What's Up UA? - The Universe in the Middle of Nowhere - The Explorer: University Of Arizona

What's Up UA? - The Universe in the Middle of Nowhere

Print
Font Size:
Default font size
Larger font size

Posted: Monday, February 18, 2013 12:14 pm

The UA's Chris Impey has taught cosmology to Tibetan Buddhist monastics in remote parts of India each summer for the past five years. With a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, he detailed his experiences in a book, "Humble Before the Void," which likely will publish in 2014.

Chris Impey thinks back to the time he spent living on the edge of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, teaching modern cosmology to Buddhist monastics in India: "On a typical day, they would be up at 5 a.m. and have prayed for a few hours or done meditation before you even see them. And their attention is just as good at the end of a long day as at the beginning."

In 2008, the University of Arizona Distinguished Professor and deputy head of the department of astronomy first packed his bags for India as part of the Science for Monks program initiated at the Dalai Lama’s bequest. He has returned every year since.

A manuscript of Impey's book, "Humble Before the Void," is in reach as he speaks.

The book was written with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organization that seeks to support scientific research and efforts to further the dialogue between science and religion. In it, Impey details his experiences at the crossroads of modern science and a major world religion.

"Probably the most important goal of this work is for Americans who are used to the conflict between science and some forms of religion to show that there's a completely harmonious meeting ground between a major world religion and the cutting edge of modern science," Impey says.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, is perhaps the only leader of a major world religion to whole-heartedly embrace the findings of modern science.

"Buddhist teachings stress the importance of understanding reality. Therefore, we should pay attention to what modern scientists have actually found through experiment and through measurement the things they have proved to be reality," the Dalai Lama said in 2003.

"The Dalai Lama decided that he wanted his monks to be trained for the modern world where science and technology are important," Impey says. "And he has said that if something in modern science is found to disagree with Buddhist doctrine then Buddhism will change. It's very hard to imagine some other religious leaders of other persuasions ever saying that. It's a very striking starting point."

To that end, Western educators in the Science for Monks program routinely give workshops to the Tibetan monastic community in India, on topics ranging from biology and neuroscience to mathematics and quantum physics, emphasizing scientific inquiry.

Exiled from their country, more than 20,000 Tibetans make their home in isolated monasteries in the south of India, or clustered around Dharamsala, the home of the Tibetan government in exile, in the northern part of the country.

Impey has gone to a different place each time he has traveled to India. "Last month I was in the south – it's actually so remote it almost doesn't have a name. There's a tea shop, not much Internet, no hot water."

"It's just a monastery almost in the middle of nowhere," he says. In this isolated setting, the discussion of the universe begins.

It is perhaps surprising to some, Impey says, that "in its core aspects, there is nothing dissonant in modern cosmology with the fundamental Buddhist precepts."

"I give them a conventional scientific view of the 13.7 billion-year-old universe, with 100 billion galaxies and the Big Bang theory. And they assimilate it, and they clearly find it exciting and interesting. There is no science-religion conflict."

Buddhism deals with astronomical numbers already, Impey says. "The largest time scales in Buddhism are trillions of years, and the number of world systems is either infinite or billions."

Buddhist philosophy describes time as cyclic rather than linear in nature, without an origin or a Big Bang-type episode. "But, interestingly," Impey says, "the Big Bang theory itself is now starting to venture to talk about a precursor state, or multiverses."

Teaching the monks and nuns was a remarkable experience in itself, Impey says. "It's not like a classic western archetype of teaching where in 15 minutes you've lost half your audience. The monks have fantastic discipline. Their powers of concentration, application, enthusiasm and alertness are so formidable you actually could fall into a bad habit of lecturing too much."

"They have a willingness to do what in the west would be considered tedious activities in the service of learning," Impey adds. "We used grains of sand as analogies for the number of stars in the universe or a galaxy. They had graph paper and they had to line up grains of sand in a square centimeter with no magnifying glass."

Once, Impey prepared about 35 sheets of paper with images of events in the universe from the Big Bang to geological happenings on Earth and human history. The monastics worked in groups to organize the images into a timeline, and then were tasked with critiquing each other's timelines.

"That becomes a very vigorous debate," Impey says. "When they debate, it's really quite remarkable. It seems aggressive, but it isn't, because they're always smiling and laughing. It's just the way that they like to argue. They're hugely engaged."

To demonstrate the dispersal of the four forces of nature in the early universe, four monks donned Mexican wrestling masks and each acted out the role of one specific force. Representing gravity, one held things together. Another, acting as the strong nuclear force, assembled atomic nuclei out of a modeling toy called Zoob. One monk held a flashlight, representing electromagnetism, and the monk representing the weak nuclear force, or radioactivity, pulled the model atomic nuclei apart.

Tenzin Sonam, a doctoral candidate in astronomy education at the UA, has translated for Impey every year since 2008. "Chris is a great student-centered educator," Sonam says. "The monks love him."

"There is no community in the world that is not affected by science and technology," Sonam adds. "Therefore, from the perspective of a Tibetan, it is imperative like it is for every citizen of any nation to stay ahead in the race of science and technology."

Gail Burd, UA vice provost for academic affairs, and Ed Prather, an associate professor at Steward Observatory, also participated in the Science for Monks program.

For the many Westerners with an interest in Buddhism, Impey says his book discusses a substantial part of Buddhist philosophy as well as modern cosmology, and has a strong educational focus. The book likely will be published in 2014.

Impey found that the discussion between science and religion goes both ways. "That dialogue leads scientists to recognize the limits of their knowledge," he says. "And to understand that they don’t ascribe meaning to anything but just explain how things work, and that you need to have other traditions, philosophy or religion that will let you address meaning."

