The Magazine of the University of Minnesota Duluth
Messages for our Graduates
Two commencement addresses that carry meaning for us all.
Above: Cesar Pelli and Eric Brown.
I thought much about this address; what essential truths about life I should communicate to you. But I had to conclude that I am not in possession of any such truths. I cannot even give you good advice about what to do with your lives and your careers. What I can do is share with you some experiences in my life that you may find applicable to your circumstances.
My years as a university student were exciting. I went to school in my hometown of Tucumán, a provincial city in the far north of Argentina. There the system required that I choose a career in order to enter the university, and I chose architecture, without understanding well what I was choosing. But I was lucky and architecture proved a most rewarding choice for me. It continues to reward me almost every day.
Why was it rewarding? Soon after entering school I discovered that I had, or could develop, the basic skills to function well as an architect. That was nothing special, most of my classmates also had them, some of them in higher degrees than I. I also enjoyed the pleasure of giving form to things, buildings in our case. And I was very attracted by the possibility that, if I became a really good architect, some of my buildings could be works of art, that is, they could transcend their function or physical fabric.
All of this was attractive and it helped me make the effort to study other less enjoyable subjects such as mathematics (I loved geometry, but I found calculus very difficult). What completed my understanding of what it meant to be an architect was the realization that the buildings I designed could fulfill social needs.
This was unexpected, to see, within myself, that just doing things that pleased me was fine but not enough. Something was missing. Somehow, on trying to fully understand what could best satisfy the needs of others, or to enhance their enjoyment I became more fulfilled and my satisfaction was longer lasting, even if the designs were purely theoretical, as they were then. Years later, when I had the opportunity to design and see built real buildings, this feeling was magnified, because I could appreciate how others were using what I had planned for them and how particular aspects of my design gave them pleasure, or pride. This was truly and deeply rewarding. Then I understood that, for me, this is the essence of architecture and its most appealing quality.
I have concluded that the buildings I design are not complete until they become part of life. Until they contribute, somehow, to people’s lives. I am compelled to try to achieve this to the best of my abilities. It is not easy to keep this basic goal always in mind, because many other urges compete with it, such as my ego, my vanity, the desire to make more money or just wanting to get over a difficult problem. I know that, as a human being, all these impulses are natural, but at the end, satisfying them alone does not make me feel as well, as fully satisfied, as when I know that what I have designed has made a difference to a group of people. And yes, the larger the group I can affect the more I enjoy it.
When I left school I thought that I was supposed to be fully prepared to make a living as an architect. Perhaps some of my classmates were, but I knew that I wasn’t. Of course, I could not let anyone know this and I thought that I would quickly compensate for my deficiencies. Only much later I realized how thoroughly unprepared I was at the moment of graduation. What I needed was training, and universities are not the best places to train us; at least not us, architects. I acquired that kind of knowledge working for another architect on real buildings, with real clients. Of course, that training would have been impossible without my schooling.
What I learned in school is still with me, even if what remained is not what I expected at the time. What have remained with me are basic principles about adult life and about my profession. Summed up to what I learned at home these became the philosophical and moral ideas with which I evaluate almost everything I do. They are still my intellectual backbone. In school I learned how to think, how to push myself to go further, and still further with my thoughts and my work. I know that, in school, I also acquired a rich, if diffuse, basket of mental tools with which to analyze issues, or understand a problem.
Graduation was not the end of my education as I had assumed. I was very wrong. It was just the beginning and I see now, that getting educated has no end. Fortunately.
I still have much to learn and having to keep my mind open and receptive, just like you, is a gift.
Erik T. Brown
When Dean Hedman informed me a few weeks ago that I would have the privilege of addressing you tonight, I was a little concerned. I started asking everyone — colleagues, family members, people on the street, grocery checkout clerks — what an ideal commencement address should be. The response was nearly unanimous: “Short.”
So I am going to try to follow that sensible advice, but I also hope to leave you with some things to think about and maybe even apply to your life. I now want you to step back with me to the time (longer ago than I would like to admit) that I was in graduate school.
I was trying to figure out how the world worked, and what was the point of undertaking research. One of the scientists whose work I was reading was Konrad Lorenz (an Austrian zoologist who was a pioneer in the scientific study of animal behaviors).
He wrote that “it is a good morning exercise for a research scientist to discard a pet hypothesis everyday before breakfast. It keeps him (or her) young.”
