July 26, 2006

The Eye of the Mountain

My flight arrived at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Thursday night around 11PM. I would be in Utah for a few days to visit friends before I headed out to grad school. As I waited to deboard the plane, I looked out my window and saw the black outlines of the Wasatch Mountains. As always they were stately and silent, watching me with stone eyes. As always they were strong and steady, reaching for me with their granite arms.

It's been seven months since I left Utah. In December 2005, I moved back to DC to start a job at the Smithsonian. Seven months ago I was ready to leave the West behind me: I was tired of the people and I was tired of the culture. My last four months in Provo were bleak and exhausting and I wanted nothing more than to return home to Maryland where there were trees and thunderstorms. Other than the friends I was leaving behind, I didn't think I would miss anything in Utah.

But once you live in the West, in the cradle of the Rockies and the Wasatch, you will always long for the mountains. As I drove around Lehi and Provo this past weekend, I couldn't tear my eyes from the landscape around me. The mountains, flushed with summer, burst with green trees and shrubs. The craggles and cliffs blushed with red and purple when the sun rose and set. Marylanders may claim that we do indeed have mountains---the Appalachians---but while we have greenery and lushness in abundance, the East Coast can offer no substitute for the high peaks of the Rockies.



I haven't always looked at the mountains so favorably. When I first arrived in Utah in 2000 to start my freshman year at BYU, I was flabbergasted by my new western surroundings. Where were all the trees? And the little rolling hills? Why was everything brown and dead? The mountains were foreign to me---giant globs of rock and dirt that belonged in paintings and calendars but not in my backyard.

"Maybe I'll do a semester at BYU and then transfer to the University of Maryland," I told my mom as we drove from the SLC airport to Provo.

My mom smiled. "Well, just give BYU a try first."

I didn't reply. I just stared out of the car window at the vast sky and the towering mountain peaks around me, wondering if I had made a mistake.

Once school started, however, I adjusted quickly to my new life and new surroundings. I loved college---staying up late and waking up late, making friends with the girls on my dorm floor, flirting with boys in the cafeteria, and basking in my newfound independence.

And slowly, I began to appreciate the mountains that circled me. They greeted me every morning as I walked to school from my dorm. They followed me as I travelled from class to class and watched me as I fell in love with boy after boy. They quickly became a regular feature of my life and eventually I barely even noticed that they were there. Yet the mountains always loomed above me, watching me year after year as I grew from a naive 17 year-old freshman to a not-so-naive 22 year-old graduate.

They watched me find my Y Group on DT field and they noted the jittery butterflies in my stomach when I met my first BYU crush. They watched me take my first test at the Testing Center. They watched me head to Wendy's at midnight to satisfy my late-night snack attacks. They watched me in Kiwanis Park, standing beneath a tree and kissing in the rain. They watched me as I headed into my interview for London Study Abroad. They watched me as I posed for pictures after commencement ceremonies in the Marriott Center.



And so, the mountains surrounding Provo have come to mean much more to me than mere globs of rock and dirt. In a way, they are a testament to a significant chapter of my life. The mountains will stay steady as the rest of BYU and Provo alters rapidly. They will remain unchanging as my own memories fade and betray me.

I'm sure many years from now I will return to Provo to bring my children to BYU. As I drive around the city and as I walk around campus, I will marvel at the changes that have occurred during my absence. I'll wonder what happened to U Hall and why Cafe Rio went out of business. I'll try to take my kids up to Bridal Veil Falls only to find out it dried out five years before. I'm sure I'll feel a little disoriented, a little sad, and very much nostalgic. I'll ask myself: What happened to the BYU that I knew?

And then I would look up above me and see the familiar shape of the Wasatch range. Ah yes, I would realize---I'm not the only one who remembers this place as it once was. I will find comfort knowing the mountains will continue to guard the memory of those six precious years that I spent in their presence.

July 18, 2006

Just and Unjust Wars

Today I attended a lecture about women pilots in Germany during World War II. On the projection screen at the front of the room, the lecturer showed us photo after photo of these women. Some wore tight leather fighter caps and goggles on their foreheads. Others posed with their dark hair blowing in the wind, a wide grin painted on their unlined faces. And others stood next to heavy silver planes---"Hitler's Flying Floozies," as the lecturer joked.