 

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

More about

Welcome to the discussion.

Kino College

Kino CollegeEnroll today: http://www.kinocollege.com/

Thursday 09/11/2014

What's Up UA? - 'What I Wish I Had Known as a Freshman'

Tuesday 09/09/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Undergraduate Researchers Take to the Radio

Thursday 09/04/2014

What's Up UA? - Send Your Tweet – and Your Name – to an Asteroid

Tuesday 09/02/2014

What's Up UA? - Brown Foundations' $2.5 Million Kicks Off Catapult Corp

Thursday 08/28/2014

What's Up UA? - New Veterinary Degree Program Made Possible by $9M Gift is Critical for State

Monday 08/25/2014

What's Up UA? - Laser 'Lightning Rods' Channel Electricity Through Thin Air

Thursday 08/21/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Fall Enrollment Sets Record for Diversity, Number of Freshmen

Tuesday 08/19/2014

What's Up UA? - Remarkable Résumé: UA Student Journalist's Career Includes CNN, NYT Phoenix

Friday 08/15/2014

What's Up UA? - Through Innovative Partnership, 'Hot Shot' Team Tackles Yuma Produce Perils

Wednesday 08/13/2014

What's Up UA? - The UA Named a Top College by The Princeton Review

Monday 08/11/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Researchers Study Increasing Lifespan and Immune Function What's Up UA? - UA Undergrads Conducting Microgravity Research Aboard NASA's G-Force One

Monday 06/09/2014

What's up UA? - UA to Host U.S. and Mexico Officials Exploring Collaborations in Education, Innovation, Research

Thursday 06/05/2014

What's Up UA? - New Wilderness Medicine Class Hones Patient Care Skills in Rugged Conditions

Tuesday 06/03/2014

Track Cats Send Eight Athletes to TrackTown USA

Monday 06/02/2014

What's Up UA? - Bringing a Spacecraft Back From the Dead

Friday 05/30/2014

What's Up UA? - Heart Attack Patient Defies Odds with Tailored Surgical Treatment at UA Medical Center

Thursday 05/29/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Marketing Students Win National AT&T Competition

Tuesday 05/27/2014

What's Up UA? - Scientists Discover Genetic Basis of Pest Resistance to Biotech Cotton

Friday 05/23/2014

What's up UA? - Four UA Students Picked for Pat Tillman Foundation Scholarships

Wednesday 05/21/2014

What's Up UA? - Scientists Discover Genetic Basis of Pest Resistance to Biotech Cotton

Monday 05/19/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Tunnels Get Carbon Fiber Makeover

Thursday 05/15/2014

What's Up UA? - Earning a UA Degree, in a Grandfather’s Memory

Tuesday 05/13/2014

What's Up UA? - UA's Phoenix Cancer Center is 'Topped Off,' Joins Award-Winning Medical School Building

Thursday 05/08/2014

What's Up UA? - University of Arizona to Offer Nation’s First Bachelor of Arts in Law

Monday 05/05/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Combating Health Disparities to Build Healthier Communities

Wednesday 04/30/2014

What's Up UA? - Scientists at the UA Make Critical End-Stage Liver Disease Discovery

Friday 04/25/2014

What's Up UA? - A Century-Long Track Record of Serving Arizona and Benefiting the State's Economy

Wednesday 04/23/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Opens Nation’s First Resource Center for Student Vets Studying Health Care UA Wildcat Instant Decision Days at PCC campuses April 29-May 2

Monday 04/21/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Scientists to Begin Construction on NASA Spacecraft that will Visit Asteroid in 2018

Thursday 04/10/2014

What's Up UA? - Spring Fling Celebrates 40th Anniversary With Return to UA Mall

Monday 04/07/2014

Mauga’s Walkoff Sweeps Stanford

Thursday 04/03/2014

What's Up UA? - 4-H Programs Bring Enrichment and Learning to Thousands in Arizona

Monday 03/31/2014

What's Up UA? - The Viruses You Don't Know About (Yet)

Tuesday 03/25/2014

What's Up UA? - Twice Torn Apart: A UA Alumna's Road to the Paralympic Games

Tuesday 03/18/2014

What's Up UA? - Tucson Village Farm Honored as Model Program for the Nation

Friday 03/14/2014

What's Up UA? - Several UA Graduate Programs Reach New Heights

Tuesday 03/11/2014

What's Up UA? - Olympics Interns Share Sochi Experiences

Friday 03/07/2014

What's Up UA? - Seeing Cancer Differently

Wednesday 03/05/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Offers Accelerated Bachelor's to Master’s Program in Environmental Health Sciences

Tuesday 03/04/2014

What's Up UA? - Third-Ranked Men's Basketball Heads to Corvallis to Face OSU

Friday 02/28/2014

What's Up UA? - UA College of Optical Sciences to Celebrate 50th Anniversary With Laser Fun Day

Thursday 02/27/2014

What's Up UA? - Obesity-Related Gut Bacteria Higher in People in Northern Climes

Monday 02/24/2014

Wildcats Sweep Sunday Doubleheader, Series From Alcorn State

Thursday 02/20/2014

What's Up UA? - First-Year UA Minority Student Retention Rate Highest Ever

Monday 02/17/2014

What's Up UA? - The Flu and You

Friday 02/14/2014

What's Up UA? - Miller to Add to Arizona’s USA Basketball Legacy

Wednesday 02/12/2014

What's Up UA? - $10M Gift to Optical Sciences is Largest Gift for Scholarships in UA History

Monday 02/10/2014

What's Up UA? - UA Study Shows Aggressive Management of Gunshot Wounds to Brain Significantly Increases Survival
Spacer4px

Follow us on Facebook

Online poll

Loading…