This last weekend was commencement at Bates. As part of the commencement festivities, several of our students are inducted into honor societies. In particular, Phi Beta Kappa (the Liberal Arts honors society) and Sigma Xi (the scientific honors society). I was asked to speak at the Sigma Xi induction ceremony, and was delighted to say yes. Of course, what followed were three weeks of near-panic at the thought of not having any idea what I was going to say that hadn’t been said before (or wouldn’t be said by someone else during commencement weekend). After staring blankly into space, reading every quote about science I could find, flip-flopping back and forth between themes, doodling in the margin of my notebook, and reading facebook updates, I finally realized I didn’t have to be original. There is a reason that these themes we always speak about are so cliche, and it’s because we all really believe in them. I decided that I could still make the delivery a bit more fun, especially since I’m not the most eloquent speaker and this wasn’t as formal an occasion as others they would encounter. After talking to Sigma Xi chapter president Nancy Koven, and getting the thumbs up for my idea, I decided to go for it. I thought that since this occupied my time and writing powers (so much so I’m a bit behind on blogging), I would share my speech with you all. I think it went quite well, the parents really enjoyed it, and the students had fun. There were a few moments that got me some “oohs”, and I think that even though it’s not the most groundbreaking speech (and now that I read it again I can think of quite a few more things I could say differently or add to it), it was, in the end, pretty original. The photo on the left is the final product of that speech. I was a little disappointed that some of the students left their Mobius strips, but I was excited to see someone’s twelve-year old brother walk up to the stage to grab his own. At any rate, it was certainly fun, and I was quite happy with the results. So here is my speech, word for word, although I added some instructions and comments here and there:
Good evening. First of all, I want to say that I’m really happy to have the opportunity to address you, the Sigma Xi 2011 inductees, as well as your family and friends. Thank you, Nancy, for the invitation.
This is commencement weekend, so I’m sure you will be addressed many more times by other, more famous, and maybe more eloquent people. Because of this, I was thinking that maybe tonight we would do something different. Oh, don’t be confused, I’m still going to talk, possibly more than you would want me to, but we will also have visual aids!
In your hands, you have a strip of paper. On one side, you have the sciences, on the other, the humanities. I ordered the sciences left to right, starting with the more social (anthropology), and ending with the less social (math – some would argue anti-social?). The section of the strip from psych to math is represented here tonight by our inductees (although we do have one econ, physics, math triple major). If you’re one of the environmental science majors, you also span several of the disciplines on this strip (even though I didn’t write it down explicitly).
Now flip the strip over (although I suspect some of you already have). On this side, I have arranged the humanities from the abstract to the concrete, so on the left we have philosophy and religion, and on the right we have history. You may disagree with the ordering, but humor me. The way Bates is structured, even though your major is on the other side of this strip, you have probably taken a few classes on the humanities side, right?
I want to argue that the two sides of this strip of paper are not that different. For example, history informs a lot of the social sciences. Math and philosophy are actually quite similar in some respects. In fact, in the past, people didn’t really distinguish between them. This makes me think of the Greeks, and then Classics. In some ways, art is just a way of representing the world around us. But natural science tries to do that too, don’t you think? Art can also get pretty abstract, and so can the sciences. I could probably come up with a few more examples, and I encourage you to think of connections between the areas listed on the two sides of this piece of paper.
Even disregarding the connections between the topics themselves, many of the strategies we use to be successful in the sciences are the exact same strategies that would lead to success in the humanities. A big one, in my opinion, is creativity. You can know a lot of science facts, but knowledge alone is not enough. The mathematician Henri Poincare said “Science is facts; just as houses are made of stone, so is science made of facts; but a pile of stones is not a house, and a collection of facts is not necessarily science. “ To tackle a hard problem, you need a creative approach, just like an architect designing a building.
Another feature that we need for success is an ability to appreciate beauty, which is probably something we associate with the humanities more than with science. Here is an excerpt of a lecture Marie Curie gave at Vassar College in 1921. “We must not forget that when radium was discovered no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is a proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must be done for itself, for the beauty of science, and then there is always the chance that a scientific discovery may become like the radium a benefit for humanity.”
So hopefully I’m starting to convince you that these two sides are not really that different. In fact, it seems to me like they should probably belong on the same side. And because we’re not into wasting paper here at Bates, I’m not going to send someone out to make more copies of these things with all the areas on one side. Also, I don’t like the idea of having everything on one side of this piece of paper, since that would leave another, blank, mysterious, “other” side. That sounds a little dangerous to me. So what are we going to do?
Well OK, as scientists, we can probably figure this out. What we have is a strip of paper with two sides, and we have argued (and convinced ourselves) that there really is one side to this story. Also, we had our topics neatly arranged in an order that made sense, so we would like to keep that ordering as reasonable as possible. I mentioned earlier that math and philosophy kind of belong together. Play around with the piece of paper until you can get philosophy right next to math, and so that the words are oriented the same way (if something is upside down, keep working, and help your neighbor if they’re struggling). You probably figured out that you need to give the paper half a twist in order to do that. Do you have it? You have also been given tape, so now try taping this strip together. Just to make sure we didn’t ruin anything, look on the other side of this gluing. Notice that history and anthropology are now right next to each other, which makes perfect sense to me! Now inspect this new object and look at the ordering of topics. Go along the strip reading all the topics, and you will see that there is only ONE side now. This is exactly what we wanted!
This kind of object is what we call a Mobius strip in mathematics. So we have just used mathematics to solve our problem (and we didn’t need to multiply big numbers or solve for x!). Some of you may already be familiar with this shape, probably through the drawings of M.C. Escher. His most famous Mobius strip is one where he drew ants crawling on the surface. So again, we see how sometimes science and math actually inspire the arts and humanities. For a neat party trick, try cutting the strip along the middle (use the words as a guide) with scissors and see what happens. Then try to figure out WHY that happens.
So let’s recap. We have built a Mobius strip, with most of the academic departments at Bates represented in some way. This physical model is the metaphor, the image that I want you to keep in your head as you go on to life after college. There are not “two sides” to the intellectual story. Everything is a part of a whole. It only takes a few logical steps to get from one field to another. In his 1926 book “The Story of Philosophy”, Will Durant said “Every science beings as philosophy and ends as art.” You can actually trace a path from philosophy to art that goes through all the sciences!
So now that you are to become a part of a scientific research society, remember that even though it looks like a flat piece of paper when you look around you, you are just sitting in one part of a much larger Mobius strip. That you can use this landscape to your advantage by just walking a few steps to the humanities region, or to the social sciences region, or even next door from physics to math. All of your “companions in zealous research” are here on this strip, and they’re all wandering around with you, like Escher’s ants, looking for inspiration from unexpected places.
Thank you, and congratulations!