2012 Commencement Address

Dudley Herschbach, Nobel Laureate

College of Chemistry, UC Berkeley
May 13, 2012

I’m happy to be with you today. These Commencement festivities are very much a family celebration. For every graduate, supportive families and friends have shared in the journey. Now, with joy and probably also with some nostalgia, we all applaud this ritual passage.

My very first visit to Berkeley came when I was a high school kid, in my senior year being recruited to play football. That was 62 years ago. I met with the end coach, Eggs Manske, and then the head coach, Pappy Waldorf—playful names! Pappy was already a legendary character. Now his statue adorns the glade near the Faculty Club. When Pappy learned I was considering Chemistry as a possible major, he bellowed out “Then you’d be ten times a durn fool to go anywhere but Berkeley!” He also sent me to talk with Glenn Seaborg, an ardent football fan. Nine years later, when I joined the faculty at Berkeley, I was again sent to see Glenn. Meanwhile he’d received the Nobel Prize and also become Chancellor. When told that I’d played football for Stanford against Berkeley, he frowned ferociously, but then smiled and said “Well, I forgive you.”

Despite that kind reception, only four years later I left Berkeley to return to Harvard. That was a hard decision, because I had great admiration and affection for people at both Harvard and Berkeley. I’d had exciting experiences here in both teaching and research. I’m thankful to be welcomed back, again forgiven, like the proverbial Prodigal son.

The title for my talk comes from a saying that was often cheerfully asserted by my father: “The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer.” That has a heroic ring that appealed to me as a kid and still does. Probably that’s so for most scientists. It expresses the uncanny capacity of science to accomplish, in time, seemingly impossible things. A host of such things have in fact been made possible by education and research in chemistry and chemical engineering. The graduates we applaud today are destined to contribute significantly, in a wide variety of roles, to important advances that are as yet deemed “impossible” or even not imagined at all. Such advances will surely be crucial in contending with the daunting challenges of this global age.

Education is a fundamental prerequiste for dealing with all the other challenges. Today, I’ll simply present some observations and proposals about teaching at a research university. These stem largely from my experience teaching general chemistry to freshmen at Harvard for over 20 years.

Nature’s Language and Liberal Science

Nature is a reticent teacher. She speaks to us abundantly, but in many alien languages. She does not offer explanations; it’s up to us to ask probing questions and generate our own understanding. In frontier research we try to discover or add to knowledge of the vocabulary and grammar of some strange dialect. To the extent we succeed, we gain the ability to decipher many messages that Nature has left for us, blithely or coyly. No matter how much human effort and money we might devote to solve a practical problem in science or technology, failure is inevitable unless we can read the answers that Nature is willing to give us. That is why basic, “curiosity-driven” research is an essential and practical investment, and why its most important yield is ideas and understanding.

We are all born blind and deaf to much of Nature’s language, and it takes persistent groping and guessing to learn something of it. In my classes, I emphasize this, and urge students to study science as they would a foreign language. Empowerment by language exemplifies the highest aim of a liberal arts education: to instill the habit of self-generated questioning and thinking, of actively scrutinizing evidence and puzzling out answers. That is also the essence of a genuine scientific literacy. It fits a definition equally applicable to science and the humanities: “Education is what’s left after all you’ve learned has been forgotten.” This defines the aim to be understanding rather than ritualistic training, cultural perspective and self-reliant thinking rather than conventional knowing.

In my view, the major role of a teacher is to entice and enable students to take ownership of the subject. That can be fostered by presenting science in a more humanistic way, as an adventure of intellectual exploration. Typically, I introduce each major topic with a story, usually having the character of a parable. Many deal with historical episodes or current research discoveries; some are fictional, designed to indulge in whimsical fun while delivering a serious message. Often the stories emphasize analogy and guesswork or show how error and failure are prevalent in science but can lead to progress if “wrong in an interesting way.” Usually the parable poses questions for students to work out.

For example, when discussing the gas laws, I ask students to consider what if mighty Hercules were given, after completing his legendary twelve labors, the task of weighing the earth’s atmosphere? I wonder whether anyone here today has calculated that? It’s about 6 billion megatons! Easier to understand if we make it personal.

