"Another Einstein Equation"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Coastal Carolina University Commencement
May 8, 1999
I am delighted to be a part of Coastal Carolina University's
commencement. I want to thank President Ingle and
the university for this honorary degree. There is
something unique about receiving this degree. It does
not require either exams or a research thesis! I accept
this honor with gratefulness and pride.
To all the graduates and to your families and friends
in attendance, I want to say a resounding Congratulations.
This commencement marks an important milestone in
all your lives.
I also want to recognize the middle school girls attending
the graduation exercises. They are participants in
the National Science Foundation-funded project, Jump
for the Sun.
They are collaborating in math and science inquiry
projects here on campus and in the field with students
I say to each of you, make the most of this opportunity,
and envision yourselves on a day like this several
years from now, a day when you, too, will be addressed
It is a special honor to be the commencement speaker
today. I am acutely aware that this privilege comes
with the responsibility to be useful and brief. On
the issue of brevity, I have taken my cues from a
friend whose son graduated from a college in Pennsylvania
several years ago.
The commencement speaker that year was a very well
known and respected figure in higher education. He
had a reputation as a brilliant scholar who tended
toward long-winded speeches.
My friend's son came to his graduation exercises in
the prescribed cap and gown but with the addition
of his walkman. The earphones were carefully hidden
under his long hair.
The commencement address lasted one hour. The young
graduate tuned out most of it.
The lesson for me in this story is not only to be brief,
but also to remember that it's your day to celebrate
your success. It's my job to provide something useful
for the unknown ahead.
My talk today is titled, Another Einstein Equation.
Let me begin with a comment that is so true that it
has probably become a cliche among your contemporaries.
As graduates, you are moving out into a high-tech,
fast-forward work environment where skills and technologies
have a turnover rate about as fast as you can flip
In fact, the fast pace and constantly changing skills
and technologies continuously redesign our vocabularies.
This week it's terabytes, optoelectronics, bioengineering,
genomics, and digital musicianship. Who knows what
it will be next week.
Einstein would have been delighted with these new terms
and the process of discovery that preceded their inclusion
in our lexicon.
But, he would have been equally committed to
some enduring lessons that remain valid and fundamental
in any era.
I am married to a wonderful man, a physicist, so I
have a great appreciation for Einstein's brilliant
Nothing can compare to the reduction of the forces
in the universe to the elegant E=MC2 equation.
But today I will ignore the theory of relativity and
instead travel with you through some steps of Einstein's
less famous, but perhaps, wisest equation--some rules
for a meaningful life.
Let us begin at our very core. Einstein tells
us, "The only real valuable thing is intuition."
Trust your instincts, he is telling us. We all know
ourselves better than others can possibly know us.
Sometimes, it's more important to follow our own
instincts rather than someone else's advice.
This will probably get me in trouble with your families,
but I'll stand by Einstein.
There's an amusing anecdote that illustrates this quite
well. The father of the late and great composer-conductor,
Leonard Bernstein, supposedly disagreed with his son's
decision to pursue a career in music.
Years later when Leonard Bernstein's father was asked
about this objection, he responded, "well I didn't
know he would become Leonard Bernstein."
Bottom line: Trust your intuition and instincts
and follow your passion and dreams.
Our intuition also helps us navigate the creative
frontiers where the rules of convention often
need to be ignored or broken.
The impressionist painters defied the traditional dictates
of the painting of their day. In doing so they taught
us a new way to see things.
Early rock music was a departure, a new sound. It was
initially denounced as fleeting, a quirk of American
culture. Apparently not so.
These creators and adventurers trusted their intuition,
often in defiance of the conventional wisdom. In doing
so they took us all to whole new horizons.
We are grateful to them, and in hindsight, appreciate
their intuition and, yes, their stubbornness.
On the subject of curiosity, Einstein is at his mentoring-best.
He says, "The important thing is not to stop questioning.
Curiosity has its own reason for existing."
