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Address to convocation by Dr. Arthur J. Carty

Pages >> Biography | Address to Convocation | Oration

May 28, 2003

Mr. Chancellor, Mr. President, distinguished colleagues, fellow alumni, ladies and gentlemen. Let me begin by thanking you for inviting me to share this very special day and to join with officers, faculty, graduating students and their families, colleagues and friends in celebrating the many accomplishments of this class of 2003. I also want to express my profound appreciation to Memorial University for the distinction of being accorded an honorary doctor of science. To a practicing scientist there is no greater reward than to be recognised by academe for one's lifelong contributions to science and society.

However, there are two other very special reasons for me to rejoice and be proud of the honour you are bestowing on me today. First of all, I am extremely grateful to Memorial because this is where I started my academic career as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, almost 38 years ago. It was really a stroke of good luck that brought me to Newfoundland and set me on a wonderful career path which now brings me full circle back to St. John's. It is a story which may resonate with some of the graduates and families here today, so let me explain. I was born in the coal-mining area of County Durham, England about 15 miles west of Newcastle upon-Tyne, not far from the Roman wall built by the Emperor Hadrian across northern England to keep out the Picts and the Scots and close to the town of Blaydon where the now famous ditty “The Blaydon Races” was coined. So I was a “Geordie”, the name given to inhabitants of an area north and south of the river Tyne. I still have a “Geordie” accent as some of you will have discerned.

My grandfather was a coal miner - a tiny man who came home from the pit every day covered in black coal dust. He worked desperately hard to support his family of eight children. My father did not go down the mine - he was a coke maker - burning coal in beehive ovens with limited oxygen to make high quality coke for the steel industry. He was a hard working laborer all his life - the most he ever earned was 15 a week - about $36 - and I vividly remember the deep callouses on his hands in the winter - the result of constant exposure to heat, steam and freezing cold water. I was born at the beginning of the Second World War, the second of three children. My mother and father did not go to school beyond age 13 and looking back I can only wonder in amazement how they managed to bring up, educate and get all three of their children through university: two brothers with PhDs and a sister with a BA all on 10 a week. How proud they would be to be here on this day. I am sure that there are parents and graduates who have gone through a similar experience here in Newfoundland.

As a child, I was fascinated by my grandfather's acetylene miner's lamp. Acetylene gas, which when lit, provides the flame for the lamp, is produced by dropping water from a reservoir onto chunks of calcium carbide. The miners charged their lamps on entering the mine and emptied the product, calcium oxide, plus unused calcium carbide, onto a pile on finishing their shift. As children, we sifted through the white pile of lime for unused calcium carbide - a treasure trove of excitement and experiment for us. Drop a few pieces into water in a bottle, screw on the cap and retire a safe distance until the cap blows or the bottle explodes. Or put a few pieces of carbide in a bottle, add a bit of water and stopper the bottle with a cork containing a pinhole and then light up the acetylene gas coming out through the stopper. Great fun on dark nights!

One other event which had a paramount impact on my choice of career was when my Chemistry teacher at grammar school asked me if I would like the job of Lab Boy - setting up chemistry demonstrations and experiments for the classes and dismantling them after class - all for the pricely sum of 1 per month ($2.50). My chemistry never looked back. I did new, exciting and deliciously dangerous experiments after class (I had the lab keys after all) - things that no one would allow nowadays. But the main point I want to make is I came to know chemistry as an experimental science - I learnt to observe, record and analyse - the keys of the scientific method - and I have never lost the excitement of making new discoveries and thinking beyond to the next frontier.

So how did I get to Newfoundland. Well I worked so hard on my chemistry thanks to the lessons I learned from my father and grandfather that I got a State Scholarship in the UK to attend university which meant that my parents were freed from the burden of supporting me.

I graduated with a BSc and then stayed on for a PhD at the University of Nottingham. When I finished my experimental work and began writing my thesis, I started thinking what I would do next. At that time many of the young graduates in the UK were looking at the USA and Canada as countries of opportunity and the National Research Council of Canada offered exciting post-doctoral fellowships to study either in NRC labs or in universities across the country. On the advice of my supervisor, I successfully applied for an NRC Post Doc to work at UBC with a professor who had become famous by discovering the first compounds of the Noble Gases (He, Ar, Kr, Xe etc.). So I was all set to go to British Columbia when out of the blue came an offer of an assistant professorship in chemistry from Dr. Eric Bullock, who had been my organic tutor at Nottingham and who had left to take up the Chair of Chemistry at MUN only a few years earlier. So I arrived in Newfoundland, September 1965, an unproven, inexperienced assistant professor who had never given a lecture in his life and who had been assigned first year engineering as one of his first classes. Well that was a real challenge, but I loved my time in Newfoundland, made many close friends and the Chemistry Department was very generous in giving me all the resources I needed to start a research program.

The third reason for feeling proud is because the organisation of which I am President, the National Research Council of Canada, is very much a part of this community and the province. Our Institute for Marine Dynamics is an important resource for the development of an Oceans Technology Cluster here in St. John's and is a strong partner with Memorial in initiatives such as the Oceanic consortium and with the city and other players in the Oceans Advance initiative. NRC is expanding its facilities here with a young entrepreneurs incubator designed to provide an opportunity for young MUN engineers and scientists to pursue their ideas for new businesses in a supportive environment.

Now that I have explained my connection to Memorial, I want to offer my sincerest congratulations to all who are receiving degrees today. To borrow from the Smith-Barney television ad, you have gained your degrees the old fashioned way - you earned them! This is an important milestone in your life, a watershed that is the gateway to a rewarding career. Nevertheless, there may be some of you who after 3-4 years of hard work and intellectual challenges would agree with B.F. Skinner who once said “One of the ultimate advantages of an education is simply coming to the end of it”.

