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We are sold the simple story that we have been saved from the dark ages by the clear moral vision of science, rationality and Apple computers
ISIS Rebel Militant Soldiers
The way the language of journalism distances us from jihadis is based on the idea that their extreme violence has more in common with the extreme violence of the middle ages. Photograph: Medyan Dairieh/ Medyan Dairieh/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Among the various reactions to the Church of England’s vote on women bishops, one comment really got under my skin: “Welcome to the 21st century.” Almost everything about it irritated me. For unless the person who made this comment was partying somewhere like Sydney on the evening of 31 December 1999, I suspect that we have both been sharing the 21st century for exactly the same amount of time. So how come he gets to welcome me to it? And with all the assumed and self-satisfied cultural superiority of a native welcoming an immigrant off the boat at Calais.

Back in 1983, the German anthropologist Johannes Fabian published a brilliant account of how western anthropologists often used the language of time to distance themselves from the object of their study and to secure the dominance of a western Enlightenment worldview. In Time and the Other he noted there was something fishy about the way early anthropologists went out and studied other cultures, talking and interacting with people in the same temporal space, yet when such encounters came to be written up, the people being studied/talked with tended to be situated back in time. The anthropologist always lives in the present. The people being studied live in the past. It’s what Fabian calls “a denial of coevalness” – a denial that we share the same temporal space with those who have different values or different political aspirations. This denial of coevalness, argues Fabian (very much in the style of Edward Said), is often a political power-play, a discourse of “otherness” that was commonly used to buttress the colonial exploitation of others.

But it’s not just colonialism-justifying anthropologists who play this linguistic/moral trick with the clock. The same thing happens in contemporary journalism all the time. Isis, for example, are often described as “medieval”. Travel to Damascus or Baghdad, and you travel not just to the Middle East but also to the middle ages. In part, this familiar trope is based on the idea that the extreme violence of contemporary jihadis has more in common with the extreme violence of the middle ages. As a comparison, this is most unfair on the middle ages, which is transformed from a rich and complex period of human history into modernity’s “other” – little more than that against which modernity comes to define itself. Forget about the founding of the great cathedrals and universities, forget about the Islamic development of mathematics, forget about Leonardo da Vinci and all of that: in secular salvation myth we are sold the simple story that we have been saved from the dark ages of barbarism and stupidity by the clear moral vision of science, rationality and Apple computers. This is just as much a salvation myth as any proposed by religion – though in this version of salvation it is religion itself that we need to be saved from.

But the problem with the idea that the current age is the triumphant pinnacle of historical achievement is that Isis is very much a 21st-century phenomenon. And not just because its members are good with the internet. Their violence and brutality have not appeared directly from the middle ages through some wormhole in time. To think as much is to deny the need to look for contemporary causes and contemporary solutions. As the historian Julia McClure has written: “Rather than … questioning the arrogance that has led us to believe that we are the inheritors of a historical tradition of success and process, society has developed a neat trick: it simply denies that shocking events are part of our time.”

Yes, it is understandable that we want psychologically to distance ourselves from the mindset of those who decapitate prisoners. And so we speak of them as if they were born in 1490 rather than in 1990. But this denial of coevalness hardly encourages us to seek to understand the phenomenon of contemporary jihadis or think more clearly about the best ways to respond. So yes, welcome to the 21st century: women bishops, violent extremists, arrogant colonialists – nothing, in fact, far beyond the imagination of the medieval mind. But more to the point, as much a part of our world as it was of theirs.


Here are some poignant replies:


I’m not sure you’re doing yourself any favours with this article. And I’m glad the ‘welcome to the 21st century’ comment got under your skin; it was meant to.



Not a salvation myth at all. Computers are real things. At least, the one I’m typing this into is. Science is there to help us understand the meaning of real things like computers. Science is just a few basic rules: look for evidence, systematise it (laws) and draw out basic principles (theories). Rationality is a bit like science but applied to rules of thinking, discourse, and communication; a systematization to allow more meaningful communication to help us agree. None of those 3 things are salvation myths.

Salvation myth itself is just a projection of religious tropes onto the non-religion world. Wake up, try to realize that everyone doesn’t think like you. We don’t really care about your religion. What counts to atheists is how your religion affects us. We won’t be happy if you try to behead us. In contrast, waving incense around, while singing and dressing up in silly clothes is rather cute and beguiling.


in secular salvation myth we are sold the simple story that we have been saved from the dark ages of barbarism and stupidity by the clear moral vision of science, rationality and Apple computers.

A tad sweeping, Giles, to rely on the smugness of one brand of digital gizmo and its customers (insufferable though I agree it is) to damn the entire Enlightenment project?

I can’t recall anyone telling such a ‘simple story’. Let me offer you a slightly more nuanced one as a more worthy opponent for a man of your moral scrupulosity to grapple with:

Progress is slow, muddled, often goes backwards or sideways and is full of inconsistency, opportunism and hypocrisy. Neverthless it is better to live in societies where the aspiration – if not the fully achieved reality – is that people of different genders, races, beliefs and sexualities are all equally human and deserving of the same basic rights; where economic relations are based on freely negotiated and impartially enforced agreements rather than on hereditary rank or servitude; where destitution is relieved as a matter of public policy rather than private charity; where illness is treated with evidence-based medicine rather than blamed on demons and dybbuks; where the odd and awkward are not ostracised and persecuted as witches; where knowledge and literacy are accessible to all, and not hoarded by a priestly elite who can exploit ignorance to terrorise and manipulate the majority.

I’d say we are extremely fortunate to live in a society that gets closer to this than almost any earlier one, and is surpassed only by a handful of other European ones; that trying to move closer to this is good, that attacking and undermining it is bad, and that societies that glory in the opposite are bad.

Don’t you agree?



When I worked in a very authoritarian university, a colleague complained that it was like being in a mediaeval institution. I pointed out that if we had been in a medieaval institution, faculty would have elected the Rector.

(As it was, the Rector was appointed by and answerable to the wealthy benefactor who bankrolled the whole institution, a very 21st century arrangement).



I’m not sure you can define progress in all its spheres as a secular salvation myth.



To realise why Giles Fraser is wrong, it is sufficient to dissect this:

Forget about the founding of the great cathedrals and universities, forget about the Islamic development of mathematics, forget about Leonardo da Vinci and all of that

Once we talk about “Middle Ages” we refer to specific time in European history, say from the collapse of the Western Roman Empire until the opening of the Americas to European colonisation in late 15th Century. We are not talking about the Muslim word, or about the Chinese, Indian, Native American or African (these were the glory days of Ashanti, Ghana and Mali!) civilisations. So, let us examine their predominant characteristics:
1. A majority of population at the status of serfs (or “bonded labour” in modern parlance): a property of feudal lords, to be used, abused or traded by them at their pleasure.
2. Absolutist hereditary monarchy, totally dominating the political (but also the legal) space.
3. Total dominance of a single religious creed (Catholicism in the West, Greek Orthodoxy in the East) with secular and religious power joined at the hip.
4. Zero right of dissent, whether spiritual or temporal, no concept of human rights.
5. Women considered as sub-human and the legal property of the male head of the household.
6. Whatever passes for scholarship, science and medicine totally based on religious doctrine or on superstition.
(All this, except for the last point, fits contemporary Saudi Arabia like hand in a very well-crafted glove!)

So, let us return to Fraser’s quote:
a. Founding of the great cathedrals: Exactly. The only edifices allowed to dominate the public space and assert the power of the ruling orthodoxy.
b. Founding of the great universities: Giles Fraser tends to forget that just because something is called “university”, it isn’t necessarily a university in the modern sense of the word, a centre of open-minded, free enquiry and instruction.
c. The Islamic development of mathematics: Muslims, as a matter of fact, developed very little new mathematics, their great service to this subject was in preserving and translating the Greek greats and melding their work with South-Indian influences (the concept of zero). But this is precisely the point of the (European) Middle Ages, that their own secular scholarship was virtually non-existent! The onlyMiddle-Age European significant name in history of mathematics is Rabbi Levi Ben Gershom – and no, he wasn’t Christian.
d. Leonardo da Vinci: The Italian Renaissance augured the death knell of the Middle Ages. From Giotto onwards, this was the new era.

The world has moved, Giles Fraser, since the Age of Enlightenment onwards. This movement often meanders, it is not any well-defined time-arrow of progress. But overall, averaged over time, it is moving forward. Your church is ever-so-hesitantly moving with it and you should see “welcome to the 21st Century” as a compliment – I can think of faith communities in Saudi or in Texas to whom “welcome to the 16th Century” would have been progress.



Very sloppy historical analysis.The author uses Middle Ages and Dark Ages interchangeably. Leonardo da Vinci was part of the Renaissance, not the Dark Ages. the Dark Ages were also a European phenomenon and in that context provides a reference point for European commentators.

That Isis shares contemporary space in the physical sense does not mean they share our cultural space. It is also dangerouus to argue that this difference amounts to some equality in the value structures of Isis and anyone else other than similar power-centred ideologies to whom massacre is seen as a tool of obtaining and retaining power such as the Khmer Rouge, Bolsheviks etc.The methods and thought structures behind them are similar to those of the 14th century when those of no value as hostages in defeated christian armies were beheaded according to the teachings of the Koran.

