From paleontology to astrophysics, four scientists talk to Andrea Miller about their search for truth — scientific and spiritual.
Jingmai O’Connor: Feathered Dinosaurs
“To me, human time is insignificant,” says Jingmai O’Connor, an expert in Mesozoic birds and curator of fossil reptiles at the Field Museum in Chicago. “People get trapped in their time frame and can’t accept impermanence. By studying paleontology, you know that everything is impermanent, everything will change.”
“I very much care about human-caused extinctions,” O’Connor continues. “They’re terrible because they can be avoided, but at the same time, in five million years, all the destruction we’ve done will not matter. This is how it is for all mass extinctions. A mass extinction occurs, then five million years later, life is back to normal. So, we can do horrible things. All we’re going to do is hurt ourselves.”
O’Connor was born in Pasadena, California, one of four children. Her mother, a geochemist, often took O’Connor out into the field, so at a very young age she acquired an appreciation for minerology. In her first year of college, she got hooked on the study of evolution and decided to go into paleontology.
After completing her PhD at the University of Southern California, O’Connor moved to Beijing, where she worked at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology for ten years. For someone fascinated by the dinosaur–bird transition, this was the ideal place to land.
Birds, with their delicate bones, rarely fossilize. But in Liaoning Province, not far from Beijing, conditions were ideal. There, 130 million years ago, birds died, sank to the bottom of a lake, and were covered in volcanic ash. Now, the majority of all discovered Mesozoic bird fossils have come from this site, and the fossils aren’t only of bones, but also soft tissue, even traces of original biomolecules.
While studying the evolution of birds, O’Connor underwent her own evolution—a spiritual one. In the same way that her mother sparked her interest in science, it was her mother who encouraged her spiritually.
In her mid-twenties, O’Connor was unhappy. “I was angry about how the world was and hated myself,” she explains. Trying to help, her mother gave her an Eckhart Tolle book, but the way it talked about awakening frustrated O’Connor and she chucked it across the room. She knew she was far from awakened.
When she was thirty, O’Connor and her mother went on pilgrimage in Tibetan Sichuan. Her mom, who teaches at a community college, also invited six students she’d taken under her wing. They called themselves “the eightfold pathfinders” and they visited various sacred Buddhist sites, including Mount Emei Shan. As chance would have it, they were in the monastic center Larung Gar on the Buddha’s birthday, and an empowerment ceremony was being conducted, one that only takes place every seven years.
It was a moving experience for O’Connor, but she was still stuck in unhappy patterns. When things went wrong, like when her cell phone fell into an outhouse or when she lost her mala, she lashed out at others, especially her mother.
As O’Connor explains it, she resented her own flaws, so she was looking for flaws in the people who were trying to teach her. She’d see monks with iPads taking pictures of Buddhist statues—something you’re not supposed to do—and she’d use this as an excuse to resist her own transformation. Then finally, she realized, “None of us is perfect, but all of these people were there, trying to be better. I connected to that.”
This pilgrimage was O’Connor’s first real exposure to the eightfold path, and, she says, “It was the beginning of me being more serious about doing practices that help me find inner peace.”
O’Connor believes her work is right livelihood. As she explains it, “Paleontology is something that’s not hurting other people, not hurting the environment.” In fact, paleontological discoveries give people joy and spark interest in science. “We call paleontology a gateway science,” she says.
O’Connor’s research has been groundbreaking. In one paper, she described a specimen of the primitive bird Archaeorhynchus spathula that had preserved lung tissue. By scanning electron microscopic images, O’Connor demonstrated that 128 million years ago, birds had already developed lungs that at the structural level were similar to those of modern birds. That is, they could accommodate for the high-oxygen demand of powered flight.
In another paper, O’Connor described bird fossils with the preserved remains of ovarian follicles in their abdominal cavities. Like mammals and crocodiles, all known dinosaurs had two ovaries. Yet almost all modern birds have just one, reducing their weight for enhanced flight. O’Connor’s paper shed light on how and when bird reproduction evolved into what it is today.
O’Connor’s paper that has most captured public imagination is about a 99-million-year-old bird preserved in amber. This sparrow-sized creature has the peculiar distinction of a middle toe that is 20 percent longer than its lower leg bone and 41 percent longer than its second toe.
Two years ago, while on another pilgrimage with her mother, O’Connor took refuge as a Buddhist. For her, Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion. “The Buddha didn’t set out to create a religion,” she says. “He created a philosophy, then people turned it into a religion.”
