Monday, January 28, 2008

The Dumb Ox

Today is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, the extraordinary philosopher and theologian who wrote the Summa Theologica. St. Thomas Aquinas lived from about 1225 to 1274.

G.K. Chesterton used St. Thomas' nickname (The Dumb Ox) as the title of his short but insightful biography of St. Thomas. Chesterton quotes Albertus Magnus' refutation of these impressions: "You call him 'a dumb ox,' but I declare before you that he will yet bellow so loud in doctrine that his voice will resound through the whole world."

The First Things blog has a post with St. Thomas' reflections on the Cross.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

On Being a Pallbearer

The First Things web site On the Square had an thoughtful article Wednesday by Paul Gregory Alms entitled "On Being a Pallbearer". Alms discusses his experience being a pallbearer for his grandfather (which I have done as well). And, along the way, he discusses the importance of traditions, even those that are (almost) obsolete.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Role of the Professor

A colleague recently sent me a copy of The Role of the Professor, by Professor Mark Noll, Professor of Mathematics Emeritus, Carnegie Mellon University. (The unpublished essay is from 1992, when I was in the middle of graduate school.) As Noll writes, "This essay is intended not only to help professors better understand their own role, but also to help the public at large better appreciate this role."

Noll distinguishes between the professor, the teacher, and the professor. The teacher focuses on the student and helps the student learn. The researcher focuses on discovering new results and creating new knowledge. The professor focuses on the subject:

The professor's focus, on the other hand, is on understanding, gaining insight into, judging the significance of, and organizing old knowledge. He is disturbed by the pile-up of undigested and ill-understood new results. He is not happy until he has been able to fit these results into a larger context. He is happy if he can find a new conceptual framework with which to unify and simplify the results that have been found by the researcher.

This is certainly what, on the good days, makes my job so interesting, and it is the ideal to which we should strive. Noll goes on to discuss the administrator's emphasis on teaching and research and the lack of interest in the synthesis and understanding he clearly values.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Dolphins in the Cold

It was cold this morning - about 10 degrees F, according to But we had prepurchased tickets for a 10:00 admission to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, so off we went. Fortunately, we didn't have to walk too far from the parking garage and the lines were short (they must have opened the doors early). We went through the main exhibits on the Pier 3 pavilion and then over to Pavilion 4 for the 11:30 dolphin show. Then it was time for lunch at the Frog Cafe and a visit through the Australia exhibit, one of my favorites, with a high glass ceiling, like the rain forest exhibit, before heading back into the cold.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Very Green

On New Year's Day, The Washington Post had an editorial by Martin Bunzl, a philosophy professor at Rutgers University. His piece, Ulysses and the Hedge Trimmer, discusses his anxiety about global warming and the conflict between his desire to reduce carbon footprint and his wish to get a good deal:
I spend most of my waking hours worrying about how to reduce my output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Yet my behavior seems to march to a different drummer. I need to get the best deal. For me, not the world. When it comes to what counts as the best deal, my values don't get incorporated into the calculation. I am attuned only to price.
He compares himself to Ulysses, who wanted to listen to the Sirens but instructed his crew to tie him to the mast so he could avoid their danger. Bunzl essentially wants the government to outlaw any product that is not environmentally friendly, including his latest purchase, a gasoline-powered hedge trimmer, so that he can avoid the temptation of buying what he wants!

Of course, some of his agenda is moving forward: the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires that all light bulbs use 25 percent to 30 percent less energy by 2014, which should extinguish the incandescent light bulb; compact fluorescents and light emitting diodes will be the only choices. An article by Gerard Voland, the dean of the School of Engineering, Technology and Computer Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, discusses this and some of the "difficulties" with CFL bulbs: they don't last as long as they should, they dim as they age, and the inconvenience and risk of disposing of them.

Snow day

Yesterday we had some nice snow. It started in the late morning with big wet flakes and then turned to rain, with some sleet in there for awhile. Some of the schools let out early, including Colleen's, so she had time to build this nice snowman. I had to clear about an inch or two of snow off the car when I left work. The drive home was slow but not dangerous.