The interesting question is why these movements seek to replicate the practices in the past in response to the present. The Khmer Rouge wanted to reestablish an former agricultural model of their society, Isis wants a previous Caliphate model. In this sense it is they who are making reference backwards. I think it is fair for commentators to point that out.



The point of the “offending” sentence is clear but seems to have been either misunderstood, or perhaps missed entirely. To my understanding, “welcome to the 21st century” simply says that the idea of female inequality is backwards when viewed in the light of modern knowledge. Perhaps Giles doesn’t think modern knowledge is better than antiquated knowledge but surely that would say something rather damning about his view on the acquisition of knowledge, if true.
The fact of the matter is this; we know better now, about the abilities of women, about the right way to treat prisoners and so on but some people/groups/faiths cling to the bad old ways because they are driven by faith not by rational thought.

The literal approach examined in this article is woefully short of the mark.



Before reading the 294 comments that came before this – this is an extremely perceptive piece, as I would expect from Giles Fraser. It is not, as knee-jerk atheists and anti-religionists will claim, an apologia for religion in general or Christianity in particular, it is an intelligent comment on the arrogance of those who think that what they call “joining the 21st century” is a sign of moral and intellectual superiority. It isn’t.


and here is the McClure article:


ISIS and the Politics of the Middle Ages


This week the Guardian reporter Kevin McDonald took issue with Nick Clegg’s description of ISIS as “medieval”.  McDonald reported: ‘given the extreme violence of Isis fighters and the frequent images of decapitated bodies, it is understandable that we attempt to make sense of these acts as somehow radically “other”.’ Unfortunately analysis of the meaning and implications of this political use of the Middle Ages ended here, and the article instead constructed a somewhat flawed comparison between ISIS and the history of the French Revolution. However, this recent use of the category ‘medieval’ as a label for the things that we refuse to acknowledge or understand is not unique.

Many shocking crimes against humanity, such as torture, slavery, and public executions, frequently occur in our modern world, and yet are described as medieval. This conundrum was discussed by John Dagenais, who argued that ‘the Middle Ages “shadows” modernity, its existence driven by a repeated denial of coevalness with modernity of activities like repression and brutality: a productive and exploitative anachronism’.[1] The ‘denial of coevalness’, a phenomenon first identified by the anthropologist Johannes Fabian, is the practice of locating people, cultures, or events within another time. Within Fabian’s analysis, the ‘denial of coevalness’ was a way to structure colonial power. For example, a ‘remote society’ might be described as primitive, signifying that that society is not only geographically remote from Europe but also remote from ‘modernity’ as it has been defined in the Western historical tradition.

‘Modernity’ is often assumed to be the product of historical evolution, the triumphant outcome of the European Enlightenment and scientific revolution. Yet many dark crimes and threats of chaos occur close to home, challenging this glossy image of post-Enlightenment modernity. Rather than accepting responsibility for flaws in our society, or questioning the arrogance that has led us to believe that we are the inheritors of a historical tradition of success and progress, society has developed a neat trick: it simply denies that shocking events are part of our time. Instead, shocking crimes and phenomena that generate fear are described as medieval. As Dagenais observed, ‘the typological use of “medieval” was a way of exercising and containing those aspects of modernity that are inadmissible to itself’.[2] Exploited in this way, the Middle Ages cease to be a dynamic and complex period and become a handmaiden for the mythology of modernity.

With the realisation that the governments of Europe and America have engaged in extra-ordinary rendition to conduct torture overseas and that ISIS fighters and perpetrators of public decapitations in the Middle East can have grown up in the UK, it is no longer possible for this generation to interpret shocking crimes against humanity and threats to our imagined social order as something geographically remote. People in Europe and America therefore have two options: they can accept that crimes occur in their world but describe them as ‘medieval’, part of another time, and refuse to acknowledge them; or they can critically reflect upon the ways in which the society they are part of has created the problems it has.

This recent use of the Middle Ages as a label for describing ISIS is dangerous since it justifies a refusal to reflect upon the causes and potential solutions to the problems being faced in the contemporary world. It provides an excuse for not engaging with the difficult and challenging process of introspection, the process of looking at ourselves and asking how have we, as a global society, created this problem and how can we respond to it.

The irony is that, globally, there have been many developments in technology, there are more devices to record and circulate messages to ever increasing audiences –  but we refuse to analyse the complex messages channelled by the high tech global communication system. The lenses of social media are distorted. So perhaps we are, after all, living in the ‘dark ages’; yet this dark age is not the medieval period, but a dark age of consciousness.

Julia McClure is a Max Weber Fellow at the EUI.

Image: The barrel bombing of Aleppo has been generally blamed on Syrian government forces, not ISIS.


[1] Dagenais, ‘The Postcolonial Laura’, Modern Language Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2004), pp. 365-389. p. 374.

[2] Ibid.



September 27, 2012


KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Who knew that the architect behind St. Paul’s Cathedral was also an anatomist who diagrammed the human brain? Fast-forward three centuries, and new scientists of the brain are learning why our sensory experience in a place like a cathedral — the incense, the soaring music, the stained glass, and the light — is physiologically good for us. Esther Sternberg is an immunologist and a pioneer on this new frontier that’s giving rise to disciplines like neuroimmunology and environmental psychology. Architects are working with scientists to imbue the spaces we move through — the sights, sounds, and smells of them — with active healing properties. And Esther Sternberg says all of us can create surroundings and even portable sensations to manage stress and tap our brain’s own internal pharmacies.


ESTHER STERNBERG: What is it about beautiful vistas of mountains, about the infinite horizon of the ocean, about a cathedral? There are certainly physiological and neuroscientific bases to that feeling, and I am convinced — I know — that these things can be measured. And that’s the exciting new frontier for me, to ask exactly that question.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. This is On Being — from APM, American Public Media.Esther Sternberg grew up in Canada surrounded by scientists. Her father survived a concentration camp in Russia to become a pioneer of nuclear medicine. She trained with a good deal of scientific skepticism that emotions play any role in health. But she had a radical change of mind between breakthroughs in medical research, the illness of her mother, and her own diagnosis of arthritis. Some listeners may remember my popular interview with her a few years ago about stress and the balance within. Esther Sternberg’s unfolding passions are outlined in her newer book, Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being.

MS. TIPPETT: I wanted to just start with these words “place” and “well-being.” Where does your mind go back earliest in your life when you put those two words together, “place” and “well-being”? I’m curious about that.

MS. STERNBERG: Well, it goes back to — actually, I was very small, probably in grade one or grade two, and I was sitting at breakfast with my father outside on the terrace. And he used to read while he ate breakfast, and there was probably a mystery story propped up against his coffee mug [laugh]. And he looked up from his mug — it was early spring and he looked up at me and he said, “Listen to the sounds of peace.” And I had no idea what he meant. And all I could hear was a dog barking and the pock-pock of a tennis ball across on the — at the courts across the street and the birds chirping. And I only understood many, many years later that, for him, he was only about 10 years away from the war, from World War II. And my mother also — my mother and her siblings had escaped literally on the last moments when the trains were leaving Rumania, Germany, and, you know, eventually they got to Canada.

And so we were washing the dishes, you know, after dinner, and we really couldn’t see the sunset from our house, but you could tell that it was going to be a beautiful sunset. So we’d all drop everything and my father would drive us to the top of the hill where the University of Montreal sits and we’d sit and look at the sunset. And my parents explicitly instilled in me the knowledge that we should look, hear, smell, touch everything in our surrounding environment and savor it because this could be your last day. They actually said that to me a number of times, especially the sunset. Look at it as if it’s your last.

MS. TIPPETT: Gosh. And so you make this observation in your more recent work that physicians and nurses know that a patient’s sudden interest in external things is the first sign that healing has begun. And you ask, do our surroundings in turn have an effect on us? And you’re part of these new encounters between neuroscience and other kinds of scientists and architecture and people involved in all kinds of spaces, from how hospitals are designed to civic spaces to contemplative spaces. So there’s a drama unfolding. There’s a cast of characters and there’s this whole new body of knowledge. It’s really exciting. And one of the milestones in this story that you’ve talked about is Roger Ulrich’s study called “The View from a Window” study of 1984, which was the beginning of one of these pieces of this new puzzle of what you now call environmental psychology.

MS. STERNBERG: Right. Well, so Roger Ulrich is an environmental psychologist who took advantage of a naturalistic experiment, if you will, where in patients were admitted to a ward for gallbladder surgery. Back in those days, you actually stayed in hospital for a number of days after you had gallbladder surgery. And some of them randomly were assigned to beds with a view of a brick wall and others had a view of a grove of trees. And he simply took the clinical data and measured how much pain medication these patients needed during their recovery, how long they had to stay in hospital, in other words, how quickly they healed, the number of negative nurse’s notes where they were complaining or had pain or such, and he controlled for everything: age, sex, you know, med — other medication use, other disease use. And all of these patients were taken care of by the same doctors and nurses. So it was an extraordinarily well-controlled study. And even with all these controls where the single variable that differed between patients was the view out the window, what he found was that the patients with a view of a grove of trees left hospital on average a day sooner, needed less pain medication, and had fewer negative nurse’s notes than patients who had a view of a brick wall.

MS. TIPPETT: So interesting, yeah.

MS. STERNBERG: Well, and one of the scientists that we interviewed, Irving Biederman, has a great quote where he says, you know, obviously, looking at a view does something positive to the brain. And his hypothesis is that endorphins are released in that part of the brain that recognizes a beautiful or preferred view. And he said, why else would we pay hundreds of dollars more for a hotel room with a beautiful view?


