The Urgency of Doing: MIT and the Spirit of Leonardo da Vinci

Sunday, August 24, 2008
Freshman Convocation 2008

Good morning, and welcome, MIT class of 2012. Welcome also to your friends and family who have come to see you off, as you begin your MIT adventure.

Let me start by explaining the purpose of this Convocation. From the Latin, ”Convocation” means, literally, a “calling together.” Given the uncontainable energy of any group of 1,000 MIT students, we don’t get to call you together very often. Frankly, we start your careers here this way because it is virtually the last time we can call you together, until you come together again to receive your degrees in four very short years from now. However, now that we’ve insisted on your attention, I hope to use it well, to give you a sense of the character and spirit that define MIT, and to sneak in a little advice along the way.

The calendar of the college admissions process means that we have, for some fairly long part of this past year, kept you in suspense, and then had the great joy of offering each of you an invitation to enroll at MIT. It’s unlikely to be news to any of you that we admitted fewer than 12% of those who applied to MIT last year. Based on that statistic alone, you may feel lucky to be part of this class. Let me reverse the perspective for a moment to be very clear about how we feel about you: it is MIT’s very good fortune that you decided to join us. What you bring to MIT is partly individual: your own intellect, energy, ideas and aspirations; your distinctive life experience and point of view; your language, your culture, and your faith; your imagination and your sense of humor. In addition to each of your individual gifts, together you represent the start of a marvelous new chapter in the history of human understanding, and it happens that we’ve gathered in an unusually interesting place to think about that idea.

We sit this morning in the grand, grassy space of Killian Court. The surrounding “Bosworth Buildings,” also called the Main Group, magnificently embrace Killian Court. Together, this space and these buildings represent the geographic and symbolic center of our campus. Perhaps as important, these great buildings are also a monument to the persistent power of human inquiry, a physical representation of the stone-by-stone development of humankind’s understanding of the world. Look up at the frieze on the buildings nearest the river, and you will see a carved band of names – giants of science and philosophy; mathematics and medicine; architecture, art and engineering. Aristotle and Archimedes. Newton and Franklin. Darwin and Pasteur. Names that mark the miles on the rising road of understanding that led to the modern world. Towering there, those names may seem intimidating, abstract, distant. Some in smaller print are embarrassingly obscure. All are decidedly dead. And certainly, the list is incomplete – starkly white, male and Western. For a host of reasons, then, aren’t these intellectual ghosts irrelevant to who you are and why you’re here today? Absolutely not. Because all of them opened new chapters in their lives – just like you. They were crazy about math and science, engineering and design, art and philosophy – just like you. And they were hopeful and ambitious and uncontrollably curious – just like you. And even if we cannot all become intellectual giants, we can each add our own stone to the incredible, inspiring, rising edifice of human understanding – just as they did.

I want to bring one name down from that frieze today, as a way of telling you a little about the remarkable history you inherit, and about MIT. Leonardo da Vinci’s name is among the most familiar. You’ll find it on Building 1, on the western side in the area occupied by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Da Vinci lived 500 years ago, from 1452 to 1519. Imagine leaving work behind that would inspire awe and scholarship in 2508! Da Vinci was an illegitimate child with very little formal schooling. No one would have expected anything of him in particular. But from decidedly modest beginnings, he built a life of almost incomprehensible achievement.

Some think of him mainly as a painter, one of the two or three masters who defined the highest artistic achievement of the Italian Renaissance, the most celebrated period in all of Western Art. Yet painting was not how he spent most of his time. Da Vinci worked as a scientist and engineer; a sculptor and inventor; a city planner and architect. The wide range of his interests and talents suggests an embodiment of the ideal of a university, especially this university.

Let me describe for you three of his characteristics that profoundly resonate with MIT. First was da Vinci’s complete disregard for the accepted boundaries between different fields of knowledge. Everything he did fed everything else, interconnecting disparate perspectives. Today, we dress up that attitude with an awkward phrase, “multidisciplinary thinking,” but for da Vinci, it was nothing more than his ravenous curiosity, his desire to explore everything, to explain everything, and to put to use everything he learned.

As a scientist, he made painstakingly precise observations of human anatomy, of geology, of the structure of trees, and of the physical properties of water and light. He drew, recorded, calculated forces, speculated about causes, and experimented over and over to test his ideas. In turn, those studies – that deep knowledge of his subjects – made his paintings leap off the canvas with life, every muscle, every hillside, every storm-tossed tree vivid and intoxicatingly real. At the same time, his incredible ability to draw – to think and render in three dimensions – actually made it possible for him to invent, describe and communicate engineering ideas that were unimaginable before. As an anatomist, he used these methods to diagram the skull and its relation to the brain. As an engineer, he used his scientific grasp of fluid dynamics and geology to design stunningly original canals and bridges. But he also used his engineering knowledge of sediment and flow to perceive, in Tuscany’s stratified, tumbling rock formations, a frozen image of violent, fluid motion – an intuitive leap that presaged, five centuries in advance, today’s science of plate tectonics. In the same way, much of the most exciting work at MIT is happening at the intersections between disciplines: Where cancer biology merges spectacularly with physics, computer science and nanoscale engineering. Where climate science and the demand for new energy sources collaborate creatively with economics, political science, history and the practical realities of architecture and the business world. Where neuroscience crosses into artificial intelligence, philosophy and linguistics. Here at MIT, each of you will find the joy and power of mastering a given field – the discipline of knowing your discipline. But I hope that you will also pursue your boundless curiosity well beyond those boundaries, because from there you may encounter new ideas and fresh perspectives that could take you beyond what has been found before.

