Monday, 5 September 2016

Toomas Karmo: Paramonastic Scientists and the Theology of Disability

I took this photo late in August of 2016. The Salvation Army shelter on Toronto's McCaul Street was always  a sad place, with an outward air of decay, and with unhappy-looking residents standing outside on the sidewalk, perhaps seeking a bit of fresh air and a brief smoke. But now, with the unhappy-looking residents gone, it is infinitely worse. - Poverty, as I remark in today's essay, assumes diverse forms.  

Quality assessment:

On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3'5 is "mediocre pass", 4.5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 4/5. Justification: Kmo had time to do a reasonably complete and (within the framework of the version 1.0.1, 1.0.2, .. process) reasonably polished job. 

Revision history:

  • UTC=20160906T0113Z/version 1.1.0: Kmo added a photo, illustrating the material side of Toronto poverty. He retained the right to make tiny, cosmetic, nunsubstantive tweaks, as here-undocumented version 1.1.1, 1.1.2, 1.1.3, ..., over the coming 48 hours.  
  • UTC=20160906T0001Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo uploaded a base version, rather hastily. - Kmo retained the right to make tiny, cosmetic, nunsubstantive tweaks, as here-undocumented version 1.0.1, 1.0.2, 1.0.3, ..., over the coming 48 hours. 

[CAUTION: A bug in the blogger software has in some past weeks shown a propensity to insert inappropriate whitespace at some late points in some of my posted essays. If a screen seems to end in empty space, keep scrolling down. The end of the posting is not reached until the usual blogger "Posted by Toomas (Tom) Karmo at" appears.]

For perhaps 10 or 15 years, I have had a dream or vision that refuses to go away. Here it is: 

Around the world emerges a little grouping of Catholics and friends-of-Catholics, held together by bonds of personal support. The bonds notably include bonds of mutual prayer. 

In its informality, the grouping resembles the Catholic Worker movement that sprang up in 1930s New York around philosopher Peter Maurin and social activist Dorothy Day, and which has since spread to several countries. 

Most members in the grouping are in the laity, in many instances forswearing academic ambition, and in all instances committed to the joint ideals of Poverty and Science. 

For want of a better name, let us for the moment simply call it "Movement XYZ". 

Movement XYZ has no monastic garb. Perhaps it does not even have a motherhouse, a corporate library, a bank account, or other significant material assets.

Informal "Movement XYZ" groups, however, are to be found around many of the current nuclei of exact-sciences research - around the University of Toronto, for instance (perhaps in some way linked with the University of Toronto Catholic chaplaincy, the "Newman Centre"), or around a few of the world's makerspaces, such as the Toronto "Hacklab" or the Kitchener-Waterloo "Kwartzlab". Some may even be found around such specialized, eminent, exact-science bodies as the Fields Institute (Toronto's senior centre for mathematics research) and the Perimeter Institute (a Fields equivalent for theoretical physics, in Kitchener-Waterloo - and therefore an hour or two away from the Fields Institute, by commuter train). 

Persons of any faith, or of none, are welcome. But Catholics in good standing tend to predominate. 

Movement XYZ draws what support it can from formal structures of spiritual direction (i.e., of spiritual counselling) within the Church. One might imagine, for instance, a cordial relationship developing with the Jesuit-run Vatican Observatory Research Group, active these days both at Castel Gandolfo and in Arizona. Additionally, I would imagine some kind of cordial links forming, eventually and somehow, at Città del Vaticano itself, with at least some tolerant, kindly members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. 

A key feature of this Movement, as of Catholic Worker, would be the youthfulness of many of its more active members. 

As the membership would tend to self-select in the direction of Catholics in good standing (despite the lack of formal membership prerequisites), so also would it tend to self-select in the direction of the exact sciences. People in the Movement would, in other words, tend to come from pure and applied maths, from theoretical computer science, from theoretical and experimental physics and chemistry and (to a perhaps lesser degree?) from various branches of engineering. With the sofware engineers (the kind of people who propose improvements to the Linux and GNU Hurd kernels) and the theoretical computer scientists (the kind of people who study "Cook's Theorem" and "NP Completeness"), there might also be at least a few people pioneering in whatever disciplines might now be emerging at the interface of biology and formal computer science. (These, as I in my ignorance imagine it, are the pioneers examining questions like "the possible syntactical role of junk DNA", or at any rate "the bitcount or bytecount of the human genome".) 

The Movement would not feature, at any rate in any very central way, humanists who study history-and-philosophy-of-science. Always the emphasis, as I dream of it, would be on the scientifically engaged doers, rather than on the humanistically engaged commenters. 


I imagine poverty in scientific ability or scientific attainments to be no disqualification. In this respect, the Movement would be unlike those groupings of the eminent which are the national Academies - Britain's Royal Society, for instance, or indeed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at Città del Vaticano. 

Generally speaking, poverty is a topic of theological interest. 

Obvious is material poverty. In Toronto alone, this has generated a cohort of possibly five, seven or ten thousand homeless individuals or near-homeless individuals.

Anyone wanting a reminder of the cohort is welcome to walk south from the University of Toronto campus, along the west side of McCaul. Where the Salvation Army used to house dozens of indigent men, in at least some kind of semi-private semi-dignity, there is as of recent weeks or months just a sign, announcing that the "Hope Shelter Operations are now closed." 

