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Reader Mail

Science and Religion Spark a Debate

Readers react to controversial letter
Kristen Clark '09

Photo by Mark McCarty

This is in response to the letter titled “Science Can Explain Everything” written by Professor Roger Sloboda ’74 of Dartmouth College in the Summer 2006 issue of Rensselaer alumni magazine.

It strikes me as very unscientific for Prof. Sloboda to take issue with a quote by Kristen Clark ’09 that “Science can’t explain everything” but then, in an act of faith, he proclaims that science will eventually explain everything. My observation is that until science explains everything and every possible discovery has been discovered as well as explained, wisdom should dictate acknowledgement of the truth stated by Kristen Clark.

Furthermore, taking to task the publication of what is one of the nation’s leading technological universities for not having a more “forward-thinking point of view” seems to indicate a one-sided mind-set that detours true scientific investigation and evaluation.

Professor Sloboda has taken an obvious stance against intelligent design, which is his prerogative. However, his blind faith in science is no loftier than the beliefs of those he chooses to demean.

Scientific method has had and will have a tremendous amount to offer to mankind. Where, however, science is unable to explain, it might be wise to regroup and rethink the possibility of the existence of the “intelligent designer” who might also be the “perfect scientist.”

Eugene Zak ’48
Queensbury, N.Y.

What an amazing controversy you’re starting to brew! I was thoroughly amused by Roger Sloboda’s reaction to some Kristen Clark ’09 comments you published. Roger’s perspective confirms that even the most credentialed among us don’t seem to know where science ends and prejudice starts.

The scientific method, which Roger defends, and so should we all, begins with an assumption (postulate, hypothesis, etc.). Most scientific calculations, dissertations, arguments, whatever, are overflowing with assumptions. There are probably more assumptions in science than there are laws. If science can explain everything, and one day it will, according to Roger, then it will have to rely less on assumptions and more on facts.

Ian Molineaux ’69
Norfolk, Va.

Professor Roger Sloboda of Dartmouth College writes that “science can explain everything.” This statement is absurd on its face.

First, “everything” cannot be known, and so it is irrational to assert that science can explain it. Second, “everything” must include the concept of “that which cannot be explained,” or it is not “everything.” Since it contains this concept, then “everything” cannot be explained by science. (If the professor wishes to argue that there is no such thing as “that which cannot be explained” because science can explain everything, then he is caught in a circular argument. He is defining “everything” as “that which science can explain.” Thus: Science can explain everything, because “everything” is by definition that which science can explain.) Third, the professor blandly asserts that the fact that everything has not yet been explained by science does not prove the weakness of the scientific method. But unless you posit that the scientific method is capable of explaining everything, it does not follow that the method is weak because it cannot do so. It is simply intended to explain those things which are susceptible to scientific analysis. But to assume that everything is susceptible to scientific analysis is also irrational. It is, in fact, an act of faith: “I may not know what it is, but I firmly believe that science can explain it.” And so, in the face of the unknown, the professor makes a leap of faith; yet it is faith, presumably, which he wishes to deny. This is another contradiction.

Why the professor cannot see these contradictions is, to put it simply, inexplicable.

Stephen Rivele
Burbank, Calif.

I came across the sardonic note from one of our ’74 alumni regarding what he felt was inappropriate coverage of spiritual faith in a prior issue. Classic discussion he would lead us into, “is there a supreme entity or, is man all there is.” In stating “science can and will eventually explain everything” I’m left wondering if our eminent Dartmouth professor has just elevated himself above others. Sounds like a cult.

Dave Ryan ’79
Phoenix, Ariz.

Roger Sloboda’s objection to your printing of Kristen Clark’s quote “Science can’t explain everything” reveals a slant and prejudice which is not a scientific view of our world. Scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton, Robert Boyce, James Clerk Maxwell, and Michael Faraday believed in the Christian God of creation. Mr. Sloboda’s blindness has excluded him from this distinguished group of men who had “a more forward-thinking point of view” (as your magazine does). Thank you and I look forward to a scientific study/article on intelligent design.

Rick Johnson ’73
Torrington, Conn.


