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President's VIew

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.

An Engine To Tap Our Highest Potential

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EMPAC opening celebrates the nexus of the arts and sciences

Polymaths—talented in many fields of study—are noted throughout history for accomplishing the step-changing advances that continue to inform and inspire. Leonardo da Vinci was, among many things, an artist, architect, engineer, scientist, inventor, and musician. Others include Sir Isaac Newton, a physicist, mathematician, astronomer, alchemist, and theologian, as well as President Thomas Jefferson, a statesman, author, architect, archaeologist, and designer.

Their remarkable ability enabled them to realize the full potential of their brainpower—both the verbal, analytical, logical left hemisphere, and the creative, artistic right hemisphere. Utilizing both hemispheres may give us a better opportunity to realize our full intellectual potential. The nexus of art, science, and technology provides an avenue to engage both sides of the brain, and to realize the unique product of their collaboration.

In October, we will celebrate the opening of EMPAC, the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, a 220,000-square-foot home for an emerging community of artists, engineers, scientists, and designers. Here we will offer faculty, students, and the broader arts, engineering, and science communities a balanced forum between left and right brain endeavors, and the means to connect the two.

EMPAC is a collaborative platform where art challenges the limits of science and technology, where science and technology push the boundaries of art, and where they intersect and potentiate. As artists and scientists meet and work together, they will create entirely new intellectual and cultural activity, while generating new ways to see and engage. It is a nexus that still is relatively unexplored, and which offers boundless opportunities for discovery and innovation.

The programs of EMPAC will nurture and challenge students for knowledge creation, social entrepreneurship, enterprise, and leadership in our increasingly multicultural, multidisciplinary, globally interconnected world. EMPAC helps ensure that we remain a top-tier university where students and faculty, from a wide variety of disciplines, collaborate in an environment where discovery and innovation will take root and thrive.

As artists and scientists meet and work together, they will create entirely new intellectual and cultural activity, while generating new ways to see and engage.
EMPAC is enhanced by its inter-linkage with two other premier Rensselaer research facilities: the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations, one of the most powerful university-based supercomputers in the world, and the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, which applies engineering and the physical and information sciences to the life sciences. Together, these three facilities will enable human-scale exploration within three-dimensional immersive/sensory environments—pushing the frontiers of virtual reality, “real virtuality,” visualization and animation, acoustics, haptics, cognitive science, and as yet unexplored arenas. By providing the tools to render complex data in multi-modal, multi-sensory ways, EMPAC will allow for unprecedented research in such fields as fluid dynamics, artificial intelligence, free-space optics, molecular design, financial modeling, nanotechnology, game studies, and more.

EMPAC is part of the intentionally multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and global approach to Rensselaer pedagogy, knowledge creation, and learning. It is, in part, “diversity-enhanced education,” that dovetails with our 184-year-old charter “to apply science to the common purposes of life.” It is an approach that is placing Rensselaer at the forefront of technological research universities, as well as center stage within the broader dialogue on the merger of science and the arts. We are well suited for this leadership role, long having been known for our superb arts and design programs. Indeed, our newly renamed School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences emphasizes the arts as key to scientific, social, cultural, technological, and economic development. EMPAC builds upon our strength in engineering and science, and our tradition of experiential learning and leading-edge research, so it is fitting that the nation’s oldest technological research university invest in this unprecedented platform.

As we find new ways to develop the leaders who will address and solve broad challenges such as global health, energy security, environmental sustainability, and terrorism, we continue to evolve as a creative campus with technology and the sciences collaborating with the arts and humanities. It was Nobel Prize-winning American biologist Roger Sperry whose research uncovered the specialized functions of each hemisphere of the brain. If Stephen Van Rensselaer and Amos Eaton were here with us, they would be proud that the university they founded is evolving to a pedagogical approach which brings both hemispheres of the brain together.

We cannot say what will emerge from EMPAC, and this is as it should be. As with all new endeavors, EMPAC is designed to take us into uncharted territory. Just as the collision of subatomic particles generates new forms of matter, collision of creatively diverse minds ignites discovery, invention, and innovation. EMPAC is a book of new stories waiting to be told. What will be the first chapter?

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.