The Second Annual Harold E. Rorschach Memorial Lecture
November 13, 1996
I have been very fortunate throughout my career to have had many wonderful friends, colleagues, and mentors, many at Rice and many in the room this afternoon. Bud Rorschach was all three. He was department chair when I arrived at Rice as a very green assistant professor of physics, very much in need of guidance and encouragement. I got both from Bud. By his own example, he set the highest standards of performance in research, teaching, service, personal integrity, and what I'll simply refer to as the "three h's"--humility, humanity, and humor.
Bud Rorschach was passionate about physics. If there was any topic in physics--any challenge, any discovery--that didn't interest him, I never knew what it was. I can't count the number of occasions that I would drop by his office and hear him say: "Did you know that...?" or "Did you read that...?" He could seem just as excited preparing a new freshman lecture demonstration as making a new research discovery. That love of physics was contagious and it infected his colleagues and his students, who again and again voted him teaching prizes. Many of his students have gone on to become eminent scientists, including Nobel prize winner Bob Wilson, who took Freshman Physics from Bud.
A few weeks ago I had the honor of accompanying Bob Curl, Rick Smalley and the physics winners of the 1996 Nobel Prize--Bob Richardson, David Lee and Doug Osherhoff--to a luncheon given in their honor by the Washington Post Editorial Board. I was chatting with Bob Richardson, who with his other two colleagues had won the prize for the discovery of superfluid He3. He asked "what's new, besides budgets and politics?" I said I was looking forward to my upcoming visit to Rice to give the Rorschach Lecture.
Richardson, of course, knew Bud and his important work in low-temperature physics. He noted, in particular, a seminal paper published in 1965 by King, Hendricks and Rorschach on "The Magnetic Field Generated by a Rotating Superconductor" in which Bud and his students reported the first, I believe, experimental observation of this novel effect, predicted by the great Fritz London. Through this work and many other important contributions, Bud left his mark on science.
Bud was deeply respected by fellow faculty members; he was a leader in the best sense of the word. He was also as nice a person as anyone I have ever known.
I recall an incident shortly after I arrived at Rice. I've never been a big fan of barber shops--never cared for having all those snippets of hair tickle my neck. So, my loving wife Joni has been cutting my hair for years--still does, though these days it takes less than a minute. On this one occasion, Joni had given me a rather close cut. When Bud saw me, coming down the hall he said: "Neal, that barber really sheared you this time!" I replied that Joni had cut it. Bud's response, in as sincere a tone as he could manage, was, "I think it really looks nice!" That was Bud Rorschach.
Bud Rorschach and Rice were one. In a very real way, he helped form this great university. He saw research, teaching, and service--to the institution and to the community--not as separate activities or responsibilities, each with its relative weighting, but as an integrated whole, mutually reinforcing and mutually fulfilling. He was a model for generations of Rice faculty, including those still to come.
For these and many other reasons, personal as well as professional, I consider the invitation to present this Rorschach Lecture a truly great honor, and my wife Joni and I are delighted to be here with Ginny and all of you today.
You may have noted from the title of this talk that I've promised to reveal a few secrets today. I once ran across a saying along the lines of: "people want to learn secrets for the same reason spendthrifts want to get money--for circulation." That in many ways is my objective today--to mix unabashed evangelism and reasoned analysis and spread the word about the secrets of our nation's extraordinary success in scientific endeavors.
These "secrets," such as they are, deserve our attention, because we cannot take them for granted as we look toward our collective future. Today, I intend first to look back over history to answer the question, 'why do we invest taxpayer dollars in what to some may seem arcane topics, such as physics, chemistry or astronomy, at places like Rice University?'. That's a question I often hear, especially as we move into this era of smaller government. I want to make sure the answer to that question is not kept secret from anyone.
Then, I want to examine a conundrum of our current era. All signs are that we are on the verge of an amazing era of discovery and progress in science and engineering. Yet, we are essentially pulling the rug from under our prospects for future success. The risk we run should not be kept secret from anyone, because it is not just a risk to science, but to our entire nation and our position in the world in the next century. For this reason, I believe it deserves our fullest attention.