O’Connor continues, “All animals have a single common ancestor, and I think all religions have a single common ancestry.” That is, there’s one true spirituality, and different cultures adapt it in different ways and often they use it to control people. So, she’s spiritual but not religious and is happy to incorporate elements from any tradition into her own practice—and discard the rest.
As O’Connor sees it, “The four noble truths are all you need to know to understand Buddhism.”
Adam Frank: Life on Other Planets
Back in the early sixties, Adam Frank’s father liked to read pulpy science fiction magazines. The covers often showed hunks in spacesuits rescuing busty ladies from aliens, but the young Frank did not find these images particularly arresting. What excited him was a cover showing astronauts bounding across the moon, the earth hanging in the sky above them.
Today, Frank is a prominent astrophysicist whose computational research group at the University of Rochester has developed supercomputer tools for studying the life cycle of stars—how they form and how they die. He’s also a popularizer of science, having authored such books as Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth and About Time: Cosmology, Time, and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang. In his words, he’s an “evangelist of science.”
Frank’s spiritual path started in the same place as his scientific aspirations: the family bookshelf. His parents were Jewish atheists, and highly political. (As Frank puts it, “I wasn’t a red diaper baby, but I was pink.”) Then his brother died at age fifteen, in a car accident, and in her grief his mother turned to the teachings of Swami Muktananda, founder of Siddha Yoga. She left her reading material lying around the house, and though it wasn’t an exact fit for Frank, it did plant a seed.
When he was around twenty, he completed a three-day Buddhist meditation program at a Shambhala center. He found it hard, he says, “but I had my little proto-kensho experience. That turned the light on.”
Frank is now a Zen practitioner. When asked why he landed on that particular tradition, he says, “I’m not sectarian. Whatever floats your boat. My wife is following a Tibetan path. I just didn’t like all that red.”
His comment about color may sound flip, but Frank is serious that his preference in Buddhist schools is partially about aesthetics. “The Japanese aesthetic—the straight lines, the blacks, the tans—there’s something about the simplicity that appeals to my mathematician’s mind,” he continues. “Mathematics is this bone-dry world, beautiful but very sparse. Zen’s economy of language and poetry appeals to me.
“With Zen, it’s always right to the core,” says Frank. “It’s not about what you think. Zen penetrates to the root of experience so that any kind of theorizing becomes pointless.”
Frank claims Buddhist practice does not inform his scientific work. When he’s calculating the orbital period of a planet or the spectral energy distribution of a glowing planetary atmosphere, he says, no Buddhist principles are at play. Then he clarifies, “I don’t use my Buddhist practice in any explicit way, other than the fact that it informs every fricking day of my life. After thirty years of staring at a wall, it’s just part of every day. So my Buddhist practice informs how I treat my [science] students, how aware I am of what they’re going through.”
And more than that, Buddhism informs Frank’s thinking about what science is, how it works, and what it reveals to us about the world. “The Zen question about the relationship between the relative and the absolute has become my primary question in thinking about science and truth,” he says. “What is the relationship between the relative, which is what scientists do in the laboratory, and the absolute, which is the foundational structure of reality?”
Recently, while writing about matter, Frank delved into all the different theories about it. He went back to what the Greeks had to say. Then from there he unpacked the scholasticism of the thirteenth century, classical physics from Newton up until the nineteenth century, and—in his words—”the whack-a-doodle stuff of quantum physics.” At the same time, he was intensively working on the koan, “Why does the Western barbarian have no beard?” Frank took this question, which refers to Bodhidharma, who transmitted Chan Buddhism to China, and he rephrased it as “Why does the guy with the beard not have a beard?”
Eventually, Frank realized that this koan and his exploration of matter were, in some sense, the same. In both cases, he says, “The question was, what access to truth do we have? What is the relationship between the world in and of itself, and us? Is there any world without us?” Again, it was all coming back to the relative and the absolute.
Frank is currently looking for signs of life on planets in other solar systems. The first planet orbiting another star was discovered in 1996. Now it’s known that almost every star in the sky has a family of planets orbiting it, and one in five stars has a planet in the so-called Goldilocks zone. That is, it’s not too hot and not too cold. It’s just the right distance from its sun to sustain life, as we understand it.
One way Frank looks for life on these planets is that he studies the gases in their atmospheres. Oxygen and methane are biosignatures; they’ll only be present if there’s life. Frank also looks for techno signatures, that is, signs that a civilization is using technology, such as reflections from solar panels or pollutants in the atmosphere. NASA gave him a grant to search for extraterrestrial intelligence—the first they’d given in a long time.
