Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Chief Operating Officer
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Georgia Institute of Technology Commencement
May 5 - 6, 2000
Greetings to all of you, and my warmest thanks to Georgia
Tech's president, Wayne Clough, for offering me the
honor of serving as your commencement speaker. It
is wonderful to be here among you. This is an institution
charged with creative energy, and that energy is propelling
it to leadership among the world's great centers of
intellect and innovation. You show the way for 21st
century higher education, for the power of research
across the frontier, and for dynamic connections between
learning and discovery.
Today, all of you become holders of advanced degrees.
Many of you have already passed through two or perhaps
three significant academic degree challenges. But
to be the graduates of the class of 2000, the class
at the turn of the millennium-that has a special,
heady ring to it. I know your educational experience
here has prepared you unusually well for the future-for
the plethora of career paths you are now capable of
In all of these, there are many freedoms to cherish
because of the comfort of our open and robust democracy.
As put by James Madison, the architect of our Constitution,
"What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable,
than that of liberty and learning, each leaning on
the other for their mutual and surest support?"
I offer my warmest congratulations to you-for believing
in yourselves, for your stamina in sticking it out
on this journey, and for your intellectual achievements.
I know that your families and friends in the audience,
as well as others from whom you have learned, could
not be more proud of you. They, too, deserve credit
for supporting and encouraging you through thick and
I remember back when I was about to graduate, and one
of my most cherished mentors took me aside, and with
great seriousness said, "Joseph, I look at you today
and I think, 'You don't know the meaning of the word
"quit." You don't know the meaning of the word "impossible."
You don't know the meaning of the word "fail." "
And then he looked at me again, smiling, and said,
"Joe, how can you be graduating when you don't
know the meaning of so many simple words?"
Seriously, let's look back for a moment, back over
one hundred years ago. The founders of Georgia Tech
in 1885 had a fresh idea for higher education in Georgia.
They challenged the status quo. They believed in the
embryonic vision of a liberal education rooted in
technology. If they had not, this region would not
have been transformed into the vibrant place it is
today. It would not be positioned, as it is, to help
lead our national economic prosperity. That same tradition
of an integrated education grounded in the world around
us continues to evolve here today.
Georgia Tech continues to do the unexpected. It takes
risks and it progresses because of that kind of mind-set.
When President Clough invited me to speak here today,
he reminded me of an unusual occurrence a few years
ago. To bring me up-to-date, he sent me an e-mail-and
it did not say "I LOVE YOU." (All of you know
what happened worldwide with those kinds of viral
messges the past few days.)
"A lot is going on here at Georgia Tech," he wrote.
"You may remember that a few years ago, we turned
down a $1 million grant from the National Science
Foundation to renovate our structures lab. That was
an odd situation, but it worked out fabulously. We
tore down our old lab and replaced it with a $35 million
Then he added: "The new structures lab was built
on a different location, and is one of the best in
Now let me step back for a moment and ask: who in the
world would turn down a million-dollar NSF grant?
Seven figures and the imprimatur of NSF! Who does
that? Only an institution with leaders who are willing
to take risks and think bigger and more creatively-perhaps,
in fact, only those who embrace the paradox of what
we may call "creative disruption."
For the few minutes I have to speak with you today,
I would like to explore a kind of a deep philosophical
duality that underlies our creativity as human beings.
Whether in science or in our economy, in the academic
world or in industry, we continually do away with
the familiar and give birth to the new-and do so in
a way that relishes and cherishes our humanity.
For many of us, this change is not easy to live through.
Still, this cycling between bringing forth and casting
away is the very core of creativity. Your education-more
than most-prepares you for an underlying challenge:
to be leaders in this era of change, and to fashion
a society of human values that reveres the past while
embracing the future.
This dynamic cycle was elaborated in economics by the
Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter. In 1942, Schumpter
developed the "rule-breaking" theory of economics.
He described the hallmark of technological innovation
as "the perennial gale of creative destruction."
This concept of a cycle is like a fractal, which simultaneously
embodies the regular and the unpredictable. The shape
of a fractal repeats endlessly from the smallest to
the largest scale-a metaphor for the innovation that
drives an endless circle of creative transformation.
Graced as you are with a Georgia Tech education, you
will have particular capabilities to succeed
in a millennial world that grows ever more complex
and interconnected. You will also have special responsibilities
to help shape our world, applying your intellectual
gifts and honed skills to harness our technologies
for the betterment of society.
Mitch Waldrop writes in his book, Complexity,
about a point we often refer to as "the edge of chaos."
That is "where the components of a system never quite
lock into place, and yet never quite dissolve into
turbulence, either...The edge of chaos is where new
ideas and innovative genotypes are forever nibbling
away at the edges of the status quo..."
If we look at science and engineering, we discern this
zone of transformation at many scales, in many disciplines,
in the most unexpected places. Probing the frigid
ocean waters that surround the continent of Antarctica,
we find fish whose blood contains an antifreeze. As
the liquid-water molecules in the fish's blood begin
to line up to form the structure of ice, the antifreeze
protein forces them apart. Order confronts chaos-a
dynamic essential to life in this frontier environment.
If we look at materials science, we see a similar dynamic.
Researchers are trying to put polymers together with
silicon-a marriage of opposites because plastics are
chaotic chains while silicon is composed of orderly
crystals. The result could give us electronic devices
with marvelous flexibility, which could be made much
more cheaply and, as a result, empower more people.
Again, it comes down to managing order and disorder,
We see something similar in our economy. Fortune
Magazine recently commented on the drop in the
stock market--and put a positive spin on it. "The
lure of fast money has been fuel on the fire of the
Internet revolution," the article said. "It's accelerated
the process by drawing talent into new startups, unleashing
innovation and new technology at a rapid pace, and
forcing traditional companies to revamp their operations
much faster than they otherwise would have."
Fortune's bottom line: "Creative destruction. That's
the beauty of the capitalist system."
All of this may sound rather mechanistic-and it is,
if we consider it in isolation. Of course, change
in our world is nothing new. It's the pace of change
that is breathtaking in the world you are inheriting.
Innovation takes place ever faster, and industrial
cycles appear to be getting ever shorter.
Today, new knowledge and innovation are the driving
forces of the current economic expansion. Intellectual
endeavor is naturally disruptive-and a necessary part
of innovation. As the historian James Burke writes
in his book, Connections, "...the rate at which
change now occurs is an integral part of the way our
He points out that as we are able to transfer information
more and more easily, the rate of change rises. As
information increasingly becomes the currency of everyday
life, we watch this whole pattern accelerate.
I will suggest that the type of education you have
received gives you a special edge in embracing the
complexity around us. All of you, with your appreciation
of science and engineering as part of the process
of societal change, have a special role to play. Your
training will help us integrate our technologies with
a respect for the quality of life.
We all need to nurture the creative zones at the borders
of our disciplines. The ability to make connections
among specialized areas of knowledge, to understand
how seemingly disparate discoveries relate, and to
integrate them to benefit the world-these are hallmarks
of your education. They will increasingly become the
hallmarks of modern leaders.
All of us here value innovation as the fuel of progress,
yet it is our responsibility to explore the implications
of what we do. As professionals, we test a new design
by taking it to extremes, so that we understand its
limits-and then improve upon it.
We are becoming increasingly aware that, collectively,
we must take equal stock of the social limits-or
perhaps the social effects-of our technologies.
At the same time, as James Burke reminds us, our technologies
themselves provide us an essential means to make that
When I speak of embracing complexity, I will argue
that we vitally need the viewpoints of the social
sciences in our endeavors. Our technologies have always
brought consequences we could not foresee. That is
as true about information technologies as it is about
antibiotics and atomic energy.
Today, however, we have the potential to integrate
our disparate wisdom. By incorporating the perspective
of the social sciences we can proceed more intelligently
and ethically to achieve the best of many possible
In closing, we all have cause to celebrate that
you are about to "take a degree." Now, always
keeping in mind my mentor's comments to me when I
graduated, I made sure I consulted my Webster's
Unabridged before flying to Atlanta. The dictionary
gives three definitions for "commencement," and "taking
a degree" is one of them. An equally familiar definition
is "to begin."
The third, however, is unexpected: To commence also
means "to begin to be." You yourselves are
in one of those wonderful zones at the edge of chaos.
You're about to leave the order of campus life-such
as it is-for the more complex, more disorderly, and
infinitely exciting world of great opportunity and
adventure. It will be how you face the complexity
of that world that will determine the future for all
of us. Embrace it.