalism has gone main stream and its toll on education, science, and social progress is disheartening. Wake up people!! We are smart enough now to kill our invisible gods and oppressive beliefs. It is the responsibility of the educated to educate the uneducated, lest we fall prey to the tyranny of ignorance.”

Joseph Stalin, non-religious mass murderer

They are indeed smart. Most of them are scientists, and anyone foolish enough to try and match wits with non-scientist Hitchens is asking for trouble. Many of the points they raise, moreover, are valid. Terrible crimes have been committed, and continue to be committed, in the name of religion. These things are well worth fighting against — but anyone who thinks they’re uniquely the product of religion has clearly never heard of Stalin or Pol Pot or Augusto Pinochet.

It’s also true that some religious people push a worldview that is actively hostile to science, and it’s nothing short of appalling that so few Americans accept the theory of evolution by natural selection—in large part thanks to the doubts sowed by religious fundamentalists.

But it’s also true that plenty of scientists are also religiousFrancis Collins, for example, the director of the National Institutes of Health and a self-described born-again Christian. To their enormous discredit, some New Atheists claim that Collins, a topnotch geneticist, is somehow unqualified to run a major research institution because of his beliefs. It reminds me of the claims when John F. Kennedy was running for president that he would take orders from the Pope because he was a Catholic.

What’s most annoying about the New Atheists is their attitude that if only you were as smart as they are, you simply couldn’t believe in God. Daniel Dennett has even coined a term to replace “atheist” that would embody this particular attitude. He proposes that they call themselves “brights,” demonstrating monumental arrogance and a tin ear all at once.

Tonight I’m going to a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, a transcendentally beautiful work inspired by religious belief. I’ll be going with, among others, one of my dearest friends, an ordained Presbyterian minister. We’re both appalled by evil done in the name of religion. We’re both disturbed by religion-inspired attacks on science. He knows I don’t believe in God. I know he does. Neither of us thinks the other is stupid or misguided. Neither of us feels the need to be in each other’s face about our beliefs. We do sometimes talk about where we’re coming from on the topic, and while we don’t agree, we somehow manage not to get all worked up about it.

So we’ll just enjoy each others’ company and the Bach. Thank g…oodness I’m not a New Atheist.

—Michael D. Lemonick

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Nikolai Khalezin in his semi-autobiographical play “Generation Jeans.”

Belarus is called the last dictatorship in Europe.  The government censors the arts, so performance troupe Free Theatre Belarus performs secretly, in converted houses, to avoid arrest.  Back in 2008, New York-based playwright and performer Aaron Landsman visited the group in Minsk.  He was astonished by how the group remained prolific under such difficult circumstances – artistic director Natalia Kolyada told him that even though they enjoyed performing at festivals abroad, they would not defect. Listen to the story here:

Today The New York Times is reporting that Kolyada and her husband Nikolai Khalezin have been forced into hiding following an incident at a protest rally.

Free Theatre Belarus is due to start performances of “Being Harold Pinter” in New York City early next month.  The work, which already played in London to praise, is based on transcripts from Belarussian political prisoners and incorporates writings by Harold Pinter.  Meanwhile, Tom Stoppard, Ian McKellan and others protested the Belarussian Embassy in London.

– Jenny Lawton

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What, you think you’re too cool for Christmas records?  You’re going to like this one, and so will your grandma.

The LA-based a cappella group Sonos has just released December Songs, filled with music for the season – several originals, plus some strange and soulful covers of classics.  The group’s “Ave Maria” is an especially beautiful, surprising arrangement of the hymn, which morphs from traditional madrigal to pop anthem:

Sonos stopped by Studio 360 last year and performed some of the group’s best-known work: inventive covers of pop songs, including Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place.”  They told Kurt that they sometimes get grief from purists (Sonos happily uses special microphones, loop pedals, and digital effects to alter the sound of their voices).  But they also get major props from us for pushing the form in new directions:

– Jenny Lawton

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Ah, Christmas. Time to sit around the fire with eggnog and tell stories of… extraterrestrial spies?

