Tuesday, April 17, 2007

No news from College Park

Just wanted to let everyone know that things are fine here in College Park.
Like you, Laury and I were shocked by the news from Virginia Tech. Because I work every day on a campus like that one, it has always been clear to me that building security (except for dorms) does not exist. (The student paper today reported that the campus police do have the ability to lock all of the buildings electronically.) But I'm not sure that turning classroom buildings into fortresses is a good answer, either.

Many of the students here have friends and siblings at Virginia Tech, and some faculty know colleagues there; it was a very stressful day for them. (Last summer two students from there worked on our mass vaccination clinic research project; both are fine.)

There was a small fire in a rubbish pile in a construction site near the middle of campus yesterday afternoon. No injuries or damage, but lots of smoke, so they had to evacuate a building for a short time. The police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks, sirens and lights added to the sense of crisis.

My colleague Linda Schmidt led off our lecture today encouraging the students in our class to accept that they cannot understand this event. The instinct of engineers is to try to understand; instead we should have compassion even without understanding, especially for those under unusual stress, and we should remember to treat each day as a gift, to maintain some perspective, to reach out to those who care about us.

Friday, April 13, 2007


In his post today, my friend Mike Warner discusses how the British are quite conservation-minded and how he hopes to maintain some of those values when he returns to the United States.

His attitude is admirable, in my opinion, unlike the calls of many environmental activists to limit the emissions of carbon dioxide. The impact of carbon dioxide emissions from human activities on global warming is controversial, to say the least, but the downside from increased energy costs is not. The Washington Post this week had an article on Europe's experience with limiting carbon dioxide emissions. According to the article:
"People in Washington have begun to focus on the cost of climate change," said Paul Bledsoe, strategy director at the National Commission on Energy Policy. "But it's important to recognize that legislation to mitigate climate change is going to have significant economic costs, as well."

I think that I'll follow Mike's example, be a good steward, and avoid wasting resources. I can recycle, drive at a sensible speed, and install energy-efficient appliances, light bulbs and windows, for example. If our nation follows Europe's example by capping carbon dioxide emissions, I expect that we will be paying even more for energy.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Tolkien and the Gift of Mortality

Those who have read The Lord of the Rings may find Anna Mathie's November 2003 article Tolkien and the Gift of Mortality interesting. Mathie highlights a little-known story about Arwen, the elf who marries Aragorn and becomes mortal, and discusses the ideas of mortality and immortality that occur throughout the whole work. (The story can be found in Appendix A, Part I, Section v.)

Tolkien claims that mortality is the gift of the One to Men. It is denied to the elves, who go into the West. Aragorn's last words to Arwen clearly call for hope: In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold, we are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell.

Without a Bell

I'm going through a stack of old magazines and found the following from the May 2004 issue of First Things. It is cold here in Maryland today, and I found it pleasant to think of nicer days ahead.

Without a Bell

God comes to us without a bell:
God’s spell
is cast by larks and honeybees
in trees.
Their chorus, praising field and brook,
spells out His book—
one pious men may overlook,
expecting bells to say, He’s here!
But nature makes the gospels clear:
God’s spell in trees spells out His book.

Ralph C. LaRosa

Good Friday: Answers to the Atheists

Today's column by E.J. Dionne, Jr., has, on the Washington Post op-ed page, the headline "Answers to the atheists." (Interestingly, over at the St. Petersburg Times, the headline is "Serious Christians also doubt.") Dionne's rejection of the atheist position cites Michael Novak's questioning of his faith, which surprised me somewhat considering my impression that Novak and Dionne probably disagree completely on matters of domestic politics. Dionne cites Novak's book Belief and Unbelief and Novak's March 19, 2007, book review in the National Review. (I've read neither.)

Apparently, the neo-atheists claim that serious Christians do not study their faith or question why they believe. According to the column, Novak states that "Questions have been the heart and soul of Judaism and Christianity for millennia." Moreover, according to Novak, "Christianity is not about moral arrogance. It is about moral realism and moral humility."

It seems obvious to me that Christians must study their faith and understand (to the extent that we can) what we believe. It is, of course, a never-ending process. As mentioned in a previous post, I've learned a great deal as we've helped Colleen prepare for the sacraments. Our beliefs are not irrational or unjustified. They make sense if one takes the time to understand them.

Those who criticize Christianity because it supposedly makes believers intolerant and therefore dangerous must not understand Christianity. Christians do believe something extraordinary - that God became man and that Jesus died and rose from the dead to forgive our sins. And from this belief, guided by Scripture and the teaching of Christians throughout the years, come many other beliefs about a variety of topics, including how we should live our lives and the nature of reality and what our priorities should be. The belief that all men are sinful should inspire humility, not arrogance.

Terrorists who claim to do the will of Allah are scary but misguided. Social conservatives who refuse to go along with what is popular or easy are stubborn and annoying, perhaps, but they are thoughtful. Neither group should be an excuse to attack religion.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

True Confessions

In the Washington Post Sunday Magazine on March 25, 2007, Jeanne Marie Laskas had another great column, this one titled True Confessions.
Since my daughter Colleen just made her first confession and is now preparing for First Communion, we enjoyed it greatly.
(Of course, those of you who have no experience going to confession may find it dumb, not humorous.)

Helping Colleen prepare for these sacraments has been very educational: I've learned some important things I never knew, remembered some things I forgot, and increased my understanding of these important sacraments.
We believe that they are important ways to receive God's grace, ways that he communicates with us and becomes present to us.
It is mysterious, I know, but no less wonderful for being mysterious.
Those interested in learning more can see the relevant entries in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (otherwise known as Confession) and Sacrament of the Eucharist (otherwise known as Communion).

I'm in the middle of reading the latest issue of First Things and will certainly have a post about the article on faith and science.
Stay tuned.

Something Completely Different

After reading some of my previous posts it has become clear to me (finally, any readers might say) that this blog is a bit too formal. I suppose that it comes from my line of work, where I spend a lot of time writing scholarly papers and editing graduate theses that are supposed to sound professional.

Perhaps, in future posts, I will be able to write more informally, as if I were writing a letter to my family and close friends instead of writing an encyclopedia article or book review.

So you may notice a change in tone, a slightly different choice of topics occasionally. I expect it will still be heavy on science and philosophy and religion, since I spend most of my time thinking about these things. There may be more about decision-making.

The Ethical Mind

The March 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review has an edited conversation with Howard Gardner, a professor of psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Professor Gardner's research on how professionals work is now a book, Five Minds for the Future.

Gardner described five minds (or sets of skills):

1. The disciplined mind is how one gains expertise.

2. The synthesizing mind combines information from a variety of sources.

3. The creating mind looks for new ideas and discovers new things.

4. The respectful mind tries to understand others.

5. The ethical mind considers how one's actions affect the world.

A whistle-blower is using his ethical mind by considering the impact of his company's actions on its customers or the environment.
An ethical mind begins at home, as a child learns his parents' values.
Seeing others behave badly undermines the ethical mind, while seeing others do the right things strengthens it.

Gardner points out that conflicts betwen stakeholders make ethical behavior difficult.
He states that journalists face difficulties because they desire to report objectively on important events, but the public desires sensationalism, and the publisher wants advertising dollars and a paper that avoids offending advertisers.