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Flowers Talks About Nerd Pride

Woodie C. Flowers PhD '73, professor of mechanical engineering, gave the following speech yesterday at the President's Convocation. Flowers used several slides during his speech; the slides are noted in the text at the time they were shown.

Let me add mine to the long list of people who will congratulate you. That is a very sincere statement. Some time ago there was a roll of the DNA dice, and you ended up with a nice high score, and you get to play with the big guys. So congratulations.

I'm going to talk fast for about fifteen minutes, so I decided to give you an outline. I'm going to give you some advice and say some things that you've heard from other people, and that you already believe, and then give you some more advice, and then set you free.

When I started thinking about what I was going to say, and went over it in my mind, I realized that I was going to give you your last spring's graduation talk all over again. But maybe I'll say it in a different way. And at the risk of being redundant, let's do it.

I am proud to be a teacher. It is a big deal. It is easy to be proud to be a teacher when you are at MIT, it was probably a hell of a lot harder for your high school teachers, but this is a great place to be a teacher. The point I want to make is that you guys need to be proud to be freshman. Don't say, "I'm just a freshmen." You are the lifeblood of this place. You are the annual breath of fresh air. You are the reason that we are here, so remember that. Do not go up to a professor's office and say, "I'm just a freshman." Say, "I'm proud to be a freshman."

Now, that's all good news, but there is other good news. As teachers and students, we are part of a big crisis. In particular in this country, and all around the world, there are lots of folks who will not be lucky to learn enough to be productive members of society. And that generates a whole list of problems that we must share together.

So, I think the Clinton administration was almost right. The economy is part of the problem, but one of the underlying issues is ignorance, and lots of folks are not getting the chance to learn. And to make it even worse, the people that do get a chance to learn don't necessarily apply what they know creatively. So all of us share a common responsibility for trying to do creative, pro-active things starting today. Big challenge, lots before your life.

One of the things that makes that hard is that no one wants to change. We are all fairly comfortable the way we are. You are going to go through lots of changes in your life. You're probably going to change careers several times. There will always be resistance to that.

One of the other things that is amazing to me is that technophobia is worn as a badge of courage by many people. They are proud of not trusting someone who can program a VCR or deal with a computer. That is really a silly attitude. We've got to help change that.

And no one else is going to do that. It's us. And you are in one of the most important places in the world in that regard, so please accept that it is part of your responsibilty. We are our own public relations agency. We've got to do a good ethical job in our professional lives.

We've got to have some good, solid nerd pride. Too bad there's a shortage of that here today. We've got to be proud about understanding things.

Now, all of that has to be part of leadership. Please, while you are here, learn to deal with your colleagues. Learn to, as President Vest said, understand many different societies. The problem is not just the universe, its the people in the universe.

Learn to make meetings effective. Accept as part of your responsibility, learning to be a leader. It is very important.

In this particular edition of Newsweek listing the cultural elite in America, people that understand about the universe were sadly missing in that list. And I happen to think that that is quite outrageous. It's really silly that people who can make things happen, that understand Mother Nature, are not regarded as part of the cultural elite. But I think that you guys can help fix that.

Now, I am a mechanical engineer. I love dealing with technology, and I even think, as a matter of fact, that it is fun. I really have fun in my career. But more importantly, I think that it is really satisfying.

In the years that I have been here, I've been lucky enough to work on a project that deals with micro-computer controlled artificial legs. Fabulous machine. One of the new ones has lots of nice stuff in it and does lots of good things, and we think that it will become a great product. We are trying hard now to get some funding to get out of the laboratory and into public use. That's a nice satisfying thing to be involved with. A whole bunch of really good students participated.

Lisa, one of my recent students, did a project that has to deal with making people using computer-aided design systems able to communicate more effectively from different locations and work together.

John Barrist just finished a thesis in which he did a doctoral program to develop a system which allowed you to build on the screen rather than draw, to do design. I think it may change the way that some design is done. Exciting, wonderful think.

Working with a colleague, Mark Jakeila, David Wallace, a student in our department, just finished a thesis which automated industrial design. From a library of objects, you bring up things that just sort of get stacked up on top of each other on the screen. And then you say, "Organize them in a particular way," and the computer algorithmically places them so they make ergonometric sense -- so that buttons are not above displays, and things of that sort. Makes them look okay. And then with one keystroke, you put a box around them. And then you say, "Well, I'd like to know what that would look like in, say, the high-tech style." One keystroke, and about a second later, there it is; all the geometry selected by the computer. The colors selected by the computer.

That's nice, but what would it looks like if Deider Rams had done it -- the guy that does a lot of industrial design for the Bordland Corporation Well, one keystroke. How's that? Maybe a little bit later, you are feeling wild, how about Art Deco?

The system works well for lots of things -- calculators in high tech style or Bordland style. Really exciting projects. So, I have had the pleasure of working with students that know lots of stuff and can do things.

Lots of wild inventors come into my office and say, "Hey Professor Flowers, I saw you on television. Look what I've invented." Quite often, it's very creative, but violates one of the laws of thermodynamics. One of the guys invented a crash-proof car, which would survive a crash. But unfortunately, it would kill everyone inside it. He just didn't know enough to analyze the problems and make a meaningful contribution. You are going to have trump cards. You are going to be able to do that.

