Center Snapshot: Doris Hamill
Image above: In an office with tapestries on its walls, Doris Hamill develops business for NASA with the Department of
Defense and intelligence community. Photo credit: NASA/Sean Smith
By: Jim Hodges
It grabbed her perhaps half her life ago. All of us have pondered the
meaning at life at odd, passing moments, perhaps, as part of the nature of
introspection, often fed by education and experience.
Doris Hamill pondered it, but "it wouldn't let me go," she said. "(Ideas
about the reason for human existence) have grabbed me and taken over my
Those ideas propelled her to write and publish "The Challenge of Why: A
Secular Search for Human Purpose," and it's propelling her now to revise --
not the book, but the way she presents her arguments because she believes
she has a story to tell.
The book is a product of a combination – or perhaps collision -- of a
Catholic school education, followed by the study of science in college.
"Things didn't line up very well, and I just refused to believe that they
couldn't line up," said Hamill, who works in the Strategic Relationships
Office at NASA Langley, developing business for NASA with the Department of
Defense and intelligence community.
"As I continued to think and understand, I began to see some lineup. Though
it was very obscure, subtle, things did start to line up."
That continuum of thought, first, to try to explain it through fiction. It
was a false start.
"It turned out to be an extremely long thing, and I couldn't get it
published," she said.
Still, "why" wouldn’t leave her alone.
"When I turned 50, I thought 'half my life at least is over, and I've got to
get this stuff down so it makes sense, so if I get hit by a truck tomorrow,
at least I'd have it all laid out."
She began again in 2003, this time on a scholarly work. "The Challenge of
Why" is a thesis, a combination of research and philosophy that postulates
that human progress is a result of "differentiation" and "integration" that
That "differentiation" allows for society’s functions to be specialized, as
a car is built by people who each have an individual job. But, like the car,
society itself requires that "differentiation" to be integrated into a
"Every good thing that we have," Hamill said, "excepting maybe our husbands
and wives, every good technological thing that we have is a result of this
And then she takes it a step further, bringing forth the real purpose of the
book: She maintains that society itself produces a better life for all
people through this same kind of complexification.
"If you extrapolate from that, what does that demand from us in the future?"
Hamill said. "It demands that we work together, and more than just to
produce a technological product."
Complexification could produce "transcendence” into a society that evolves
beyond Darwinian selection into a culture in which everyone functions in a
way to benefit everyone else.
"It's quite possible, I think," said Hamill, "that if we can integrate
ourselves more fully, we can transcend the human condition into something
else qualitatively different."
As Hamill explaineds her book, and the thought processes behind it, emotion
gushed forth and she grew increasingly animated.
"Of course there's passion," she said. "If you understand the intellectual
case I'm making, it's very easy to become touched by it, to understand what
it implies, not only for oneself personally, but for one's environment."
The subtitle "A Secular Search for Human Purpose" can be a bit misleading.
Although the book doesn't start with a belief in God, by the end, Hamill
concludes, "God, then, is not a mystical being. God is within us and among
us, as ambient and tangible as our character and our culture. God is real.
"When you get through bringing in all kinds of scientific knowledge and
logic and argument,” Hamill said, “what you have is something that is indeed
compatible with a lot of the world’s religions – not one religion or another
religion, but all religions."
Hamill's husband, Jim Van Laak, the deputy administrator for the Federal
Aviation Administration for commercial space, shares her passion for her
work. He's even working on his own, follow-up contribution, "The Challenge
of How," which shows how complex societies could govern themselves by
employing the same disciplined approaches that NASA uses to create complex
technical systems like the Space Station.
"I'm the scientist, if you will, of this partnership," Hamill explains. "I'm
the one who figures out the principles. Jim is the engineer – the one who
turns those principles into something useful."
Back at the office, Hamill shows something of the same passion for a small
community project she does on the side of her business development work. She
is working with the city of Hampton to produce "biochar." It's plant matter
that's heated until everything but its carbon chain backbone is boiled away.
The charcoal-like material that remains keeps the carbon from being released
into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
Biochar is mixed into the soil to provide a home for microbes that help
plants to grow. Biochar also holds in water and fertilizer. Sequestering
carbon away from the atmosphere and reducing the need for fertilizer
contribute to a more sustainable.
Away from Langley, Hamill's time is so consumed by the work on her
philosophical activities that her only leisure activity is walking for
"There's not room in my life for another passion the size of this one,"
Hamill said of the message of "The Challenge of Why."
It's why she's branching out, seeking to turn that message into pictures,
illustrations, perhaps even animation -- smaller, perhaps more easily
digestible bits for audiences that seek more media dimensions than are
offered in a book.
"It's not enough to produce the book," Hamill said. "I've got to figure out
how to spread the word.
"If you could fit it on a bumper sticker, they'd have had that bumper
sticker years ago. The story is complex, and if you rush to the bottom line,
the story is not compelling."
It is to her, and she wants it to be compelling to everyone else. For
Hamill, it's a mission that has held onto her for half her life. One that
still won't let her go.
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