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Standards of Excellence, Standards of Impossibility

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

North Carolina State University Commencement
Raleigh, North Carolina

Wednesday, December 17, 2003


Good morning. Thank you.

It is a great privilege to be awarded, and to accept, an honorary degree from the North Carolina State University, one of the nation's premier research universities. It is an honor, because I am wedded to the university, and to the privilege it presents to continue to learn, and to grow, and to deepen our understanding of the world and its many mysteries.

Let me begin by giving my own sincere congratulations — to the graduates, and also to the families who supported them, — to the faculty who taught them, — to the mentors who guided them, — and, to the friends who sustained them.

This is a celebration of the excellence that you, the graduates, have attained. You would not have achieved this landmark without having met a particular standard of excellence. So, this is your day. And, it also is a celebration of — and, a day of gratitude for — all of those who supported you. In a very real sense, your excellence is theirs.

And, excellence, indeed, is the word for the day.

I flew into Raleigh-Durham International Airport yesterday evening to be here this morning. Now, one cannot fly into the State of North Carolina on the eve of December 17, 2003, without acknowledging another "excellence" — that characterizing an event which took place exactly one hundred years ago this morning.

Because it was one hundred years ago, this very morning, that Wilbur Wright flew an aircraft for 59 seconds over a distance of 852 feet, off a windy bluff at Kitty Hawk.

Until that morning, flight had been considered the "standard of impossibility." Isaac Newton had argued that flight was against the laws of nature. Some argued that it was against the laws of God. Yet, at the turn of the century, scholars, scientists, and inventors, around the world, were working feverishly on this fanciful "impossibility."

The Wright brothers took an engineering approach to the problem of flight — tackling issues of power, lift, control, and balance. They calculated lift and thrust formulas, and constructed wind tunnels. In a real sense, they were the first aeronautical engineers. Ultimately, it was the advent of a relatively light weight internal combustion engine that enabled their aircraft to fly, gave rise to the new science, and helped to boost the technological revolution that has marked these last 100 years.

Imagine, if you will — if it is possible — our world without flight, without the science of aviation, which combined and utilized the technologies of the day, and spawned yet more advanced technologies and new discoveries, upon which is based the breadth and depth of the sciences we know today. It also made the world smaller, leading to the richness of cultures and the mix of backgrounds reflected in our society today.

Now, what does this mean for you, the graduates? You, and your generation, enter a world — indeed, were born into a world — which has been molded by technology into a vastly different place than was the world of the Wright brothers. And yet, all that has changed, actually, is that there are, now, new "frontiers of impossibility," along with new tools to unravel those mysteries, and to make those discoveries which will take us there. These new frontiers are the ones with which you will engage. And, it is you, and your generation, who will make the next landmark discoveries which will change the world, and who will grapple with the attendant complexities — ethical, social, and political — which inevitably follow such advances.

What "frontiers of impossibility" might you confront? Speaking from the reference point of my experiences, here are a few broad scope questions that still challenge us from a science and technology perspective:

  • What, exactly, is gravity? Can we manipulate it? The oldest and most familiar, even intimate force in our world still is a mystery. The universe is about 13.5 billion years old. Why do we not know more about this basic force?
  • How much of the body can we replace? Biomedical research enables us to replace many body parts either by transplantation of organs and tissues, by artificial parts, or by growing new onesóexploiting the promise of stem cells. How much of a human being is replaceable? Is there a limit, and if so, where does it reside? What does it mean?
  • Can robots be made conscious? First, we must define what is consciousness? Then, we must investigate whether it be installed in a machine. And, if it can, how will we know?
  • Could humans live forever? One hundred years ago, life expectancy was 47.3 years. But, a baby born in the year 2000 can expect to live almost 77 years. The life expectancy in developed countries has increased by 2.5 years per decade since about 1840, and the increase has been linear, with no decline or tapering off. Could we live forever? Would we want to?
  • What should humans eat? In the year 2000, the number of overweight people in the world reached 1.2 billion, equaling the number who were underweight and starving. In the United States, 65 percent of adults and 15 percent of children (aged 6 to 19) are overweight, and the number who are more than 100 pounds overweight has quadrupled since 1986 from 1 in every 200 to 4 in every 200. The human race is about 200,000 years old. Why do we not know what, or how much, to eat?

The questions are fascinating and endless.

These are some of the new "standards of impossibility" that are awaiting your engagement in a world that is driven by science and technology, on a planet which desperately needs the answers which you can provide in science and technology, in politics, in business.

That is why what you have to offer is in demand. I am not speaking solely of the demand of the job market — which, I understand, is beginning to open up — but, also of the demand — the need — in the global economy, in the human community, for the expertise, experience, and unique perspectives that you have developed here at the North Carolina State University.

