“Dare to dream”
California Institute of Technology commencement address
June 11, 2004
© Copyright 2004 Hewlett-Packard Development Company, L.P
All rights reserved. Do not use without written permission from HP.
Thank you, Ben, and good morning everyone. I’d like to join both your Chairman Ben Rosen and President Baltimore in welcoming all of you to the 110th commencement exercises of the California Institute of Technology, and what a beautiful day you have today to celebrate such an important moment in your lives.
About a month ago, the Gallup organization asked Americans which public institutions they had the most confidence in. Leading the pack was the military, followed by law enforcement, organized religion, the banking system, the Presidency, the Supreme Court – I’m going in descending order now – the medical system, public schools, the criminal justice system, organized labor, Congress, newspapers, and TV news. And then finally, one spot from the bottom, with just 24 percent expressing any confidence at all, was big business. I think it was at that moment that the trustees invited a CEO to be your commencement speaker.
The good news is that even though I come to you today from a Fortune 11 company, it is a company that has always had the good sense to place a high priority on hiring Caltech graduates. We have all, of course, experienced the remarkable force of nature that is Ben Rosen, who performed brilliantly as Chairman of Compaq before he became an equally brilliant Chairman of the Board of Trustees.
The founder of HP Labs, Barney Oliver – who was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame just last month – also earned his master’s and doctorate here. And today, HP Labs, that great institution that’s producing 11 patents a day, is known as one of the largest chapters of the Caltech Alumni Association in the world. It is one of the big reasons why out of the $4 billion we spend on R&D, we are now among the top five innovators in the world.
Of course on the HP campus, you can tell the Caltech grads right way. For some reason for one full day every spring, they are the ones duct-taped to the trees.
Now, while we at HP know Caltech grads well, I think the people who know you best and the people who are perhaps most responsible for your success, are seated behind you and standing around you today. My guess is that many of them this morning are thinking back fondly to the first time you nearly blew up the kitchen with your chemistry set, or did a complex math equation in your head maybe in the second grade. And so before we go any further, let’s hear it for your moms and your dads and your friends and your loved ones who are also very proud of you today.
Now, four or five or six years ago, when all of you first contemplated taking your near-perfect SAT scores to Caltech, you were confronted with an application that is unique in the collegiate world. If you recall, all of you were given a blank sheet of paper and asked to fill it in in whatever way best represented you. Some of you drew pictures, some of you wrote poems, and some of you made paper airplanes – and I assume spent the next four years at JPL.
Today, you have come full circle. After these years at one of the world’s finest institutions of higher learning, that page is blank once again. And once again it is up to you to fill it in, in whatever way you see fit. The only difference now is that when you draw on that page when you leave here will do much more than define you in the world. If the history of Caltech is any guide, it will help define the world itself.
Previous generations of Caltech graduates took that knowledge and used it to do remarkable things. Today the question is asked of you. What will define greatness for your generation? What will you do as individuals and as a class to fill that page? Three weeks ago I asked that very question of these graduates in an e-mail to the class of 2004, and I got some pretty interesting responses.
Representative of many of you who wrote about the environment, one student said that greatness will be defined by putting the problems of the earth above our own. This student even suggested that I read "The Lorax," by Dr. Seuss before writing my speech, and asked "who will speak for the trees?" Another student suggested that with war raging and CO2 emissions out of control, the most compelling persons of our generation will be those who can teach us to consume less, and said that maybe greatness will be defined by those mice they put on reduced-calorie diets.
Another very articulate student summed up the feelings of many whose responses ranged from world peace to building bridges between cultures, by suggesting that there is greatness in every scientific discovery, but only when infused with human touch – when the innovative, calculated and sometimes even miraculous wielding of science can be used as a tool for the improvement of the human condition.
