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Universities should restore spiritual side, says Professor Martin Hellman
STANFORD -- All universities have trouble dealing with the spiritual side of life, Martin Hellman told the small group of graduate students who gathered in Memorial Church.
The Stanford professor of electrical engineering, a well-known expert on cryptography and data security, had been invited by the students on the day before Thanksgiving to participate in an informal discussion on values as part of the "What Matters to Me and Why?" forum.
Responding to a question regarding the difference between knowledge and wisdom, Hellman said that "with the reformation, the renaissance and the birth of science, people have reacted to the human elements of experience as tainted, because they were. In doing so, however, we threw the baby out with the bath water. It was a necessary thing to do at the time, but now it's time to bring [the spiritual] back in."
Drawing an analogy with physics, Hellman said that classical logic has been carried to its extreme, and it is time for a new paradigm. As was the case with physics early in the century, when experiments began to get results that didn't fit, classical logic has begun showing its limitations. For example, we now have 50,000 nuclear warheads, he pointed out. Each was built following logical steps. But the end result is unstable and life-threatening.
In physics, the answer was the development of quantum physics, "which gave us the transistor and a number of other magical things," he said.
"Now we need something like quantum logic, but people seem more resistant to this idea than physicists were," Hellman said.
Although he is culturally Jewish, Hellman said he distances himself from orthodox Jewish religion. Nevertheless, he said he considers life to be a spiritual journey. "It may not always seem like that, but based on my life experience, it is," he said.
Hellman was born in 1945, a Jewish boy in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in the Bronx. "I had more enemies than friends. I'd like to blame it all on prejudice, but also didn't have any friends at the all-Jewish school that I attended."
When he was younger, having friends, being socially acceptable and getting out of the Bronx were his major goals in life. Academics, particularly mathematics, was a means of escape. When he reached college, he recalled trying to adopt "a playboy lifestyle" without much success.
After meeting and marrying his wife, Dorothy, and going into graduate school, Hellman said, the most important thing in his life became mathematics. This focus continued when he was a young professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Stanford. But after this single-minded focus gained him a growing reputation, his thoughts began to turn to finances.
"Every time the car broke down, it threw us into a financial crisis, so I began thinking about getting rich," he said. So he began parlaying his reputation and skill in data security into additional income. Around this time, his wife went back to school, became a certified public accountant and a successful business woman.
"Outwardly, we appeared to be a very successful couple. But the foundations of our marriage were rotten," he said.
At about this time, the couple became involved in Creative Initiative, an ecumenical Christian organization, and an affiliated group, World Beyond War. After a period of keeping the organization at arm's length, Hellman said, he threw himself into it totally. "For the first time, I became very open to other points of view," he said.
The couple's involvement began a healing process that saved their marriage, in part by snapping him out of what he calls the "Stanford professor mode." He describes this as having two reactions to everything that you are told: "You're wrong" or "I already knew that."
While Hellman was active in World Beyond War he stopped doing research or consulting work and threw all his energy into its efforts to end nuclear war. "I saw it as the one organization that can save the world," he said.
After six years of working evenings and weekends with the group, Hellman and his wife began to see its limitations and blind spots. "We went on a vacation and something snapped," he said. He took a six-month sabbatical to work things out. He thought he was done with math and done with World Beyond War. As he tried to begin meditating and praying, however, his mind kept turning back to mathematics. So he ended spending the six months playing with equations.
"So I thought I could return to being a professor. But in the last three years, I've learned that things that once were either easy or fun for me -- teaching and serving on committees -- have lost their appeal," he said. So Hellman is currently on a leave of absence without pay and plans to retire next year. "I'm asking God to tell me what to do next," he said.
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