Looking around the stage, I see Dan Neumark, chem. department chairman, is a good surrogate for Hercules: Dan has done a lot of heavy lifting, going back to his undergrad days at Harvard, when he worked in my lab. Dan, have you figured out how much pressure you exert on the floor when standing up, compared with that exerted by the air above? (Ans: about 3 lbs, or 20% of atm press). So about 4 of your faculty colleagues could be stacked on your shoulders, before you matched air pressure! I hope that makes the chairman’s duties seem a bit lighter!

Likely Hercules would have failed in his 13th labor. If so, it would testify that even superhuman strength and courage cannot prevail when what is needed is a new intellectual concept. Surely civilization would benefit if one of our classic myths taught that lesson!

Science enjoys a tremendous advantage over most other human enterprises. In science, the goal, call it truth or understanding, waits patiently to be discovered. That’s why marvelous advances can be achieved by ordinary human talent, given sustained effort and freedom in the pursuit. Business, sports, or politics are far more capricious; there the objectives may shift rapidly, so a seemingly smart move often proves a fiasco rather than a triumph. Or consider the contrast with musical performance. The scientist must devote study and practice to master an instrument, but can and often will play most of the notes wrong, then hit one right and be deservedly applauded.

In frontier research, nobody knows the “right” answer, often even the right question or approach. So the focus is on asking an interesting question or casting the familiar in a new light. To get some flavor of that, I ask students to write poems about major concepts, because that is much more like doing real science than the usual textbook exercises. I also show poems apropos to science. For instance, here is one by Jan Skacel, a Czech poet:

Poets don’t invent poems;

The poem is somewhere behind;

It’s been there a long, long time.

The poet merely discovers it.

The Kinship of Teaching and Research

A good scientist is a perennial student and all good students learn to teach themselves, so research and teaching are naturally complementary.

In either activity, interactions with students and colleagues have for me always seemed essential for provoking and amplifying the excitement that spurs on scientific work. The time invested in teaching bears dividends for research. It keeps the researcher focused on basic concepts and questions. Meeting each season a fresh crop of students, whether in a classroom or lab, requires revisiting those fundamentals and trying to view them with a newcomer’s eyes. Such a focus on basics is healthy for research. Surely that has a lot to do with why so much path-breaking science comes out of research universities, even though most of the work is carried out by grad students and postdocs, who are still officially amateurs, and the nominal supervisors, professors, are involved in so much else.

I’ve long advocated, not yet with much effect, two simple things that would help foster appreciation of the complementary roles of teaching and research. First, when a professor is introduced as a seminar speaker, either at a university or scientific meeting, mention should be made about the speaker’s teaching. By asking the speaker about it beforehand, I usually get a nice item about teaching to spice the introduction that is more interesting than the usual recitation of an academic pedigree.

Second, encourage inclusion in Ph.D. theses of an unorthodox chapter, perhaps just a few pages, that deals with communication in a teaching mode. Whether or not the candidate has an academic career, that mode will be very important, maybe even more than technical expertise. The chapter would describe the research in a way accessible to someone well removed from the field. I usually recommend a grandmother, as I especially admire them: most are kind but not tolerant of pretentious jargon. The chapter could also enable candidates to discuss teaching experiences, innovative proposals or experiments such as work done on websites or apps. I’m very happy that Bruce Alberts has become an evangelist for this proposal. He is now editor-in-chief of Science magazine and past president of the National Academy of Sciences. Last week Bruce told me that a few months ago he mentioned the proposal at Manchester University, where it was immediately adopted. It need not be made compulsory, but rather implemented by awarding prizes. That would generate publicity and have the added benefit that the chapters submitted by participating candidates would be read by a committee, which could be made up of students as well as faculty, outside their field.

A grand goal for the 21st century should be achieving world-wide literacy, including in science. No longer does that seem impossible. Already websites like the Kahn Academy draw many million viewers. Ten days ago MIT and Harvard announced a bold joint project, edX, which will eventually make most of their courses available FREE on the Web! The edX site has already had an enormous number of hits! EdX and such enterprises can reach every corner of the globe, and also help immensely both old-timers like me and new-timers like today’s graduates to pursue life-long learning.

