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Commencement Address

for the College of Engineering Commencement, University of California at Berkeley Greek Theater,
9:00 AM, Saturday, May 20, 1995

by John H. Lienhard
Mechanical Engineering Department
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204-4792
jhl [at] (jhl[at]uh[dot]edu)

It is such a pleasure to be here -- to be part of this ceremony. I finished my Berkeley degree in the Summer of 1961. I didn't get back for my own graduation. So today, like most of you, I'm at my first Berkeley graduation. I join with you in a belated celebration of my own graduation.

And the odd thing is I'm asking myself the same question you're asking yourself: "What does my future hold?" I'm a lot further down that road, but I still face that exact same question.

My last visit here to the Greek theater was in 1960. I came to hear Konrad Adenauer. He was the first chancellor of post-war Germany. He was then 84 years old, with three years to go as chancellor. They called him Der Alte -- the Old One! And he offered an odd reminder that, if we keep our head in the game, the game will be much longer and richer than we expect.

In those days I'd go to swim in the University Pool. There, every day, was the noted chemist Joel Hildebrand. Hildebrand was then almost 80. I thought he was in the twilight of his life. How wrong I was! By the time he published his last paper, decades later, he was 101. And, for all I know, he was still swimming in the UC Pool.

Hildebrand, like Adenauer, kept his head in the game. He showed us that our brain is our real fountain of youth. But those old ones evoke the question that I face as surely as you do:

Is my long, promising, threatening, and wholly unknowable future going to be wasted on a world that's deteriorating and slipping into self-destruction?

Students in every age have, on some level, feared the world they enter. And their teachers, ever since Socrates himself, have fed that fear as they see the values and virtues of their own youth shifting into something unfamiliar.

But that fear dissipates in a simple trick of etymology. Start with the word engineering. It's from the Latin word ingenium. Engineering is the practice of your own ingenuity in creating our technologies.

Now, look at the word technology: It breaks down into two Greek roots, techni -- the art and skill of making things, and ology -- the knowledge of. Technology is the science of -- or, better, the lore of -- making and doing.

It took two anthropologists, Malcolm Smith and Robert Layton, to show me the power of that word, technology. They tell a strange tale about the integrity of the human race. They begin by visiting an African lake that teems with strange fish called cichlids.

The cichlids in the lake come in 200 different species. They're all pretty similar. Only their lips, jaws, and teeth have all evolved differently. Some have evolved into fin eaters -- some into worm eaters. Some cichlids eat snails. Each has evolved into a tiny niche of the ecology. That kind of subdividing is pretty common. That's why we count almost 40,000 species of fish, birds, and mammals.

So why haven't we splintered like that? Humankind is only one species. One hunter can catch a rabbit. Another can spear a fish. Yet we don't specialize into races of rabbit catchers and fish spearers.

Why are we alike in all but the most minor features -- like skin color and hair diameter? After all, we've faced every environment on Earth. We've had every chance to divide into specialized subspecies.

The answer lies in one key attribute: Humans share! We share in complex ways that no other animal does. Back in camp, the rabbit chaser and the fish spearer exchange food. We've done that as long as we've existed.

Of course it helps that we're omnivorous. We eat almost anything. If it lives, we've eaten it at one time or another. But we've also shared it.

Our sharing goes beyond food. Most societies have taboos about mating across the lines of clan, ethnicity, or race. But the important thing about those taboos is that we break them. Intermarriage is another kind of sharing that holds our species together.

But the essential thing we share is our technique -- for gathering food or meeting other needs. One cichlid fish had to develop a specialized jaw for crushing and eating snails. We share our techniques for cracking snail shells.

Technology shapes us into one body instead of a thousand subspecies. We're bound in a unique and instinctive tether of generosity. And our technologies are right at the core of that generosity.

So technology is generosity, but it's also something else. It has a second, most surprising, dimension. Ask yourself:

Why do the reckless among us survive?

The reckless expose themselves to more danger. Surely that threatens their Darwinian survival. You'd expect each generation to be more careful than the last.

But recklessness does survive -- generation after generation. Maybe we need risk-taking for survival. The hunter who won't face a buffalo will starve. The parent who won't risk her life to save her child faces Darwinian extinction.

Author Melvin Konner asks us to look more closely at the risk-taker -- the sensation-seeker. Psychologists talk about four faces of that person.

First is thrill and adventure-seeking

     -- race cars and mountain-climbing.

Second is experience seeking

     -- like travel or new friends.

Third is disinhibition

     -- hedonism in its various forms.

Fourth is boredom-susceptibility

     -- simply being unable to bear routine.

That list catches us short. This psychological profile for recklessness perfectly fits the inventive mind -- the technologist.

