A Hero Departs

Friday, December 24, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Our modern day heroes tend to be celebrities – movie stars or rock stars that we recognize as popular, but do not hold up as champions of virtue or moral behavior.  We might admire a war hero or firefighter for their courage; we may respect a politician for their principled stand on an issue; in the aftermath of a natural disaster we could appreciate the sacrifice of a doctor or nurse who provides aid. 

Why aren’t there more role models for scientists and engineers?  In some ways, society today holds up those that work in these fields as experts – many a study is justified simply by saying “scientists have found…” without any further evidence.  In contrast, technical experts are also portrayed in popular media as narrow, absent-minded brainiacs who miss the big picture, who misunderstand the impact and possible danger of their devices, who lack social and cultural graces.  Perhaps our ambivalence towards the creators of technology stems from our conflicted feelings towards technology itself. In the December 2010 issue of The Alantic, editor James Bennet notes:  “It seems part of the contemporary condition to feel simultaneously blessed and cursed, liberated and trapped, by technology.” (p. 12) 

One engineer (and amateur scientist) who stood as an example and mentor was Charles P. Spoelhof.  Chuck studied physics and optics as a young man in college, then pursued engineering as a graduate student.  He spent his career as an optical engineer at Kodak Corporation, rising to the position of Vice-President of Engineering.  But Chuck was never one to pull rank or tout his own credentials.  He was a humble servant who was always curious about how things worked.  He constantly dug beneath the surface to figure out what made something tick, whether it was a man-made contraption or a wonder of the natural creation. 

Chuck Spoelhof was an engineer par excellence, a problem-solver who always had another idea or another approach to try.  During the height of the cold war, he became part of a small group of experts that consulted with the newly formed National Reconnaissance Office, developing the highly sophisticated camera technology used in spy planes and eventually in satellites.  In effect, Mr. Spoelhof was one of those that helped us win the cold war without having a war. These cameras provided the intelligence information vital to keeping the cold war from erupting into full fledged nuclear warfare.  After keeping his involvement secret for many years, he was finally recognized publicly 40 years later in a special ceremony. He went on to work with NASA to develop the techniques of lunar photography that identified appropriate landing sites for the Apollo missions. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1981.  He also served on the blue ribbon commission to fix the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990.  In 2006 he was honored by Calvin College with a Distinguished Alumni Award.

Chuck had a special desire for sharing his passion with generations of engineering students.  Over the past twenty years, from the start of our four-year accredited program until just recently, Chuck has come twice yearly for a week-long visit to review senior engineering project teams at Calvin College.  Meeting with teams for two hours, he advised them based on his extensive expertise in management, business, and engineering.  Students found him kind and warm-hearted, but also sharp-witted and quick to identify risks and weaknesses in their projects.  He steered more than one team away from near disaster to a successful finish.  It is particularly meaningful to me that one of the first teams Chuck reviewed was my own team when I was a student at Calvin and as he finished out his many years of service, Chuck reviewed teams that I now advised as a faculty member at Calvin. Virtually every semester he has also given a seminar for our department, covering a wide variety of topics, including: “Design of a Unique Camera”, “Engineering Goofs and How They Could Have Been Prevented”, “Lessons from the Wright Brothers”, “Engineering Past, Present, & Future”, and “The 21st Century Engineer.” Along with Professor Ned Nielsen and me, he taught our first business and engineering interim in Europe in January, 1997.
Chuck Spoelhof was a role model because of his intelligence, drive, curiosity, and passion.  More importantly, he was a mentor to generations of engineers and scientists because he was also humble, kind, and gentle—he modeled the fruits of the spirit in his professional and personal relationships.  Even at the end while battling cancer, on a recent visit I found Chuck in his hospital bed with papers, books, and notepads strewn about.  He wanted to be sure that the current engineering seniors at Calvin understood the importance of leadership and innovation.  Chuck was my mentor and friend and I will miss him dearly – he went to be with his Lord and Savior last week, passing away on December 18, at the age of 80.