This holiday week, Studio 360 presents a new kind of holiday tale.  “Human Intelligence” is by none other than Kurt Andersen, and was published this year in Stories: All-New Tales, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio.  Studio 360’s Jonathan Mitchell created this audio cinema adaptation.

Ed Herbstman (narrator) is a co-founder of the Magnet Theater in New York City.  John Ottavino (Nicholas) has performed in 36 states and 7 countries, including a role in the Tony Award-winning production of “A Doll’s House” on Broadway.  Melanie Hoopes (Nancy) is a writer, actress, and the host of “Laurie Stanton’s Sound Diet.”

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Earlier this week, one-of-a-kind comedian/musician Reggie Watts rocked WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Performance Space for a special “Studio 360” all about Theoretical Physics. That’s right…Theoretical Physics.  Here at 360, we like a little science sprinkled in with our arts and culture.

It turns out that Reggie Watts – an improviser who seeds audiences with disinformation (some of it in musical form), confusing them into fits of sublime, disoriented laughter – is also a well-versed physics enthusiast.  Watch him raise the curtain on our show, and tune the crowd to his unique frequency:

Over the course of the evening, Reggie talked physics with Kurt and astrophysicist Janna Levin – they even had a sort of informal science smack down (you can watch the full show here).  Reggie closed the evening with another song – a hip-hop ballad dedicated to perhaps the most ambitious topic, ever: the universe.

– Michael Guerriero

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Requiem for Steam: The Railroad Photographs of David Plowden

David Plowden spent his childhood obsessed with trains. He would ride them just for the thrill of it, often without any direct destination in mind. A couple years ago, Plowden told Kurt “I rode all over the place, to the despair of my uncles and aunts and my mother’s friends who said, ‘What’s he going to amount to?  He rides trains!’  And my mother said, ‘I don’t know what he’s doing, but he does.  Leave him alone.  He’s gathering grist for the mill.’”

You can hear their full conversation here:

Plowden began taking pictures of steam engines because he knew they were becoming obsolete and he wanted to make sure they were well-documented — he had no intention of becoming a photographer.  By his his twenties, photography (documentary and art) had become a career — he assisted O. Winston Link and worked closely with Ansel Adams, among others greats. Plowden’s travels by train eventually led him to the Midwest, where he made a distinguished career capturing the beautiful expanses of the Great Plains, as well as the desolate railroad towns the once welcomed the railways.

Requiem for Steam is Plowden’s love letter to the steam engine, full of moving portraits of the machinery, the rails, and the people he’s met on a lifetime of journeys.

– Max Bass and Jenny Lawton

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Last weekend, Studio 360 was all about art as medicine. We had stories about how music helps patients recover in a burn unit; why a children’s cancer doctor turns to fiction writing; and medical students learning how honing their narrative skills will make them better doctors.

When we were doing research for the show, we called our colleagues in the WNYC archives – a treasure trove of nearly a century of media made or collected at the station. Here are a few things found in the stacks – click on the images to see them up close:

This three-record set came with a guide to exercises including the “Liberty Bell march” (No. 1) and the “Salut d’amour” (No. 3 – not unlike the now-hip “sun salute”?).

Try out the “Salut d’amour” yourself – listen here:

And to finish your workout, two exercises from Dr. Erich Klinge (recorded sometime between 1903 and 1926) – Nos. 9 and 10, in bracing German!

Special thanks to New York Public Radio’s Andy Lanset and Marcos Sueiro Bal.

– Jenny Lawton

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Final preparations are underway for tonight’s live show in WNYC’s Greene Space: the science magician loads in his equipment in a couple hours, then Reggie Watts will soundcheck, and doors will open at 7pm.  And then… black holes will play drums!  We’ll bend space and time!  And we may just come up with the Theory of Everything. (At the very least, we’ll come up with a Theory of A Lot of Things.)