Friday, January 11, 2008


Eleven days into the new year and this is my first post? (Mike already has 7 on his blog, with lots of photos of New Zealand.) Well one distraction has been the online chess site, on which I created an account just after Christmas. I've played maybe a game a day there, winning about half. I still enjoy playing the software that we have on our computer, but it is interesting and exciting playing against a real person online. One difference is the use of a clock, typically ten minutes per person. Another is being unable to "undo" a bad move. I've played games where I blundered very early and resigned, and others where my opponent has blundered. The computer never blunders, so online games have more randomness. Playing against the computer is now more like training or practice (since I can take back a bad move and don't have the clock).

Another distraction has been reading The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman. The movie was released in December, reawakening the controversy over the book's negative views of organized religion. I decided that it was time to read it to find out what exactly the book is about. (Maybe others had the same idea; it took weeks to get a copy from the local public library.)

The book is a good page-turner but is set in a strange world that sort of resembles ours, but not exactly. Some of the names of places and things sound archaic, like the names that were used 200 or 300 years ago. Lamps use "naphtha," which today we use to describe a petroleum product, one version of which is a fuel for camp stoves and lanterns ("camp fuel"). The story starts in Oxford but England is never mentioned, just East Anglia (a portion of modern England).

There is certainly an anti-religious theme. I noticed a version of the old science-vs.-religion conflict, in which the Church refuses to accept certain scientific theories. Meanwhile, the people have replaced their faith in God with a faith in science. Theology is "experimental," and "holy" scientific devices are worshipped in church services.

The main character is a young girl named Lyra, and her name is apt: she continually deceives the adults around her. She certainly comes from a troubled family; both her mother and her father abandoned her and, for their part, continue to lie to her. The book is full of people lying to each other. A race of witches who have extremely long lives worship a goddess of the dead; one witch tells Lyra that everyone is subject to fate but must live as if they weren't.

Finally, there is a theme of elitism: some people are superior, and everyone else must bow to the superior ones. At one point, Lyra confronts another girl, whose daemon (a kind of embodiment of one's soul) defers to Lyra's, and then Lyra knows that she's beat the girl. And the race of intelligent bears has a similar protocol: a bear always surrenders to superior force.

So there's a lot not to like, in my opinion. However, Daniel Moloney, in "An Almost Christian Fantasy," discusses the entire His Dark Materials trilogy, praises Pullman's writing, and claims that the trilogy, in the end, affirms some important values, including the value of sacrificing one's own happiness for the good of others. He concludes:
As is, I can fairly characterize His Dark Materials in this fashion: imagine if at the beginning of the world Satan’s rebellion had been successful, that he had reigned for two thousand years, and that a messiah was necessary to conquer lust and the spirit of domination with innocence, humility, and generous love at great personal cost. Such a story is not subversive of Christianity, it is almost Christian, even if only implicitly and imperfectly. But implicit and imperfect Christianity is often our lot in life, and Pullman has unintentionally created a marvelous depiction of many of the human ideals Christians hold dear.
I wouldn't agree with that after reading just the first book. However, another passage from Moloney's review identifies some flaws that I would second:
Pullman has set himself an ambitious task, trying to tell a complex yet realistic tale about the death of God and the true nature and destiny of man. He has the talent to have pulled it off, but unfortunately, his atheism gets in the way. For unlike John Milton and his other hero William Blake, Pullman is a Richard Dawkins-type materialist, and his atheism fatally flaws The Amber Spyglass, and therefore, retroactively, the whole series. Pullman, who raised more than a few eyebrows with an article in the Guardian excoriating C. S. Lewis’ Narnia stories for their tendency to lapse into preaching, falls prey to that same bad habit himself. Indeed, to facilitate his preaching, he breaks many of the rules of fantasy-writing in this third volume, and although this probably makes his novel more appropriate for children, it seriously weakens it as art.