Issue Date: March 28, 2011
Dreaming The Future
I am honored and gratified to receive the Priestley Medal. This highest honor of the American Chemical Society comes from a society I have been associated with for decades and with which I continue to have strong relations, not only as a member and fellow, but also with its institutions, the board of directors, the society journals, and the super-dynamic Executive Director & CEO Madeleine Jacobs. Recently, Madeleine asked me to preside over the 44th International Chemistry Olympiad, and as many of you know, when Madeleine calls you with her typical affection and enthusiasm, you simply cannot say no!
When ACS was established in 1876, its founders were luckily unaware of, or perhaps chose to ignore, the words of the sage Thomas Jefferson, who in 1809 wrote in a letter to his nephew, “If you are obliged to neglect any thing, let it be your chemistry. It is the least useful and the least amusing to a country gentleman of all the ordinary branches of science.”
Jefferson went on to promote the virtues of farming over chemistry! Fortunately, many people have not shared Jefferson’s preference for farming, including a certain graduate of the Oregon Agricultural College by the name of Linus Pauling. Linus famously said, “Chemistry is wonderful! I feel sorry for people who don’t know anything about chemistry. They are missing an important part of life, an important source of happiness, satisfying one’s intellectual curiosity.” Pauling received the Priestley Medal at the age of 83, so make sure to live long!
For all awards, I believe the personal satisfaction one feels in receiving them comes from the recognition by one’s peers and from the history of the award itself. The medal I am receiving carries the name of Joseph Priestley, a great figure of the 18th century who achieved scientific immortality for his discovery of oxygen. As important, Joseph Priestley was also a minister who fought for educational reform and personal liberty at a difficult time when Europe was infected by religious fanaticism. In 1794, he emigrated from England to America, where he became a friend of Jefferson, who sought his advice on plans for founding the University of Virginia. Priestley’s move to America is telling of the great opportunity this country has offered to immigrants, including myself.
Following the ACS announcement early last year, I received a large number of congratulatory notes from friends and colleagues around the world, but the scientific contributions cited for the award would not have been made without the dedication of a large number of research scientists, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, administrators, and staff. To all of them, I am grateful.
I would also like to take this opportunity to salute my colleagues who are being honored by ACS awards, and especially my former postdoctoral mentor at the University of California, Berkeley, Charles B. Harris, who just received a very strangely named award, the ACS Ahmed Zewail Award in Ultrafast Science & Technology. Last, but not least, are members of my family; to them and to the memory of my parents I dedicate the achievements being honored.
Traditionally, the Priestley addresses map trajectories of the past or, as in the case of my friend George Whitesides, give a futuristic outlook on chemistry. Tonight, I will use my own voyage from Egypt to America to reflect on the odyssey’s lessons for an immigrant in search of “making a dream.” I will then discuss the challenges facing this country and the world, and the role science can play in diplomacy.
Making Dreams. At the age of 16, I was among the millions around the world who were astounded by a dream in the making. On Sept. 12, 1962, at Rice Stadium, President John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
These historic words changed the course of space exploration and much else as well. In a thousand years from now, American civilization will be admired for, in addition to its founding Constitution, the 1969 landing on the moon and the beginning of space exploration, just as we still pay tribute to ancient Athenian democracy and marvel at the pyramids of Giza.
President Kennedy was in the right place and the right time to set forth this audacious vision for a nation. Similarly, for individuals, dreams are defined by one’s vision, from intuition or insight, and by the place and time where one lives.
In my case, my parents must have anticipated my thirst for knowledge and decided on a birth in a town flanked by two cities of knowledge, Alexandria and Rosetta. Alexandria, where I went to college, is a place steeped in history with its ancient library and as the intellectual home of great scientists, such as Euclid, Archimedes, and Hypatia. Rosetta is where the famous stone was discovered, with its three engraved scripts: ancient hieroglyphs, Demotic, and ancient Greek. Despite these auspicious surroundings and the commendable education I received in Egypt, my dreams were modest.
Evolution of Dreams. My first dream at the age of 15 was physically dynamic. I was curious about how a solid—wood—produces a gas that can be lit with a match. To investigate, I built a glassware apparatus in my bedroom and carried out an experiment to observe the burning of wood. My apparatus collected the resulting gas, which I duly lit with a match. This activity, of course, made my mother very unhappy.
But I did not worry about such details because I was driven by the curiosity of a schoolboy’s mind. I was not thinking of Michael Faraday’s search for the origin of combustion in his famous lecture, “Chemical History of a Candle.” Neither was I aware of Lavoisier’s use of a “burning glass” on various substances or even Priestley’s discovery of oxygen, although I knew that oxygen existed.
I was merely following my intuition, which led me along the simple path of discovery: I must have been intrigued by a natural phenomenon, “light from combustion,” and I then asked a simple question, “Why?” and designed a direct experiment. I recall explaining the results to my fellow pupils, and I think I convinced many of them to see the beauty of simplicity in a scientific inquiry. Beautiful experiments and observations often appear “trivial” in retrospect, but their findings are usually of a fundamental nature.