Homage to Mentors

I want to pay homage to three of my mentors, each connected with Berkeley. First is John Meischke, my high school chemistry teacher. He had a Master’s degree from Berkeley. The school was Campbell Union High, in what was then a rural area a few miles from San Jose. There were fewer than 100 students in my class of 1950, and only 20 or so took chemistry. Way back then, Meischke used what is now extolled as the “inquiry-based, minds-on” approach. He was genuinely Socratic. Each day, Meischke led a discussion of only 15 minutes or so, then sent us right into the lab. He’d prowl around, asking questions of us individually while we were working. Also he gave us tough written tests every week. His conversations with students ranged far beyond chemistry; I remember his urging us to read a book titled The Tyranny of Words by Stuart Chase, saying it was essential that we realize the power of semantics.

Next is my most important mentor, Harold Johnston. When I entered Stanford, by luck he was assigned as my freshman advisor. Then a young assistant professor, he was totally unpretentious, intense, and wonderfully stimulating. His passion for chemical kinetics convinced me to pursue physical chemistry, especially kinetics. The summer after my sophomore year, and again after my junior year, Hal hired me as a research assistant. Working in his lab greatly influenced my educational trajectory. A chem major back then was only required to take math through calculus and just first-year physics. Hearing Hal and his grad students so often refer to quantum physics spurred me to take all the physics and math courses I could manage. The roots of much that I’ve done in the decades since in my own research and teaching really go back to those summers in Hal’s lab.

Hal’s humanistic outlook also had an abiding influence on my teaching and mentoring. A cherished memory is a four-day conversation with him about Kant’s philosophy as contrasted with Hume’s, during a backpacking expedition in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Later, Hal moved to Berkeley. His pioneering research in atmospheric chemistry and kinetics had crucial impact. It led to recognition of catalytic processes that greatly amplify the ability of certain pollutants to eat holes in the layer of stratospheric ozone that shields life on earth from UV radiation.

My third Berkeley mentor was Yuan Lee. He generously calls me his mentor, but I am only four years his senior, and certainly learned far more from Yuan than he could have learned from me. I call him the “Mozart of Chemical Physics.” We first met in 1962, when he arrived at Berkeley as a grad student. He took my courses on quantum mechanics and on molecular collision theory. He also wanted to join my research group. Because of a linguistic misunderstanding, that didn’t happen. Luckily, Yuan came to Harvard in 1967 as a postdoc and led the design of an apparatus we named “Hope.” It greatly enlarged the scope and sophistication achieved in crossed molecular beam experiments under single-collision conditions. Hope fulfilled for chemical dynamics what had long been thought to be an “impossible” quest.

After only 18 extraordinarily productive months at Harvard, Yuan moved on to a brilliant career. He joined the chemistry faculty at Chicago for a few years, returned to Berkeley for 25 years, then went back to his native Taiwan. At the celebration of Yuan’s 70th birthday a few years ago, we heard that the world-wide population of descendents of Hope had grown above 100. In the realm of public service and education, Yuan’s contributions have also been extraordinary and far-reaching. In commemoration of that work, yesterday Yuan received the UCB Haas International Award.

It is a joy that so many of today’s graduates are women and so many are immigrants from other countries. I want especially to commend them by quoting from a poem also presented at Yuan Lee’s 60th birthday. At age 10, reading the biography of Madame Curie inspired him to pursue science. The poem was written by Maria Sklodowska, an immigrant student from Poland, when she was 24 years old. She was then living in a small attic room in Paris, four years before her name became Madame Curie. Translated into English, the last two stanzas read:

Ideals flood this tiny room;

They led her to this foreign land,

They urge her to pursue the truth

And seek the light that’s close at hand.

It is the light she longs to find,

When she delights in learning more.

Her world is learning; it defines

The destiny she’s reaching for.

This poem is very appropriate for a Berkeley benediction; as you see on the cover of the Commencement booklet, the University’s seal depicts an open book, illuminated by a star, and wrapped in a banner inscribed “LET THERE BE LIGHT.”

To close, I want to let in some music. As the graduates came in, we heard the traditional Commencement march, “Pomp and Circumstance.” Here’s a song by Cole Porter, especially appropriate for the College of Chemistry. It’s titled “Experiment.” However, it really pertains just as well to enterprising theory!

Thank you!!

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