But to me, the most memorable and ultimately the most disappointing response came from a student who wrote that hopefully, what we will define greatness, and I quote, "will be the ability to realize that shallow corporate ambitions and our addition to what society terms growth and progress are actually incredibly narrow-minded and destructive phenomena; that we reach beyond the artificial constructs and concrete jungles with which we have encased ourselves and rediscover our relationship to and utter dependence on the rest of the planet; that we instill in our children the thoughts that humans are not actually automatons whose paths are laid out for them at birth; that we recognize that gated communities are actually more dangerous for our peace of mind than the criminals they aim to keep out;” and several other things about the American dream that are a little to racy to be repeated in polite company.
But actually, that’s not the part that disappointed me, because I agree with some of what this individual said. The part that disappointed me is that this passionate, articulate, intelligent Caltech grad closed the letter by saying, "Feel free to use my ideas, although I doubt you will in your speech, but I would prefer it if you didn’t use my name." In other words, this bright scientist with strong views refuses to be a public advocate for those views.
Why is this disappointing? Because it reminded me of too many public debates about too many issues having to do with science and technology in which politicians have a voice, lawyers have a voice, lobbyists have a voice, journalists have a voice, religious leaders have a voice, but the people most responsible for making change – the scientists and technologists – don’t have a voice, because they have chosen not to represent their views in a public forum.
It is not hard to understand why they choose this, although I think it is a great tragedy. In part, I think it stems from the “why bother?” school of public discourse, which states that most people don’t have a very deep interest in or knowledge of science and technology, and so why bother taking the time to explain or make understandable the most difficult science?
After all, the concepts that you deal with every day, like nanotechnology or spectropolarimetry, don’t exactly roll off the tongue or lend themselves to easy explanations. That is especially true in a country where even though 90 percent of U.S. adults profess a strong interest in learning more about scientific discovery, only 15 percent feel they have the skills to digest an average science story in any major newspaper. It is also a country where a majority of people believe that astrology is a legitimate science, and fewer than one in three believe the universe began with a Big Bang.
Frankly, being overwhelmed by science is not an unfamiliar concept to me. Yes, I graduated from Stanford and got a degree from MIT, but as you heard, I graduated with a degree in medieval history and philosophy from Stanford, and a degree in business from MIT. I didn’t exactly start life as Linus Pauling, or any of you. And the only reason I am where I am today is because I took the time to listen, and a great many brilliant people took the time to explain.
In a way, my life reflects the work of Dr. Roger Sperry, who joined this school as a professor 50 years ago this fall. Dr. Sperry, of course, went on to win a Nobel Prize for the work he did in defining the difference between the left brain and the right brain. Dr. Sperry would likely say that the journey I’ve been on for the past 25 years has been moving from the right side of my brain – the liberal arts side, artistic, holistic, creative – to the left side of my brain, the scientific, logical, rational side.
I think in many ways, the challenge before all of you in the years ahead will be taking that same journey in reverse. Now, based on some of your e-mails, some of you actually expected me to encourage you to move from left to right. But this is more than simply a journey you may or may not want to take. It is a journey that we as society need you to take. The problem is that every year that science and technology cross another divide, is another year that the gap between what scientists know and what the public knows grows wider.
In some ways, the Silicon Valley of the 20th century has given away to the scientific canyon of the 21st century, with scientists on one side, the general public on the other, and too few guides who can bring us safely across from one side to the other. As easy as it would be for all of you to leave this ceremony today; get jobs in research institutions or labs where everyone speaks the language of beta receptors, neutrinos or quarks; spend your life doing absolutely brilliant things and never look back across that divide – we need you to help be those guides. We need you to be those guides for a simple reason: because we will not be able to create the future we all want if the size of that canyon continue to grow wider.
One professor who believed deeply that scientists need to be guides was Richard Feynman. Feynman was once asked by a Caltech faulty member to help explain why spin ½ particles obeyed Fermi-Dirac statistics. And he told his colleague, "I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it." A few days later he came back and said, "You know, I could not do it. I couldn’t explain it in simple terms, which means that we don’t really understand it." In other words, if Feynman couldn’t say it in every day words, he probably didn’t understand it himself. And he applied that test his entire career, because he believed that making science understandable to all was fundamental to the advancement of science.