In all likelihood, we’re years away from discovering life on other planets. “But if you want my opinion,” Frank says, “I think the universe has got life all over the place.”
Kritee Kanko: Climate Change
“I wouldn’t continue to be a climate scientist without my Buddhist practice,” says Kritee Kanko, a Zen priest and expert in climate smart agriculture. “Some of the brightest ideas I’ve had about my research have come to me in meditative states.”
Buddhist practice also helps Kritee weather the emotional toll of her work. So many climate scientists are depressed, she explains. At night they have panic attacks and cannot sleep. Without the ability to touch the deep silence she experiences through meditation, she doesn’t know where she’d be.
Kritee, whose dharma name is Kanko, grew up near New Delhi. Her Gandhian Hindu–Jain family had images from various religions on their home altar, but she knew little about Buddhism.
After completing her undergraduate degree in biochemical engineering, Kritee moved to the U.S. to embark on her PhD at Rutgers. “I became depressed as soon as I came to this country,” Kritee recalls. First of all, she didn’t like her program. Secondly, as she puts it, she was overwhelmed by the “giant wheels of consumerism churning and churning” in America.
Kritee heard an English professor was offering free meditation classes. She wasn’t looking for religion, but the secular word “meditation” appealed to her and, indeed, the group was light on rituals and robes. Soon it didn’t matter to Kritee that this was a Rinzai Zen sangha.
“I was hooked,” she says. “Nothing outside me had changed. I was still in the same PhD program, still in the same personal circumstances. The world still didn’t make sense. But I had this deep laughter rising from within.”
As Kritee sees it, Buddhists and scientists both study patterns. “Scientists bring their curiosity and sense of wonder to natural phenomena,” she says, while “Buddhists are curious about patterns in our heart–mind—what are the patterns that appear when I start meditating? What are the patterns when I get angry, depressed, or in fight, flight, or freeze states of mind?
“My root teacher used to say, ‘Scientists have microscopes, telescopes, and their experiments to look at the nature of reality and find patterns. When we meditate, our instrument is our own awareness, our own observing power.’”
In her PhD program, Kritee studied how mercury cycles through the environment. “Mercury exists in geological material naturally,” she explains. “If you pick up a rock, it has some amount of mercury in it, and when it comes in contact with water, it slowly dissolves.” Then microbes in the water or soil convert the mercury into a gaseous form, sending it into the atmosphere. Finally, the gaseous mercury gets dissolved in rainwater again.
“We have 118 elements in our periodic table,” Kritee continues. “All elements go through this dance of cycling. There’s cycling that happens without human involvement, and there’s cycling that we’ve speeded up. The task of people like me is to study which factors control the cycling of which elements. Does temperature or acidity control it? Do soil microbes play a role? What’s the role of human beings?”
In 2011, after postdoctoral research at Princeton University on the impact of the nitrogen cycle on the climate, Kritee landed a job with the Environmental Defense Fund and began looking at the nitrogen cycle in the context of growing food. The global food system contributes up to 30 percent of all climate pollution, something Kritee believes isn’t talked about enough.
Crops need fertilizer—soil won’t continue to produce unless it’s replenished. Unfortunately, fertilizer, whether organic or manufactured, contains nitrogen, which can cycle into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
How much nitrogen a crop requires depends not only on what it is—rice or wheat or soybeans—but also on where it’s being grown. Moreover, plants will only absorb nitrogen at a certain point in their life cycle and they only need so much of it. Apply too much fertilizer or apply it at the wrong time, and the nitrogen just runs off, causing groundwater, air, and climate pollution.
Kritee leads a team that researches the optimal amount of nitrogen for different types of crops in various regions of India. She also spearheads efforts to educate farmers about the team’s findings.
“These farmers make two to five dollars a day,” Kritee says. “They don’t care—and they shouldn’t need to care—about greenhouse gases. They’re just trying to survive.” But it’s in the farmers’ interest to use the right amount of fertilizer, because in this way they get optimal crop productivity at minimum expense. It’s this win-win message of climate smart agriculture that Kritee endeavors to share.
Is Kritee hopeful about the future of our planet? “I don’t have hope that we can totally turn the ship around,” she admits. “But we have a lot we can still protect, and it’s time to empower people with the right knowledge and tools.”
People frequently fall into thinking that the situation is black or white, Kritee points out. We’re either unrealistically hopeful about the climate crisis or else we despair that nothing can be done. “We have crossed several tipping points,” she says. But there are tens of tipping points—and we haven’t crossed all of them.