However, for some the reality of 2003 may not be what you expected on graduation day. It seems that we have passed from one period of rapid economic growth and stability to another marked by a serious economic downturn, uncertainty, terror, fanaticism, war and disease threats such as SARS, BSG and West Nile Virus.

Well, I cannot in all honesty tell you we will soon be back to the Halcyon days of three years ago. I can, however, remind you of the words of Albert Einstein who once said, “From discord find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity”.

I can also reassure you on several counts. First of all, you have a good degree, something which you cannot buy at any price on the open market. Secondly, you have the solid foundation of an education in science or engineering to prepare you for the future.

Remember that education, knowledge and wisdom, more so in the 21st century than ever before in history, will be the keys to your well-being, prosperity and quality of life.

So, take pride in what you have accomplished but don't stop learning. Your degree is only the start of a life long voyage of continuing education.

Let me now say a few words about this particular time in Canadian history and the context for you, as scientists and engineers, because Canada's future depends very much on you. I have been in Canada for almost four decades and I can assure you that this is the most exciting time in the last fifty years to be a young scientist. It is a time of unparalleled opportunity: where the demands for scientists and engineers will greatly outnumber the supply and where governments, in particular the Canadian government, are investing heavily in R and D, knowledge and innovation because they recognise that this is the key to success in today's new world. Perhaps some facts will help you to put this in perspective. In the Speech from the Throne in January 2001, the federal government committed to moving Canada into fifth place in the world, by 2010, from our current 11th position, in R&D investments as a percentage of gross national product. Simply put, this means that funding of industry R&D will likely have to triple between now and 2010 (+300% to $27 billion) and government investments in R&D will have to at least double. To achieve these targets, Canada will have to train or access 100,000 more research scientists and engineers by 2010. This is a major challenge for Canada given our demographics, as indeed it is for most of the developed nations.

Another phenomenon which bodes well for the young scientist or engineer is the observation that the decade 2000-2010 is the first time in history that three technological revolutions will be occurring simultaneously. Let me explain. Over the last 215 years, there have been five technological waves that have driven economic growth. The first wave was the industrial revolution of 1785-1845; steam and the railway drove technological change from 1845-1900. Since then, there have been two more revolutions fuelled by the internal combustion engine, electricity and chemicals to 1950 and by electronics and aviation to the early 1990s. The discovery of the transistor and the computer in the 1950s have led us into the information and communications technology revolution which we are currently experiencing. Douglas Robertson in his book “The New Renaissance” describes this revolution as “the fourth great information explosion in history following the invention of language, writing and printing”. The elucidation of the structure of DNA in 1953 (we are this year celebrating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA by Crick and Watson) together with the sequencing of the human genome in 2000 are generating a revolution in molecular biology and biotechnology which will impact enormously on the health, food and environmental sectors of the economy over the next 20 years. These two technological waves, information technology and biotechnology, are occurring together and the strong interactions and synergies between them are generating new developments in areas such as bio-informatics, computational biology, sensors and medical imaging. A third revolution only now emerging, promises to have even greater impact. This is Nanotechnology, the science and engineering of machines, materials, devices and systems which are so small they lie within the size range of a few individual atoms or molecules. (Nano comes from the Greek word dwarf and 1 nanometer is one billionth of a meter). In the words of Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley of Rice University. “We are about to be able to build things that work at the smallest length scales, atom by atom. These nanothings will revolutionize our industry and our society”. “Nanotechnology is the builder's final frontier.

Even best selling authors such as Michael Crichton have got into the nanoscience business - his book “Prey” describes how self replicating bio-nanomachines develop a primal intelligence and threaten civilisation. Far fetched perhaps but interesting reading!

So what is the potential of nanoscience and engineering. Well there is already a $100M market in nanoengineering, such as adding nanoparticles to composite materials to enhance performance. Single electron, quantum nanodevices have recently been demonstrated in the laboratory and there have been some spectacular advances by researchers at IBM and elsewhere in the use of a new generation of materials, carbon nanotubes - ultra thin filaments consisting of carbon cylinders of 1 atom thickness which can be used to make tiny electronic switches and wires of only 1.4 nanometers size - about 10 atoms in diameter. These ultrashort nanoswitches could power a quantum leap in computer power in the years ahead.

This is the exciting and challenging world of Lilliputian science called nanotechnology, one of the many frontiers of our three overlapping revolutions in IT, Biotechnology and Nanotechnology, which await the young scientist and engineer. All of these fields but Nanotechnology in particular, have one characteristic which is quite distinctive and appealing. They are not the domain of just one discipline but are multidisciplinary. In nanotechnology, chemistry, physics, biology and engineering meet and major advances are often made by teams of collaborators working at the interfaces between discipline. Nanoscience has one other attraction; it is creative and constructive rather than reductionist - it involves building materials the way nature does it - atom by atom from the bottom up.

Well I have tried to give you, the new graduates, an inkling of the exciting times ahead. Whatever career you eventually choose, your training in engineering and science will be a fundamental advantage. Your skills are in high demand and opportunities for interesting, creative employment abound. But change is rapid and the pace of knowledge generation is constantly increasing. My final words of wisdom are not to resist change but to embrace it. Go out expecting change. Challenge your intellect. Keep on learning and don't be afraid to branch out to other disciplines. Be innovative and look ahead not behind.

Let me leave you with a quote from H.G. Wells “The past is but the beginning of a beginning and all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn”.

I know you can look forward with confidence to the exciting world that awaits you.

Good Luck

Pages >> Biography | Address to Convocation | Oration