John Roe (1959-2018)

At the end of March I was saddened to learn of the passing of John Roe, a professor of mathematics at Penn State University whom I had gotten to know through the Association of Christians in the Mathematical SciencesJohn moved from England to the United States in 1998 to join the math faculty at Penn State University.  Even while he was still in England, John was a ACMS member, but after his move to the US, he became increasingly active, attending the summer conferences, serving as a Board member, and speaking at one of the joint meetings receptions.
From the opening lines of his obituary:
John Roe — mathematician, teacher, rock climber, theologian, activist, and follower of Jesus — has departed from family and friends as well as the pain of cancer and has begun “a more focused time of peace and joy” with his Lord.
I felt blessed every time I interacted with John. Below is an excerpt from a post on the 20th ACMS Conference:
20th ACMS Conference Day 2

The day began with another excellent devotional from John Roe (who has graciously contributed his thoughts on in the past). Personally, I feel blessed after every time I hear John Roe speak – he just has a way about him that seems infused with grace and deep spiritual understanding. John led us through Ephesians 3:14-19 with particular focus on the four dimensional analogy used by Paul:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Some of John’s points:

  • When thinking of the love of God, don’t think in abstractions. Think of the concrete. Think of the cross.
  • Wideness – if you fold your arms across your chest this is the typical position of religion; inclusive and safe. If you stretch your arms wide open this is the position of Christ on the cross.
  • Longness – (a dimension of time perhaps) God’s patience and love are endless. God’s love wins because it endures more than we do.
  • Highness – The son of Man was lifted up. Christ does not shrink from being on display in that shameful place; He doesn’t hide.
  • Deepness – How deep Christ went – down to earth, down to the grave. How deep in our own hearts are the places that He can reach. He went there and He proclaimed freedom there.

To me, John Roe was a concrete example of the love of Christ. He will be missed here on earth but we rejoice in knowing that he is in the presence of his savior.

All to the glory of God
Succeed at home first
Communicate every day
Seek the heart of worship
Move out of the comfort zone
Teach from the heart
Prepare the ground for insight
Start with what matters most
Love alone endures


You can read John’s post as a guest contributor to GodandMath regarding his interest in the mathematics of sustainability: “Creation Care as a Focus for a General Mathematics Course.”

Here he is live and in person in a TEDx talk.

Mathematics for Sustainability will be published by Springer in May 2018.

Talithia Williams – Improving Market Strategies

One of the categories of posts on this site is labeled “Christian Mathematicians.” Those posts are largely focused on important historical figures and compiled by contributor Steve Bishop. The last entry in that series was an interview that Steve did with current statistician Andrew Hartley. Ever since then I have been mulling the idea of adding a new series of contemporary “Christian Mathematicians” as a way of illuminating the contributions to mathematics being made by people of faith today. Time will tell if I am able to sit down and compose a full series, but if I do you could consider this the first post.

Talithia Williams is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College and, well, I’ll let her faculty page speak for itself:

Dr. Talithia Williams is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College. In her present capacity as a junior faculty member, she exemplifies the role of teacher and scholar through outstanding research, with a passion for integrating and motivating the educational process with real world statistical applications. Her educational background includes a Bachelors degree in Mathematics, Masters’ degrees in both Mathematics and Statistics, and a Doctorate in Statistics. Her professional experiences include research appointments at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the National Security Agency (NSA), and NASA. Dr. Williams develops statistical models which emphasize the spatial and temporal structure of data with environmental applications. She has been recognized for the development of a cataract model used to predict the cataract surgical rate for developing countries in Africa.

In addition to her academic accomplishments, Dr. Williams is also a woman of faith, living out a lifestyle practice infused with bold splashes of servitude that embody the eternal ideals of God. She and her husband, Donald, actively teach and share foundational principles regarding the joys of Christian marriage.

Dr. Williams is a great example of how people of faith are impacting the discipline of mathematics today. Here is an MAA video of her explaining the statistical techniques that can be used to classify customers of a company using the messages on their gift cards.

An Interview with Andrew Hartley

Andrew Hartley is the author of Christian and Humanist Foundations for Statistical Inference; Religious Control of Statistical Paradigms. For more information on this work, please visit the Resource Book page.

Steve Bishop is the compiler of A Bibliography for a Christian Approach to Mathematics and the author of several articles on the relationship between faith and math. He has contributed a number of articles to GodandMath in his series on Christian Mathematicians.

Andrew recently discussed with Steve how his Christian faith and mathematics relate.

Andrew, thanks for agreeing to this interview, could you please tell us something about yourself?

First and foremost I consider myself a child of God, and then His servant. For me, this means I’m growing to see the world as I believe He does, and do what He calls me to do.  I want to grow in this way in every one of my roles (activities) in the world, including my role as a statistician.

So, how did you become a Christian?

How did you become a Christian? God converted me in my first year of undergraduate studies.  Until that time, I had been trying to manage my emotions and, in general, philosophize my way to happiness. Instead of joy, however, those mind games brought only emptiness. God worked through a campus minister & some friends to show me that the way to fulfillment was to admit my sin and need for a savior, to accept God’s forgiveness, & to live for him in all I do.

How do you use mathematics in your work?

I serve as a statistician in the pharmaceutical and medical device industry; I use most of my time to

1. assist government regulators in evaluating the safety and efficacy of drugs and medical devices, and

2. inform companies in the industry as they select candidate products to research and develop, and as they seek to optimize clinical studies and analyses, balancing costs and benefits in choices of such parameters as sample sizes, adaptive designs, and complexity of analyses.

More abstractly and generally, my occupation involves applying statistical theory to form scientific beliefs and make decisions in the presence of uncertainty and while managing risk, with the overall aim of maximizing expected net benefit.

How does your Christian faith impact how you do mathematics?

My trust in God helps me, I think, appreciate all His good gifts, and not to look solely either to my feelings or to external facts for security and truth. The contrast I want to draw here is between subjectivism and objectivism.

  • Subjectivism says that what matters is people’s feelings and impressions. It’s attractive because it allows individuals to decide to their own favor what matters, and whether a given body of evidence is convincing and conclusive. It attracts those who place a premium on believing what they want to believe.
  • Objectivism goes in the opposite direction, pretending that the data we can collect from experimentation and observation can automatically determine what we believe (or should believe).  A desire to found our beliefs on data as much as possible is commendable; however, objectivism is the dogmatic insistence that data are sufficient in themselves for determining what is right and true.

Faith in God and His provision for us helps me, as a Christian statistician, escape from each of these extremes. Because I’m certain that God gives us everything we need and that we can be satisfied in it, I’m more inclined and better able to draw mathematically on emotions and feelings (“subjective” elements), as well as data (“objective” elements), for guidance in forming scientific beliefs and making decisions. The need for both subjective as well as objective factors in statistical reasoning evinces itself, I believe, in the standard definitions and rules of probability; despite this, however, statisticians have devoted entire careers and multitudes of papers and books, in the last 150 years, to showing that one or the other is sufficient to guide us towards truth or, at least, to meet our desires.

The need, and the ability, of a Christian statistician to keep all created things, such as emotions and data, in proper balance is an instance of a more general responsibility and freedom of all Christians: Insofar as we find our ultimate fulfillment in Him and recognize the limited ability of created things to satisfy us, we are both motivated and able to use those things for God’s glory but not to become completely enraptured by them. This type of devotion to and trust in God is, of course, an ideal to which we should aspire, but which we never attain in this life. Centuries ago, John Calvin wrote that “All the things which make for the enriching of this present life are sacred gifts of God, but we spoil them by our misuse of them…The result is that the very things which ought to be of assistance to us in our pilgrimage through life, become chains which bind us.” He said also, more succinctly, that “…man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” Because we divide our devotion between God and the things of this world, we set our hearts on one “idol” after another, believing that it could make us happy or fulfill all our wants. However, to the extent that we trust God, rather, and rest in His loving provision for us, we will be free to hold those created things “loosely.” We become better able to use them, rather than being possessed by them.

You have written a book on a Christian approach to statistics – how did that come about?

Since the time I became a Christian, I’ve been around people who emphasized serving God in every area of life, including their academic and professional work. They taught that authentic Christian living means using every opportunity to serve God. Expressing my thoughts on some implications of Christian faith for my discipline of statistics has seemed like a very natural way to serve Him in this manner.

Thanks Andrew, I look forward to discussing some of these issues more.

Read Steve’s Review of Andrew’s book in PSCF.

Read A Review by Troy Riggs of the Association of Christians in the Mathematical Sciences.

Look for a future posting on GodandMath from Andrew Hartley.

Our Thanks to both Andrew and Steve.