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Remarks at University of Maryland College of Computer, Math, and Natural Sciences Graduation Ceremony

As presented.

Good evening, everyone.

First, I'm delighted to be here to share in this event and to personally congratulate all the graduates and their families.

I'd also like to express my appreciation to Dean Banavar and his staff for giving me the honor of being the keynote speaker for your graduation ceremony.

This evening, we will be honoring the accomplishments of over 500 Bachelor's (346), Masters (74) and PhD (114) graduates of the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences. This is indeed a day to remember—a day to reflect and to be thankful—and certainly a day to celebrate your accomplishments.

Many years ago—in fact, before most of you were born—I remember sitting at my own graduation ceremony right here in Cole Field House. And I wonder: where has the time, and my hair, gone! On December 17, 1977, I was sitting here hoping the speaker would hurry up and sit down so we could get to the most important part of the ceremony—getting my papers and getting out of here to celebrate! So I'll keep that in mind.

I remember sitting in my seat, half listening to Isaac Asimov, whose books are what most people call "Science Fiction," but I prefer to call them "an entertaining and mind-expanding view of what might lies ahead," wondering "What might your future look like?" I raise that same question to you.

So, for the next few minutes, let's think about what might be in store for you.

This is, genuinely, an exciting and challenging time to be alive, and to be entering the workforce (and many of your parents are saying "It's about time."). Employment and entrepreneurial opportunities will be out there for you that did not exist 38 years ago. In fact, there are options for you that did not exist 5 years ago!

Now, not knowing each of you personally, it's impossible to speak to that on an individual basis, but I'm confident that your education here at College Park has equipped you with the tools needed to not only face the challenges of today, but also, the awareness that one has to commit to continuous learning in order to face the challenges of tomorrow.

The training that you have received here in College Park has you poised to address not only the issues we are facing here in the United States (or your native countries), but also the ability to make positive contributions throughout our global society! And we do face real challenges. Things like economic uncertainty, need for energy (production, conservation and dissemination), affordable and effective health care, and, yes, there is still poverty in many parts of the world!

We are experiencing steadily increasing acts of terrorism, (both global and now domestic), "environmental" climate change, for sure, but we are also experiencing "political" climate change, especially here in the U.S., where we are experiencing such political hardening that the views espoused by our elected officials seem farther apart than at any other time in my lifetime. Our leaders are acting more like "politicians" than statesmen in order to keep their jobs. It is increasingly disturbing to me that for many of our leaders, never publicly changing their minds, even after acquiring new and relevant information, is a good thing and best for our country!


Most likely, because of the choices that you have made and the hard work that you've put in, employment with reasonable salaries, and work assignments that will be exciting, challenging and meaningful are awaiting you, if not immediately, then certainly in the near future. I'm guessing that you've each invested somewhere between four and 10 years of specialized training in your various fields and disciplines, and that's a good percentage of your lifetimes. So I'm sure you all feel that it's now time to reap the rewards of all that hard work; it's time to get paid!

And money certainly is great; we can't live without it! But over my career, I've learned that a career selection that provides excitement, challenges and personal growth is just as important as one that pays top dollar—maybe even more so. It's no fun, nor is it good for your physical or mental health, to go to a job every day that does not offer intellectual stimulation, challenges and some degree of personal satisfaction.


After completing my undergraduate training, I took a job that provided me with an occupational deferment and kept me out of Vietnam; turning down three fellowships to attend graduate school (Harvard, Illinois, Tennessee). At that time, almost everyone else from my neighborhood had already been—or was soon to be drafted into military service. I commend and appreciate all the men and women who made then, and are making today, the sacrifices as members of our military services, to ensure that we continue to enjoy the freedom and prosperity that we civilians sometimes take for granted.

Now, while that job kept me "out of the war," it was just that—a JOB, one that I did not particularly like. In fact, I did not like it at all! One where I asked myself everyday: "Is this what you committed 4 years of hard and specialized study to do?" For me then—at 20 years of age—4 years seemed like a very long time. I took more than 30 sick days during the 3-1/2 years I had that J-O-B.

In contrast, during my nearly 45-year career at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, I have taken about 20 sick days in total. I have not had a J-O-B, I've had an interesting, exciting and rewarding career! I have been able to see how the results of my work have benefited both our country and our global society. I've had the opportunity to work with some of the smartest, most creative, and most hard-working people in this country as we focused on scientific innovations and discoveries and the underpinning standards for improving this country's international trade, competitiveness and quality of life. Our work has garnered five Nobel prizes over the past 18 years! 

