Delivered May 31, 3018
I am respectful of the place we are in, and what it means to the tradition of King’s College.
The last time I was here it was for the commemoration of the death of a colleague, a fellow academic scientist. Although today is meant to be a joyful occasion, it is also a solemn one.
I am also mindful of what I am expected to do here – impart some words of wisdom to aid you in your lives from here on, presumably wisdom that results from my 76 years on this planet.
However, I am a realist. The world is changing rapidly, environmentally, technically and socially – including academia. So I can’t fool myself into thinking my words will be of much use, or be long remembered.
The best I can do is share a bit of what I have learned, and I will do this in terms of a metaphorical narrative.
Here’s the metaphor …
55 years ago, I was myself graduating, after four very intellectually challenging but also emotionally taxing years of study. I was an undergraduate at Harvard – like King’s, a highly-regarded and elite place –but considerably bigger.
I would not trade that experience for anything. Having gone to Harvard has been a great asset in my subsequent career, as your King’s degrees will be to you.
But at the time, I was full of anxiety and self-doubt. To say that I lacked self-confidence would be an understatement. Harvard was a tough place for a naïve and very young boy from the middle-west to feel that he fit in, intellectually or socially.
I used to sit on a wall near the undergraduate library and worry obsessively about my future. To encourage myself, I used to imagine that a future and successful me was standing nearby. And this future me was beaming positive and wise thoughts and advice back to me through time.
I’m sure I didn’t really believe that such reverse telepathy would work.
But still, whenever I am in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I try to locate that very spot and beam some positive thoughts backward in time.
So what I want to say today are three things I think I might usefully say to that confused and anxious young undergrad. I also hope that in they might be useful to you. Some of the underlying principles are unchanged, despite the radically different times you face now. And I will add a fourth idea, rather more specific to King’s and to 2018.
(1.) The first thing I would say to myself is – You will become a more effective version of yourself, though you may never fully believe it.
One of the benefits of old age is the ability to see patterns in one’s own life. As I look back over mine, I see that I am still pretty much the same person as that undergrad on the wall at Harvard, only more so.
But I have acquired a reasonable arsenal of useful tools for dealing with the world as the person that I am. And I have gotten rid of some of the less useful practices I thought were tools. In retrospect, I feel I have simply become a better and more competent version of myself.
Still, I confess that often, I still feel like that kid. I feel deep down that I am a fake and always have been – just pretending to know what I claim to know.
There are many scholarly articles about this – it’s called imposter syndrome and GoogleScholar indicates more than 3,000 publications that use that phrase.
I have confessed that I have this syndrome because I’m guessing that some of you have it too.
I suspect it is in part this feeling that has always driven me to try so hard, and for some of you it’s also a motivating force.
So having “imposter syndrome” is not all that bad, though at times it can be debilitating.
It seems to me important to call imposter syndrome by its name – and learn to live with it.
My son-in-law told me earlier in the week that the most important message he got from the speech he heard at his graduation was that even apparently successful people continue to believe that deep down they are imposters. So maybe that is the most important messages I can pass on to you, today.
(2.) The second thing I’d tell myself is that you’ve got to believe in something.
I decided sometime before grade 5 that I was going to become a scholar, almost certainly an academic. My favourite books at the time were a set of enyclopedias called the Book of Knowledge that my parents had bought for me. These books became my comfort and strength.
Although I’d decided that I was going to be some kind of academic, I was not sure what kind. Here, chance played a major role. My best friend in high school was the son of the university’s leading molecular biologist, and he got me a summer job with his dad.
If that hadn’t happened I would probably have become an English professor. That was my best subject in high school, and I was in love with my English teacher, though she did not know it, I suspect.
Those were early days in molecular biology. Knowledge that DNA was the genetic material was only 7 or 8 years in the past. We did not know what a gene was, and the so-called central dogma of molecular biology (DNA à RNA à protein) had yet to be formulated.
The lab I worked in had the atmosphere of an emergency ward. It ran pretty much 24/7. There was intense competition both within and without. Nobody ever doubted that what we were doing was extraordinarily important.
What I learned from that experience, and still believe, is that doing science is a sacred calling. Finding out about the universe and our place in it is our species’ highest and noblest goal.