Not in NYC?  Or in NYC but holed up against the bad weather?  No worries: we’ll be streaming the show live online – check back here at 7:30 for the live webcast.

TITLE: Our Universe Goes to 11


Final preparations are underway for tonight’s live show in WNYC’s Greene Space: the science magician loads in his equipment in a couple hours, then Reggie Watts will soundcheck, and doors will open at 7pm.  And then… black holes will play drums!  We’ll bend space and time!  And who knows, we just may come up with the Theory of Everything.

Not in NYC?  Or in NYC and holed up against the bad weather?  No worries: we’ll be streaming the show live online – check back here at 7:30 for the live webcast.

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There’s a new art installation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that’s creating quite a stir.  It opened just last weekend, but already, it’s commanding attention for its dramatic, novel use of light and sound.  You may have heard of the artist: Leonardo da Vinci.

Sort of.

The artwork in question is a kind of collaboration across the centuries, between da Vinci and British film director Peter Greenaway.  Greenaway — best known for 1989’s controversial “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” — applies his expertise with film techniques and technology to a 45-minute treatment of da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

The Original: Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” 1495 – 1498.

Greenaway wants viewers to “retrain their gaze,” so they can experience classical paintings with the same immediacy as the original Quattrocento audiences.  Writing about 50 years after da Vinci completed the painting, artist Giorgio Vasari described it as “wondrous” in its depiction of confused, suspicious, and sorrowful Apostles trying to figure out who would betray Jesus.  Da Vinci was a master of realism; he reproduced lifelike images in paintings that took years to create.  It’s a skill that doesn’t have quite the same effect on today’s viewers, many of whom can experience, reproduce, and alter just about anything at which they can point a camera phone.

The resulting loss is doubly-felt. Modern viewers, no longer awed by the technical brilliance of da Vinci’s work, also miss its deeper meanings.  If the gaze isn’t held by a painting’s forms, the mind won’t linger long enough to engage them.  It’s an abandoned state of mind that Greenaway seeks to recreate.  The director wants to rediscover The Last Supper’s “multiple layers of meaning, the techniques used and the metaphors intended.”  He wants to “investigate and educate but also to fascinate and celebrate these extraordinary complex images.”

So how do you overcome 500 years of distance between viewer and painting?  Greenaway adopts the language to which modern audiences are accustomed — and with which he is most comfortable.  He inserts the busy, rapid, loud, and sometimes bombastic visual language of film into the painting.  Through a succession of projected images and music he forces viewers to reread the painting’s details and composition.

The Wade Thompson Drill Hall in New York’s Park Avenue Armory (photo by James Ewing)

Greenaway takes over the expansive 55,000-square-foot drill hall in New York City’s Park Avenue Armory, dividing it into two spaces.  Viewers enter the first space and are flooded with images and music from the past five centuries of Western culture.  The projection of a male ballet dancer leaps around them, evoking, then giving way to da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man.  Verdi meets Bach.  Present-day Rome mingles with Masaccio.  It’s a modern “mash-up” of five centuries of art, music, and architecture.  The effect is at once disorienting and somewhat cliché, evoking a giant, overwrought introduction to some generic PBS special on Italian art.

Director Peter Greenaway’s installation fills the Armory’s drill hall (photo by James Ewing)

After the commotion of the first room, the audience is invited to enter the calm of a second viewing room, housing an exact reproduction — the company that produced it calls it a “clone” — of The Last Supper. It is here that Greenaway really draws from his bag of cinematic tricks.  He “animates” the painting, manipulating light and projecting digital images onto it.  The Apostles’ hands appear by themselves, accentuating the expressiveness of their gestures.  Then the knife in Peter’s hand is spotlighted.  Birds — a fascination of da Vinci’s — flutter through the painting.  Bright colors fade to grey, and then surge back to their former brilliance.  These constant shifts in lighting invest Jesus and the Apostles with density and weight, drawing them out of the painting and into the Armory.  At times they seem almost real — if not alive, then present in a tangible, sculpted form.