In today’s world, there is not just one good reason for you also to apply that same test – there are three; three reasons why we need you to be those guides. The first is a practical reason, one is an ethical reason, and the last one is aspirational. The practical reason is before things get discovered, they need to get funded, and what gets funded will depend more and more on you and on your ability and your willingness to help people see the benefits of scientific exploration.
Over the years, the federal government has replaced private donors and corporations as the major source of funds for basic science. Over the past five years we have seen an increase in the money invested in basic science. But I happen to be one of those people who believe that we should be funding even more, particularly at a time when our national competitiveness and ability to grow and create jobs depends on innovation. But if the people doing the funding don’t understand the need for basic science research at a time when there are 10 worthy requests for every dollar, we won’t maintain the level of funding we have now, let alone increase it.
You have to understand that most people in public life today don’t have a firm grounding in science and technology. Of course here in California, we’re very lucky because we have a governor who was once a machine. But can you guess how many of the 535 members of the U.S. House and Senate have a science or technology background? Eleven. Just eleven – four PhDs and seven physicians. That’s it. And these are issues that are too important to be left to lawyers and lobbyists alone. They need your help.
One example that relates directly to Caltech, of course, is space exploration. If there is one issue that Americans understand passionately at an intuitive level is the need to explore the universe around us. We have had a romantic fascination with it for nearly half a century. Who among us did not sit riveted this past year as we watched the pride of JPL, the Mars Rover, send live pictures back to earth? But let me ask a question to the audience seated behind you and around you: aside from the search for water on Mars and what that means for the possibility that there was once life on Mars, how many of you can name even one of the many, many scientific benefits that came with that mission? And that’s the problem. It’s not that there isn’t a story to tell, it is that too few are telling it. If there is no leadership around this issue, if there are no guides to help us understand why exploring the unknown matters, then we cannot be surprised when funding for something as revolutionary as the Hubble telescope gets cancelled. When the President stands up and announces that America should actively work toward the day when we should send a man to Mars, and nobody stands up and says why that is important, we shouldn’t be surprised when the idea dies on the vine. That’s why I choose to sit on the President’s Space Commission – so it won’t – because the opportunity for exploration and discovery is too great and the simple truth is, if we don’t lead in space, someone else will. You can affect whether that happens or not, as well as millions of other breakthroughs that will be made possible by science.
That’s the practical reason. The second reason we need you to be our guides is because of what I call Kazaa's law, which states that our sense of right and wrong doesn’t evolve as fast as our science and technology. The need to develop global ethics driven by science and technology that goes beyond the teachings of any single religion will be a high priority over the next decade.
We have seen just a glimpse of this future already today: battles raging over issues like genetically modified foods – are they the key to ending global starvation, or are they Frankenstein foods? Battles raging over issues like stem cell research. – are they the key to new treatments and cures, or are they a Pandora’s Box into a whole parade of genetic horrors? Battles over issues like gene therapy, and the dangers of human cloning.
These are important issues that will impact our future and they deserve to be considered on the basis of science and not cargo cult science, as Feynman’s memorable phrase put it 30 years ago.
They deserve to be considered on the basis of fact, not fear. Honest people can and will disagree, but they deserve to hear the case on the merits and not be controlled by people who will twist science to serve their own ends. But unless the battle is joined by people who know science, the debate will be controlled by the people who don’t. And that will not serve any of us in the end.
The third reason you need a public voice is that scientists and inventors today possess a quality that is in short supply in this world, and that is the quality of unbounded optimism in the future, and the belief that tomorrow can be better than today. Today, our nation mourns a President who taught all of us something about optimism, about keeping our heads held high, someone who always believed that tomorrow would be better than today. If there are natural heirs to this philosophy today, I believe they are the graduates sitting before us.
