That’s So Second Millennium
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October 29, 2018

We hope you've enjoyed the podcast so far, and in particular our last two episodes with Guy Consolmagno.

TSSM has been running for over six months now, and we would love to get your feedback on how to make it better:

  • What topics or approaches have you liked and want more of?
  • Whom should we seek out for interviews? We definitely are cooking up our own lists, but you can influence us!
  • What should we do less of?
  • What about the audio works or bothers you?
    • Volume (too low, too high, not consistent enough?)
    • Quality (noise, voices muffled, other problems)

Feel free to comment at our Facebook page (look at the Links section to the right) or send Paul an email (there is also a link for that). We are really looking forward to hearing from you.

Episode 031 - Br. Guy Consolmagno: Teaching Science and Human Nature

Episode 031 - Br. Guy Consolmagno: Teaching Science and Human Nature

October 29, 2018

Paul moves from popular books to Br. Guy's 1990s planetary science textbook, Worlds Apart which Paul switched to in 2015, despite its age, precisely because of Br. Guy's explicit acknowledgment that "students want to learn about THE PLANETS." The chapters of the book therefore start with a saga of some planet, and then focus in on some process that is well exemplified on that planet. Other textbooks try to focus on processes and lose ME, let alone my students, most of whom were headed toward high school teaching.

Br. Guy goes on from the subject of his books to talk a little about John Scalzi's take on the common advice to authors to "kill your darlings"..."the failure mode of clever is idiot." (I am not unfamiliar with John Scalzi, who is certainly a master of the craft: see my review of Old Man's War on Goodreads.)

Bill references the science & religion initiative at the McGrath Institute at Notre Dame, to which Br. Guy has contributed. The Institute tries to form high school teachers with a sense of the complementary, rather than adversary, nature of science and faith. Br. Guy goes on to talk about how hard a high school teacher's job is, and the need for enthusiasm in presentation. If you are listening to two enthusiastic people talk shop about almost any topic, however little you yourself know about it, you get drawn in. That's the goal, except most high school teachers have to do it by themselves.

A teacher that can maintain enthusiasm and also model comfort with not knowing the answer and intellectual humility..."I don't know; let's go find the answer" a great gift to insecure, "self-conscious but not self-aware" teenagers.

Paul probes Br. Guy about the modern attitude of trying to discard as much of the past as possible. Br. Guy comments how living in Italy gives you perspective on how the attitude has shifted from the medieval attitude (discussed in great depth by CS Lewis in The Discarded Image) of reverence for the past, whose achievements we could never match, to the modern one. Rome gives you the perspective that while science and engineering may have advanced, art and architecture have not. Humanity can only progress so far...we can't get away from original sin. We do things we know are wrong, destructive, etc. That's why Twelve Step programs exist. A great 20th century tragedy, as has been noted many times, is the failure of great schemes (like communism) for revising society in some theoretically perfect new form.

A chance reference to Shakespeare, and then to Star Trek VI (of course), leads us off into a discussion of language and the way it shapes our lives, from the fun people have had since Tolkien inventing whole new languages, to the difference in what Sarah cooks for Abraham's visitors in English (yuck) versus Italian. Br. Guy makes the provocative statement that one has to learn more new words in freshman biology than in freshman French. When you learn philosophy, you learn new words, and with those words (if you're really learning them) you learn new ways of thinking.

As a final note, that's why you need others to truly learn and work in a subject...or in a faith. The Ethiopian that Phillip baptized in the Acts of the Apostles had a hard row to hoe.


Books mentioned in the interview:

Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Unapologetic by Francis Spufford

The Rock by T.S. Eliot

Image courtesy Robert Macke (wikimedia Commons)

Episode 030 - Br. Guy Consolmagno: Galileo and Carl Sagan

Episode 030 - Br. Guy Consolmagno: Galileo and Carl Sagan

October 22, 2018

Br. Guy starts with a brief bio of himself as the meteorite curator and now director of the Vatican Observatory. If you aren't familiar with his life and career, I cannot suggest strongly enough to go find a copy of Brother Astronomer. Paul takes the opportunity to geek out a bit about the VO's collection of Martian meteorites, which includes pieces of varying size of the three flagship members of the three great classes of Martian meteorites: Chassigny, Shergotty, and Nakhla. We discuss the romance and suspense of finding meteorites in the dry deserts.

Paul then poses the question of the recently discovered Galileo letter. Br. Guy defuses a bit of the noise surrounding this letter, likening the situation to scientists down to this very day putting out provocative theses and then pulling them back under criticism from their peers.

(My dog Riley starts barking at UPS personnel sometime between 13:00 and 13:30. This was an eventful session.)

Galileo in his time was rather like Carl Sagan in his time: a popularizer and a controversialist. Br. Guy, who met Carl Sagan a few times, recognizes the value that both of these controversial figures brought to the field. He goes on to discuss the travails that Sagan faced in his own life, dealing with fame and the risks he ran to get his message out (the massive debt he incurred in making Cosmos) and notes his own fraught relationship with his own faith.

Carl Sagan was a serious scientist, in the 1960s one of the first to grapple with the unexpectedly, incredibly hot temperatures the first Venus probes reported and to link it with the very thick carbon dioxide atmosphere Venus has.