Greenaway's effects illuminate the reproduced painting.

The installation is part of the director’s ongoing series Ten Classical Paintings Revisited — and it’s a series with a purpose.  The Wall Street Journal calls it “an appeal to youth who are lacking an education in the art of the past,” those who in Greenaway’s words “think there is no painting before Pollack and no film before Tarantino.”  The appeal to youth and to modern audiences is clear.  With all the bells and whistles of a 21st century motion picture, Greenaway isn’t trying to reproduce the same relationship a renaissance viewer would have had with The Last Supper…but he does provide an entertaining way to understand it.

-Michael Guerriero

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Rendering of Gliese 581g (National Science Foundation and NASA)

A few weeks ago, a couple of astronomers made headlines when they announced that they’d found a planet orbiting a distant star. It was hardly the first: since 1995, about 500 planets have been discovered in orbit around stars beyond the Sun. What made this one extraordinary was, first of all, that it wasn’t all that much bigger than Earth, where the earlier finds have been mostly giant balls of gas, like Jupiter.

More important, it orbited smack in the middle of the “Goldilocks zone” — at just the right distance from its star where temperatures would be not too hot, not too cold, but just right for the existence of life as we know it.  (That balmy location is more properly called the “habitable zone;” in our solar system, only Earth qualifies.) Sadly, for me, there’s now serious doubt that the planet exists at all; the “discovery” may have been announced prematurely.

Speculation about extraterrestrial life left the realm of philosophy for astronomy in 1960, when a young astronomer named Frank Drake wondered if it would be worth his time to search for radio signals from alien civilizations. He understood that it might not be worth his reputation: the golden age of flying saucers was in full swing; “The Twilight Zone” was a hot new show; and Ed Wood had just produced “Plan 9 from Outer Space”, often rated the worst movie of all time.

A still from "Plan 9 from Outer Space" (1958)

So Drake was cautious. He came up with a formula — which came to be known as the Drake Equation — to calculate how many planets might have life.  It was more or less a checklist: How many stars are there in the Milky Way? How many of them have planets?  How many of the planets might be suitable for life, based on their distance from stars? And so on.

Nobody had an answer to anything more than the first question — planets are dark, and too far away to be seen — until 1995,  when astronomers finally began to find planets by the hundreds. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence wasn’t necessarily crazy. There’s still a way to go, of course. In this planet-searching endeavor, the caveat is a biggie: finding a planet that could harbor life isn’t the same as finding one that does —  and it’s very possible that the only aliens living there are bacteria, which don’t build radios.

But more news is waiting in the wings.  For almost two years now, a space telescope called Kepler has been staring unblinking at more than 100,000 stars, looking for a planet, and the team has an announcement scheduled for February 1.

Rendering of the Kepler spacecraft (NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel)

It’s a big secret, and when I spoke with Kepler’s inventor, Bill Borucki, he wouldn’t reveal what they’ve found. But I asked him, “If there’s an Earth-size planet out there, would Kepler have seen it by now?” His answer: “Yes.”

Kepler was built to detect objects (like planets) passing in front of stars.  Depending on how much the starlight dims, they can say how big the planet is; depending on how often it happens, they can tell how long the planet takes to complete an orbit, which tells you how far it is from its sun.  Here’s the trick: Kepler mission rules say it doesn’t count until you’ve seen it pass by three times, to avoid the embarrassment of another retracted ‘discovery.’ In less than two years of operation, Kepler can’t have seen three passes separated by a full year each, so any Earthlike planet they do announce will be in less than a year-long orbit. But that key discovery could well come in the following year.

I for one am praying for front-page headlines when the Kepler crew steps up to the microphone in February.  I’m working on a book, and I rashly promised my editors that Earthlike planets would be found before I turn in the manuscript next August.  Either the planets come out, or I go into hiding.

—Michael D. Lemonick

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