“We’re going to lose Arctic sea ice, no matter what we do today, but there are a lot of ecosystems and processes on this planet that we can still protect. When they’re protected, humans and other species will be protected. Every decision we take as individuals and as communities—they all matter.”
Yoshi Maezumi: Fire
Piranha is not Yoshi Maezumi’s favorite fish. It tastes fine in a stew, but it’s boney. Plus, of course, it bites back.
Whenever Maezumi is in the Amazon doing her scientific research, she’s careful not to bathe or even put her finger in calm, murky water, since that’s where piranhas frequently lurk. Once, a local she was working with showed up with his foot bandaged because his toe had been severed by a piranha’s finely serrated teeth. Soon after that, she was washing in a river when a village woman started butchering a turtle, blood running into the water. Nervous this would attract piranhas—or even crocodiles—Maezumi decided she was clean enough. On that same trip, she came down with leptospirosis, a tropical disease transmitted by rats and contaminated water. She ended up being quarantined.
Maezumi, who is the daughter of the famed Zen master Taizan Maezumi Roshi, is a paleoecologist, meaning that she studies the ecosystems of the past. As we face imminent environmental crisis, paleoecology is critical work, because the more we understand about the past, the more we understand the present and future, and how we can live more sustainably.
Some paleoecologists study ecosystems going back millions of years, but Maezumi’s area of expertise is more recent—how humans have interacted with the environment. “Things got interesting about ten thousand years ago,” she says. That’s when populations around the world got large enough to begin leaving a footprint.
Fire is Maezumi’s particular passion. “When humans arrive on a landscape, they tend to bring fire with them,” she points out. “It’s one of the most dynamic and powerful forces that changes ecosystems. And charcoal preserves well, so it’s easy to find.”
Part of Maezumi’s job is collecting core samples of lake sediments. Essentially big tubes of mud, they’re extracted, she says, in much the same way one traps milkshake in a straw with your finger. In the lab, Maezumi slices the core samples, cleans them, dates the layers, and studies the contents under a microscope. Each sediment layer contains a particular amount of charcoal and particular types and amounts of pollen. When you’ve identified the makeup of a layer of sediment, you understand what was going on in the environment at the time when the material settled. If there’s a lot of charcoal content, you know there was fire. If there’s maize, manioc, or squash pollen, you know people were there, cultivating crops.
Maezumi finds pollen beautiful. Depending on the species of plant, it varies in color and shape. Some pollen looks like so many Mickey Mouse heads, others like Wiffle balls. “I love sitting at a microscope counting pollen,” she says. “It’s calming and meditative.”
Maezumi was brought up meditating. Her father, the late Maezumi Roshi, was one of the most influential Zen teachers in America, and until she was about three she lived at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. Her mother meditated while nursing, and by the time Maezumi was a preschooler, she was expected to be still and quiet in the zendo.
“Dad was gone maybe nine months out of the year, traveling to monasteries and Zen centers all over,” says his daughter. But even when he was home, he was busy and didn’t have much time to teach her about Zen. When she got curious, he arranged for monks to tutor her in Buddhist texts and meditation techniques. One got her to collect ten acorns so that she could use them for counting breaths. At age fourteen, she completed her first sesshin, a seven-day period of intensive zazen.
Growing up, Maezumi wanted to be a dancer but had to stop dancing after a car accident. To help her heal, she took up yoga and now her spiritual practice is a blend of yoga and Zen. She is also well versed on other religious traditions. In addition to her undergraduate degree in anthropology, Maezumi also earned a BA in religious studies. Because she was already knowledgeable about Buddhism, she focused on Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Greek and Roman mythology.
For Maezumi, Buddhist practice helps her find a work-life balance, and the precepts and the eightfold path, especially wise view, wise intention, wise speech, and wise action, help her bring integrity to her research. As she sees it, humility, nonattachment, and compassion are key for scientists.
“We don’t have all the answers. We don’t always know the best way or the right way,” Maezumi says. “But we can get really attached to our ideas and our ego gets invested.” After scientists work on something for a long time, it can be painful when their hypotheses are proven incorrect. Having self-compassion can help scientists admit when they’re wrong, learn from their mistakes, and move on.
Maezumi doesn’t see any reason to view science and religion as opposed. Frequently it’s assumed, she says, “that you can either be religious or a scientist. But a lot of the foundational figures in the scientific method were devoutly religious. They had no qualms with believing in God, and also making observations and testing them until they had a good explanation of how things work.” Science and religion, Maezumi continues, “are different tools that answer different kinds of questions.”