Br. Guy talks a little about his experience "coming out" as a religious believer, and the opposition he _didn't_ receive in publicizing his decision to become a Jesuit. He moves on to discuss the romance of science, why we're attracted to it, and why it's important to steer a middle path (that Aristotelian mean again) in both science and faith between "I already know everything worth knowing" and "God / the universe is so big I can never understand it." Of course you won't learn it all, but of course you'll be able to learn and love something. He likens it to a good friendship or romantic relationship, in which you rejoice in both the known and the unknown.

Paul probes Br. Guy on whether Sagan influenced him in his own popular books. Br. Guy professes that not only did Carl Sagan influence his confidence in being able to discuss the wonders of planetary science and astronomy with a popular audience, as well as his colloquial tone, but even his wardrobe served as a good precursor (compare Carl at with Guy at and for good measure another great Italian scientist who wore the collar well

Image courtesy Robert Macke (wikimedia Commons)

Episode 029 - Geological Awe

Episode 029 - Geological Awe

October 15, 2018

For a change of pace, we discuss emotions and aesthetics and the sense of awe at the scale of the universe and the planet that we inhabit. Paul discusses the "billion year contacts" at his old stomping grounds in the St Francois Mountains of southeast Missouri and the lost world of the earliest visible life in the Burgess Shale. Paul and Bill close with a reflection on how the awe that we feel at comtemplating the enormous scale of space and time of the created world ought to make us better appreciate the audacity of the Christian claim that the Being who set all of this in motion...emptied Itself and became man.

Episode 028 - Absolute Geologic Dating

Episode 028 - Absolute Geologic Dating

October 8, 2018

In this episode we continue into the next logical topic, absolute dating, which is done via measurement of radioactive parent and daughter isotopes. Thus we move from the 19th century and classical physics into yet another way in which 20th century physics has revolutionized science.


Paul gives a rundown, with many apologies for the exact data of isotope numbers and half-life lengths he has managed to forget, of the theory of radioactive decay. Bill, our proxy for the man on the street, starts us off with a common notion of half-life. From there we cover some of the basics and most commonly used isotopic systems: uranium-lead, thorium-lead, a discussion of why carbon 14 is so seldom used in geology, potassium-argon, and a note that more systems are always being brought into use. We discuss the distinct types of rocks that are best used for radiometric dating and how the relative dating methods have to be used in an interwoven system with radiometric dating in order to assemble the whole system of geochronology that we use today.


We end the podcast with a discussion of how science is the very opposite of a conspiracy theory or a political campaign. The geologic dating systems need interlocking data, and they also benefit from it. In such a system, contradictions do spring up--one study doing biostratigraphy might conflict with another using zircons. What science does is not to sweep that under the rug...instead we throw resources and graduate students at it until we get a resolution to the conflict.


(Zircon photo credit Harald Schillhammer via Note the pink and brown coloration...brown zircon is commonly that color due to radiation damage from the uranium and thorium it contains.)

Episode 027 - Relative Geologic Dating

Episode 027 - Relative Geologic Dating

October 1, 2018

In this episode Paul lays out in a more systematic way the methods used in geology since the late 18th century to erect the detailed stratigraphic history of the Earth. Lithostratigraphy, which works via Steno's Laws, can be used on all the rocks in any outcrop. Its shortcoming is that it cannot be extended beyond a regional scale, at best--say, the state of Wyoming, or Wales and Corwall, etc. Biostratigraphy, the use of fossils, which includes the selection of specially suitable index fossils, allows correlation of strata across continental, oceanic, and worldwide scales. However, not every rock--not even every sedimentary rock--is a good home for fossils. It is only by the use of both methods in tandem that a complete relative geologic timescale has been assembled and erected.


You will note that in passing I mentioned that the idea of extinct organisms was difficult for European scholars, specifically, in the 17th century to accept, and then I go on to give you a tell by speaking of Renaissance "gurus"...of course, I mean to contrast European thought with Indian thought, in which the idea of extinct organisms is not so hard to fit in to an idea of long, cyclical histories of periodic destruction and remaking of the Earth and universe.


Two specific points: One, the word evolution contains a lot of conceptual components. What we are discussing in this episode, what is almost beyond realistic controversy at this point, is what I would term "succession of species." Matching sequences of fossils, in their relative age relationships as indicated by Steno's laws, recur in innumerable outcrops across the Earth. (I note in passing that an all-knowing Creator building this out of nothing in instantaneous creation must assuredly have known that this would deceive human beings eventually into thinking that there was a succession, and then you have to deal with the intellectual baggage of God deliberately lying to us.) That is different than the mechanism by which this succession of species was made to occur: inheritance, survival of the fit and extinction of others as environment and competition varied with time, mutations, viral transport of DNA, and whatever else actually caused this succession of species. That is less clear.


Two, the early workers in stratigraphy (especially the British ones) by and large wanted the Biblical narrative, and even the Biblical minimalist narrative to work out. The evidence forced them out of this interpretation. To reiterate the point from last episode, there was never a conspiracy to submerge the Bible story of creation and Noah's flood: the cycle of observation, reflection, and criticism of ideas killed theories depending on excessively broad interpretations of the Genesis text.

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