But I've also had the opportunity to work with people all around the world, and have learned so much from those interactions. I have not always agreed with my colleagues here or abroad, but I have learned that it's always wise to listen to what they have to say and to try to understand their perspectives. We can always learn from others, especially people who come from different cultures and backgrounds and have different perspectives and outlooks than our own. In our global society, where "innovation" is a mantra, we should remember that innovations often occur based on input from unexpected and nontraditional sources. Let me tell you a short story.

A soap manufacturer received a complaint from a customer. The customer said he had purchased some very expensive soap, only to find that one of the boxes was empty. The manager (who was a physical scientist and alumnus from, let's say, here at College Park) really wanted to solve this problem, so the company purchased an expensive X-ray spectrometer with high-resolution monitors and hired and trained three technicians to monitor the soapboxes as they passed along on the assembly line. OK, problem solved, but at a rather high price.

Now, it happened that a competitor received a very similar complaint—a customer called and said that she had bought a box of soap, which she later found to be empty and asked, "What kind of quality control do you guys have?!" As before, management really wanted to solve the problem. But this time, one of the newly hired assembly workers (let's say from Gaithersburg High School) walked up to his manager and said "I heard you got a problem with empty boxes. I got this." Jesús walked out, and soon returned with a $50 electric fan. He pointed it at the assembly line, turned it on, and watched the empty boxes being blown off the conveyer belt. Problem solved. Cost: $50!

This mythical example shows that no matter how much training you have and how much money you spend, you won't really provide the best solution to any problem unless you look at each problem from all sides, and get input from diverse sources.


But, beyond achieving success in your own professional careers, there is a greater challenge that I have for you. 

As I mentioned earlier, the world is much different today than the one I faced as the naïve young man who accepted that first job in 1968, or even the freshly minted PhD that I was 38 years ago.

The Cold War is over, and the U.S. is not the world's lone superpower—either militarily or economically. The world's population has increased, and thanks to advances in medical science, people in the world are living longer. But in many parts of the world, there are still hunger-related diseases, war, hopelessness and despair. And ironically, in other parts, diabetes and obesity—conditions normally associated with affluence—are on the rise.

We continue to work very hard to improve "the quality of our lives" here in the United States. As we strive for the American Dream, many people in other countries feel that we are excessive, selfish and lacking in compassion. Consequently, there is—at the extreme—an increasing dislike for the U.S., and at best, a misunderstanding of many of our policies. There are increased efforts in a number of countries to obtain weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical and biological—to be used against the U.S. and our allies.

And please do not be confused about where I stand or where my allegiance lies: "God Bless America, land that I love," the "Greatest Land on Earth." But as we are all inquiry-based thinkers, it is worth asking: Where do these notions come from? Why have they arisen? Even within the U.S., there are stark differences in our thoughts about what America is, or should be—such that we resort to violence rather than dialogue to express our differences!


Perhaps it is first worth asking: Why is, and has, this country been so great? Lots of reasons—but not the least of which lies in the fact that the United States of America is the most diverse country in the world! And this diversity can be one of our major strengths!

But managing this diversity is the great challenge, and one that is essential for our long-term prosperity and perhaps, even our survival. The U.S. was founded on diversity of thought, diversity of culture, and diversity of beliefs and views. Nature itself accepts diversity in every way, so why can't we as humans do the same!? Let me share with you excerpts from a rather profound writing by Lani Havens:

There was once a community of people who lived by a great river. One day, they noticed that people were beginning to drown and float downstream. Initially, one person dove in and rescued one person. Others then jumped in and rescued additional victims, while others stood on the shore and pulled people out. Yet, the more people that they rescued, more continued to drown. Then an elder came by and saw all this heroic activity taking place and asked, "But shouldn't somebody go up the river and find out why the people are falling in the river in the first place?"

In a sense, there are a number of parallels between this story and the tragic events that occurred on September 11, 2001, or more recently, in Paris and San Bernardino.

Like the village helpers rescuing people from the river, on all three of these occasions, we saw many ordinary citizens display extreme levels of courage and heroism. In reference to the attacks on 9/11—during our lives, there has been no other single event that has compelled the U.S. and the entire world to unify and take action: not the eradication of dread diseases like AIDS, not even in support of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's that I experienced personally growing up in Birmingham, Alabama.