This choice of topics was actually inspired by the achievements of Rice's own Rick Smalley and Bob Curl. When the Nobel Committee selected Rick and Bob and Harry Kroto of the University of Sussex for the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the people of the world got word of a pair of secrets that previously were known largely within the scientific and academic community.
First, it made clear to all what many already knew--that Bob and Rick are among the world's greatest scientists of all time. That is what their Nobel prize signifies, and it is richly deserved.
The award announcement also let loose another fact that was not fully appreciated by the majority of the American people: what an outstanding research institution Rice University is. Not too many years ago, we referred to Rice as "the best kept secret of success in higher education." Clearly, that description no longer applies.
The longer I am away from Rice, the more I realize how unique it really is within our system of higher learning. All of us know Rice as a close-knit learning community and a center of scholarship. We often overlook the many ways it stands out in our national system. Few other schools combine the best elements of a top-flight liberal arts college with the resources of a leading research university. Bud Rorschach was key to bringing this about. I am certain that he, like all of us, would very pleased that the entire nation has turned its eyes toward Rice.
This year's Nobel announcement also brought to light the topic that forms the centerpiece of my talk today. Our nation is an undisputed world leader in science and technology. This year, most of the 10 Nobels awarded in scientific fields went to Americans. Since 1930, U.S. scientists have received more Nobels in science than all other nations combined.
This has not come about by accident, or by luck, happenstance, or any innate superiority of U.S. brainpower--although foreign scientists often point to the marvels of "Yankee ingenuity." The key to our leadership--the secret to our success--I believe is our system of public support and investment that works in partnership with our nation's colleges and universities. For this reason, a more appropriate title for my talk today might be: Secrets of Scientific Success: It Takes a System.
A bit later, I will return to the issue of funding for this system. It's ever on my mind. At this point, however, I want to talk more about motivation. Why do we take hard-earned, taxpayer dollars and give them to academics to study esoteric questions in astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and what might appear to be obscure uses for computers and electronic networks?
This is a valid question, and the answer in my mind goes well beyond Nobel prizes, prestige, or any form of pure intellectual edification.
To make this clear, I would like to recall the exploits of Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell. Who was he, you ask? Admiral Shovell was a heroic commander in the British Navy in the early 18th Century, but he figures into the history of science and technology for other reasons.
In the fall of 1707, Admiral Shovell led his fleet of five gunships to triumph over the French Mediterranean forces at Gibraltar. In wake of this victory, he sailed his fleet toward home, expecting a hero's welcome for himself and the thousands of troops under his command.
But when they sailed within 20 miles of the British coast, disaster struck. Four out of five ships were sunk, and over 2,000 lives were lost.
This disaster was not the result of a trap laid by the enemy. It was not caused by storm or sabotage. The culprit in fact was the single-greatest challenge facing sea-faring nations of the day. It was longitude--or to be more precise, an inability to determine longitude.
There is much more to this story--including an ironic twist involving Admiral Shovell's own fate as he washed ashore. It is all recounted in a book that has reached the bestseller lists without much fanfare. The book is entitled "Longitude," and its author is Dava Sobel, a science writer formerly with the New York Times.
If you happen to posses total recall of your high school geography courses, then you have no trouble remembering the difference between latitude and longitude. I, on the other hand, always need help keeping them straight. Lines of latitude parallel the equator, and capable sailors can determine latitude at any point on the globe through calculations based on the position and height of the sun above the horizon, say at high noon on a given day.
Longitude, by contrast, comprises the great circles of the planet that intersect at the poles. The is no longitudinal analogue to the equator. The prime meridian, now at Greenwich, is set by humans, not by nature. Longitude consequently defies simple determination. Celestial navigation provides one method--but one requiring calculations beyond the abilities of most 18th Century sailors. Another method requires knowing the exact time at two places on the globe at once.
To illustrate this latter method, we know it is getting close to sunset here in Houston, and I can call my office in suburban Washington and find out the sun set there just over an hour ago. We know it takes 24 hours for the Earth to complete its 360 degree revolution, so each hour's difference marks a 15 degree progression of longitude. We can therefore infer that Houston is just over 15 degrees west of Washington.
