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Photo of Joseph Bordogna

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation

Commencement Address
Central Michigan University

"Life on the Edge: Revolution and Remembrance"

May 7, 2005

President Rao, Trustee Kattamasu, faculty and staff, distinguished guests, friends and loving families, and most important, Central Michigan University graduates: I am honored to share this celebration with you. And I am delighted to be in Mount Pleasant, smack in the center of the "mitt," at Central Michigan University. CMU is a first-class research and education university, forward-looking and vital to this community, this state, and the nation. We all look forward to the fruits of the intellectual seeds you plant for society's future.

Giving a commencement address is a tremendous responsibility. I should be sentimental to please the parents, substantive to please the faculty, and short to please the graduates. My job is to provide something useful for what may lie ahead and to be brief about it—so I'm definitely siding with the graduates.

After all, this is your day, a time to savor your achievements, and take pride in your perseverance and a job well done. It's also a time to revel, with the knowledge that you have climbed another step on the ladder of life-long learning. Congratulations to all of you!

I have titled my remarks "Life on the Edge: Revolution and Remembrance." As well as giving you the confidence to embrace any career path that life may present to you, I hope to give you some enticing reasons to consider a life in science and technology—a life on the edge.

Equipped as you are with a CMU education, you have the sophisticated knowledge and technical know-how to succeed in a world that grows ever more complex and interconnected.

But you have something even more valuable to treasure and offer. Your education in the sciences and related disciplines—more than most—prepares you for a larger challenge: to be the explorers, the planners, the designers, the builders, and the creators of the future. To put it succinctly, you are prepared to lead us responsibly into a new era of progress. And we expect you to embrace this path.

How can science help you accomplish extraordinary feats? Science is more than textbooks and laboratories. Science is a living, breathing way of being in the world. I call it "living on the edge" because discovery, the very heart of science, happens at the outer limits of human understanding.

Still, understanding alone is only half the story. We need to be cognizant always of how that understanding supports the commonweal, how it gets integrated into the collective life we all share. As an engineer, I am accustomed to thinking in terms of systems that are designed to meet societal needs. This is an integrative process, the realm where discovery meets the ordinary and quite extra-ordinary stuff of our everyday lives. In today's high-velocity world, discovery and integration are so enmeshed, that it is often not possible or useful to tease them apart or separate them as we all work together for a better world.

Change and complexity are the rule in our contemporary world, a world transformed repeatedly by the interaction of new knowledge and new technology, a world linked globally, where differences in how we think can enhance progress and divisions in how we act can destroy it. Possessing the acumen of science and recognizing societal needs compel us to bring ideas, innovation, and invention face to face with human intent. If you live on the edge, you do not settle for understanding alone, but insist on using knowledge to shape a better future.

The American folk singer and writer Pete Seegar once said, "Education is when you read the fine print. Experience is what you get if you don't."

My path in life, blazed for me mostly by kind and thoughtful mentors, led me from my student days to the navy, industry, the professoriate and now public service with the National Science Foundation—each step prodding me toward a finer, sharper edge. My own experience has taught me that there is a great deal missing from the fine print. Education gives you background and a baseline. Experience is how you build on it—over and over again. Life on the edge is risky and challenging, adventurous, absorbing, and exhilarating! Add a sense of integrity to this "edgy" brew, and you have one of life's most powerful potions.

This year is the centennial celebration of Albert Einstein's "Miraculous Year"—the year during which he published several highly imaginative papers that revolutionized our understanding of the physical world. Einstein is famously quoted as saying, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." To give the phrase a slightly different tilt, I would say that imagination is what gives "life on the edge" its revolutionary quality.

Einstein, always profoundly aware of the larger context in which imagination is a path to discovery, has more to say on this topic. "Without creative, independently thinking and judging personalities," he says, "the upward development of society is as unthinkable as the development of the individual personality without the nourishing soil of the community."1

Today, from the local to the global, there is no shortage of goals that demand progress: economic and social prosperity, a safe environment, and national and global peace and security. In this context, scientists and engineers are revolutionaries in the broadest and most significant meaning of the term. Living at the edge, we view revolutionary transformation as serving the larger interests of our society and the planet we inhabit.

