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Center Snapshot: Doris Hamill
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 life."

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 form "complexity."

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 complex system.

"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 'complexification.' "

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. God exists."

"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 fitness.

"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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