MS. STERNBERG: You know, that really tells you that people are willing to put money out to pay for a view.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, but we don’t think of it in terms of this is good for us. We don’t even think it that through that much. We just know that’s what we want. So let’s talk about some different kinds of experiences that, again, we have and maybe things we kind of know without processing. I mean, so I think most people or certainly many people would agree that being in a place of beautiful nature is somehow nourishing, uplifting. You know, people would use different words. That it feels good and is good for us and we often know that we’re restored afterwards. So what do you know — what do we know now about what is happening in us physiologically in those experiences?

MS. STERNBERG: I — I want — Because you used the word “restore,” can I read something, a favorite psalm of my father’s?

MS. TIPPETT: Yes, of course. [laugh]

MS. STERNBERG: So my father was not a very religious man, but he would read his favorite psalm, which was the 23rd, sometimes after dinner. He’d pull the Bible off the shelf and he’d read it with both wisdom and calm. And it starts: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters; He restoreth my soul. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” I think that psalm — and I didn’t realize it until I got to the last chapter of the book and I put that in there because my father used to read it. I didn’t realize that that really comes to the core of what I’m talking about there.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I actually read that in your book as well and was so struck by it. I mean, that’s the 23rd Psalm. You’re father was Jewish. For Jews and Christians, it’s incredibly meaningful. I remember working on a floor with patients with Alzheimer’s disease and so many people there who had lost everything, every memory, could still recite the 23rd Psalm. But I also had never considered how much that it’s visual. It’s a picture of place, right? It’s the still …


MS. TIPPETT: Still waters, the green pastures, and how that works things in us.

MS. STERNBERG: Right, and it does take you there. So those environmental variables are really important. They’re affecting the brain’s stress response and the brain’s relaxation response.

MS. TIPPETT: Another really basic thing that your work makes me be conscious of is light and color. Again, maybe we know this, but when you talk about or you describe the places where I think many of us have memories of being invigorated by these things, of being most aware of them, would be gardens or, on the other end of that, stained-glass windows, that somehow captures some of that same, you know, almost not just the restorative, but the energetic properties of those things.

MS. STERNBERG: Well, I think that’s the very interesting point because, in general, we don’t want to be always in a soporific state, right? You want to be that way when you’re relaxed, when you’re at the beach, when you’re going to sleep. But equally, you want to be energized, you want to be happy, you want to have some sense of desire, you want to be alive. Being alive means that you respond moment to moment to different external stimuli in an appropriate way, and people want to feel alive. I mean, I think that’s why they go to places like theme parks, like Disneyland, Disney World. You know, you get on a ride and you really feel that zing, which comes from controlled stress response really, which when it’s just a little bit in the right circumstances, is actually energizing. People in theater, people in movies figured all this stuff out a long time ago.

MS. TIPPETT: A long time ago, before doctors did, yes, yes.

MS. STERNBERG: A long time ago, by trial and error. You know, what’s the first thing that happens when you go into a movie theater or a theater? What’s the first thing that happens?

MS. TIPPETT: Well, it’s dark. I mean, it’s a whole enveloping experience.

MS. STERNBERG: Yes, that’s it. Well, the lights go out.


MS. STERNBERG: What that does is it takes away your own reality and it allows the producer to replace your reality with their reality because they’ve taken away the visual cues. So now you can immerse yourself in another place, in an imaginary place, and you forget about your surroundings.

MS. TIPPETT: One of the really interesting pieces of history that you tell is that Christopher Wren, who is the architect who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral, that he started out — did he start out as an anatomist and he was doing illustrations for an anatomist?

MS. STERNBERG: Yeah. I was speaking at the Royal Society of Medicine in London and this august society has been around for, I don’t know, several hundred years. I learned this interesting piece of information when I actually went to their library, and you can look at the original drawings of Sir Thomas Willis, the anatomist who first described the brain in perfect detail. He has this huge tome from 1664 where he — every page shows engravings of the brain in perfect detail. We cannot do better today. There’s cross-sections and elevations and three-dimensional and two-dimensional and every possible visual rendering of the brain.

And at the very beginning of this, you know, 400-year-old book, there is a dedication to Christopher Wren — my colleague, Christopher Wren — who is the one who actually drew those drawings. You know, who better than an architect to draw the drawings of the brain? So there was this collaboration across disciplines, which today we are carrying on in a different iteration.

MS. TIPPETT: So one of the big interesting places this points out is at what we have traditionally called “the placebo effect.” And there’s been a lot of interesting thinking and revisiting of that term recently, and your work is, you know, very much speaking to that. How would you describe what you’re learning what you know that, I don’t know, would not only make us rethink, but perhaps rename this thing we call the placebo effect?

MS. STERNBERG: Well, the placebo effect really is the brain’s own healing process, and that’s a long word, so it’s probably easier to say the placebo effect. But the problem with the word placebo is it carries with it a lot of baggage.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. It feels like a trick or there’s nothing to it somehow.

MS. STERNBERG: Right. The word placebo is usually preceded by a four-letter word: “just.”


MS. STERNBERG: Oh, it’s just the placebo effect. Well, you know, when you look, there’s controversy about this too, the exact numbers, but when you look at placebo-controlled trials, the reason we have to do placebo-controlled trials to determine the “true biological effect of a drug or intervention” is we have to subtract out the placebo effect where people have an expectation that just taking a pill or having an injection or whatever the intervention is, they have an expectation that that will heal and, in fact, it does. It reduces pain, it can reduce inflammation to a certain degree, and it’s hard to estimate and it differs with different conditions.

But the percent of effect of the placebo effect in any given intervention has been estimated to be somewhere between 30 and 90 percent. Ninety is probably a little high and 30 may be a little low, so let’s say 50 percent. A drug that has the ability to help reduce pain by 50 percent is a very powerful drug. So, you know, it’s not a trick; it is your brain activating anti-pain pathways releasing those endorphin molecules, releasing those desire molecules, dopamine, to shift and reducing the stress response.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s in fact the drug that is a trick, right? Because what we do with the drug is trick our brains into doing that.

MS. STERNBERG: Absolutely, that’s it. You know, so why not use this in a sort of a carefully titrated way and say, OK, why not put the individual who needs to heal into the most healing environment where the stress response is not activated and, to the extent that we can, it’s reduced where you have positive emotional memories that flood you. Put them into a situation where they’re likely to release these positive, these anti-pain molecules and these, you know, dopamine molecules of reward, and that will allow their body to heal or to receive the drugs that you are then giving them.

So I’m not saying, you know, don’t go to a desert island and don’t take your cancer chemotherapy, but I’m saying don’t fight against it by putting yourself in a stressful situation. Do the maximum that you can with things like meditation and yoga and prayer to help amplify these pathways in the brain that we know ultimately can help the immune system do its job to heal.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today exploring “The Science of Place and Healing,” with immunologist Esther Sternberg.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s very striking to me that, yes, we’re talking about some things like yoga and meditation and prayer. You’re also talking about light and windows and color and the right amount of noise, all of these sensors.

MS. STERNBERG: Yes, yes, sound, music, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, but it does turn out that a lot of the examples you give and that other doctors give or end up studying do have some connection with spiritual traditions, whether it’s looking at the architecture of a cathedral or, you know, Richard Davidson studying the brains of meditating monks and therein making some of these amazing discoveries. You also devote a chapter on healing spaces to labyrinths, which is a very ancient phenomenon and kind of being rediscovered in the 21st century.

MS. STERNBERG: Right, and labyrinths are so interesting, you know, I think partly because of the Minotaur, the Greek myth. Originally when you say labyrinth, people would say, oh, that’s a maze. A labyrinth is very different from a maze. And labyrinths are calming, walking meditations and or allow you to walk calmly and meditate, and mazes are stressful places. So what’s the difference? In a maze, you walk into a maze — and there’s a wonderful maze outside of Hampton Court near London, which was built by one of the kings of England. You know, you walk into this hedge — it’s got an eight- or 10-foot hedge — so right away you don’t see where you’re going.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, but as you said, a lot of our buildings also feel like mazes when you walk into them, these big corporate buildings.

MS. STERNBERG: Well, absolutely, and the reason they feel like that, well, hospitals are built like mazes because typically you have the old original small hospital building and then they keep adding wings to it, which hospitals until recently were designed really to optimize the diagnostic tools, you know, the X-ray equipment and the blood-drawing and so on rather than the human being that’s going to be in that building. Airports too. Just think about an airport.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah.

MS. STERNBERG: But getting back to a maze, and — and, you know, it’s funny, when I was writing the book, I described these old dusty cathedrals and mazes and things and my editor said on the first draft, “You’ve got to put something in there that young people would want to read. What about Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire?” Of course, I hadn’t read Harry Potter. My daughter was old enough that I hadn’t read any of it, I’m embarrassed to say. So I quickly ran out and boughtThe Goblet of Fire, and indeed the description of Harry Potter in that maze and how he feels is exactly the stress response.