This is genuine creative transformation. Here we have a choice. We can either be swept along by it, or take a hand in shaping it.

Choosing to be the shapers takes us beyond the knowledge economy that we hear so much about today, and plants us squarely in the knowledge society. In the knowledge society, we design the future of our choice from the wealth of options available to us. Embracing this broader, more revolutionary vision is the vital step toward improving the quality of life, finding new approaches to human dilemmas of long duration, and addressing common goals.

You must be wondering where the remembrance part of my title begins. Revolution brings about sweeping change. But change never arrives unencumbered or unenlightened.

In the century just ended, we witnessed the injustices that can arise from clinging too rigidly to ideas that are worn and stale. Backing away from the frontier, avoiding change at any cost can bind us so tightly to orthodoxies that we interpret new ideas as unwelcome heresies. That leads to the death of imagination and with it the common meaning that imbues our human endeavors. Such a paralysis of vision kept the vote from women until 1920 and kept our schools segregated until 1954.

And yet if we completely let go of the threads that link us to the past, we do so at great peril. We can rupture the continuity of human progress. The rights and values embodied in the Declaration of Independence are still bulwarks of our contemporary society. Our understanding of the world is embodied in our cumulative and evolving body of scientific knowledge.

Life on the edge must not only embrace revolution, it must also carry remembrance. That is the enlightenment that will help guide us in frontier territory. We need this beacon because, without it, life on the edge can be dark and we may stumble. Adventure could turn into misadventure, and risky ventures into sheer folly.

Human progress is a delicate balance between revolution and remembrance, and I have every confidence that all of you will be able to embrace that balance.

William Faulkner, the great American novelist, lived in his art, experimenting with creative forms. In his Nobel Prize address in 1949, he speaks of his writing as "life's work ...to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before."2

To continue in the spirit of Faulkner, but to paraphrase him, Faulkner considered it a privilege to offer his writing as a way to lift the spirit of humanity by recognizing the glory of individuals in all eras. Remembering and recounting their courage, sacrifice, and compassion, we can help ourselves and others to endure and prevail.

I have invoked some voices from the past because they remind us that, in all ages, bold and courageous individuals have lived on the edge in order to sustain the human spirit.

To live on the edge, you must be intrepid, dauntless, bold, even audacious....but never vicious or heedless of others. The wonderful cartoon character, the beleaguered and gloomy, but always thoughtful, Charlie Brown, once observed, "A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right man's brow."

I am confident that your courage and kindness will prevail and that your accomplishments will be many. When you leave the university, you may follow many paths, explore many professions.

But in all that you achieve, never surrender what you have learned from science and engineering about living on the edge. The only enemy of revolution and remembrance is indifference. Don't give in to indifference. Hope gives rise to dreams; dreams give rise to vision; and vision, put to the hard test of reality, can move the world.

Charles Townes, who won the Nobel prize in 1964 for his work with laser technology, once reflected on his own contributions: "It's like the beaver told the rabbit as they stared at the Hoover Dam. 'No, I didn't build it myself. But it's based on an idea of mine!'"

I know you will one day say, "It's based on an idea of mine!" Give thought to the pioneers who came before to smooth the path. And be mindful of those who will come after you. They will depend upon your ideas, and their realization, to explore new frontiers in the future. In the context of the words on your University's seal—Wisdom, Virtue, Friendship—let us celebrate together your future and your contribution, which surely will be revolutionary.

1 Einstein, Albert, Life as I See It; http://lib.ru/FILOSOF/EJNSHTEJN/theworld_engl.txt; last accessed May 4, 2005.
Return to speech.

2 Faulkner, William, Nobel Prize Banquet Speech, 1949; http://nobelprize.org/literature/laureates/1949/index.html; last accessed May 4, 2005.
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Return to a list of Dr. Bordogna's speeches.


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