As an institution of higher education, Coastal Carolina
perfectly fits Einstein's model to encourage learning
As many of you may know, Coastal Carolina won a National
Science Foundation Award for the Integration of Research
and Education. (I know that the Chanticleers were
champions in another arena.)
Let me translate that bureaucratic phrase into real
meaning. Coastal Carolina was recognized for it's
overall school philosophy of promoting "learning by
Einstein would say--learning by asking questions, keeping
your curiosity aflame.
By questioning we design our own path of thinking.
We develop an internal guidance system that is driven
by our own intuition.
It does not matter that the questions have no ready
answers. We have pioneered a path where the question
is leading us.
As graduates of Coastal Carolina, you have been ingrained
with the skill of questioning.
You have been encouraged to exercise your curiosity.
You have been respected for your independent thought.
You may not fully appreciate it today, but that process
will carry you to places unreachable by any other
means. Consider it a gift. Use it constantly and it
will serve you well.
Moving ahead with Einstein's equation, we come to mistakes--not
his mistakes but his philosophy about mistakes.
He is very clear on this subject. He says quite simply,
"Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried
The leaders we admire, the heroes and heroines we emulate,
the biographies that fascinate us are all about people
who have taken risks or triumphed over adversity.
Examples like Christopher Reeve, the physicist Stephen
Hawkings, Olympic athlete Picabo Street, and the singer
We never consciously choose to make mistakes. Those
that we make, however, are often the best and most
permanent teaching tools for our lives.
The companies that have the strongest record for innovation
understand that mistakes are often just a different
path to success.
Like good parents they do not punish failure. We must
all learn to have the courage to fail on occasion.
Perhaps the crowning wisdom of Einstein's Other
Equation is the assurance with which he defines
our humanism. He says, "A person starts to live when
he can live outside himself."
There are many places outside of our individual lives
that need tending. To live outside of oneself is to
be able to see other needs to be met, other problems
to solve, and other issues to confront.
We need only view the unfolding events in Kosovo and
the recent tragedy in Littleton, Colorado, to recognize
that progress in society and civilization has a broader
definition than just discovery, new knowledge, and
Einstein, who fled the inhumanity of Hitler's oppression,
learned this from first-hand experience. For him,
there was no divide between the passion to create,
discover, and inquire in science and his responsibility
to use the fruits of those passionate quests to improve
In a speech at Caltech in 1931, he implored the graduating
scientists and engineers, "...concern for man himself
and his fate must always form the chief interest of
all technical endeavors, concern for the great unsolved
problems... [of humankind]."
We know that Einstein intended his advice not just
for the scientists and engineers at Caltech, but for
insurance salesmen, and artists, for marketing specialists
and musicians, for computer programmers and librarians,
for truck drivers and politicians, and for each of
us here today.
The nature of the human experience suggests that there
will always be many unsolved problems, many paths
This brings us full circle to where I began, with the
well-worn description of a high-tech, fast-forward
workplace that is in continuous evolution. This brings
together Einstein's two equations.
On the one hand, we have the world of science and technology
that has brought us the wonders of its change and
On the other hand, we have the landscape of the human
spirit, its fundamental intuitions, its need to know,
its desire to succeed, and its maturation into making
the greater human society benefit.
As graduates, you are ready to take your skills, knowledge,
and dreams out into the world. You are emissaries
of Einstein's two equations.
My generation will soon pass the torch of leadership
to your generation.
We will hand over a society that needs less conflict
and more forgiveness, less divisiveness and more understanding,
less isolation and more sense of community, and less
attention to possessions and more attention to the
The list is much longer but you will fill it out yourselves.
You will soon become the elected officials, captains
of industry, high-tech workforce, creators of the
new art, music, and literature, new discoverers and
In all of those worthy endeavors, Einstein's Human
Equation will serve you well as you serve and
lead this nation in the coming century.
Trust your intuition, keep asking questions, don't
be afraid to make mistakes, and above all learn to
live outside of yourself.
These will make for a useful and gratifying life.
They will help you change the world for the better,
and during that process of changing, you will enrich
yourselves. Good luck and congratulations.