It’s a perfect, perfect description of the physiological stress response that is triggered when you are in a place where you’re trying to navigate it with a time limit, you know. It’s getting dark, you want to do this before it gets dark. You come to a decision point, so you have to have multiple decision points. That’s very stressful. You don’t know if there’s a dead end and, if there is a dead end, there could be a monster lurking there, you know, so the fear is a very primal. Fears are raised by these mazes. And if you put it back to going into a hospital, you’re already stressed because you’re anxious about your illness or your loved one’s illness; you can’t find your way. There are these, as I said, monster machines lurking in different corners where you’re going to be exposed to them. And so it really is a very stressful experience, whereas a labyrinth is just a pattern on the floor. I described the Chartres Labyrinth outside of Paris.

MS. TIPPETT: From the 13th century.

MS. STERNBERG: Yes, and it’s just a pattern of stones in the floor, which has been perfectly preserved because the church didn’t look kindly on labyrinths, so they made sure that the benches covered the labyrinth. So as a result, it’s been well preserved. And the rose window of the cathedral is placed in such a way that the sunlight on the summer solstice comes right in and falls directly on the labyrinth. There’s all kinds of theories as to how that came about and all sorts of very interesting theories about these structures that are found all over Europe, also throughout the globe.

And there are structures where you walk the path and you find you’ve come to the middle and then you stand and you meditate in the middle or you sit and meditate in the middle and then you walk the path and come out, but you see where you’re going. You don’t have any dead ends. You know, you have all your senses. You can see and hear and you don’t have to think about navigating, and so you’re able to get into this place of peace where you’re just — there’s something about movement.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. I have to say, I walked a labyrinth just recently at the new year. I haven’t done that much of it, but also what’s different from what you described about the mazes or being in a hospital is somehow you know exactly where you’re going to step next and you’re not worried about that, but you stop being so oriented towards getting to the end, which is an unusual experience in my life where I’m always ticking off my next thing on my to-do box.

MS. STERNBERG: You know, that’s a very interesting point that I hadn’t thought of until now. So when you talk about a place of peace, which is really what I’m talking about here, how do you find your place of peace? There is an element of time to it or forgetting time or not worrying about time. And we’re so conscious of worrying about time and the time pressure in our world that it’s hard to strip that away. And things like walking slowly, it forces you to walk slowly, right? You can’t be running through a labyrinth, although I have seen kids running through a labyrinth. [laugh]

MS. TIPPETT: You actually feel like slowing down. I’m just thinking about this myself too, but there’s something about the experience that makes you want to draw it out and slow down, and that in itself is kind of an unusual instinct.

MS. STERNBERG: Yes. I think you’re right. Another similar sort of experience I’ve had is with a Buddhist prayer wheel or drum, I guess it is, that was put into a lovely meditation garden in Sun Valley — near Sun Valley, Idaho. It was done when the Dalai Lama visited there, and it was a garden especially dedicated to him. When you push this prayer wheel around, it’s actually quite heavy and it forces you to slow down. In order to just turn it around and keep the right pace so you’re not falling off the platform, it really does force you to slow down and look around you and just be quiet and meditate.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s very striking to me how many of these examples have to do with, it’s like you said, theater people have known this for a long time about creating an environment. And it’s also true of religious spaces and it’s everything from gardens, to prayer wheels, to labyrinths, to stained-glass windows, to incense, to music …

MS. STERNBERG: Right, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: … actually creating this environment that you are learning helps heal us, can help heal us.

MS. STERNBERG: Absolutely, absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: Isn’t that interesting?

MS. STERNBERG: It is. And it’s, uh, you know, I talk about frankincense and how fascinating it is that frankincense actually turns out to have immune-boosting features. And, you know, ’cause I always — as a non-Christian, I always thought it was rather odd that …

MS. TIPPETT: In the Christmas story, the Three Wise Men?

MS. STERNBERG: … that in the Christmas story, the gifts of the Magi, right. You have frankincense, myrrh, and gold, and I said why are they giving these weird things, frankincense and myrrh? They should be giving diamonds and rubies. [laugh] In fact, those fragrant resins and oils were very — they were far more valuable than gold or diamonds or rubies in those times because they actually used — the Roman soldiers — it was said that the Queen of Sheba was said to have given the plants to King Solomon and then, when the Romans came into the Holy Land, they took those plants back to Rome and had them guarded by sentries because these resins were used to heal after battle, to heal wounds, to prevent infection. And new studies show that in fact frankincense and these kinds of molecules do have beneficial or boosting effects on the immune system. So there’s a lot of, you know, lore that can be studied now in a rigorous scientific way to understand how it works.

MS. TIPPETT: Listen to this program again and share it with others at There you can also hear my entire, unedited interview with Esther Sternberg and find a link to our previous conversation, called “Stress and the Balance Within.”Coming up, Esther Sternberg on creating portable healing places. I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with immunologist Esther Sternberg, exploring new knowledge about how the physical spaces of our lives can stress us, make us sick, or help us be well. One of the influential family friends of Esther Sternberg’s childhood was Hans Selye, a physician who single-handedly coined the word “stress,” the way we use it now, and implanted it in nearly every major world language.

Esther Sternberg later became one of the people who helped explain the physiological and neural connections between stress, illness, and well-being. Now, as we’ve been hearing, she’s working with neuroscientists and architects — and they’re bringing new science to bear on the way we create our hospitals, workplaces, and homes.

MS. TIPPETT: I wonder if you’ve ever heard of the recently deceased Irish poet, philosopher John O’Donohue? He talked a lot about landscape and that there are outer landscapes and there’s inner — there’s an inner landscape, which is another way of talking about, you know, what’s going on in that psalm that your father loved, the Psalm 23, but also that we all have these landscapes. And also, I think his point was we can create them, you know, we can choose to keep images of beauty inside ourselves even when that’s not what is directly around us. I don’t know. I just wonder how you hear that knowing what you know about the science and what’s going on in our brains.

MS. STERNBERG: Well, I think it’s absolutely true from a scientific point of view. There is a part of the brain that specializes in memory of place, the hippocampus. I mean, it’s important in all sorts of memory, but it’s very key in memory of place. And one of the things that it seems that the hippocampus does is it integrates all of these incoming sensory signals from the visual cortex, from the auditory cortex, from the olfactory bulb. So what you hear and see and smell and touch. The hippocampal cells that are actually called place cells because they tell you where you are in the world, so it’s kind of like your internal GPS system, those little GPS cells actually have inputs from all the sensory modalities in the brain and they integrate those senses and instill the whole in memory.

So in fact, from a neuroscience point of view, the poet was right, that we do have an internal place that we can go to from our memories if we could dip into it. Ideally, yes, we would all love to be able to go to our favorite Greek island, you know, and I describe that. [laugh]

MS. TIPPETT: Yes, where you had a real healing experience.

MS. STERNBERG: I had a real healing experience when I went to this tiny village in Crete called Lentos. You know, that was when my arthritis first appeared. I serendipitously ended up going there with neighbors and, in a 10-day period, I began to feel so much better. I didn’t heal. It wasn’t like the miracle of Lourdes, but I realized I could recreate this world at home.

So I have on my deck in Washington a gardenia tree and jasmine bush, and I can sit there in the evening in the summer and listen to the crickets and inhale the scent that reminds me of the orange blossoms and lemon blossoms from the Mediterranean. And I have lavender and I have basil, you know, all these fragrant plants that I find very soothing and healing. You can create your own little space wherever it is. And if you don’t have a deck, you can put a few plants in a window. And if you don’t have a window, you can read the 23rd Psalm. [laugh]

MS. TIPPETT: And you’re really saying this is medicine. It’s interior decoration maybe on some level, but it’s medicine. [laugh]

MS. STERNBERG: It’s medicine and it is being applied now. The wonderful thing is the designers and architects and urban planners can now and are being able to incorporate these features into their designs. So hospitals are being designed with beautiful views and with windows and with places for social support. We haven’t talked about that, but social support is important in healing and with, you know, smells, to mask the horrible smells and the sounds and so on.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, but you have to create spaces for social support. I mean, even in workplaces.

MS. STERNBERG: Well, so — and this is — it comes back to the practicalities. Yes, so it comes back to the practicalities and why the architects and designers and urban planners need the science, and more and more research is being done now. That’s, I think, the frontier to get the numbers to say it is worth spending extra money up front to put in more of these windows and spaces and so on. And some of the work has been done.

The Center for Health Design in San Francisco sponsored, together with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a series of studies called the Pebble Project, where they understood that you’re not going to build a whole hospital from scratch. They started these studies where various aspects of health outcomes were measured in patients in new wings of hospitals that incorporated these different features.

And then Derek Parker, who was one of the principals involved in this, added up all of the actual costs from these different kinds of extra wings that were built on 50 different — or 30 different hospitals and said, OK, this is how much it costs extra. He calculated it would cost about $12 million extra to build such a hospital, but you recouped about $11 million in the first year of operation because of the savings on not only the health of the patients, but the health of the staff.

So, you know, that’s the kind of evidence that we need, and more and more is being done now to really document that it’s good not only for the human being in the space that you build, but it’s good for the bottom line. Architects are just embracing this all over the world. So what I tell them when I speak to these audiences is you, the designers, the people who create the built space that we, the rest of us, live in, you are our partners, our meaning the health professionals’ partners, in the health of the nation. You are our partners in prevention of illness, in helping to reduce the stress response, in helping people to find a place of peace because you’re the ones that build those places of peace.