In the days before quartz watches and instant communication, this was no simple determination. The absence of timepieces that could remain accurate over months at sea proved the undoing of many great sea captains. Sobel writes that every great sea captain of the era of exploration, from Da Gama to Balboa and Magellan to Drake, became lost through inability to gauge longitude--though most were not in such dire straights as Admiral Shovell.
For this reason, the story of longitude is a story of scientific research being enlisted to address a societal challenge. Sobel writes:
The active quest for a solution to the problem of longitude persisted over four centuries and across the whole continent of Europe.... Renowned astronomers approached the longitude challenge by appealing to the clockwork universe: Galileo Galilei, Jean Dominique Cassini, Christian Huygens, Sir Isaac Newton, and Edmund Halley, of comet fame, all entreated the moon and stars for help. Palatial observatories were founded at Paris, London, and Berlin for the express purpose of determining longitude by the heavens....
In the course of their struggle to find longitude, scientists struck upon other discoveries that changed their view of the universe. They include the first accurate determinations of the weight of the Earth, the distance to the stars, and the speed of light.
Sobel also pointed out that the quest for longitude also marked the first large-scale investment of public treasuries into science and engineering research. European governments offered generous prizes for workable methods. The British Parliament's Longitude Act of 1714 set a prize of 20,000 pounds for a reliable method--a sum that translates into several million of today's dollars.
The prize eventually went to John Harrison, a brilliant clockmaker with no formal training, in a result that miffed the scientific establishment of the day. Harrison's time pieces earned the name "chronometers"--a term still reserved for only the most accurate timepieces. The astronomical approach, based on exhaustive mappings of the heavens, never proved practical as a stand-alone method for determining longitude. It is nevertheless noteworthy that even after nearly three centuries, the charts Edmund Halley and his contemporaries developed in their quest for longitude remain among the most accurate accountings of the stars and planets ever produced.
While I cannot do justice to the richness of this story and the complexity and human struggle behind all of these accomplishments, there is one valuable moral I would like to pull from this story. We see here research responding to society's need, and at the same time sparking progress in both fundamental science and the development of new tools and technologies.
This same storyline emerges from countless other great quests we have tackled as a society--such as putting a human on the moon, battling polio, and securing victory in World War Two. In these and countless other areas, we have risen to the call of great societal challenges, and at the same time opened new frontiers for exploration through research and education.
This storyline runs to the core of the origins and purposes of the highly successful system of research we enjoy here in America. It's no secret that our system of public funding for research emerged from the contributions of science to the Allied victory in the second world war. This connection between societal goals and scientific progress is also evident in the mission of the National Science Foundation. Our enabling legislation directs us "to promote the progress of science [and engineering]" and "to advance the national health, welfare, and prosperity..."
This duality of purpose is one of the secrets of success of our system of science and engineering. It allows individual initiative and creativity to flourish without rigid centralized control, and at the same time works to achieve larger national objectives.
One often hears terms like "basic" and "applied" attached to research, implying that one form has utility and the other does not--and that we can tell the difference. What we have learned from history is that research defies any such pigeonholing. More often than not, research opens new frontiers for exploration and improves the quality of our lives--simultaneously. What really matters in discovery is the quality of the researchers and their having the freedom to explore wherever their minds take them.
When Rick Smalley and Bob Curl visited NSF last month, they shared a story that reinforced this very point, and I hope they don't mind my invoking them once again. They began studying carbon at the urging of their co-awardee, Harry Kroto. His interest actually arose from an entirely different avenue of research: astronomers viewing the heavens with radio telescopes had begun to detect interesting forms of carbon molecules in certain types of giant stars and in interstellar gas clouds.
Kroto believed the Rice laser-supersonic cluster beam apparatus might reveal something about these molecules. That led them to the soccer ball shaped form of carbon nicknamed the buckeyball, which may well lead our society to practical superconductors, faster computers, and possibly even to composite materials that are stronger and lighter than any metal. This all goes back to astronomers seeing something interesting in giant stars.