Then we have the emotional poverty of the financially well-off, such as I cited in my posting of 2016-08-08 or 2016-08-09, under the heading "Muzzo-family/Toomas Conciliation Project (DDO&P and Convict)". Readers should note from that posting, and study, a frightening YouTube clip, in which a person of marked financial affluence boasts of her repeated visits to the Playboy Mansion, and of other  cognate (to any sane mind, negative) things in her life. 

We have a kind of cultural poverty, as when some eminent mathematician or physicist proves uninformed on Dante or Bach. Although I have not myself encountered such cases of philistinism, I am willing to bet on their existence. Indeed we get more than a hint of the various dark possibilities upon reading the Leavis-Snow 1950s "Two Cultures" debate, with physicist-novelist C.P.Snow himself looking a bit shaky. (Prof. Leavis, as a literary critic of eminence,  is pitiless in ridiculing Snow's condescending attitude to Ibsen.) 

And we have scientific poverty. 

I know scientific poverty when I tremble over my C-minus in 1990s third-year quantum mechanics, and I think also in 1990s fourth-year nonlinear physics. I know scientific poverty when I tremble over my failure to have retained anything at all from the theory of complex-numbers integration, beyond the standard joke:

QN: What is the contour integral of western Europe? 

ANSW: Zero. Because all the Poles are in eastern Europe. 

We do well at all times and in all social contexts to remember our Church's "Preferential Option for the Poor". All the more urgent, and all the more joyous, is this injunction now, in the wake of Mother Theresa's 2016-09-04 canonization. 


I am reminded of the joy possible in poverty not only by this past weekend's ceremonial, but also by some unexpected, almost exactly contemporaneous, e-mail correspondence from a visually impaired (perhaps even fully blind) Catholic lady in Australia. 

My correspondent writes: Within Catholic Christianity, at its best, people with disability are viewed as having full agency and personhood, possessing an equal share in Christ's plan  of salvation.

She goes on to remark the following: /.../ a monastic tradition has arisen in which the gifts and charism of persons with a disability particular to said disability are celebrated within orders such as the Benedictine Sisters of Christ Crucified, the Blind  Presentationists (a beautiful order for women with little or no sight that sadly is confined to Italy and parts of South America), plus the Little Sisters Disciples of the Lamb (an order for women  with Down's Syndrome). For the first two of these, I have not yet managed to find Web materials. For the third, however, Web documentation is quickly retrieved, by googling on the six-word string little sisters disciples of the Lamb


And a further reminder of the joy possible in poverty (this more particularly addresses my own personal condition) comes from,_stigma_of_autism/1112005. Here  Pope Francis is quoted as saying: 

Everyone should be committed to promoting acceptance, encounter and solidarity through concrete support and by encouraging renewed hope.  In this way we can contribute to breaking down the isolation and, in many cases, the stigma burdening people with autism spectrum disorders, and just as often their families.

This must not be an anonymous or impersonal accompaniment, but one of listening to the profound needs that arise from the depths of a pathology which, all too often, struggles to be properly diagnosed and accepted without shame or withdrawing into solitude. 


So what is it that the dreamed-of "XYZ Grouping" actually does? 

I dare not write too much.

There will, of course, be bonds of prayer. 

And there will be forms of service, of the most varied sort, both through scientific-engineering publication and through hands-on work. Two examples, from opposite ends of the theory-down-into-applications continuum, must suffice for today. 

(1) I wish myself to write, eventually, a set of "White Papers" in radio physics, for the particular benefit of the ham-radio communities in countries including Estonia and Canada. In the "White Papers" would be duly careful discussion of things I have in many cases not yet mastered, and yet am working on in a spirit of cheerful scientific poverty - most importantly, the application of tensors, and eventually of Special Relativity, to the mathematics of electromagnetic waves. (It will be appropriate, in particular, to have a White Paper revealing that the difference between an electrostatic field and a magnetic field is not intrinsic, but frame-relative: a magnetic field is an electrostatic field in something other than the rest frame of the field source.) 

(2) It would be good to see someone, in a makerspace spirit, develop a robust food-refrigeration solution, appropriate for manufacturers in a cooperative, worker-owned economy, perhaps in a country (Sudan? Kenya? Peru?) that cannot attain, or else that has resolutely forsworn, western affluence. Engineers might develop - I have also pointed this out today in a comment at - a     Peltier-cooler ice wand. This device would have no moving parts beyond one microswitch, and could create a fist-sized or melon-sized ball of ice when immersed in a tub of water. The waste heat from the hot side of the thermocouple would be conducted some suitable distance away from the water by a heat pipe, such as is used with fans in upmarket computer-CPU cooling systems. 

The microswitch would be useful for turning current on and off. Let it, for instance, switch current off to the Peltier thermocouple whenever the ice ball exceeds a certain size, i.e., whenever the buoyancy of the wand-and-ice-assemblage exceeds a certain limit. 

The ice wand might perhaps be developed into a more robust small-scale refrigeration solution than the silly "bar fridges" that are now sold at WalMart and the like, under such names as "Danby". These silly "bar fridges" last for only two or five years, have lots of moving parts and lots of electronics, and are said by repair specialists to be not worth repairing once they break. 

A single-person household could keep most perishables cold and dry in glass jars in a single chilled-water tub, while keeping such water-tolerant things as beets and carrots and eggs right in the chilled water.

For a family, a couple of tubs, and a couple of wands, would be appropriate.  

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