MS. TIPPETT: Find out more about the Pebble Project on hospital design on our website, I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with immunologist Esther Sternberg. Her latest book is Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s a beautiful succinct and very profound sentence in your writing: “If illness and health are nouns, then healing is a verb.” I wondered if I could ask you that, on a more personal level, you are one of the people who helped demonstrate the science of how rheumatoid arthritis, for example, is a very good example of how mind and body, emotions and physiology are connected, and you also are a person now who lives with arthritis. So with all of this we’ve been talking about as a background, you know, what does healing look like as you move through the world now and what does it look like differently because of all these things you’re learning?

MS. STERNBERG: Wow, that’s a good question. So healing, when I say it’s a verb, the body is constantly repairing itself. That’s what life is. You know, a rock just sits there and it eventually gets into sand or mud or something as the elements affect it. But a living being is constantly repairing itself against all of these different insults at a very, you know, molecular level, at a cellular level, at an emotional level.

So disease happens when the repair process is not keeping up with the damage process, right? So it’s like very active processes are going on under your skin and actually on your skin [laugh] at every moment of the day and night. So that’s what healing is to me. There are other, you know, there’s many studies asking the question what is healing, and different people have different concepts of what the word healing is and to be healed. You know, you can die healed if you use the word in an emotional sense.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, right, not cured but healed.

MS. STERNBERG: Healed, right. You can feel at peace, you can feel in balance. For me, I guess it is feeling at peace and in keeping up with that damage process. So I have become very conscious of the kinds of things that I do that will trigger my symptoms to be worse and the kinds of things that I can do, to the extent possible, to reduce those symptoms when I’m going overboard. So there’s no question that, when I’m trying to burn the candle at both ends, I get worse. When I don’t sleep enough, I get worse.

When I don’t exercise gently on a regular basis, and what I’ve found is the most helpful is swimming three to four days a week or in the summer even more, or walking 30 minutes a day, which has been shown to be beneficial for maintaining health and maintaining the strength of the immune system, having a place to sit and quietly contemplate or meditate, and social support and love is very important. So these are the kinds of things that, when I forget — you know, I’m human. I do frequently forget and push myself and I get stressed. You know, as Hans Seyle said, “Stress is life and life is stress.” I mean, forget about it. You can’t stop stresses from happening.

MS. TIPPETT: Which actually helps my stress level to acknowledge that. [laugh]

MS. STERNBERG: Right. Well, so — but what happens is, when I do realize that I’m pushing myself too far, I remember how bad I felt when I didn’t stop and I do those things that I know will help me. I did design my deck at home and my sunroom at home in such a way that I do have my place of peace, and actually that’s where I end up doing most of my work. I used to have my computer in a different room and I found that I kept moving it to the sunroom and I finally said, OK, this is obviously where I want to be. I need to have this atmosphere.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, that’s interesting because I think computers are part of a lot of our stress. But you’re actually saying that maybe even that can be, in the right environment, can be more positive.

MS. STERNBERG: It gives you a way to — yes, I mean, one of the things with the stress response is you don’t need to go offline — I mean, offline, off your brain’s line, not off the computer line — for very long to kind of reset things. So if you’re cognizant of this, if you feel your stress level mounting, and you just turn away and look at the trees and listen to the birds and be quiet for a few moments. You can bring it down. You can titrate it. You know, there are tools now available that are really offshoots of biofeedback where you can do this, like computer games actually, where you put a little sensor on your finger or your earlobe and it senses your blood flow and it will tell you when you breathe deeply.

So deep breathing is one thing that calms you because it reduces the stress response. It kicks in the vagus nerve and that improves heart rate variability and blood flow. We’re going to breath here on the radio. [laugh] And so you can actually see your heart rate variability improve and shift from a stress mode to a relaxation mode when you use these little games. So you can actually teach yourself to go offline, to have that shift into a relaxation mode on a moment-to-moment basis. And then you can go back and focus on whatever it was you were doing. And being in a place that allows you to do that helps you to do that more efficiently.

MS. TIPPETT: From that scientist’s scientist who you were when you first started getting into this unlikely connection between emotions and physiology and where you’ve come now as a person who rearranges her physical space thinking of her physiological health, if I ask you this way, how has your sense of what it means to be human — how do you think that’s changed?

MS. STERNBERG: Um, how has my sense of being human changed? I think I’m much more accepting of these notions that I was skeptical about before. I was coming from the scientific tradition, and the tradition was if you can’t see it, it isn’t real; if you can’t prove it, it isn’t real. And I think I’m much more accepting that, you know, maybe there is stuff that we can’t see or prove, but that are — these things really are affecting our emotions and our health. And I think I’m much more open to these new concepts. And so that’s one thing.

I am definitely much more conscious of the physical place around me. And I, you know, you started by saying as a person who rearranged my physical space on purpose based on these principles. Actually, it was the other way around: I rearranged my physical space without realizing what I was doing. And then, when the construction was finished, I stood there and looked at it and I said, oh, I just rebuilt my parents’ deck. [laugh] So that, you know …

MS. TIPPETT: That place of peace.

MS. STERNBERG: Place of peace, right, the memories, the memories. So I guess I’m more aware of these things and I’m able to look at these phenomena and think, oh, OK, now I see why I’m doing that, consciously aware of how place affects me and those around me and my emotions and my health.

MS. TIPPETT: There is a phrase that especially occurs in Celtic spirituality: thin places. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that.


MS. TIPPETT: The idea is, well, a lot of people would think of cathedrals as thin places or, you know, green pastures, still waters. Um, being in a place where — and this is the way some people will say it — it feels like the veil between heaven and earth has worn thin, where there’s a sense of being, you know, planted in the earth and yet also having some kind of almost physical sense of transcendence. I just wonder how you react to that, knowing what you know.

MS. STERNBERG: Well, I react to that. I have heard of that notion and I am actually very interested in exploring what is it about such places, about beautiful vistas of mountains, about the infinite horizon of the ocean. What is it that makes you feel that way about a cathedral? There are certainly physiological and neuroscientific bases to that feeling, that sense of awe. And I am convinced — I know — that these things can be measured and that’s the exciting new frontier for me, to ask exactly that question: What is it that makes one feel transcendent and is the environment something that we can consciously manipulate to find those feelings of transcendence? You know, if we’re so grounded in clay is there a way to at times, by simply going to a different place, achieve that sense of awe and transcendence?

MS. TIPPETT: Again, I mean, Christopher Wren knew something about that, didn’t he, a couple of hundred years ago?

MS. STERNBERG: He did, he did. You know, when I visited, it was very interesting because I walked from the Royal Society of Medicine to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is not a short walk, but a very interesting walk in London. And I got there and it was just before Easter and there was a single man, the soloist, I guess, of the choir, who was practicing. I believe it was from The Messiah. He was standing in the middle of this dome and with this crystal clear voice that rose to the ceiling, it just gave — gave me shivers. It was really a sense of awe. So it wasn’t only the physical place. It was what that place did to sound.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. STERNBERG: I think the most important point that I came to in my own journey in writing this book is that we really can create places of peace not only in our real world, in our physical environment that surrounds us, but in our own mind’s eye. And those kinds of places of peace are portable. As you said, in many different traditions, like the Buddhist tradition or in virtually all religious traditions, you close your eyes and you visualize something. That’s a way of carrying these environments, these healing places, within you. It’s wonderful if you can go to them, but if you can’t, you can bring them to yourself.

MS. TIPPETT: Esther Sternberg is Research Director at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She was formerly at the National Institutes of Health. Her books include Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being and The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions.

Next week, we continue with our Civil Conversations Project. Even on the lightning rod issues like abortion and gay marriage, there are seeds of moral dialogue. So we’re being countercultural and starting some conversations right there. Please be part of this. Go to Learn more, submit questions to our guests, watch live streams, and just weigh in with your thoughts. Again, that’s We’re also live-tweeting this project; our handle: @Beingtweets. And you can also now follow me now on Twitter. I’ve taken the plunge @KristaTippett.

On Being on air and online is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, Susan Leem, and Stefni Bell.

Our senior producer is Dave McGuire. Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. And I’m Krista Tippett.

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13 ways Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” sent the religious right off the deep end

The series will be watched in classrooms around the world — much to the chagrin of science-denying Evangelicals

13 ways Neil deGrasse Tyson's "Cosmos" sent the religious right off the deep end
Neil DeGrasse Tyson (Credit: AP/Richard Shotwell)
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


One of the most anticipated shows of 2014 was Fox’s “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” hosted by notable astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and produced by Seth McFarlane and Ann Druyan, the widow of Carl Sagan, the host of the original “Cosmos” series. The new “Cosmos” had the largest worldwide debut of a mini-series, capturing an audience of over 8 million viewers in the U.S. Controversy surrounded the show immediately, thrusting Tyson into the spotlight of religious fundamentalists and science deniers on the extreme right. How did each episode upset the religious fundamentalists and call out scientific denialism?

Episode 1: “Standing Up in the Milky Way

Tyson wasted no time inspiring the world with the opening episode, telling a story about meeting Carl Sagan and the impact it had on his life. Introducing viewers to the cosmic calendar that would often be used throughout the show, we are given a 12-month calendar that shows the history of the cosmos, immediately setting off creationists because the calendar shows a universe that is 13.8 billion years and an earth that is 4.5 billion years old.

However, this got the least amount of attention from the naysayers, as Tyson mentions Giordano Bruno, a Catholic who dared to challenge the church’s geocentric theory of the cosmos and proposed that the earth actually revolved around the sun. Bruno was jailed, charged with heresy and eventually burned at the stake. While no Christian apologists tried to condemn the church for such a killing, instead they tried to make the killing not about science and simply about speaking out against the church.