Just last month, Charles McQueary, the Undersecretary for Science and Technology at the U.S. Department of Homeland (DHS) Security, told scholars and fellows at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), that the department is in need of a constant "refresh," requiring it to bring in new people on a regular basis, to make sure that it has the benefit of the latest information, the latest experience, and the latest thinking.

You, your class, and your generation are this "refresh" — whether specifically in government, in national laboratories, in corporate facilities, in university laboratories and classrooms, in not-for-profit organizations, in the financial community — you will be the "refresh," providing the latest technology, new processes, new and diverse thinking, and, as I have said, your own unique perspectives and experiences.

You qualify as this "refresh" because you met the standard of excellence to acquire the degrees you are about to receive. You qualify as the "refresh" to the extent that you hone that excellence by continuing your education to the highest levels; and, to the degree to which you embrace lifelong learning — asking questions, exploring, discovering, pushing, as did the Wright brothers, against the "standards of impossibility." This, now, is your standard of excellence.

There is another criterion for your futures, which I encourage you to embrace — that of leadership. Leadership is a fundamental responsibility which all of us own. Whether or not you are "out in front" in a formal way, you and your actions are visible, and set the standard for others — for your peers, for those who come after you, and, yes, even for those who are ahead of you. You need only recall the people you followed, the people who inspired you, those who supported you, to understand your own responsibility for leadership. It is in your power to set an example by persevering, by being ethical, and by inspiring and encouraging others.

There is a third strand in the triple helix of qualities you will use in your futures and in your lives. I am speaking of community. What I really mean by community also might be termed "inclusiveness," or, at least, tolerance. In the global community in which we live, inclusiveness and tolerance are key. They are key to the melding of diverse thought born of varied life experiences which can lead to a superior result in any endeavor. I expect that your experiences in study and play here at North Carolina State have already brought this point home to you. Inclusiveness and tolerance also are key because, frankly, it is the estrangement of individuals, or of groups, or of peoples, or of nations, which is responsible for the divisiveness that haunts us — which makes the world a more dangerous place.

Inclusiveness, especially, is difficult. It requires more effort, more preparation, more study, more flexibility, but the payoff — like synergy — is greater than the sum of its parts.

As an example, let me return to the story of the Wright brothers. You may know that there was a third sibling on their team — Katherine Wright, their sister. And, without her participation, Orville and Wilbur Wright might have remained earth bound. Katherine Wright worked full-time as a high school Latin teacher, helped out in her brothers' shop, and contributed her own ideas to their experiments and flight trials. She used her salary to purchase supplies for their experiments. Her letters were entered as evidence in their patent suits, and she acted as public ambassador for the notoriously reticent brothers, promoting flight and the Wrights' aircraft.

The Wright siblings acted in community, the inclusiveness providing a synergy that ultimately enabled their successes.

So, these three strands — excellence, leadership, and community — will serve you well, wherever you tackle the next "standards of impossibility."

And, no matter what path you choose, the Wright brothers' achievement inspires us, because by exceeding the "standards of impossibility," they freed us from the bounds of earth — allowing us to see farther, to go farther, than we had ever imagined, to see our world with new perspective. Their work, and the subsequent achievements built upon their work, have shown us how connected the world really is, because we have seen it from a perch high above it.

I remember something told to me by Ron McNair — Dr. Ronald McNair, a graduate of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and an M.I.T. Ph.D. in Physics. Ron McNair, as you may remember, was a space shuttle astronaut who perished when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, just after lift off in 1986. Ron always knew he was stretching the edge of the envelope at the "frontier of impossibility," and he felt it a privilege to be able to do so.

Ron took his saxophone into space, and seeing from space how small the world was, he was inspired to play on his saxophone "What the world needs now is love..." in recognition of the essential human connection among us all.

This also reminds me of a simple message from my own father — which has always motivated me. He did not have my opportunities, and was not able to attend college — because of the times in which he lived, and because his own father died when my father was in his early teens. So he went to work, and he worked multiple jobs his whole life, so that his children could live another way.

He would always say to us: "Aim for the stars, so that you will reach the treetops, and at any rate, you will get off the ground." In other words, if you do not aim high, you will not go far.

So I say to you graduates — "take flight" — and as you do, I say to you — look forward, not back. Look up, not down. Have confidence in yourselves. Take care of yourselves and your families. And, if ever you are feeling tired, discouraged, or just plain disgusted, think of the bridges you already have crossed, the mountains you already have climbed. Do not let others set your aspirations for you. Set them yourselves, and work to achieve them. Intend to make a difference in this world in ways large and small — and you will — and the world will be a better place for it.

Again, congratulations, and Godspeed.

Thank you very much.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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