The second facet of da Vinci’s character that aligns with MIT is his respect for and fascination with nature, both as a scientist and an engineer. As he wrote in his notebooks, “Human ingenuity … will never devise any inventions more beautiful, nor more simple, nor more to the purpose than Nature does, because in her inventions nothing is wanting, and nothing is superfluous.”

Contemporary society has a way of separating us from Nature in our daily lives. But here at MIT, you will find a great many engineers and scientists who treat Nature as their prime collaborator. One example is Angela Belcher, Germeshausen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering, and a MacArthur fellow, among many other honors. Early in her studies, she marveled at how abalone, a common mollusk, makes its shell. By adding nothing but some proteins, the abalone transforms calcium carbonate – simple chalk, a structurally weak compound – into an intricately structured material 3,000 times stronger than chalk. And the abalone performs this feat at normal earth temperatures and pressures, with no toxic by-products. So Professor Belcher asked, if nature could “self-assemble” such an extraordinary structure out of such simple ingredients under such benign conditions, why couldn’t we tap those natural mechanisms to devise new materials of our own? As she and her colleagues have now proven in many contexts, we can. For instance, they’ve engineered benign viruses to self-assemble into a battery: a clear, non-toxic film with the potential to coat whatever object needs power, such as a cell phone.

For da Vinci, the simplicity he appreciated in nature became his ultimate standard in design. And as you’ll discover here, from robotics to aeronautics, computer science to mechanical engineering, simplicity in design is also “very MIT.” In fact, Amy Smith, in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, recently published seven rules that guide her work in designing technologies for communities in the developing world, from grain mills to incubators. Her third rule quotes da Vinci himself: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

The third quality of da Vinci’s character that informs our work at MIT is an irrepressible demand for hands-on making, designing, practicing and testing, and for solving problems in the real world. The inventions he sketched range from the first adjustable wrench, to machines for making nails and minting uniform coins, to fortified wagons, steam cannons and temporary bridges for warfare. His fascination for tackling practical problems echoes the central mission of MIT: to bring “knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges,” an assignment that MIT has pursued with remarkable results, from developing radar during World War II, to developing standards for the World Wide Web today. Da Vinci even taught the students in his workshop to follow the principle of demonstration – the same commitment to learning-by doing that will define your MIT education. As he wrote, “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply.”

That same spirit animates much of our work at MIT. You see it in the ingenious modular houses that Professor of Architecture Lawrence Sass designed as an affordable and attractive way to restore the devastated neighborhoods of New Orleans: whole houses whose construction requires only a mallet to assemble the digitally-designed, friction-fit, interlocking pieces. You can actually see one of these houses, now on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. You also see “the urgency of doing” in the innovative batteries that Professor Yet-Ming Chiang has created for the next generation of electric cars, a topic you’ll hear more about in his lecture on Tuesday. That “urgency of doing” also drives every aspect of the MIT Energy Initiative, or MITEI, an expansive, Institute-wide initiative to tackle what may well be the most pressing challenge of our time.

Five hundred years after da Vinci first taught all these lessons – with his multidisciplinary curiosity, his admiration for nature’s economy of design and his irrepressible passion for solving problems – he remains an intriguing teacher. You will also encounter a great many extraordinary teachers at MIT, perhaps the most invigorating minds and inspiring mentors you’ll ever know.

Just a warning: now we get to the advice part of the speech. If I can succeed in conveying only one piece of wisdom today, it is this: Almost invariably, the students who get the most out of their MIT education have come to know well at least one member of the faculty. I urge you to make that one of your goals for your time at MIT; perhaps you’ll make it a goal of your freshman year. Some of you may find it surprising that this is a very easy assignment: you will meet faculty who teach your classes, and I encourage you to accept their invitation to talk with them in office hours; I also hope each of you, along with about 85% of our undergraduates, will participate in “UROP”, our Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, that offers the opportunity to engage in cutting-edge research with faculty. You will discover countless other avenues, inside and outside of classes, to meet with faculty.

Over the next four years, you and your classmates will also teach one another. There is a good chance that you will never again live and work in a community with as rich an array of different cultures and backgrounds as MIT. You will share your MIT experience with classmates who don’t look or talk or think like you, which will prepare you well for the global collaborations inevitable in your careers. What’s more, you don’t have to look very hard for new intellectual adventures here. You can take a hands-on summer internship in a foreign country through the program we call MISTI (MIT International Science and Technology Initiative). You can hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra or visit the Museum of Fine Arts, with free tickets from our Office for the Arts. And you can travel, or sample classes or activities you’ve never done before, during the Independent Activities Period, or IAP, in January. Be as determined in your curiosity as Leonardo da Vinci – and you will use your time at MIT to its fullest potential.

You are starting your college careers at an uncertain, unsettling time, for this country and for the world. But even so – especially so – I believe you will find MIT an inspiring place to study, to learn and to grow. MIT is a place of practical optimism and of passionate engagement with the most important problems of the world. It is a place that is not satisfied until it finds the deepest answers.

So let me close with one last word of wisdom from da Vinci. As he wrote, “I had long since observed that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” That is the story of MIT, and it is a formula for inventing the future.

We are delighted that you have joined us here to help write the next chapter in the history of human understanding. Now, go out and happen to things!