The controversy didn’t end quite there, as it was later discovered that during the only time Tyson mentions the word evolution in this episode, a Fox station in Oklahoma cut out to a promo before returning to the show, sparking outrage in the scientific community for censoring the show.

The station later claimed this was a complete accident, but many remain skeptical.

Episode 2: “Some of the Things That Molecules Do”

Evolution is a fact, and Tyson did not hold back his words or feelings when expressing this. He tore down the one argument creationists and intelligent design proponents have attempted to hold onto for years: Irreducible complexity, the idea that some functions or organs are too complex to have been built from scratch. The most notable organ used in this debate? The eye.

Creationists often see the eye as far too complex to have evolved, but Tyson tears this argument down, showing viewers how the eye developed from very simple organisms that had an eye just to see light to the very complex eyes we see today, to the flaws in the eye that show if designed, it was done so poorly.

This episode really set off groups like Answers in Genesis, a creationist organization ran by Ken Ham, the owner of the Creationist Museum, most known for his debate with Bill Nye (the Science Guy) about evolution versus creationism. However, just as in the debate with Nye, Ham and his organization could not debunk the science of the episode and instead attempted to redefine evolution and claim that scientists have “hijacked” the word and are not using it properly. They turned to Bible scripture as their only rebuttal, something that became commonplace after subsequent episodes of the show.

Episode 3: “When Knowledge Conquered Fear

The world almost never knew the greatest works of Isaac Newton. The Royal Society was financially failing, books were not selling and new books could not be published and claims of plagiarism were running wild. Newton’s most notable work, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematicawas basically dead before it was born.

Tyson explained how Newton discovered many of the findings he uncovered, and how his work was later used to predict things like the pattern of Halley’s Comet. He went on to compare these findings with what past civilizations once believed while basking in the awe of our growing understanding of our universe and our place in it.

Religious fundamentalists took issue that Tyson wrote off Christianity as they did with all other past failed religious contributions to science. They took issue that Tyson used gravity as the clock the universe moves by, constant laws such as the speed of light, and that Tyson did not reveal their God as this clockmaker, using the old creationist argument of a blind watchmaker.

Tyson also discussed our constant search for significance in the world. Humans have a constant desire to assume the earth was made all for us, and that we are special. We find meaning in superstition and myth, yet fundamentalists like those at Answers in Genesis claim that the Bible and Christianity are not superstition and that their beliefs are aligned with the truth. To prove this claim, they again resort to circular reasoning, reciting Bible scripture that simply confirms the Bible is true.

Episode 4: “A Sky Full of Ghosts

How do we know the universe is not young? Cosmological constants, such as the speed of light, help us map the universe back to its very beginnings, the Big Bang, which took place some 13.8 billion years ago.

Tyson launched a direct attack on young earth creationism in this episode. Discussing the ghosts in the sky, dead stars and galaxies we still see in the night sky, explaining the time light takes to travel to us, he showed viewers that stars we look at in the sky could not be less than 6,000-7,000 years old, because if they were, we could not see them.

Tyson used a map of the Milky Way galaxy to show the observable cosmos, and what we would be able to see if the universe was only 6,000 years old, and then compared that to what we can see.

Tyson says:

“The Crab Nebula is about 6,500 light years from earth.

According to some beliefs, that’s the age of the whole universe, but if the universe were only 6,500 years old, how could we see the light from anything more distant than the Crab Nebula? We couldn’t. There wouldn’t have been enough time for light to get to earth from anywhere farther away than 6,500 light years in any direction. That’s just enough time for light to travel through a tiny portion of our Milky Way galaxy. To believe in a universe as young as six or seven thousand years old is to extinguish the light from most of the galaxy, not to mention the light from all the 100 billion other galaxies in the observable universe.”

Answers in Genesis took direct issue with this, of course, recognizing the direct attack on their claims. AIG astronomer Danny Faulkner attacked back:

“When Tyson made that statement, I wondered why he picked the figure of 6,000-7,000 years. Why not some other figure? Obviously, without explicitly mentioning biblical creationists, he clearly was aiming for us. Some have hailed this as a total refutation of recent creation, but Tyson’s a bit late here, for that problem was pointed out long before he was even born. And just as those who believe in the Big Bang have offered a solution to their light travel time problem, we’ve offered possible solutions to our light travel time problem.”

Faulkner and Answers in Genesis have concocted their own fallacy to explain why we can see what we do, dismissing Einstein’s speed of light discovery, even rejecting that the speed of light is a unit of measurement. Once again, this highlights that creationists lack an even basic middle-school understanding of science.

Episode 5: “Hiding in the Light

In one of the least controversial episodes of the series, Tyson explains light waves, their discovery and their importance.

How do we know what stars are made of? Light waves on the spectrum. How do we measure a star’s distance? Light waves.

Wave lengths tell us an awful lot about the world, and their discovery is fascinating. Religious groups only really took note to point out that the discoverer of much of what we know about wave lengths, William Herschel, was a Christian, yet ignore that he didn’t use the Bible or his religion to uncover his findings, but simply science and the scientific method.

Herschel’s findings led us to microwave lengths that helped us understand the Big Bang and played an important role in the Big Bang theory itself. Tyson explained that, “In microwave light we can see all the way back to the birth of our universe.”

Faulkner of Answers in Genesis simply dismissed this claim, saying he did not believe Tyson actually believes it himself.

It was no surprise creationists took issue with the mention of the Big Bang theory, but with little evidence to refute, they spent most of their time praising Christian scientists for their findings and ignoring the fact that those findings refute creationism’s very claims.

Episode 6: “Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still

Tyson introduced us to the tardigrade in an earlier episode, but in this installment, we get to know them a little better. Tardigrades are tiny, eight-legged creatures that live in water, and they can survive some of the worst conditions imaginable.

According to Tyson, “Tardigrades have been living on this planet a lot longer than we have—about 500 million years,” adding that, “they’ve survived all five of the recent mass extinctions on this planet.”

Creationists do acknowledge that tardigrades are old and resilient, but they do not buy into the idea they are more than 6,000 years old. The fact they are alive now and have been found in fossils in Cambrian rock lead creationists to claim, “evolutionists assume they survived multiple mass extinction events.”

Fossil dating is extremely accurate, so if we can place tardigrades back 500 million years, and know at least five major extinctions have occurred since then, the conclusion is not hard to form.

This episode also looks closely at photosynthesis and the evolution of plant life on the planet. Creationists now believe that plants “evolve” in a sense, but not to form new species and not from one common ancestor, Answers in Genesis claims:

“God’s Word, however, tells us that God made all kinds of plants on Day Three of Creation Week, about 6,000 years ago. And recent discoveries of pollen grains demonstrating impressive floral diversity much deeper in the fossil record than previously believed is consistent not with the evolutionary story but with God’s Word.”

Creationists use this made-up scientific word “kinds” to describe a species; a rhino is a “kind” and all other species of rhino are evolved from this one kind, but they do not believe the rhino is descended from another species before it: God made every animal in one kind, and that is that.

Well, “kinds” is not a scientific term, but species is. All species on this planet are evolved from one single source and natural selection explains in great detail, backed by mountains of evidence, the diversity of life on this planet.

Episode 7: “The Clean Room

How old is the earth? Ask a bunch of scientists, or kids who went to a public school and you will get the same answer: 4.5 billion years old.

How do we know this with such certainty? Tyson explains that by introducing us to Clair Patterson, a scientist whose work in radioactivity led to the discovery of the earth’s age, based on radiocarbon dating. Ask any scientist about carbon dating or radioactive dating methods, and you will be assured of its accuracy. It is used time and again to date rocks, bone and other samples taken from buried layers in the earth.

Yet, if the earth is 4.5 billion years old, won’t that negate the claims made by creationists who need a young earth to validate their mythological claims? To the shocking surprise of no one, creationists quickly rejected this claim and dismissed all carbon dating methods, claiming bias plays the strongest role in dating.

Creationists believe secular scientists lie about the earth’s age because they need an old earth to validate evolution, since evolution needs billions of years of time to work.

Tyson greatly upset creationists when he said on the show that we have turned away from the Bible as the book that helps us date the earth and have since opened a new book, one that is “written in the rocks themselves.”

Answers in Genesis answered:

“The record written in the rocks, however, cannot be correctly read without a knowledge of the historical events that shaped them. And if the rocks are the source of that history, then all those singing the 4.55-billion-year song are depending on circular reasoning.”

Dating rocks is not circular reasoning, because it is not the rocks themselves validating their age, but many methods that include dating the rocks using radioactive isotopes. The scientific method protects itself from circular reasoning and bias.

Science has no need to use bias to destroy biblical myths; the truth lies within the data. Scientists have nothing to gain or lose by validating or invalidating the Bible, yet creationists have everything to lose, because they have formed a conclusion before gathering and in many instances despite the evidence, and any contradictory claims will negate their story.

Episode 8: “Sisters of the Sun

Science is too often seen as a boys’ club, yet some of the biggest discoveries and some of the hardest research leading to some of the world’s biggest discoveries have been done by women. Tyson decided it was time to recognize this and remind the world that science has no sex or gender and cares only for the truth.