Getting the cup of knowledge is a big deal, but this is the real important issue. Several times in your life you will learn whole new sets of things. What I do is only based on what I learned as an undergraduate. Almost everything I do in detail, is new. That's going to happen to you at an even faster rate.

So, while you are here, pay particular attention to learning to learn. Now, we have this stupid model of life that says it is divided up. This is irrelevant. I get paid to have fun while I am learning. And I haven't thought about quitting yet. That's the kind of career that you want to have, and you can get there from here.

If while you are here, you find yourself saying, "I'm not responsible because we didn't didn't cover that in class," every alarm in your head should go off. That it wasn't covered in class is a clear indication that you are responsible for it. As a matter of fact, I have tried to get some of my colleagues to join me in saying to you about at least one major thing that you do here, "Go learn about this whole subject area, and come back and show that you could." Because you have to leave here believing that you can learn whole new things. That's the lifeblood of what comes after.

Pressure is a big deal at MIT. In the 2.70 Contest, for instance, students' hands shake, their colleagues are there trying to help them on, expressing a lot of empathy, there are cheering sections, sometimes there are banners supporting and the machine you built spins, crashes, and burns. And you just want to die and never be seen again. That's part of life, guys.

As a matter of fact, I think, that a good effective creative education must include pressure. You've got to learn to make friends with the knot in your stomach, cause its going to be here often.

I have one today. The main reason is because I'm standing here talking to about 1,500 bright people. I have known that knot over the years. It comes back often. The semester comes back soon. I'll be doing a new course in a new way. I worry about that. You've got to learn to feel it, recognize it, and deal with it. It's got to to help you and boost you ahead rather than hold you back. So, while you are here, notice that when you are going into quizzes and things, and you feel that tension, make it serve you as best you can.

We are not as mean as you may think. In 2.70, we make sure that the contests are unfair. Because we would never design a system that says, "We will find out who is best." The kind of pressure that you have at MIT, as much as we possibly can, will be benign pressure. You will know that we will still love you even if you machine doesn't work or you blow the quiz. As a matter of fact, its really important that you understand that this is one of the cheapest opportunities that you will ever have to fail. And you've got to learn that failing is part of moving forward. And you've got to experience it and say, "Oof, that smarted," and keep moving.

Another thing that I would like for you to remember is when you go into the laboratory or the shop, don't turn your brain off. I think it is really important that you develop a visceral understanding of the fundamentals while you are here. When you see an equation, you've got to try to know what light feels like in your fingertips as much as possible. One of the reasons that I think that is really true is because of the "garbage in, gospel out" syndrome. Many of you will use very powerful computer tools. And your fingers will dance across the keyboards and you will get answers on the screen to 12 significant digits, and quite often they might be four orders of magnitude off, and you won't recognize it, because you didn't have a gut understanding of what the machine was doing or what the nature it was trying to simulate was all about.

So, please try to estimate. Make sure things make order-of-magnitude sense. Try to tie them together in as many ways you can. If you do this wrong, our profession will have mis-served society.

While you are here, make sure you get fundamentals in as many things as you can. Ever since you started in the system, its been trying to sort you in to the number people or the letter people or the humanists or whatever. You're divided. Your high school counselor says, "Well, you probably shouldn't do that because that's not your strong suite." Don't let anybody convince you of that. There's a whole bunch of things that I am very poor at that I do a lot. I'm at least mildly dyslexic, but I don't let that stop me from spending a lot of times reading things, because I've gotta do that. I'm an athletic clutz, but I do stuff all the time because its fun and its good for my body. So, don't get sorted.

Make sure that you don't let this happen. [slide: Humanists vs. Scientist.] If this happens, everybody loses. You cannot allow yourself to be a pure either one or the other. You can't let yourself get to be out of balance. One of the reasons that that is true is that you will have enormous power because. Whether you are humanist doing an analysis of ancient history because you are able to do a massive new computer search over networks and correlate things that people have never thought about, or whether you are an engineer who is able to use powerful new tools to advance new products, you've got to do that in a balanced, ethical, moral way. You've got to understand society and humankind, though, in the whole to do that well. So, please do both.

Don't let this happen either. [slide: Jock vs. Nerd] There are not two worlds, it's all the same. MIT is a virtual supermarket of opportunities. President Vest mentioned things like theater. There are so many things like that that you can do here. This summer, I learned sculling. The MIT scuba class is the best in the world, as far as I am concerned. I can tell you what the decompression tables are like because I know some of they are some first order systems. You get the intellectual component as well as the muscular component here.

You do have to make this choice [slide: Health vs. Self Abuse]. To me, tobacco, drug, and alcohol abuse are just plain stupid. AIDS is forever. You have the intellectual horsepower to avoid getting trapped in self abuse. Please, pay attention to that.

You have the opportunity to be a source and not a sink. There is a very strong possibility that you will go through life feeling good, because, I really believe this is true, you can't make people happy by taking away the things that make them unhappy. In my world there are two things that can make you happy. One is interpersonal relationships. They are very complex. They are sometimes tough. They warrant a lot of effort, but they are really important to happiness. The other one is being creative and being a source and making new things and having people respect you because you can create. So, learn to do that.

I dare you. Have a good time while you are here. Work hard. Make your muscles and your brain both sweat. Do both. Enjoy yourself.