Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sustainability v. Efficiency

In 1977, before I went up to Cambridge to study mathematics, I worked - "interned" as one would say nowadays - for six months at IBM's then UK headquarters at North Harbour (just north of Portsmouth). My team's job was mathematical modeling of IBM's internal information-processing systems, which operated on 370-series mainframes. It was an exciting time for me as I discovered for the first time that I had knowledge and skills that people would actually pay for.  Not that these were particularly sophisticated... I remember having to give a painstaking explanation of why the geometric-series formula 1/(1-x)=1+x+x^2+... can be applied when x is a square matrix.

Towards the end of my internship, my manager asked me to work out a modeling assignment for a different group who were concerned at the rapid growth of demand for the service that they ran.  How long, their manager (a rather senior figure) wanted to know, could they continue operating effectively with their present hardware.  My colleagues watched with some amazement as their brash seventeen-year-old wunderkind presented his conclusions to the pinstriped executive.  "Your system will freeze solid in six months", I said.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Wireless Fusion Power Transmission

Nice lecture title! for anyone on the Penn State campus today:

Speaker: Peter McCullough

Title: "Reliable and Affordable Wireless Delivery of Fusion Power to your Home: why I have Solar Panels and you will too."

When & Where: 4pm on Friday, January 27th in 538 Davey Lab

Abstract: In this presentation Dr. Peter R. McCullough describes his experiences with professionally-installed solar photovoltaic panels on his home. He quantifies how they are both affordable and reliable.  He projects how similar experiences across the USA and the world have the power, both electrical and motivational, to mitigate some of the risks to you, our nation, and humankind associated with the revolution from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy.

Bio: Dr. Peter R. McCullough is an employee of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore MD. He is an astronomer with expertise in detectors, instruments, and planets orbiting other stars.
He has led international teams in the discovery of extrasolar planets  and their characterization with space telescopes such as Hubble and Spitzer. He is a husband and father of two children.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Wanted: A Theology of Mining

This is not a metaphor. By mining I really do mean digging things out of a hole in the ground.  More exactly, mining is the extraction from the earth of natural resources which either are not being replenished, or are replenished at a rate much lower than the rate of extraction.  Thus one could refer not also to coal or diamond mining, but to oil mining, water mining (the Oglalla aquifer), topsoil mining, etc.

Humans have been mining since pre-historic times. Mining makes an extensive appearance in the book of Job, chapter 28:

1 There is a mine for silver
and a place where gold is refined.
 2 Iron is taken from the earth,
and copper is smelted from ore.
 3 Miners put an end to the darkness;
they search out the farthest recesses
for ore in the blackest darkness.
 4 Far from human dwellings they cut a shaft,
in places untouched by human feet;
far from other people they dangle and sway.
 5 The earth, from which food comes,
is transformed below as by fire;
 6 lapis lazuli comes from its rocks,
and its dust contains nuggets of gold.
 7 No bird of prey knows that hidden path,
no falcon's eye has seen it.
 8 Proud beasts do not set foot on it,
and no lion prowls there.
 9 The miners' hands assault the flinty rock
and lay bare the roots of the mountains.
 10 They tunnel through the rock;
their eyes see all its treasures.
 11 They search the sources of the rivers
and bring hidden things to light.

This lyrical passage, which is apparently one of the earliest sources of information about ancient mining techniques, points up for me three groups of theological questions raised by mining in the present day.

1.               The bountifulness of God
2.               The nurture of creation
3.               The search for wisdom

Friday, January 20, 2012

Fifteen reasons to love the Earth

A great article from Byron Smith's wonderful blog, Nothing New Under The Sun. I try not to repost too often but this is too good to miss.

Why Christians take the extra-human creation seriously:

1. God declares all things good; he made them and blessed them. Even before the arrival of humanity, God declared his handiwork "good" and blessed it (Genesis 1).

2. God sustains and cares for all life, not just human life. Psalm 104 and Job 38-41 celebrate the created order in its bounty, complexity and divine providence outside of reference to human affairs. In Matthew 10.29 and Luke 12.6 Jesus teaches that not even a single sparrow escapes the caring notice of God. Why should we disparage or dismiss that which God cares for?

For thirteen more reasons, see the original posting.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Marty Walter's "Mathematics for the Environment"

One of my plans for next year is to design a"general education" mathematics course that will teach some basic concepts related to sustainability at the same time.

In a big university like Penn State, thousands of students each year take math courses to satisfy their "GQ" (general education - quantification) requirement.  Many of them will take precalculus courses, which provide foundational skills for calculus and advanced mathematics but are not always tailored to students for whom this is the last math course they will ever take.

Can we do better for these students? I think we can.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Education, Ecology and Death

In his book How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind, Richard Hughes records a the comments of a faculty colleague at Pepperdine University.  "It's obvious to me", said the colleague, "that you have one objective in all of your classes." Puzzled, Hughes asked, "What's that?". He records:
[My colleague] looked me straight in the eye and said, half facetiously but also, I thought, half seriously, "You want to convince your students that they're going to die."
 In a chapter which seems to me a profound response to a partly facetious comment, Hughes develops this thought in several ways.
  • An educated person has learned to "embrace the ambiguity of the human situation", including the facts of his or her own finitude and frailty.  And Hughes is emphatic that this is particularly a task for Christian or faith-based education.
  • "By asking our students to take finitude seriously, we free them for a healthy skepticism... to question the wisdom of all human authorities, including the wisdom that they may learn from us."
  • In the same way "we prepare students to take seriously the finitude of others and to reach out with compassionate sensitivity" to those in need.
  • And finally, "by focusing attention on ultimate questions, not religious answers, we preserve our students' integrity and freedom to make religious discoveries for themselves."
 Hughes goes on to talk about how hard it is for 18-year-old college students to genuinely contemplate finitude and mortality.  They are young, and their whole life experience has been one of steady growth in power and freedom.  They know it can't last for ever, but how easy is that to take seriously when experience to date is 100% in the opposite direction?

The message of ecological economics is that "Western" society as a whole is in the position of the death-denying 18-year-old student.  Our experience to date - as far back as we can remember - has been one of steady growth in power and freedom, but that growth has in fact been fueled by the steady depletion of resources that we have simply no idea how to replace. A huge change looms: whether it is sober middle age, or slow decline, or sudden death, I don't think anyone can say - but society's teenage exuberance is close to over. And how easy is that to take seriously when experience to date is 100% in the opposite direction?

My question is: what would an education look like which prepared students to live with the finitude and frailty of our society, of our historical project, in the same way that Hughes tried to mold an education around the finitude and frailty of the individual student?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The fate of the earth

'Why worry about "saving the planet"?' asked my friend.  'Isn't it going to be destroyed anyhow when Jesus returns? Surely we should focus our attention on spiritual things - things that will last?  In the mean time, the planet and its resources have been given to us humans to enjoy.'

My friend wouldn't see himself as greedy or rapacious, and it won't help if I start calling him those names - especially since the charge could easily rebound on me. He has absorbed from our tradition a contrast between the spiritual/eternal/morally significant and the material/transient/morally indifferent, and he just wants me not to misdirect my effort towards things that won't last.   What can I say in response?  Here are a couple of thoughts.

First of all, the argument that he's making - that our relationship with this planet is a temporary, morally indifferent one and that we're therefore free to enjoy what's on offer - exactly parallels those that surfaced in the early Corinthian church about the human body and its appetites.  See especially 1 Cor 6:12-20, where Paul counters the argument "Food for the stomach and the stomach for food; God will destroy them both" by affirming that the body is not mere indifferent matter but "the temple of the Holy Spirit".  It is gnosticism, not Christian faith, to believe that the spiritual world renders the material one somehow irrelevant.

But second, must we in fact believe that the material world is to be annihilated when Christ returns? (Once again compare 1 Corinthians, chapter 15, where Paul is at pains to emphasize the continuity as well as the discontinuity between our present state and the 'resurrection body'.)  The usual proof-text for 'annihilation' is 2 Peter 3:10, where the King James Version reads "the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up."  "Burned up" here translates the Greek katakaisetai, which appears in the text from which the King James translators worked. However, earlier manuscripts (Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, and P72) have since been discovered which show that the original text most probably read heuresthisetai ("will be found"), and this reading appears in all modern editions of the Greek New Testament and underlies for instance the NIV translation "will be laid bare".  The Greek word heuriske here is the ordinary one for "finding" something, and to say that something "will be found" does not sound like saying that it will be annihilated; indeed, in Rev 18:21 the phrase "will NOT be found" is used to express the result of an annihilating judgment.

So what does it mean that the earth "will be found"? In an interesting article titled Worldview and Textual Criticism in 2 Peter 3:10, Al Wolters argues in detail that heuriske in this form refers to "the eschatological result of a purification process", as in the common image of refined metal emerging from the smelter's crucible.  I think I would tell me friend that according to Peter the judging fire will burn up the "elements" (stoicheia), the spiritual (!) powers which hold the earth in bondage, but that the earth itself will be purified or "found".  Would it be going too far to suggest that as part of this process of "laying bare" the earth, the way that we humans have used the planet as a giant mine and dumping ground will also be "laid bare": that the dioxins in the Passaic River, the violated mountaintops of West Virginia, the Third World heavy-metal scrapyards of discarded computers, will "rise up in judgment against this generation"?  I wonder.