We learn about a team of “computers” working in a Harvard lab—computers being the term used to describe the women in a lab who did the data entry and recording work. In this particular lab, the computers happened to be inserting information about stars, their movement and information about their light as seen through a prism, leading to our understanding of the temperature of stars and their distance.

Aside from not seeing women as equals, what could the religious right find wrong with this episode? What could ever be controversial about stars’ distances?

Well, Tyson explained that the findings of the computers, these talented and dedicated female scientists, helped explain stellar evolution. We understand what stars are made of, what causes them to die and what happens when they die. Do they become black holes? White dwarves? Red giants? Do we see massive super novae?

Science brought us the answers; creationists tell us it’s all a lie. Faulkner, the go-to guy at Answers in Genesis, says:

“It makes sense from physics that stars change over time. But can we know how long these processes will take? Or how long they took in the past? The problem is, we cannot know what happened in the unobservable past nor can we necessarily anticipate continuing long enough to see if the predicted ten-billion-year lifespan of our sun will pan out. As with radiometric dating, millions- and billions-year assumptions about the past are based on assumptions that all the conditions and circumstances represented in models perfectly represent reality and that the rates predicted for processes have never varied.”

Yet we do know, and we do observe, and past events make for amazing ways to predict future events. I wonder if Faulkner is willing to jump off a building because past events are in no way good enough to predict what will happen to him if he did.

This episode taught millions about the amazing dedication of scientists and gave us a better understanding of the universe, yet it also taught us that creationists cherrypick science that works for them personally, but if it negates their fairy tales, they say scientists are nothing but liars.

Episode 9: “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth”

Big bugs. This episode opens with Tyson explaining the earth before humans, before dinosaurs. Because of much higher oxygen levels, insects were able to grow to massive sizes.

Tyson explains how trees once ruled the earth and caused oxygen levels to rise to levels we could not survive today, but as the earth does, natural disasters changed everything. Following terrible volcanic explosions leading to mass extinctions, the earth and the atmosphere changed dramatically.

Tyson took us to the depths of the oceans, explaining tectonic plates and showing the awesome evidence of plate tectonics above ground, as seen in the mountains. The earth has a story to tell and it recorded every detail in the rocks and the ocean. Tyson taught viewers how scientists read this story and how these tools help us understand the future.

But if you don’t care about the facts, you can read a story in the Bible about a great flood that caused mass extinction. There is also a story about some donkeys and a talking snake.

Episode 10: “The Electric Boy

If you are looking for silly things that make the religious right angry, look no further than electricity. Apparently, if you ignore the religion of the person who helped harness the amazing power of electricity and discoverer of electromagnetism, Michael Faraday, you are attacking religion.

The Discovery Institute’s David Kinghoffer took great issue with Tyson’s treatment of Faraday’s religion:

“Faraday’s faith is mentioned at the beginning but implicitly dismissed as having anything to do with his science. Cosmos shows us his impoverished family saying grace at the dinner table and explains that he ‘took [their] fundamentalist Christian faith to heart. It would always remain a source of strength, comfort and humility for him.’ That’s it—nothing more than a warm blanket on a cold night.”

Tyson did nothing but honestly highlight Faraday’s religion, but true to science, showed how Faraday was able to check his religion at the door and take care of business using the scientific method.

Answers in Genesis had a problem with electromagnetism, because later in the episode Tyson said the dirty word creationists cannot stand: evolution. You see, birds navigate using the earth’s electromagnetic compass, a trait they evolved, but creationists took issue with that:

“Evolutionists assume our existence and the existence of birds must have an evolutionary explanation. Yet molecules-to-man evolution—depending as it does on both the spontaneous emergence of life from non-living elements and the evolution of organisms into new, more complex ones—demands that we believe things that violate the laws of nature (e.g., law of biogenesis).”

Creationists assume a bird’s existence has a biblical explanation; the difference is scientists have fossils and DNA evidence, while creationists have a book of silly stories.

Later Answers in Genesis quipped that God gave the birds this power, it says so in the Bible, and the Bible is true because… well, this has been covered.

Episode 11: “The Immortals”

Want to upset Christians worldwide and send creationists into a panic? Go on national television and reveal to the world that Noah’s great flood never happened, or worse, tell them about the Epic of Gilgamesh that predates the great flood and show that the Bible is nothing but copies of earlier texts, retold.

That is exactly what Tyson did when he told us about the origins of civilization, and more importantly, the written word. While this upset creationists to no end, intelligent design advocates found something even more upsetting.

How do you upset intelligent design advocates? Explain how science explains the origins of life. Better yet, go on national television and say, “we don’t know.” Nothing scares the religious right more than honesty. To say you don’t know something for them is a weakness; to scientists, it is a virtue and means an adventure awaits.

Tyson explained some of the leading hypotheses in the field of abiogenesis, the explanation for the origins of life, but he never made a bold claim to know how, just that scientists are happily working on it.

What made the Discovery Institute so mad was that Tyson gave airtime to the idea that life could have formed on another planet and been carried here by a comet or a meteoroid.

The very idea that we could be Martians hurts those seven-day creation claims as well as the idea that some God designed us perfectly for this planet, if in the end, we were never supposed to be here anyway.

Episode 12: “The World Set Free

Climate change is real, it is happening and it has dire consequences. Tyson and the writers at “Cosmos” devoted an entire show to the facts surrounding climate change.

With little to do with evolution, you would have assumed creationists would have taken the night off and got back to fundraising for a Noah’s Ark theme park, but alas, claiming man can control the climate means God is much less powerful.

Answers in Genesis also found the idea of trying to pass laws to control climate change just downright dangerous:

“The repercussions of drastic action would hurt a lot of people, especially the poorer among us. Therefore, if the problem is not perilous, man-made, or man-fixable, a worldwide civilization overhaul is neither necessary nor advisable. We must be sure of our facts. And those ‘facts’ are neither as easy to come by nor as clear to interpret as Dr. Tyson claims.”

That’s right, if you try to save the planet, you will hurt the poor. Let’s ignore all the laws hurting the poor already and crony capitalism and blame climate scientists!

Tyson explained in great detail how greenhouse gases work, the effect they have on the planet, and what it will mean if we do nothing to rein in climate change.

Science denialism ran rampant after this episode, with religious and political groups playing damage control as all the lies they spout day in and day out about the myth of climate change were thrown right back in their faces.

While Tyson painted a dark picture of where we are headed, he also showed us a way to come together and change the world for the better.

Don’t tell that to the fundamentalists, though. Their religions may preach about peace on earth, but their actions tell a different story.

Episode 13: “Unafraid of the Dark”

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

These are the immortal words of Carl Sagan, from the original “Cosmos” series, in response to a photograph he convinced NASA to take from the Voyager 1 spacecraft after it had passed the planet Neptune.

Tyson replayed this moment for viewers, and unless you were born without feelings, you struggled to keep your eyes dry.

Tyson ended “Cosmos” in fantastical form. Exploring the amazing cosmos, he showed us the power of dark matter and dark energy, explaining how the planets, the stars and the galaxies are all held together, apart.

In his final push, Tyson took down religion in a way very few can: “One of things I love about science; we don’t have to pretend we have all the answers.” Dark energy, he goes on to explain, is “merely a code word for our ignorance.” He assures the viewers, “It’s okay not to have all the answers.”

Of course, this again set off the Discovery Institute, which touts ignorance as a weakness and pretends to know everything they cannot know, yet has the audacity to attack science and Tyson for making claims that are scientifically sound. David Klinghoffer, writing for Discovery Institute’s dubiously named website, Evolution News, writes that Darwinists despise free thinkers, a downright silly claim, but Klinghoffer insists that because scientists believe natural selection is the answer, they are not playing by their own rules.

Tyson’s words were no accident: in the 14 weeks the show was on, religious and political groups attacked him constantly. Not a day went by his name was not on the front of some website dealing with the issues the show brought to light.

He delivered the final blows to these religious ideas that science cannot be trusted. In true Tyson fashion, he never told viewers they could not hold religious beliefs and never once mentioned atheism; he simply told viewers to question everything, and especially to question anyone who claims to have all the answers. Tyson tackled the issues many are afraid to face head-on. He never minced words and told it like it was, calling religious stories “myths” when he needed to and questioning their desire to know the actual truth.

Much like Carl Sagan did before him, Neil deGrasse Tyson is going to reinvigorate scientific curiosity around the world. This show will be shown in hundreds of classrooms around the country to children curious about what makes the universe work, helping to put this country on a path to scientific greatness it has not seen since the Cold War.


16 Mind-Blowing Quotes From “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” (So Far)

16 Mind-Blowing Quotes From "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" (So Far)

“Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s 1980s’ television documentary series, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” is, so far, one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring shows I’ve ever watched….

Jetting around in Tyson’s “Ship of the Imagination” — “free from the shackles of space and time” — “Cosmos” explores the origins of the universe and life itself, explained in a way that is both comprehensible and absolutely mind-blowing, alongside visuals that stun. As Tyson has said, “The universe is in us … Many people look up at the sky and they feel small. But I feel big. Because my atoms came from those stars.” Click on for just 15 of the most profound quotes from “Cosmos” first two episodes and then actually watch them in full on Hulu.

You won’t regret it.

“This adventure is made possible by generations of searchers strictly adherent to a simple set of rules. Test ideas by experiments and observations. Build on those ideas that pass the test. Reject the ones that fail. Follow the evidence wherever it leads, and question everything. Accept these terms, and the cosmos is yours.”