In spite of its Germanic austerity (one can imagine Lorenz insisting on cold baths and coarse towels before breakfast as well) this is actually pretty good advice for anyone, not just research scientists. You should think critically about how you look at your world. Think about how and why you are doing things. A “pet hypothesis” to discard might be about anything — it might be about the best suppliers of widgets for the company that you MBA graduates will be managing —or about the best way to advocate for families or to teach spelling to first graders — or anything else. Once you have evaluated the situation, you may well decide that your original pet hypothesis was right, but the chance that you’ll find better ways to do things makes the reevaluation worthwhile.
In addition to trying to follow this admonishment for healthy skepticism, as I worked my way through graduate school I also came up with a notion of research as a kind of formalized curiosity… poking around interesting places, but with a clear method and an overriding purpose… It was like trying to figure out the clues of a gigantic cosmic crossword puzzle. Perhaps you are only going to solve one part of one clue in one little corner, but you still contribute to our overall knowledge and understanding. I realized that it is fun to have new knowledge; to know something (even something trivially small) that no one ever knew before.
You might imagine that thinking in this way could lead to an exaggerated notion of self-importance. Indeed, within a few weeks of defending my thesis (one section of which dealt with the behavior of the toxic metallic element beryllium in rivers), I saw a big newspaper headline. An industrial accident in the Soviet Union had released massive quantities of beryllium into a river. So there I was: a newly minted Ph.D., among the world’s experts on what was happening. Was I surrounded by reporters and giving out soundbites? No. Sadly, (or maybe happily) I was in the midst of a long holiday (recovering from graduate school) diving on the Great Barrier Reef and I saw the headline in a month-old newspaper that someone had left in the galley of a one of the dive boats. Even if I didn’t get my 15 minutes of fame, my research certainly contributed to the knowledge needed for the cleanup effort.
T. H. White also describes the value of new knowledge in his retelling
of the legends of King Arthur. In this passage, the magician Merlin
explains a cure for melancholy and sadness to the future king:
“There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing that the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
This is true. And it can be even better. There is a story about Richard Feynman, the Nobel-prize winning physicist, who, as a young man, was in the midst of a period of depression. It was just after WWII, and a realization of the dangers of the atomic bomb he had helped to build had begun to sink in. His wife died of tuberculosis. He was teaching at Cornell (I’m not implying this was cause of his depression).
Anyway one day in the cafeteria a student was fooling around, tossing
a plate in the air. Feynman noticed the red university seal on the
rim of the plate spinning and saw that the plate wobbled as it spun.
He was fascinated, and he tried to figure out the relationship between
the spin and the wobble. He ended up spending months on this. And
finally he came up a complicated equation that he showed to one of
But—this is the thing—this silly calculation not only brought Richard Feynman out of his funk, but it set him on the pathway to the work that eventually won him his share of the Nobel Prize. So, remember that curious inquiry can be fun, and it also can lead to greater things.
Another thing to pull out of this story is that even if you have all the skills in the world (which, in math and physics, Feynman certainly did) you’re not going to accomplish much if you’re not feeling passion and excitement about what you’re doing.
A final illustration of the greater value of pursuing knowledge involves
Robert Wilson, another nuclear physicist who was instrumental in development
of the Fermilab, a giant atom-smashing accelerator. At a Congressional
hearing back in 1969, Wilson was questioned by John Pastore, (the
Senator from Rhode Island, not our colleague in the Biology Department).
So the Senator wanted to know whether new knowledge acquired using
this accelerator in any way contributed to the security of our country.
“It has no value in that respect?” the senator asked.
Wilson looked at him and said, “It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of people, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, new knowledge has all to do with honor and country. But it has nothing to do directly with defending our country—except to help make it worth defending.”
Another way to keep your ideas fresh is through interaction with people who have backgrounds, outlooks and approaches that differ from your own. These people can really help in the task of discarding a “pet hypothesis” before breakfast. This is important in any profession; in academia we like to call it “interdisciplinary work.” In fact, the most interesting areas in science are often far from the clear centers of traditional academic fields, but in the gray areas where one discipline blurs into another.
As an example, at one point, I ended up as an American oceanographer studying Tibetan neotectonics (history of recent earthquakes) in a French nuclear physics lab. After about five years working in France, I returned to the States, accepting a position at a new research facility here at UMD (the Large Lakes Observatory) that focused its efforts on “interdisciplinary” studies of lakes — chemists working with physicists working with biologists working with geologists working with the ship’s captains and crews to understand the inner workings of lakes. The success of this venture results to a large degree from its interdisciplinary nature.
The final words I want share with you are the dying words of John
Maynard Keynes, arguably the most influential economist in history.
“My only regret . . . is that I did not drink more Champagne.”
Occasionally, you need to remember to step back and enjoy life. Celebrate
your friends and family. Savor your successes.