Saturday, May 13, 2017

Memories XII: Joy, Sorrow, Time


Of all the pictures we have of Miriam (Eli) as a young child, this is probably my favorite.

It's an autumn evening, some time before Miriam's first birthday.   I've just got home from work - maybe four straight hours of teaching math to Oxford students - good work but demanding.  And I have not even had time to take my tie off before I'm swamped by the waves of joy coming from this strong-willed little person.  (To the right of the picture my guitar awaits - Miriam loved music.)

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Bret Stephens, Alan Jacobs, and climate change

Alan Jacobs (via amazon.com)
My aggregator list has about 30 different blogs on it.  All of them represent voices that I found interesting and important when I added them; many have now fallen silent, and I regret that, and wonder whether I should remove them or whether they might, perhaps, come back to sparkling life.  One blog that is very alive and  consistently fascinates me is Alan Jacobs' Text Patterns.

Jacobs is currently a distinguished professor at Baylor and before that was at Wheaton College.  He wrote a fine biographical study of C.S.Lewis - one of the best, I think - and more recently has published a history of the Book of Common Prayer - I'd love to read that as the BCP has been a steady guide to me in my Christian journey.

He also writes a wide-ranging blog which right now is revolving around two aspects of our present age which are both loudly announced (by some people) and which seem to be mutually contradictory: on the one hand, that this age is the dawn of the Anthropocene, the age when the human race is getting "big" enough to become the central influence on our planet's ecology; and on the other hand that it is also the dawn of the posthuman, the era when human beings are transcended and (according to some) superseded by machines that are faster, stronger, more agile, precise and intelligent that we are.   "Ours; not ours", writes Jacobs. "It is in the light of this twofold reality that theology in our time should be done."

Saturday, April 29, 2017

My final class (probably)

Class photo
Last Thursday I wrapped up Math 583, Introduction (interpreted in a rather generous sense) to K-Theory, which is likely to be the last class I teach at Penn State.  My students presented me with a beautiful and generous card, and also insisted on taking a group photo (see picture).  I was instructed to put a picture of "something K-theoretic" on the board above us, so I chose the irrational slope foliation on the 2-torus, which Michael Atiyah had me read about when I arrived at Oxford as a new graduate student, and which I was teaching my own students about a couple of weeks back.

It has taken me a lot longer than you might expect to realize that my life as a professional mathematician revolves around my delight in teaching - not simply in teaching classes in the usual sense, but in explaining, making stuff clear, a gift that my parents gave me (both of them being teachers, and my father a teacher of mathematics who ignited my delight in geometry from a very early age). Most of my research has arisen from a desire to explain things to myself which I believed, sometimes wrongly, were clear to everyone else.  I don't think that this is everyone's path, or that it has to be, but it was certainly mine.   Writing books is of course a well-known symptom (compare Ecclesiastes 12:12) and I have churned out a few.  We are meeting on Monday with the publisher from Springer for Mathematics for Sustainability, which as regular readers know has been a major dream of mine for many years. It is incredibly exciting to feel that finally coming together.

Of course the temptation for people with this sort of gift is to believe that being able to explain things is enough.  (That might account for my thinking seriously at one point in my youth about becoming a pastor - after all, it's all about explaining the Bible, innit?  Mercifully I was dissuaded from this.)  Explaining is often a necessary step, but for accomplishing meaningful change, it is never a sufficient one.  We also need builders of community, summoners to action, companions in suffering, co-celebrants in joy: and that is true whether I'm talking about the community of faith or about working for a sustainable future.  For those who have been that sort of partners to me and my family, especially in the crucible of the last few years, I am truly grateful.

Onward!




Saturday, April 15, 2017

Transgender and Christian

As many readers know, Liane and I have been sponsoring a series of presentations at Penn State this year in honor of our transgender child Eli/Miriam, whom we lost to suicide in January 2016.  Here below is the video from the final presentation in the series, Transgender and Christian, with Allyson Robinson and Austen Hartke



Saturday, April 8, 2017

Creation Care Litany

Our congregation's "Sustainability Circle" is helping put together a service focused on Caring for Creation at the end of this month. I volunteered to help develop a Litany as part of the service.

A Litany is "a ceremonial or liturgical form of prayer consisting of a series of invocations or supplications with responses that are the same for a number in succession." For a Brit of my generation, the model is the Litany in the 1662 Prayer Book, which goes on for quite a few pages and which I don't remember ever using in public worship (though I have used it in my own prayers now and again).  My favorite single petition from the 1662 Litany is

In all time of our tribulation; in all time of our wealth; in the hour of death; and in the day of judgment - Good Lord, deliver us
Anyhow, here is my attempt at a Creation Care Litany - definitely shorter and more manageable. Like most liturgical prayers this is not "all my own work".  I was particularly inspired by two of the litanies on the Earth Ministry website and took over several of the petitions with little adaptation.

