Monday, February 6, 2012

Remarks to the 12th Southern Connecticut Invitational Science & Engineering Fair

It was my great pleasure to be a part of the 12th Annual Southern Connecticut Invitational Science and Engineering Fair on Saturday, this time as president of the sponsoring foundation. I made a few remarks to the students, teachers, judges, volunteers, mentors and parents before introducing our terrific keynote speaker, Dr. Dan Riskin. Dan is an award-winning evolutionary biologist known for his work with bats. He’s also the co-host of Daily Planet for Discovery Canada, and the host of Animal Planet’s Monsters Inside Me.

Here’s some of what I said to the students:

There is so much to be gained from your participation here. It goes well beyond the competition – there are life lessons here, too.

The great sportswriter, Grantland Rice, said, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” True enough. In our case, though, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s what you’ve learned. I hope all the research and preparation for your projects propel you higher and farther in science or engineering. But even if that’s not your final destination, there’s much to be gained from the process.

Aside science and health, one of my interests is researching the stories of King Arthur and Camelot. I’ve found that there are a number of important lessons in leadership, management and communication to be learned from those medieval stories. And, believe it or not, important lessons on the scientific method.

I want to share just three quotes from T.H. White, who wrote five terrific books on the King. Merlin said to a young Arthur, “Learn why the world wags and what wags it.” The message here is to observe, question, probe and explore. We need to use these techniques in science and engineering but they’re equally important in any school subject or at work or in figuring out relationships.

We think of Merlin as a magician, the archetypal sorcerer, the starting material for Albus Dumbledore in the wonderful Harry Potter series. But he was Arthur’s teacher and mentor, and thought of himself as a scientist. He said, “The only thing worth doing for the race [for all people] is to increase its stock of ideas.” That’s it, isn’t it? We need to keep thinking – and thinking habitually – because that’s the way we solve problems both big and small. We need to turn issues and problems around, look for other perspectives and other options. We can learn on our own and we can learn from each other. We can reuse or reformulate old ideas or create new ones. It all depends on the need.

Finally, when Arthur was an old man and about to face his final battle, he was depressed that his vision for a peaceful and united England was unraveling. He asked Merlin if he was a failure. Merlin snapped back, “Certainly not. [Using the Knights of the Round Table to enforce a new civil code] was an experiment and experiments lead to new ones.”

I can tell you that during my days in the laboratory a great deal of what I learned was what not to do! Unfortunately, in science it seems that there are more dead ends than through roads. But as many of you are finding out, what may look like a wrong turn is by no means a wasted effort. It might be frustrating at times but we need to take what we’ve learned, turn it over, examine it, make good use of the insight and push forward. No one can promise a smooth path but I can promise that it will be a rewarding one.

Thank you for participating this year, and congratulations on your wonderful projects and impressive achievements!