The Meaning of Spirit: Brown on What Matters to Him

This past Tuesday at 7:00 PM, the Religious Life Council (RLC) hosted Mathematics Master Timothy Brown, Ph.D. H'84 '04 P'04 '08 for this term's installment of "What Matters to Me and Why," a series of lectures where staff and faculty speak about what is important to them.

This past Tuesday at 7:00 PM, the Religious Life Council (RLC) hosted Mathematics Master Timothy Brown, Ph.D. H'84 '04 P'04 '08 for this term's installment of "What Matters to Me and Why," a series of talks in which staff and faculty speak about what is important to them.

According to Co-President of the RLC Danica Bajaj '21, this event "aims to bring light to stories of faculty members on campus that you wouldn't hear otherwise." Bajaj selected Brown for this term's lecture because she knew he was retiring at the end of this year. According to Bajaj, "it's really hard to have your last term be virtual, so I was thinking that this would be a nice way to make him have a special ending."

Brown opened the evening by describing his view of the world. "I'm a resolutely secular person clinging firmly…to my doctoral training as an ecologist and evolutionary biologist as a basis for explaining how the world is the way it is. I'm utterly comfortable with randomness and natural selection as a creative force," said Brown. However, he acknowledged that in his talk, he will eventually need to reference the word 'spirit,' which he described as "some form of serenity or peace" that he has been able to experience.

Brown then transitioned into his time here at Lawrenceville and all the people he has encountered. Speaking to each of his students, Brown said, "I have an enormous pleasure in seeing you all grow in the few years you're here. You all discover so much about the world, about other people, and about yourselves."

He then continued to speak about why he decided to teach math. According to Brown, he had "an agenda that was partly political. Most of [his] generation [were] convinced that mathematics was something that only a small proportion of people…were interested in." Not learning math was "almost a point of pride because it meant you were somehow more creative and less coldly rational," Brown said. He believes that this "misguided attitude" is a large reason why his generation has left a huge mess for the next generation to clean up. "You're going to need math to fix things. Climate change, election reform, income inequality, poverty, racism. There are statistical and mathematical truths about these issues that more people need to understand."

On a less serious note, aside from the topic of his profession, Brown said that laughter is something that is important to him. "Those of you who have been in my classroom know this already. I need to get laughs for my spirit," he mentioned. Brown added that one of the reasons why he wanted to teach was because "every day, [he has] a captive audience that enjoys laughing. Math can be a hard sell, and when people think they get a chance to laugh, it's a lot easier to come to class, read it, and learn something too. So hopefully, [he's] contributing to people's well-being as well as satisfying [his] own needs."

For Brown, what really feeds his spirit is experiencing awe. On what inspires him, Brown said, "I admit, ideas in mathematics and statistics sometimes move me more than you think. Music can inspire all as well." However, above all, he is most drawn towards the natural world. He said, "I grew up in a small town in Maine…When I was on the water or in the mountains, I was filled with a sense of ease that I don't feel anywhere else."

Brown ended his speech by contemplating the greater ripples of his action. Leaving his audience with a closing statement, he said, "Everyone talks about being in the moment. Those times are usually fleeting…All those moments I've described...about…are times when I [lived] in the moment. I know other people find those feelings elsewhere…but those moments nourish your spirit, whatever spirit is. Find what works for you, and keep at it."

Reflecting on Brown's speech, Kelsey McAlister '20 said, "Dr. Brown's ingenuity as he explored math's purpose in all of our lives sparked me. It was interesting to hear how math has transformed to serve a key role in disciplines such as government and policy today...My favorite part, however, was the question and answer dialogue after his talk because those thirty minutes truly encapsulated just how much of an impact Dr. Brown has had on this community."

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