As I listened to the talk, I thought about the National Air and Space Museum, the place where the lecture was held and also the place where I work. Half of my museum is dedicated to aviation (thus Air and Space) and a significant portion of this half focuses on war planes. Combat aircraft can be found all over NASM---suspended from the ceiling or resting snugly on the museum floor. These planes are pretty artifacts, often painted red or green or polished to a shiny silver. Hundreds of visitors pose in front of them every day. "Look at this, son," they say before snapping a picture, "this plane was used in World War I. Your great-grandpa fought in that war."

So much romanticism enshrouds war-time aviation. Daredevil pilots with handsome smiles, tough little planes with colorful emblems, acrobatic manuevers through the cobalt sky. Oftentimes the romanticism is so thick that we forget the noisy engines and the faulty mechanics, the hazardous conditions and the casualty rate. Or we overlook the countless widows and widowers who have lost a spouse or the numberless children who have lost a parent.

War is ugly, but it doesn't seem that way when you walk through a big friendly museum like Air and Space. It doesn't help that the museum primarily focuses on the technological aspects of aviation, rather than the social consequences of these devices. You'll never find a tally besides each plane that tabulates how many people were killed by the very artifact you're taking a picture of. That wouldn't make for a good photograph.

I'm not saying that airplanes are bad or even that war is bad. Planes have good uses as well as bad uses and the same thing goes for war. A war can be just or unjust and it can also be fought justly or unjustly. War is too complicated to be pigeonholed as either right or wrong.

But right or wrong, just or unjust, I find war to be terribly depressing. No matter how noble the cause, war causes families to be torn apart, homes to be destroyed, cities to be ripped asunder, and nations to be crushed. The War in Iraq has brought chaos to the Iraqi people; the recent Israeli attacks in Lebanon have killed over one-hundred people in a few days. And in Sudan, thousands of people are being murdered. Women are raped; men are killed; children are left orphans.

It makes me sad that war has become a normal part of life. It makes me sad that war has regularly stained human history. And it makes me sad that the dream of world peace is indeed only a dream.

At the Air and Space Museum, located a few hundred feet from the war planes, there sits a replica of the Apollo-Soyuz mission. Back in the seventies, an Apollo spacecraft docked with a Russian Soyuz vessel in space. Once the docking procedure was complete, the astronauts floated into each other's ships and shook hands. Some historians say that the Apollo-Soyuz mission was a tremendous step forward in establishing good relations with the USSR. I would agree. Apollo-Soyuz represented two enemies coming together and enjoying one another's company. No threats, no weapons, no war---just a firm handshake and a smile.

I can only wish that we had more artifacts like this in my museum.

July 17, 2006

Nabokov, you genius!


I'm reading Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and I was highly impressed by the first two paragraphs:

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita."

What an introduction!

July 6, 2006

Line by Line, Precept by Precept

My career as a mathematician was very brief. In the fourth grade, I was the fastest multiplier and divider that Stonegate Elementary had ever seen. Thanks to good ol' Kumon math, I was as fast as lightning. 7 x 7? 49. 8 x 2? 16. 10 x 10? 100. Yep, I was that good.

My career as a scientist was even shorter (meaning I never had one). Much to my parents' chagrin, I was always a dunce when it came to science. Newton's Laws of Motion were foreign concepts to me as well as the organization of the Periodic Table of Elements (halogen what?). Good Chinese children excel at biology and physics and grow up to become doctors and engineers. My father received his masters degree in chemical engineering at the University of Virginia, but for some reason my dad's genetic affinity towards math and science was never passed down to me or my siblings. (Sorry Mom and Dad, but you'll have to look to your grandkids to receive the Tung family's first M.D.)

As much as math and science perplex and boggle my mind, I find them to be fascinating subjects. Especially theoretical physics, which attempts to explain the inner-workings of the universe on both macro and micro levels. Multiple dimensions, parallel universes, warp theory---oh my!

I'm currently reading Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe, which explains superstring theory (as well as quantum mechanics, special relativity, and general relativity) in layman's terms. The book truly is an exercise of my mind because these theories are so complex, even when they are dumbed down for dunces like me.