Let me indulge in a little digression here. In my half-century in the field I have seen a takeover of science by the business agenda – an increasing insistence on translatability of results into profit, either directly commercial or in the “healthcare industry”.
We basic scientists try to defend fundamental or “curiosity-driven” research with instrumentalist justifications. These take the form of the argument that society must fund curiosity-driven basic research simply because one cannot predict what findings might lead to a new commercial or healthcare application.
Of course, we do not know which curiosity-driven research project will ultimately produce a money-making widget or a life-saving drug. And it is a good thing that some of it does.
But that’s not why scientists do research or why society should fund it. I resent having to pretend that it is.
Thinking this way deprives our best young people of the mix of altruism, public-spiritedness and egoistic competitiveness that was the driving force for them in the 1950s and 60s.
If making money or even curing disease had been seen as the primary reasons for finding out how cells work back then, I would have become an English professor.
That was a digression. In my life I was fortunate to have worked in some of the best labs, on what I still see as the most exciting problems in biology. And this was during the very most intellectually challenging and productive years science has ever known.
Whenever I feel sorry for myself, or unconfident, I try to remember how fortunate I have actually been. My dedication has paid off.
I am not suggesting that you all dedicate yourselves to science. But I am suggesting that you find something bigger than you, and be loyal to it.
(3.) The third thing I’d say to me: try to avoid group-think.
I learned quite early on in the lab that the most important part of any experiment is the control. Before you even assemble the material necessary to do the experiment, it is best to try to think of controls. Because even if you get the result you want, that result might not prove your hypothesis.
I became very good at this. My PhD supervisor suspected I was just making up excuses to get out of doing the experiments he wanted me to do. I confess that sometimes I was.
Whatever the underlying motivation though, this became my MO, and it has proven very fruitful.
My lab has done some important experimental work. But I think, what we were most known for is coming up with credible alternatives for what most people believed to be true …
I’d urge this general approach on you, too, because I think it is in general a good way to avoid group-think. And I believe group-think has become even more prominent a part of our lives.
If I have noticed anything about larger societal trends outside science in the last few years, it is this. What we believe to be true has become subordinate to what we imagine might be the consequences of saying that it is true.
In other words, we often seem to care more about how what we say will be received, than about whether what we say is consistent with the facts we know.
As Evelyn Fox Keller noted yesterday, philosophers have long worried about how we know what is true. But now, as she noted, we seem no longer to care, as long as what we claim to be true serves our interests, personal or political.
We find this on what we call the “right” of the political spectrum with the denial of climate change and of the fact of evolution.
But we also find it on the left, with the insistence that there is nothing behind populist conservatism but misogyny and xenophobia. I am particularly distressed by the uniformity of thought shown by so-called radically independent thinkers within the university, because we are supposed to know better.
This inability to separate fact from opinion may well be the greatest danger that we as a society face.
Certainly the truth about highly politicized issues that profoundly affect our lives – climate change or the loss of biodiversity, for instance – matter. But how are we to know what that truth is?
Though it’s very difficult, we all must think for ourselves.
(4.) So my fourth and final point is not something I could realistically pass on to myself, 50+ years ago, but that I can lay on you: value the education you have received at King’s.
Finding the truth and separating fact from opinion is not a task for which my undergraduate study at Harvard or my training as a scientist in the 1950s and 60s prepared me.
I believed in science and scientists unreservedly.
My association with faculty and students in Philosophy and at King’s has since caused me to question this belief, but not abandon it.
I still believe that scientific methods are the surest route to something that approaches truth. I am just no longer sure why that is so. And I am willing to admit that there might be different ways of articulating the same truth.
It seems to me that what King’s specializes in, almost uniquely, is preparing bright young people to negotiate the intellectual minefields that we currently face and will increasingly face in this world. Much better than my 50s education at Harvard.
These minefields are at the interface of science and the humanities – and politics and society and current affairs. How can we know what is true about the world and our place in it? How can we balance this knowledge with our cultural aspirations and evolving moral and ethical philosophies?
I can think of no approach better suited to undertake this than represented by the combination of programs at King’s. Mixing contemporary and early modern studies with history of science and technology and throwing in journalism seems just the right thing to do, and very prescient on the part of this institution.
The challenges facing you are very much greater than those facing me 50+ years ago. Buy you are better equipped to handle them. Good luck!