The Square Stone

The article on the “square stone” was easily the most enjoyable piece in the whole issue. I have worn my ring continuously for nearly 40 years, except for a stretch of about a year in the 1970s when I lost it but then miraculously found it again. I cannot tell you how many times I have been in meetings where I’ve spotted the distinctive RPI ring on another attendee. It truly does create an instant connection.

Roy Wepner ’68
Demarest, N.J.


Renaissance Man

Father Tom Phelan, who died last spring, was ever so much more than the RPI Catholic chaplain. He was a wonderful, well-rounded man who also served for many years as dean of the RPI School of Humanities and Social Sciences (H&SS).

I didn’t know Tom while I was a student, and in fact never met him until 1989, 40 years after receiving my degree. We met through our mutual interest in early Americana and American folk art, of which we were both collectors. Tom’s big three-story house was filled from basement to attic with early American furniture, paintings, and silverware. He had paintings that he loaned to museums to be exhibited. Behind his house, he had many pots filled with a variety of flowers and his gardens were beautifully landscaped with colorful perennials. He took care of everything himself.

When H&SS wanted to get more incoming freshmen to enroll in its own degree-granting fields, faculty from the school went out to visit high schools to talk with guidance counselors. Tom understood the best way to get the faculty to do this was for him to go himself and lead the way; and that’s what he did.

Tom Phelan wasn’t just a beloved Catholic chaplain, he was a renaissance man. He was interested in and a leader in a variety of fields and a wonderful example of how an alumnus who never knew a faculty member as a student, can return to the campus and be inspired by him decades later.

David Krashes ’49
Princeton, Mass.


The Little Things

Nanotechnology (Rensselaer magazine, Summer 2006) is, unquestionably, a revolutionary scientific and engineering development. Your article was most interesting to this pre-war graduate, who previously had encountered smallness only to the extent of a course — in Walker Lab — of microchemistry.

However, spectacularly new and bizarre as it may be, nanotechnology is still subject to the limitations of our four-dimensional world. Magnitudes of length, width, depth, and time may be increased any number of times. But, they can never be decreased more than one time. One from one is zero!

Hence, my editorial objection to a nanometer being described as “about 80,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.” Or “coatings... with the potential to reduce the rate of wear by 1,000 times or more.”

Nit-picking? Not to an RPI-trained proponent of technical accuracy — especially in an RPI-supported publication.

Ironically, the article’s title neatly encapsulates my position. “It’s the Little Things That Matter.”

Ed Rice ’38
Wilmington, Del.

Author’s response: If you say x is 10 times bigger than y, then that means you would multiply y by 10 to get x (x=10y). If, on the other hand, you say that x is 10 times smaller than y, then you would divide y by 10 to get x (x=y/10). So when we say a nanometer is about 80,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair (w), then that means a nanometer is w/80,000, which would only be zero if w was zero.


Serendipity

Having just returned from a tour of Greece I want to share a most coincidental and delightful occasion. In the glow of the Acropolis, 29 of us tourists were at an icebreaker libation in Athens, Greece, getting to know one another before setting forth on our adventure. My conversation with a gentleman from Sunnyvale, Calif., turned to Schenectady, N.Y. He replied that he knew about the city because he had gone to school in Troy, N.Y. Sensing where this might lead, I raised my hand with my class ring and asked, “This school?” To which, Jack Joos, E.E., ’54 replied, “Yes.” Instantly, we embarked on questions about professors shared, pulling “drop dead” question cards from a pile in recitation classes, etc. But there was more to come.

We were introduced to our guide and proceeded to introduce ourselves one by one. At my turn, I expressed my joy at finding a fellow Rensselaer alumnus in our small group. We were somewhat amazed to quickly learn that there were more engineers in the group, one of whom rose to say that he was John Patterson, B. Met. E., ’47 from Winchester, Va.

Needless to say, I have made new friends from RPI and, if I may, would like to tweak the alma mater: “…Here’s to the friends we’ve made and continue to make at dear old RPI.”

Harry Carlson ’53
Windsor, N.Y.


We’d love to hear from you! To provide space for as many letters as possible, we often must edit them for length. Please address correspondence to: Rensselaer Magazine, Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180, e-mail to alum.mag@rpi.edu, or call (518) 276-6531.

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