Our universe is a strange place, my friends, and the laws that govern it on a macro level differ from the laws that govern it on a micro level. Weird. And not only are there four dimensions in space, there possibly may be a fifth, a sixth, and even more. Weirder.

Reading The Elegant Universe has made me greatly appreciate the lives and works of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. In many ways, Newton and Einstein are the "prophets" of science. They shattered previous methods of thinking and replaced them with their own radical ideologies. They are the "enlightened ones" who provided answers to centuries-old dilemmas. Their ideas have affected technology, engineering, and astronomy as well as culture and philosophy. People like Sir Newton and Mr. Einstein only come around every few hundred years. Much like Jesus Christ, Mohammed, or Guru Nanak.

An interesting idea has been brewing in my head... In the scriptures we read that humans learn "line by line, precept by precept," meaning we learn a little bit at a time. We can't learn all the lessons we have to learn in a month or in a year. Instead, we learn a little here and we learn a little there, continually building up our well of knowledge and experience.

Thus it makes sense that the realm of science is dictated by this "line by line" methodology as well. Over six-thousand years ago when human civilization first emerged, our ancestors had only a rudimentary understanding of the world around them. Slowly, mathematics and the sciences developed. We grew to understand astronomy, biology, geology, chemistry, and physics. We mapped the constellations, developed measurements, discovered new species, and even harnessed nuclear energy. Our world today is a product of nearly 10,000 years of learning. And what's wonderful is that we will continue to better understand our world and our universe as time continues on---line by line, precept by precept.

OK. So if human understanding and science run on this line-by-line precept, then what about religion? What if, like physics, we are gaining a little knowledge here and a little knowledge there about the nature of god and the extent of his creations?

If this theory is correct, then religion cannot be static. It must be fluid---it must be willing to change and it must be willing to learn. When the human race was in its infancy, god revealed a small portion of his nature and his will to our ancestors. And now after centuries of progression, god continues to slowly teach us about his plan for mankind. Thus, to learn about god, we must learn about all faiths. If he has revealed a part of himself to the Jews and a part of himself to the Sikhs and a part of himself to the Zoroastrians, then we must look for him in these religions.

And if God indeed knows all things, then we must search for him beyond religion alone. We must study philosophy, art, science, history, literature, linguistics, mathematics---in short, everything. In D&C 93:53, God commands us to: "obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man, and all this for the salvation of Zion." The last portion of this verse is so interesting: all this for the salvation of Zion. In essence, we cannot progress if we refuse to learn. For learning is of God; and to learn is to be of Him.

God is far less mysterious then we are inclined to believe. (At least in my mind anyway.) If he loves us and is concerned about us, then surely we can find him. And with the wealth of religions and philosophies in this world, I know he is not very far.

July 5, 2006

So Cute I think I'm going to Explode


In the world of babies, there are cute babies and there are ugly ones. Ugly babies include the naked mole rat, the pufferfish, and the human newborn, which often looks red-faced and scrunched. Ugly babies make people cringe and cause a little bit of bile to rise in their mouths. Cute babies, on the other hand, make people melt and cause them to say "Oh! Can I hold it?"

Such is the case with baby harp seals, who are in my mind the cutest babies on Earth. Just look at them: soft snowy fur, little paws and tail, and those melt-your-heart black eyes. What's not to love? I just want to scoop one up in my arms and kiss it's furry little cheek.

One of the saddest things in the world is when cute little babies become orphaned. A few years ago I saw a documentary where a baby harp seal lost its mother to poachers. The little baby was distraught and it followed around the camera crew, crying for milk because it was so hungry. The camera crew couldn't do anything to help, however, because they didn't have anything to feed this poor little harp seal.

Thus the baby harp seal died! I think I cried and I tried to bargain with my TV. "I'll take care of the baby harp seal!" I said while banging on my television, "What do you need me to do? I'll move to Antartica."

Oh, baby harp seals. How I love you. If I could, I would adopt one of you.


You could live in my bathtub and in my backyard. I could buy you an igloo so you can stay cool in the summer months. Living with humans wouldn't be so bad: no need to catch food or worry about predators.

I think I would make a great harp seal mom.