[I see this as having two leaders, L1 and L2, leading alternate sections – but it could also be led by one person of course.]

L1: We give you thanks and praise, O God, for the grandeur of all you have made, saying together
We thank you, God

For the healing waters of creation, which bring joy and health, purity and life,
We thank you, God.

For the richness of the good Earth that brings forth fruits and flowers, a pleasure to taste and a joy to behold,
We thank you, God.

For the birds of the air, the creatures on the Earth, the fishes in the seas, for all creatures great and small with whom we share this precious web of life,
We thank you, God.

For the sunlight of day, the mystery of night, the wonder of the stars, and the call of the unknown in the universe,
We thank you, God.

L2: We confess, O Lord, that we have not heeded your call to be faithful stewards of your creation.  From our folly and greed, we plead together
Good Lord, deliver us

From heedless misuse and dishonoring of the wonders of your hand,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From the fear of scarcity and the need to hoard,
Good Lord, deliver us

From the temptations of using more, spending more, and wasting more
Good Lord, deliver us.

L1: In our eagerness to possess Earth’s fruits for our own, we have made our fellow-creatures pay a high price.  For polluted lands and lifeless waters, we cry out together
Lord, have mercy

For the choice to send our garbage where other people live
Lord, have mercy

For the third and fourth and future generations, who will carry the weight of our climate-changing lifestyle
Lord, have mercy

For every species, meant to join in Creation’s song of praise, whose voice will never more be heard
Lord, have mercy

L2: Yet we do not lose heart, for You have set your hope in us.  For the courage and wisdom to work with one another to love and restore the Earth, we ask together
Strengthen us, O Spirit.

For the insight to see You in all the people you have made, especially in the hungry and thirsty, the unclothed, the stranger and the prisoner,
Strengthen us, O Spirit.

For repentance and the determination to begin our stewardship anew,
Strengthen us, O Spirit.

All: Help us to know that in caring for your wonderful world, we are working for your kingdom, being stewards of your creative power, and giving you the glory.   Amen

Image from Pax Christi USA

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Mathematics for Sustainability - due for delivery!

Remember the Mathematics for Sustainability project that I used to talk about a lot?  (Hint: here are some links to earlier blog posts: one, two, three, four, five.   I could easily find more!)

The Math for Sustainability course (MATH 033) has been running for a couple of years now at Penn State. But it was never my dream just to teach this material on one campus or in one university system.

Today, I'm so happy to tell you that - together with my wonderful coauthors Russ deForest and Shahrzad (Sara) Jamshidi, pictured below - we have signed a contract with a major mathematics publisher to produce a textbook based on the Math for Sustainability materials - a textbook which will make it possible for this course to be taught at any college or university in the world.

Sara Russ
The book will be published by Springer-Verlag in their series Mathematics of Planet Earth.  It will be around 500 pages long, printed in full color, and will use only the math that you learn in high school.  The print book should cost around 60 bucks, and it will also be available online (for instance, Penn State students will be able to access the book online for free, because Penn State Libraries have a deal with Springer to give online access to all their books and journals.)  Remember, the audience we are aiming for is those college students who have to take "just one last math course" to fulfill a general education requirement.  My elevator pitch to them: "Okay, you have to take a math course. Would you rather learn the quadratic formula or would you rather save the planet?" There's quite an uptake for the second option!

We've undertaken to deliver the final manuscript at the beginning of July and, if there aren't any hold-ups in reviewing or production, we should see the first printed copies by the end of this year or early in 2018.  The kind of basic ability to think for oneself about sustainability questions, which we hope this book teaches, has seldom been so important to our world and to the future generations which the book is intended to reach.

Snippet of the book's preface  (click for full size)

Mind, when I have one, I probably should send a free copy to the White House as well!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Transgender People and the Body of Christ



Trans people welcome!
[Re-sharing this post because the previous image made it look specific to the event at PSU today - it isn't.]

This is a rough transcript of a presentation I gave to the Penn State Faculty-Staff Christian Fellowship, entitled Transgender People and the Body of Christ. The talk ran about half a hour, so this is quite a bit longer than a regular post on this blog.  I’m grateful to the group (which skews relatively conservative) for inviting me and for paying attention to what I had to say.

“Hello.  Why I am I here? Of course that’s easy to answer – because you invited me. But let me change the emphasis a little bit – why am I here? If you want to hear about the experience of transgender Christians, the best thing to do is to invite a transgender Christian, right?  (The Church has a terrible habit of pretending to know more about other people than they know about themselves.)  Or at least, since I’m not a transgender person myself, I should maybe have brought a transgender Christian person to support me, someone we could ask questions of? That would be a bit better than theorizing in the dark.