Speech Delivered by Ralph Izzo at Class Day 2011

May 17 2011
Thank you for inviting me to speak on this wonderful occasion.
 
First, I wish to applaud the graduates. Your Columbia degree is a significant achievement.
 
You have successfully completed a rigorous program of study in one of the world’s leading universities and schools of engineering and applied science.
 
You have every reason to feel proud. So do your friends and especially your families.
Congratulations.
 
Having been in your shoes, I would like to discuss the value of an engineering education in a world faced with many challenges but also offering great opportunities.
Clearly, there is value attached to the specific knowledge you have gained in your chosen field.
 
But my intention is not to dwell on one field versus another.
 
Rather, it is to stress that an engineering education cultivates an approach, or approaches, to problem solving that can be applied to help our society address major challenges such as energy policy.
 
The world has a tremendous need for leaders with the knowledge and skills associated with your degree, the value of which goes well beyond any one technical field.
 
Speaking personally, it has been over 25 years since I routinely solved magneto-hydrodynamic equations. 
 
Yet, there hasn’t been a moment during all these years when I doubted what I learned from solving those equations far beyond plasma physics.
 
Equations have a way of sticking with you, at least for a period…But trust me, after 25 years, they don’t stick the way they once did.
 
Fortunately, certain habits did stay with me…habits associated with doing research, working with others, and identifying solutions to problems.
 
For this and much more, thank goodness there is such a thing as an engineering education.  Thank goodness there are parents who care that you get your education. And thank goodness there are outstanding institutions of higher education such as Columbia.
 
Some of my fondest memories of Columbia were hours spent with friends solving the problems of the world. We did this around a coffee table and lounge chairs that could have won an award as the most dilapidated furniture in New York. 
 
As you can imagine, the furniture didn’t concern us terribly. (The administration, in its wisdom, must have recognized that better décor would have been wasted on us.) 
 
However, what struck me at the time was the way the intensity of our conversations varied in direct proportion to our struggles with our own work.
This happened almost with mathematical precision (which itself was a pretty good lesson). It’s called procrastinating.
 
Another thing I remember is being in a hurry.
 
I was eager to wrap up the research on my thesis.
 
My advisor, Professor C.K. Chu told me, “Wait a moment. There is more work to do.”
 
Probably this was the most valuable lesson of all.
 
There is always more to do and more to learn.
Undoubtedly, quite a number of you will be pursuing careers in teaching or research.
 
But even if you do not, the value of your education will stay with you – in your work, in exercising your role as citizens and in other ways that you cannot anticipate, let alone predict.
 
Your education is profoundly part of you, but also something more: It is an invaluable resource in a world that has an endless need for science, for innovation and for sound technical reasoning in order to reach informed decisions on issues that matter if we are to secure a sustainable future.
 
It is common for commencement speakers to give advice, often plenty of it. But, before giving some advice, I think it is only fair that I ask for your help.
 
Guess what: We did not solve the problems of the world as we sat around that coffee table. There remains plenty to do.
 
Energy is a perfect example. We have been talking about our energy dependence for a long time (at least since the OPEC oil embargo of 1973). 
 
Probably your parents and grandparents remember when President Carter wore a sweater and urged us to conserve energy by turning down the thermostat. That was in 1977, I believe.
 
My generation listened to the words, but acted as if there was no problem.
 
Thirty years ago, we imported a third of our oil.
 
Today, we import two-thirds of our oil.
 
We remain dependent on fossil fuels for 85 percent of our energy, and for nearly 100 percent of our motorized transportation.
 
I strongly believe our energy choices matter and can put us on the path to something better.
 
My industry is responsible for a third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. We need to clean up our act. To do this, my company is emphasizing a three-fold approach involving first, energy efficiency; second, renewables such as solar and wind energy; and third, power stations that are as clean as possible across diverse fuels and technologies.
 
This is one approach among many that are possible to address our energy and environmental challenges.
 
As our society debates questions such as whether to conserve or to drill (or do both in some combination), it will be in a better position to make appropriate decisions if there are people at the table with the knowledge and skills to evaluate a variety of inputs and to weigh the consequences of the choices we make today, not only for ourselves but for our children.
 
Frankly, I worry about the consequences for future generations when the response to various proposed investments, in areas from education to health care to science research, is that we cannot afford it. 
 
Of course, we need to control costs if we care at all about the implications of the ballooning deficit, or the pressures on many household budgets. But we also need to ask: What do we need to pay today, or even to sacrifice, for the sake of tomorrow?
 
We need an honest discussion about this and other tough questions. 
 
Graduates like you can make a meaningful contribution in dealing with challenges confronting the world.
 
In any discussion of energy, we cannot forget that one-quarter of the world’s population lacks access to electricity and other things we take for granted.
 
The infrastructure to support energy, food and water for the world’s growing population will be an immense undertaking over decades. It must be ramped up now.  
 
If progress is to be made, it will take people with the dedication and know-how to diagnose problems, come up with solutions and be the catalyst for action.
 
In short, we need you.
 
Now, in turn, allow me to give a few words of advice.
 
Some say showing up is 80 percent of the battle. Don’t believe it.
 
Anything worth your time requires much more than showing up if you truly want to make a difference.
 
Scientists and engineers wrestle with complex problems and issues that can seem intractable. Inevitably, you will encounter bumps in the road. At times, you may feel your ideas are getting less than a full or fair hearing.
 
To be heard, we also need to listen. Whatever the circumstances, I urge you to keep in mind the importance of communication based on trust and respect. 
 
I believe that growth comes by embracing complexity, by remaining open to learning, by welcoming diverse ideas, by being willing to change our minds and to have the courage to go where the evidence takes us.
 
Today, it seems fitting to quote the words of a great scientist.
 
Max Planck was awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery of energy quanta. 
 
Max Planck was a member of the remarkable generation of scientists who revolutionized our understanding of the universe and unlocked the mysteries of the atom.
 
Experimental evidence led Max Planck to a new idea that was radical at the time – namely, that energy did not flow in a steady continuum.
 
Eighty years ago, Max Planck wrote, “We have no right to assume that any physical laws exist, or if they have existed up to now, that they will continue to exist in a similar manner in the future.”
 
Grappling with complexity and uncertainty is part of what our era demands.
 
But, in my view, it would be wrong, indeed dangerous, if this led to the cynical conclusion that there is no truth, or that the only way to deal with a problem is to muddle through.
 
We must continue to ask hard questions that go with science, but at the same time, not lose belief in the vast possibilities of applying knowledge to improve the condition of humanity.
 
Max Planck said, faith “is a quality that scientists cannot dispense with.”
 
So I urge you, keep the faith. Keep believing in yourself. And never stop learning.
 

Thank you.