Of course, I know some people hear a story like this and say, 'that's just luck,' and it's not something you can ever expect, let alone use as an investment strategy. I prefer to think of it in light of Louis Pasteur's observation that, "chance favors the prepared mind." New York Yankees' manager Joe Torre came up with another way to explain this in the wake of his team's surprising World Series victory. To use his words: "the harder you work, the luckier you get."
We have learned from history that the hard work made possible by our system of support for science and engineering brings our nation the most fortunate form of luck--progress and prosperity. There is no need to take my word for this. Consider, for example, the data on U.S. economic growth since World War II. Our real GDP has grown by a factor of six over the past five decades, thanks in large part to scientific and technological progress.
Many top economists, including a number of Nobel Laureates, have studied in depth the drivers of this growth--and they've come to one clear conclusion. Innovations emerging from science and technology account for roughly one-third of all economic growth over the past half-century. That's strong evidence, but I would argue that it's only the beginning.
That brings me to the second part of my talk and our current conundrum. When we reflect back on the 20th Century, we see an amazing array of advances--air travel, computing, internet rising living standards, increased longevity, to name but a few. It is hard to believe we can possibly improve on this record, but it looks like the best may be yet to come.
To appreciate this, we need look no further than Houston's own Johnson Space Center--which among other things is home to the world's collection of Antarctic meteorites. NSF, NASA, and the Smithsonian work closely together to provide for the collection, special curatorial handling, classification, disbursement to researchers, and long-term storage of Antarctic meteorites--which are proving to be an immensely valuable resource for science.
Antarctica where NSF supports the entire U.S. presence, is home to the mother lode of meteorites. If one were to ask, what's the ideal way to find meteorites, you might get the following answer. Find a huge open space, lay out a equally huge white bedsheet, and pick up whatever falls on it--provided it's a rock. Antarctica provides the huge open space, and the Antarctic ice sheets provide a reasonable proxy for a huge white bedsheet.
Scientific teams then go out and scour the ice sheets for meteorites. As the ice sheet flows, the meteorites are carried along and gathered together toward the end of the flow, against the mountains. By studying the meteorites' arrival, one learns about the ice flow--which actually was a primary motivation for the study in the first place.
It's a complex search, involving a mix of challenging logistics just to get research teams to the Antarctic and enable them to work there, as well as advanced mountaineering to navigate the ice sheets and clean-room techniques to avoid contaminating the samples. But it's also an immensely successful program. Antarctica has now yielded some 16,000 meteorites, roughly half of the world's meteorite samples.
Meteorites are in effect a bargain basement form of space travel, because they bring other planets to us--and perhaps fossilized passengers as well. You saw the photos and the headlines this past summer. Top researchers are still studying those so-called nano-cheetoes to determine if they really are fossils of microbial life from roughly 3.5 billion years ago. Even though the jury is still out, the results have already given us lots to think about. Another Martian meteorite being studied by a British team also contains potential evidence of life--and it points to life existing on Mars as recently as 600,000 years ago.
As improbable as it might be for life to have ever existed on Mars--or to exist today--we are now finding life in equally improbable places here on Earth. In fact, we now know that life thrives in perhaps the most inhospitable spots on our planets-- in polar sea ice at freezing temperatures and near ocean floor volcanoes at temperatures well in excess of boiling water. This has caused us to rethink our understanding of life itself--how it survives, thrives, and has developed, both here on Earth and possibly on other planets.
These durable microbes may hold the key to battling toxic waste, cleaning up oil spills, or to new breakthroughs in biotechnology. For example, just as we now know that life flourishes in environments we consider extreme, we also know certain life forms subsist on diets we consider extreme -- such as the residues of airplane fuel tanks and other substances that are lethal to humans. We expect one day to find or engineer a microbe whose favorite meal includes an extra helping of PCBs or dioxin. That could help us clean up Superfund sites at a fraction of current costs. Certain forms of bacteria have already proven helpful in cleaning up oil spills.
These are just a few examples of the amazing array of discoveries and advances emerging in research today.
We've also gained insight through research on how we humans think, learn, make decisions, and process information. For example, if your auto insurance company has eliminated its discount for anti-lock brakes--as many have--you may be interested in knowing why certain safety features sometimes fall short of expectations. One innate characteristic of the human mind is to overcompensate for any form of added security. We feel safer, so we take more risks. The challenge now is to devise ways to overcome this tendency, so that we can benefit in full from these improvements.
We are also only now beginning to appreciate the power and potential brought by a new age of computing and information technologies. This was evident on election night, as the major networks co-mingled television coverage with updates via the Internet. CNN reported that its World Wide Web site was being visited 5 million times per hour--nearly 10,000 times per minute. Even when the system bogged down from all the traffic, we could still get updates on the Congressional races here in Houston in a matter of seconds from our house in Virginia.
This is all part of a phenomenon being referred to as "distributed intelligence." Information and control are moving away from centralized systems to the individual. Vice President Gore introduced the metaphor of distributed intelligence in a series of speeches last spring, and it's a research-rich concept we've been discussing at NSF for some time.
It is a complicated metaphor, based on applying the principles of parallel processing and networking to social challenges and economic progress. It is noteworthy in and of itself for the Vice President of the United States to discuss things like massive parallelism and broad bandwidths. That's almost certainly a first in our history.
The opportunities emerging in this age of distributed intelligence are also without precedent. These include many simple conveniences that we now take for granted--like banking through ATM's and pay at the pump gasoline. We are also gaining a set of tools for research and education of unprecedented power and potential--these include distance learning technologies, digital libraries, virtual laboratories and collaboratories, and even virtual universities. This is all made possible by quantum leaps in computing power and electronic networks. Many of the key advances emerged from the Center for Research on Parallel Computation here at Rice.
In this context, it is worth noting the role of research in bringing forth these opportunities. The Internet and the World Wide Web got their start as research tools, and complex challenges in fields like cosmology and mathematics are continuously pushing the limits of existing technologies.
Marc Andresson, the co-founder of Netscape Communications, developed Mosaic--the precursor of the Netscape browser-- while a student at the NSF-supported National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. The folklore has it that he needed a better way to complete a homework project, so he designed his own web browser. Very rarely do homework assignments lead to new industries, but that's the story here.
All of this makes our current situation all the more confusing and confounding. We can see that we are standing just a step away from an amazing era of possibility and opportunity. It is all made possible by progress across the spectrum of science and engineering--from computing to cognition and genetics to geology.
It is therefore both ironic and somewhat frustrating that just as these possibilities have come within reach, all signs are that we are stepping back from the promise they hold and perhaps squandering our best hopes for the future.
Erich Bloch--a former vice president of IBM and one of my predecessors as NSF Director--recently wrote in Science magazine that: "The whole U.S. R&D system is in the midst of a crucial transition. Its rate of growth has leveled off and could decline. We cannot assume that we will stay at the forefront of science and technology as we have for 50 years."
We already know that we invest less in research and development as a proportion of our economy than other nations --much less in fact when military R&D is excluded from the calculations. Japan's non-defense R&D comes to 2.7 percent of its GDP; Germany's 2.4 percent. Our own level of investment barely tops 2 percent of our GDP and it's dropping!
Of course, we can look at these figures and say, 'since our economy is so much larger than any other in the world, we still invest much more in absolute dollars.' This is true, but it may not be for much longer. Japan has adopted the goal of doubling its public investments in R&D. If it sticks to its plan while we reduce our own R&D investments, total R&D spending in Japan could exceed U.S. spending early in the next century. It is expected to be far ahead on a per capita basis by that time.
It is interesting to note how our two nations have responded in different ways to similar sets of circumstances. Both the U.S. and Japan are seeking ways to boost economic growth in times of large central government deficits. Japan, to its credit, has adopted an approach based on investing in science and technology, with its eye on the future. Our approach, by contrast, seems much more focused on the present, on our short-term needs and desires.
When it comes to research funding here in the U.S., I often tell people the devil is not just in the details, it's in the totals. There is a lot of talk about what the future holds for science funding. You can even find detailed projections being tossed about for what NSF's and other agencies' budgets will look like in the year 2002. While those figures get our attention, they are not the most reliable of projections. We should not place great stock in the levels for individual agencies. The actual funding allocations are revisited each year by the President and the Congress in the budget process.
Nevertheless, the aggregated totals projected for the major categories of Federal spending do deserve our attention, particularly the category known as domestic discretionary spending. This includes most of what we think of as the day-to-day running of the government--parks, highways, prisons, NSF, NASA, Education and scores of other programs and agencies. You might be surprised to learn that this category makes up less than 1/6th of the total Federal budget.
Even more surprising and of real concern is that this small slice of the pie is slated to bear a lion's share of the spending reductions needed to balance the budget. In fact, this 1/6th slice of the pie is expected to drop to 1/7th of the pie by 2002 according to most projections. That reflects a decline in purchasing power of some 20 percent.
Again, while we can't predict with any precision how this will affect NSF or any other agency, we do know that there will be increased competition for funds from this shrinking slice of the pie. We also know that for several decades, federal support for R&D has tracked very closely with total domestic discretionary spending.
It would be folly to ignore the possibility that the federal investment in research, including that in universities, could decrease in real terms by 20 percent or more over the next 5 to 10 years if trends continue as they are now. In a way, our nation is getting ready to carry out an experiment it has never run before: to see if we can reduce the purchasing power of research investments by 20 percent and still be a world leader in the 21st century. That is a high risk experiment.
I sometimes reflect on this in light of Thomas Carlyle's famous observation on representative government. It reads: "In the long-run every government is the exact symbol of its people, with their wisdom and unwisdom." This statement seems especially pertinent in this age of divided government, though I'll leave that discussion to our political scientists. For all scientists, engineers, and others with an interest in government support for research and education, this statement also provides a full serving of food for thought.
A confusing and somewhat contradictory picture emerges when we consider what we know about public attitudes toward science and technology.
Here again, we are left to ask if we have kept things too much a secret, with the result that we are overlooking the link between our future well-being and continued progress in science and engineering. Viewed in light of Carlyle's statement, one could say our unwise course extends from keeping our nation's success too much a secret.
Let me leave you therefore with a few thoughts on how to approach this confusing and confounding conundrum. We must first recognize that the long-term threat to science is real. The drive to balance the budget will bring some rocky times, and all of us have good reason to feel apprehensive about the future.
The key is that we cannot let our apprehension slow us down. I believe we will have a future golden age of science. It just won't be the same as in past years.
I believe that scientific research will continue to explore the most fundamental questions of nature. And, great universities like Rice will continue to prepare the nation's brightest and most capable students to make the major discoveries of tomorrow.
I nevertheless predict our system of research--including university research--and education will do much more than this. In a future golden age, research will also emphasize the integration and dissemination of knowledge beyond publishing in journals and presenting papers. We will rely on yet-to-be established networks (not just electronic) of discoverers and users. This new partnership will make the benefits of research more apparent and, at least some of the time, more immediate.
Higher education, particularly at the doctoral and masters level, will include valuable knowledge and skills, such as communication, teamwork, management, and leadership, that will enable scientists and engineers to excel in a wide range of professions. Why is this important? One reason is to better prepare science graduates for the realities of today's and future job markets.
But perhaps more important is the fact that future leaders in the world of business, law, medicine, and politics will need to understand science and technology to a degree society has never recognized and certainly not required before.
Will all of this come to pass? I don't know. But it will not come to pass unless we expand our views of research, of the university, of connections and partnerships involving the doers and users of science, and of graduate education.
Above all else, the secrets of our nation's success should remain secret no longer. Thanks to the work done here at Rice and other great universities, our nation has realized the benefits offered by science and technology, and what we've seen to date is only the beginning. We will see even greater returns in the future--provided we muster the national will to press forward and continue extending the frontiers of research and education.
From the story of longitude, the buckeyball, and countless other examples, we have learned a valuable lesson. When we extend the frontiers of research we also move forward as a society and plant the seeds of progress and prosperity. It is therefore up to all of us to make certain that our system of support for science and engineering--the secret our nation's success--is known and celebrated by all Americans.
That is a challenge we must not fail to meet.
Thank you for allowing me to share these thoughts and for giving Joni and me the wonderful opportunity to see you all again. We really do miss you!