After all, what other profession goes to work every day trying to imagine something that has never been created before; works day and night to see that vision through from the conception to completion; fails 99 times out of 100, but never sees those attempts as failures, but learning experiences to build upon and grow? That is exactly the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that built this nation, and ultimately, it is this kind of creativity that will keep us strong in the 21st century. Thanks in part to this school, the 20th century was the greatest era of scientific advancement in the history of the world. But I honestly believe that one hundred years from now, we will look back on the 20th century as just a warm up act for the era we are moving into now. From biomedicine, to telecommunications, to information technology to the human genome project, we are moving into the main event of science and innovation, at a time when science and technology can change lives and solve fundamental problems that have plagued humanity for centuries.
I began this speech by joking about being the CEO of a Fortune 11 company. But here’s why I do what I do, because I see every day what technology when combined with the aspirations and capability of HP people all over the world and focused on real human problems can achieve, let me tell you just one small story about that.
Let me tell you about two women named Saraswati and Gowri. They live in a rural community called Kuppam, India, and it is about 100 miles from Bangalore. It is a place where one in three citizens is illiterate; more than half of the households have no electricity, and most of the able-bodied adults are HIV-positive.
These young women were forced to leave school after the fifth and seventh grades respectively, because their families could not afford their schooling.
Now, one of the questions we ask at HP is, “How do we use technology to bring opportunity to places like Kuppam, India?” And we had a number of inventors, probably including some Caltech grads in this village in India, and they came up with the idea in observing the village around them of a solar-powered digital camera, and a solar- powered printer, and this equipment fits into a backpack.
So Saraswati and Gowri were chosen among 10 young women to be trained as village photographers and given this digital, solar-powered camera and other equipment, and after two weeks of training, they were able to serve as official photographers for a launch event that we did that was overseen by the region’s Chief Minister. And seeing how people loved having their pictures taken with their elected officials, these two young women seized on a business opportunity: they decided to follow the minister on his rounds, selling inexpensive photo opportunities. In less than a week, they had earned the equivalent of a month’s income. For both of them, it meant that they would be able to better educate their children and finally bring tap water into their homes.
And today not only do they photograph engagement ceremonies and many other important family occasions – occasions that in the past were not recorded because it was too expensive – they are now working to set up a fund so that other young women in their village can use it to start up their own businesses. And these two young women have become so successful in their villages that their husbands now tag along with them.
To me, this is just a tiny, perhaps even prosaic example of the billions of ways that science and technology can and will change lives and solve problems in the 21st century. As science moves to the mainstream of peoples’ lives, scientists and inventors have to move to the mainstream as well. Technology cannot be mysterious to people any more. Science cannot just be an experiment; something cloistered in a back room or a dark lab. Science and technology need to be understandable and you need to our guides.
There is precedent for this kind of shift. In the Middle Ages, the problems of humanity were seen as a visitation of God’s plagues on corrupt and hapless nonbelievers, and only by divine intervention could they be solved. But the change that created the Renaissance was sparked by scientists and mathematicians who made people believe for the first time in human history that we were in charge of our own destiny – that here on earth, God’s work truly was our own. They made average citizens believe that we could solve things ourselves. Not only were they willing to be guides for everyone else, they were willing to hoist that entire age up on their backs and in the process, created a new and better world out of the old.
So what will define greatness for your generation? I believe it is to use the knowledge that you have earned here to find ways, not only to connect to computers, but to connect people; not only to bridge gaps in science, but to bridge gaps between cultures; not only to use numbers and formulas to create, but to use words to lead, and in the process, to close that canyon between ignorance and understanding.
So, how will you fill that blank page? I urge you to aim beyond the audience of your peers; become part of the debate. Take time to teach. Take time to explain. Speak out. But most importantly in the work you do every day, dare to dream. Dare to believe in what is possible and instill in others this same sense of possibility. It will take daring, because optimism is a choice; and cynicism and disengagement is an easier path. So do more than dare to explore, or discover: dare also to lead.
But start all of it tomorrow. Today, enjoy your family, enjoy your friends, and celebrate this very special day. My deep congratulations to the Class of 2004.
Thank you very much.