“To make this journey, we’ll need imagination, but imagination alone is not enough, because the reality of nature is far more wondrous than anything we can imagine.”

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey GIFs

“Our entire universe emerged from a point smaller than a single atom. Space itself exploded in a cosmic fire, launching the expansion of the universe and giving birth to all the energy and all the matter we know today. I know that sounds crazy, but there’s strong observational evidence to support the Big Bang theory. And it includes the amount of helium in the cosmos and the glow of radio waves left over from the explosion.”

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey GIFs

“The Earth took one hell of a beating in its first billion years, fragments of orbiting debris collided and coalesced, until they snowballed to form our Moon.”

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey GIFs

“The Moon is a souvenir of that violent epoch. If you stood on the surface of that long ago Earth, the Moon would have looked a hundred times brighter. It was ten times closer back then, locked in a much more intimate gravitational embrace.”

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey GIFs

“Beyond that horizon lie parts of the universe that are too far away. There hasn’t been enough time in the 13.8 billion year history of the universe for their light to have reached us.”

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey GIFs

“Nobody knows how life got started. Most of the evidence from that time was destroyed by impact and erosion. Science works on the frontier of knowledge and ignorance. We’re not afraid to admit what we don’t know. There’s no shame in that. The only shame is to pretend that we have all the answers. Maybe someone watching this, will be the first to solve the mystery of how life on Earth began.”

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey GIFs

“Some claim evolution is just a theory. As if it were merely an opinion. The theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity, is a scientific fact. Evolution really happened. Accepting our kinship with all life on Earth is not only solid science. In my view, it’s also a soaring spiritual experience.”

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey GIFs

“There are many millions of living species of animals and plants, most of them still unknown to science. Think of that — we have yet to make contact with most of the forms of terrestrial life.”

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey GIFs

“The tenacity of life is mind-boggling. We keep finding it where no one thought it could be.”

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey GIFs

“Artificial selection turned the wolf into the shepherd, and the wild grasses into wheat and corn. In fact, almost every plant and animal that we eat today was bred from a wild, less edible ancestor. If artificial selection can work such profound changes in only ten or fifteen thousand years, what can natural selection do operating over billions of years? The answer is all the beauty and diversity of life.”

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey GIFs

“Every breed of dog you’ve ever seen was sculpted by human hands.”

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey GIFs

“Stars die and reborn […] They get so hot that the nuclei of the atoms fuse together deep within them to make the oxygen we breathe, the carbon in our muscles, the calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood. All was cooked in the fiery hearts of long vanished stars. … The cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey GIFs

“There are as many atoms in each molecule of your DNA as there are stars in the typical galaxy. This is true for dogs, and bears, and every living thing. We are, each of us, a little universe.”

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey GIFs

“Science reveals that all life on Earth is one.”

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey GIFs

“Every person you’ve ever heard of lies right in there. All those kings and battles, migrations and inventions, wars and loves, every thing in the history books happened here in the last 14 seconds of the cosmic calendar.”


4,000-year-old Dartmoor burial find rewrites British Bronze Age history

Stone box contains earliest examples of wood-turning and metal-working, along with Baltic amber and what may be bear skin
Dartmoor discovery

Parts of a necklace and wooden ear studs found on Dartmoor

Some 4,000 years ago people carried a young woman’s cremated bones – charred scraps of her shroud and the wood from her funeral pyre still clinging to them – carefully wrapped in a fur, along with her most valuable possessions packed into a basket, up to one of the highest and most exposed spots on Dartmoor, and buried them in a small stone box covered by a mound of peat.

The discovery of her remains is rewriting the history of the Bronze Age moor. The bundle contained a treasury of unique objects, including a tin bead and 34 tin studs which are the earliest evidence of metal-working in the south-west, textiles including a unique nettle fibre belt with a leather fringe, jewellery including amber from the Baltic and shale from Whitby, and wooden ear studs which are the earliest examples of wood turning ever found in Britain.

The site chosen for her grave was no accident. At 600 metres above sea level, White Horse hill is still so remote that getting there today is a 45-minute walk across heather and bog, after a half-hour drive up a military track from the nearest road. The closest known prehistoric habitation site is far down in the valley below, near the grave of the former poet laureate Ted Hughes.

Analysing and interpreting one of the most intriguing burials ever found in Britain is now occupying scientists across several continents. A BBC documentary, Mystery of the Moor, was first intended only for local broadcast, but as the scale of the find became clear, it will now be shown nationally on BBC2 on 9 March.

Dartmoor site

The site of the find on White Horse hill

Scientists in Britain, Denmark and the Smithsonian in the US have been working on the fur. It is not dog, wolf, deer, horse or sheep, but may be a bear skin, from a species that became extinct in Britain at least 1,000 years ago.

“I am consumed with excitement about this find. I never expected to see anything like it in my lifetime,” Jane Marchand, chief archaeologist at the Dartmoor National Park Authority said. “The last Dartmoor burial with grave goods was back in the days of the Victorian gentleman antiquarians. This is the first scientifically excavated burial on the moor, and the most significant ever.”

It has not yet been possible definitively to identify the sex of the fragmented charred bones, though they suggest a slight individual aged between 15 and 25 years.

“I shouldn’t really say her – but given the nature of the objects, and the fact that there is no dagger or other weapon of any kind, such as we know were found in other burials from the period, I personally have no doubt that this was a young woman,” Marchand said. “Any one of the artefacts would make the find remarkable. “

Although Dartmoor is speckled with prehistoric monuments, including standing stones, stone rows, and hundreds of circular hut sites, very few prehistoric burials of any kind have been found. What gives the White Horse hill international importance is the survival of so much organic material, which usually disintegrates without trace in the acid soil. Apart from the basket, this burial had the belt; the ear studs – identical to those on sale in many goth shops – made from spindle wood, a hard fine-grained wood often used for knitting needles, from trees which still grow on the lower slopes of Dartmoor; and the unique arm band, plaited from cowhair and originally studded with 34 tin beads which would have shone like silver. There were even charred scraps of textile which may be the remains of a shroud, and fragments of charcoal from the funeral pyre.

Dartmoor woven bagA woven bag found at the site

Although tin – essential for making bronze – from Cornwall and Devon became famous across the ancient world, there was no previous evidence of smelting from such an early date. The necklace, which included amber from the Baltic, had a large tin bead made from part of an ingot beaten flat and then rolled. Although research continues, the archaeologists are convinced it was made locally.

The cist, a stone box, was first spotted more than a decade ago by a walker on Duchy of Cornwall land, when an end slab collapsed as the peat mound which had sheltered it for 4,000 years was gradually washed away. However, it was only excavated three years ago when archaeologists realised the site was eroding so fast any possible contents would inevitably soon be lost. It was only when they lifted the top slab that the scale of the discovery became apparent. The fur and the basket were a wet blackened sludgy mess, but through it they could see beads and other objects. “As we carefully lifted the bundle a bead fell out – and I knew immediately we had something extraordinary,” Marchand said. “Previously we had eight beads from Dartmoor; now we have 200.”

The contents were taken to the Wiltshire conservation laboratory, where the basket alone took a year’s work to clean, freeze dry, and have its contents removed. The empty cist was reconstructed on the site. However, this winter’s storms have done so much damage the archaeologists are now debating whether they will have to move the stones or leave them to inevitable disintegration.

The jewellery and other conserved artefacts will feature in an exhibition later this year at Plymouth city museum, but although work continues on her bones, it is unlikely to answer the mystery of who she was, how she died, and why at such a young age she merited a burial fit for a queen.


National park: The burial site excavation took place at Whitehorse Hill on Dartmoor (general photo of the national park), one of the park's tallest peaks

“White Horse Hill is so called, of course, because our long-ago ancestors carved the figure of a galloping white horse into it….Oddly enough, though, when you get to White Horse Hill you can’t actually see the horse itself, only odd, abstract bits of it.  This is part of its head and its eye…”

The work was carried out by experts from Cornwall Council’s historic environment projects team, with assistance from English Heritage and specialists from the University of Plymouth. There were several aims of the excavation; to examine any pollen, insects or peat in order to establish what the surrounding landscape was when the kist was built, to search for artefacts that may give an indication of burial rituals, possible trade items and an indication of status. The kistvaen was located on the highest part of Whitehorse Hill at Ordnance Survey grid reference SX 6172 8547.

The highest point on Whitehorse Hill stands at 602m and for centuries it has been known for peat cutting and being a trans moor trackway via peat passes for livestock and huntsmen. As far as other known prehistoric monuments in the area go there simply are none which again makes this particular kistvaen an exception. The location within the physical landscape places the site on top of the hill at a height of around 200m. There are four watercourses that rise around the hill. to the north west (The Taw), the north east (The Wallabrook), the south east (The Great Varracombe) and to the east (The East Dart). Whether or not this has any significance as to the location of the kist is unknown but either way it makes for a spectacular burial site.

…. Under the guidance of head conservator Helen Williams the woven bag was carefully opened to reveal a number of beads along with wooden ear studs and a single amber bead. Clearly there is a great deal of further work to be done on the artefacts which will reveal more vital evidence for Bronze Age life on Dartmoor. Once the work has been completed it is intended that the finds will be part of an exhibition in Plymouth Museum sometime next year.

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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July 2020



On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory