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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Another Einstein Equation"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
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 and faculty.

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 as "graduate."

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 a burger.

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 scientific thinking.

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 by questioning.

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 inquiry."

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 anything new."

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 Stevie Wonder.

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 advanced technology.

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 society.

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 to tend.

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 progress.

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 planet.

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 inventors.

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.



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