Chuck also loved astronomy.  He sought a deeper understanding of the heavens, appreciating the stars not only for their visual beauty but also for their complex inner workings.  At his funeral, the pastor shared these words from scripture, noting how Chuck beautifully integrated his faith with his science and engineering in appreciating the skies above:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
  the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
  night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
  no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
  their words to the ends of the world.
      (Psalm 19:1-4, NIV)

On this Christmas eve of 2010, I am mindful of the star that stood over Bethlehem to guide those mages from the east to find Jesus.  Certainly Chuck has followed that star throughout his life and now is home with his Savior, Christ the Lord.


Christian Mission

Friday, December 10, 2010

By Steven H. VanderLeest

The Battlestar Galactica science fiction series that aired on television in the late 1970’s was recently re-imagined into a new series that finished in 2009 with a two-part finale titled “Daybreak.”  In this final episode, the character Lee Adama comments on technology as the product of our science and engineering: “If there’s one thing that we should have learned, it’s that… you know, our brains have always outraced our hearts. Our science charges ahead, but our souls lag behind. Let’s start anew.”  That’s not an uncommon notion in our society – that perhaps we need to step away from our technologically sophisticated world and get back to a simpler, purer time.  I agree that there is significant truth to the idea that we develop technology faster than we learn how to properly manage it, often learning by hard experience what works and what doesn’t.  (Civil engineer Henry Petroski has proposed that in fact we often develop and refine our technology precisely through learning from our failures.)  However, though technology certainly has its dangers (physically, philosophically, ethically), the solution is not to reject all technology.

For Christians, I think there is additional motivation to pursue technological development.  God does not intend for humans, his appointed stewards of his creation, to simply step back and let the creation revert to some “pure” state.  Rather we are expected to develop the creation in ways that glorify our Creator.  For example, consider how cultivation of the land is treated as a normal and expected part of duties.  God’s blessing is described in Psalm 104:14:  “He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate— bringing forth food from the earth.”  Humans are expected to tend plants – to take action to modify the land in ways that help certain plants to flourish.  Conversely, God’s curse is described as a time when human caring for the land goes lax: “I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there.” (Isaiah 5:6, NIV).  The land reverts to a primitive state that is decidedly worse in a practical and philosophical sense when humans do not care for it.  That care once again includes development and even selective modification, such as pruning.  I think this calling traces back to the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28.  The first task given to humankind is to fill the earth and subdue it.  Although the initial reading of this command is to have lots of babies, the deeper meaning is to perform our role as stewardship and caretaking by cultivating the creation so that creation flourishes, and we ourselves flourish as a result.  Consider the other end of the Bible (and the other end of history):  in Revelations we see a technological development made better – not a new version of the garden called Eden, but a new version of the city called Jerusalem.

I recently heard an engineering student exhort his colleagues to put their faith to action by going beyond simply sprinkling Christian management principles into their work, but by a radical rethinking of their work, noting that he was going into the mission field.  On the one hand he is absolutely right, that Christ calls us to turn aside from the world and follow him with all our hearts.  This student was not suggesting that one must put aside technology, in fact likely intends to make technology a part of his mission service. However, what makes me cringe is that I also hear in that statement the implication that no Christian is really living out their faith unless they become a missionary in a developing country.  The radical turning to Christ should go further than the mission field.  It should encompass our whole world and life, all our thinking and knowledge, all our actions and behaviors, all our careers and roles. A corporate CEO is called to be a Christian in that role.  A stay-at-home mom is called to be a Christian in that role.  Teachers, nurses, politicians, musicians, and students are called.  So are you—called to be a Christian in all your roles. Walter M. Miller, Jr. captures this idea well in his novel A Canticle for Leibowitz where an abbot in a monastery after an imagined nuclear holocaust says “I see nothing inconsistent in monks of Christ building a flying machine, although it would be more like them to build a praying machine.”  Christians should certainly pray, but sometimes they should also fly!  Christians should be pursuing the Great Commission, but this command from Christ did not replace the Cultural Mandate.  Put the two together and I think it gives us an idea of the tension of being in the world but not of it:  called to be not only members of the Kingdom of heaven, but also citizens on earth as transformative agents. 

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest