Stevens Institute of Technology student Thomas Dabay ‘11 (Roanoke, Va.) has been selected from among 3,500 applicants to present at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research 2011 (NCUR 2011) at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. The conference, now in its 25th year, showcases the research of some of America’s brightest undergraduates through posters, oral presentations, visual arts, and performances. An Electrical Engineering student, Thomas will present "Absurd America: Finding Camus' Absurd in Pynchon’s America." He is a striking example of how Stevens dynamic curriculum fosters broad-based intellectual growth, an environment in which science and technology may be understood within a philosophical framework of ethics and analysis.
A grounding in the Humanities through the University’s College of Arts and Letters is designed to bolster students’ knowledge of history, philosophy, literature, and the arts, while simultaneously building strong communications skills required in all fields, from science and engineering to business. Thomas’ accomplishment serves as a testament to the broad-based, interdisciplinary education offered by Stevens, The Innovation University™. The school’s rigorous curriculum has prepared him to succeed, both in philosophy and electrical engineering. Now he plans to pursue a Stevens Master of Arts degree in Technology, Policy, and Ethics, ultimately aiming for a Ph.D. in Philosophy.
"When Thomas first came to me to discuss his desire to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy, I was absolutely delighted," says Dr. Lisa Dolling, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Associate Professor of Philosophy. "His passion for philosophical thought and scholarship has been a joy for me to witness. He has a natural talent that is evidenced by this latest achievement. It is one that makes all of Stevens quite proud."
Thomas’ presentation evolved from a paper he wrote for his American Culture class, taught by Dr. Anthony Pennino. The paper considers Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, a novel praised by the New York Times for its "technical virtuosity" and whose author has been compared to Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. While reading The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas noticed the themes of absurdism in Pynchon’s writing – particularly the ideas expressed in absurdist Albert Camus’ essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus." These existential overtones lay the foundation for his paper. "It is exciting to present these ideas," Thomas says.
"A few of the faculty of CAL plan to travel to Ithaca to hear Thomas give his paper. No doubt it will be the first of many," Dr. Dolling explains.
Though he took a philosophy course in high school, it was not until his junior year at Stevens that Thomas discovered his love of philosophy. It came about in the humanities class, Existentialism, taught by Dr. Dolling. "I realized I was actually interested in this – it wasn’t just a pastime," Thomas says. "Existentialism was kind of my foot in the door into philosophy, and it’s introduced me to a number of other ideas."
Since then he has studied philosophy independently under the direction of Dr. Dolling. When she suggested he submit an abstract to NCUR 2011, Thomas agreed, balancing the writing with his heavy senior year course load.
Thomas’ personal story has some parallels to that of Pynchon, who studied Engineering Physics at Cornell University before switching to English. Pynchon’s scientific knowledge and writing ability helped him secure a job at Boeing, where he combined technical expertise with the humanities as a technical writer. His novels blend science, prose, and philosophy, a blend perfectly suited to study at Stevens.
Likewise, Thomas comes to Philosophy with the strong technical base of Electrical Engineering, and plans to remain at Stevens a fifth year in order to pursue the recently-created Master of the Arts Degree in Technology, Policy, and Ethics. Afterwards, he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy. "I feel like it would be a great achievement," Thomas says, noting that the broad-based Stevens education has given him the option to pursue many different fields. "After that I may become a professor or even return to engineering."
Thomas does not see engineering and science as necessarily distinct from philosophy. "Even here, philosophy is a humanities course. But philosophy is a very scientific part of the humanities: with an emphasis on things like logic, form, and process," he explains.
Topics like these are addressed in Stevens Philosophy courses, so that future engineers and scientists are able to understand the ethical and philosophical ramifications of science and technology. "I think certain aspects of philosophy carry over into engineering," Thomas muses. "In the 1700s, a lot of scientists of the time were into epistemology, the study of knowledge. More recently, there’s been discussion of the philosophy of science."
Thomas is particularly fascinated by the philosophy of particle and quantum physics, a field about which physicist Neils Bohr found plenty of parallels with Eastern Philosophy and emphasized the tenuous use of language in describing the realm of quantum physics. "It seems so abstract that sometimes it seems to be bordering on philosophy," Thomas says. "You can’t see any of it. It seems like, in my opinion, we’re trying to put together the best metaphor for what’s actually there. We can’t actually see everything."
Though absurdism would dictate that there is no way humans can understand the ways of the universe, Thomas’ future in the field of philosophy and engineering certainly appears bright.