Thrill and adventure seeking is at the heart of creativity. The Eureka moment is a mountain-top experience, make no mistake! And we chance terrible frustrations and defeat to get there.

Experience seeking means opening ourselves to the dangers of change. That's how we forge creative connections.

Creativity is certainly hedonistic. The moment of discovery is pure pleasure. Like other physical pleasures, it is a moment of letting-go -- of abandoning control.

And invention is the only real way to beat back boredom. It takes off the comfortable protective old shoe of familiarity.

The reckless survive because invention is the primal act of human recklessness. It's also our major survival trait. Unlike bears, we can't survive the cold without heaters and houses. Unlike lions, we can't kill prey without weapons. Unlike oxen, we can't graze grass that we didn't plant and harvest.

Recklessness is more than entering a burning house to save a child. For our frail species it is that, but it's more. It's the courage of the creative spirit. It's the hedonistic pleasure of abandoning control. It's risking change.

We're the only species that must give its future over to the fruit of its inventions. That's dangerous business. And some of the reckless among us do perish. But recklessness survives, just because our species depends upon it. I love something Robert Louis Stevenson said:

For God's sake give me the young man who has brains enough to make a fool of himself.

You've all heard the stories we tell school children about technology. The old stories of Morse, Edison, and Ford -- of airplanes, rockets, and computers. Those stories hide the deep, human, and subjective texture of the technology that will be your life. I'll tell you about a victim of those stories.

One day, about ten years ago, I ran into Ralph Seban at a meeting in Dallas. Ralph taught mechanical engineering here, all his life. He was a formative agent in shaping the field of heat transfer. Ralph was a tough old bird who touched many people very deeply.

That day, Seban held a pocket calculator in his hand. He shook his head and said,

What's my life been worth? Now: the person who invented this really improved the world. What have I done!

I wanted to yell and shout! Ralph, don't you know what you've done? Don't you know how the fabric of our lives is shaped by small acts -- not by grand ones? Ralph, don't you know what the real measure of a life is?

I suppose a few engineers do indeed invent the cotton gin and the steamboat -- the things we talk about on TV shows or in school books. But my heroes shape our culture in far more subtle ways. My heroes are the people who form us into one unified species by the ongoing act of generosity, and courage, that is technology. Ralph Seban makes a very fitting hero.

You see, there's a terrible disconnect between what technology really is and how we talk about it. "Great Nations," wrote John Ruskin:

write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be read unless we read the other two, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the [book of their art.]

Well, I've been reading the book of our art, of the things we make, long and carefully. I've told well over a thousand stories on my radio program. And out of all that, something has gelled.

You see, the book of our art starkly contradicts what we write in the books of our deeds and words! Ask most people how we're doing and, like the media around them, they'll bring up crime and war -- the decline of courtesy and good will.

When a Massachusetts insurance company recently surveyed American attitudes, most people were quick to say that the underpinnings of society are collapsing. Yet those same people were happy with their neighborhoods, their schools, and their friends.

Politicians tell us we're living in some latter-day Sodom from which only they can save us. The media join in with all the well-documented horrors of 20th-century America: deceit, rape, murder. The books of our words and deeds make grim reading indeed, but it is misleading reading.

For example, the number of murders per capita is just the same as it was when I was a baby. Evil remains, but it is not getting worse. We do have a moral center of gravity, and we do keep evil in check.

So, for a change, read the book of our art and of the things we make. That truest autobiography tells an overwhelmingly positive story. That's exactly because the word technology means the lore, or the sharing, of technique. It is our essential act of generosity, and it defines us as a species.

I meet that generosity of spirit everywhere I'm willing to see it. And so do you. Every act of rudeness is balanced by a hundred quiet acts of kindness.

Do not overlook the goodness of intent behind all the invisible technology that serves us. We've distorted the record by using the competitive lives of a few famous inventors, or a few machines of war, to tell the history of technology. Look closer, and those few pale against the instinct for creative sharing that shapes our technological civilization.

You've had the best education. You're in for a long, rich life -- a life with a full measure of toil and frustration, no doubt. But you have been shaped for a life of reckless generosity and sharing -- a life of the mind, and a life entirely worth living! 


The story of the cichlids is told by Smith, M.T. and Layton, R., "On Human Nature," The Sciences. New York: The New York Academy of Sciences, January/February 1989, pp. 10-12.

The Insurance Company survey is described by Donn, J., "Americans polled believe "I'm OK, but you're not,'"Houston Chronicle, Monday, Nov. 21, 1994, p. 5A.

The murder statistics I quoted come from "Murder rate little changed in six decades," Houston Chronicle, Thursday, Feb. 2, 1995, p. 8A.

Konner, M,, Why the Reckless Survive, and Other Secrets of Nature, New York: Penguin Books, 1991, pp. 125-139.