Like the river story, our elders tried, and are still trying, to clearly define the problem(s) and take appropriate action(s) for this and related acts of terrorism that are occurring with increasing frequency. But the question remains: Have we looked upstream? Is it possible to determine and address root causes of these horrific actions? With all of the changes happening in the world around us, going forward, it's going to be exceedingly important for us as a society to learn much more about other cultures—their values and their priorities, i.e., gain a better understanding of global diversity.

Remember the First Law of Thermodynamics—that the total energy of the system plus the surroundings is constant—remember that our actions have effects on all other inhabitants of this planet. On that note, are our fuel inefficient automobiles contributing to global climate change? Are our chemical dumping practices destroying our waters and the animals that live in them, thereby adversely affecting the ability of others to feed themselves? Are the bargain prices that we seek in our acquisition-conscious society coming because of cheap labor in offshore children-filled sweat shops? Are we corroding the morals of our young and others around the world by projecting images of materialism without considering sustainability and the real costs of such?


I challenge all of you to embrace diversity in all senses of the word. Think of yourselves as not only citizens of your respective communities and countries, but also citizens of Planet Earth.

I encourage you to travel broadly; see our country and the world in a broader context and perspective. We in the U.S are one country in a world of nearly 200 countries. Each of us lives only one life in a world of about 7 billion people. I think you'll find that, at some level, most people all over the world want the same things out of life. We all want similar things for their children and families. Yet at the same time, what is best for us in the U.S. might not always be best for the peoples of the world.

Commit to a life of continual learning. We accept that our knowledge in the area of science and technology is changing at an exponential rate, but so is the sociopolitical landscape of the world.

Get involved in the governance of your country(ies), wherever YOUR country might be. Perhaps some of you will get directly involved in public service, but for those of you who don't, you must hold those of you who do accountable. Elect leaders at all levels of government, based on your assessment of their grasps of key issues, their integrity and their vision, not based on cute slogans or soundbites. 

We cannot solve our problems by building a fence between us and our neighbors. You have successfully studied various disciplines and grasped them well enough for the University of Maryland to be conferring degrees upon you. But, no matter what your actual major or areas of focus, what you have actually demonstrated is your ability to absorb and process information, critically evaluate data, and to solve very complex problems.

In Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, the science of psycho history was employed to predict human events in a manner that led to salvation of the Galactic Empire through the establishment and eventual unification of two cultures or "foundations" at opposite ends of the galaxy. The theory behind psycho history was based, to some extent, on the kinetic theory of gases, where each atom or molecule in a gas moves randomly so that the position or velocity of any one of them cannot be known. Nevertheless, the rules governing their overall behavior can be worked out with great precision.

In that same way, the intention was to work out the overall behavior of human societies even though the solutions would not apply to the behavior of any single human being!

Perhaps psycho history would not have predicted the specific activities of September 11, 2001, the recent tragic events in Paris or San Bernardino, nor other horrific events that have occurred in between or that will occur in the future. But it might have alerted us that there was peril ahead, as happened several times in the Foundation Stories.

Given the polarization within the world today, perhaps it was inevitable that something would happen to make the world look upstream to see "why people are jumping in the river". It's going to be your responsibility to manage the increasing diversity that exists in the world—a very complex problem indeed. But I'm betting that you are up to the task just like Asimov's heroes and heroines were in his stories.

So in closing, I congratulate you—the 2015 Winter Graduates of the College of Computer, Math, and Natural Sciences—for completing your preparation for the jobs in this complex new world that awaits you: Hopefully these will be jobs in your chosen areas of interest and disciplines.

But I hope that you all will also take on the crucially important job of being educated citizens and responsible custodians of Planet Earth—at least for a while—and pass this responsibility on to your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren and all that will come after you.

Above all, persevere in your dreams and do not be afraid to fail. We actually learn much more from failures than from successes.

One last story—this one about a young lad who set out to test the mettle of the old wise man in the community.

The lad cupped a small bird in his hands and asked the old man if the bird was alive or dead. Now, the old man realized if he answered that the bird was alive, the lad would immediately crush it, open his hand and prove the old man wrong. If, on the other hand, the old man said that the bird was dead, the lad planned to simply open his hand and allow the bird to fly away. The wise old man simply answered "It's in your hand."

The future of the world will soon be in YOUR hands. Keep it alive. Nurture it carefully. And look upstream whenever possible. Help it to prosper. And commit to providing statesman-like leadership in this new global society.

And now, let's get on with your commencement activities. A time to remember. A time to reflect and be thankful. And certainly, a time to CELEBRATE!

Created December 24, 2015, Updated October 1, 2016