Such beliefs have been with me all along and so has my curiosity about “changes of matter,” or in today’s language, “the dynamics of matter’s transformation,” perhaps because of what I learned early on—that chemistry, as a science, had its roots in ancient Egypt. Some historians believe that the word “alchemy,” from which “chemistry” is derived, is a corruption of the word khemia or keme, which literally means “the black land,” an ancient name for the land along the banks of the Nile, where the flooding river would transform the color of the soil during inundation.
Coming to the U.S. in 1969 was certainly the gateway to bigger dreams. In this post-Sputnik era, America was second to none in the opportunities it offered, especially to young people. Besides the rich and free culture, there was the feeling that the sky was the limit. Both of my mentors, Robin Hochstrasser at the University of Pennsylvania and Harris at UC Berkeley, instilled in me the significance of fundamental science, and I had the feeling that funding was not an issue for them. They spent most of their time as scientists and not as managers of science. Through this experience, I also saw the difference in so-called small and big science, especially when I became an IBM Fellow working at the fantastic facilities of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
While at UC Berkeley, I received an offer from California Institute of Technology. Soon, as a faculty member at Caltech, I found I was once again in the right place at the right time. The legacy of Pauling was all around, with research focused on the structure of molecules both at Caltech and elsewhere. I was in a unique position to begin research on dynamics of molecules. At the time, the concept of coherence in chemistry was foreign, and some renowned chemists, including three Nobel Laureates, did not appreciate its significance and did not see much value in it. But Caltech gave me the opportunity to be intellectually independent with plenty of room to pursue my goals. I worked with an exceptional research group, and in 1987 we published the first paper on femtochemistry, reporting on the probing, and potentially the controlling, of the coherent motion of atoms in reactions and during their ephemeral transition states. Some scientists were concerned about issues such as the uncertainty principle and the general applicability of the approach, but I have seen that after 1999 they became convinced!
In this regard, I must mention my dear friend and great supporter, the late Richard Bernstein. Dick’s unqualified enthusiasm for the development of femtochemistry, the mentoring days we spent together at Caltech when he was on sabbatical there as a Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar, and the joint papers we wrote, including a Chemical & Engineering News feature article, are experiences that I treasure. Dick predicted femtochemistry would be recognized by the Nobel Prize, but sadly he died without witnessing his prophecy come true. The Nobel Prize is a great honor, but it comes with one expectation—stop science and become an expert (or at least a pundit) on everything from the stock market to the future of humanity. People found it hard to take my desire to continue research seriously.
I had a bigger dream than femtochemistry, namely, to be able to visualize matter’s transformations, not only in time but also in space—to chart the movements of atoms in all four dimensions. Over the past 10 years at Caltech, we were able to develop 4-D electron microscopy to do just that. We now use ultrashort packets of electrons to probe systems with subnanometer spatial resolution and femtosecond time resolution. As well as opening up these extraordinary space-time dimensions to basic research, this realization of our big dream has myriad potential applications in chemical, biological, and materials sciences. None of this would have been possible without being in the right place, Caltech, at the right time, with the funding from the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation.
In this more recent endeavor, another dear friend, Sir John Meurig Thomas of Cambridge University, became an enthusiastic supporter of the new development. He appreciated early on, when some skepticism arose, the significance of 4-D real space and diffraction imaging. John is a world expert on 2-D and 3-D electron microscopy, and together in Pasadena we wrote a monograph, published two years ago, entitled “4D Electron Microscopy: Imaging in Space and Time” (Imperial College Press, 2009). Over the years, I have enjoyed his poetic perspectives on science and scientists.
Chemistry Dreams. So far, I have spoken about dreams in areas of particular interest to me—but what about the discipline of chemistry at large? Some in the profession think that chemistry in the 21st century is now at “the end,” perhaps only useful in service to other fields. Even more broadly, some writers of popular books have claimed the end of science! These views are shortsighted, to say the least. I believe that the opportunities for basic research in chemistry this century are more exciting than ever, provided that we do not restrict our vision to orthodox boundaries.
Breakthroughs will continue to emerge when we understand how and why systems of thousands of atoms in macromolecules, materials, and cells function coherently and as if with a directed purpose. In the end, we may or may not find that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and learn how complex systems in nature produce unique behaviors describable by classical mechanics even though they are made from the probabilistic quantum world of atoms and molecules. If we resolve these profound mysteries, it will affect numerous areas of materials and life sciences, and even physics.
From my perspective, chemistry will become merely a service to other fields only if we lose sight of its primary objective. Our field can and should remain a fundamental science, providing new tools and defining new concepts, but with its lens focused on significant questions in emerging areas of complexity, from nanoscience to physical biology. The cause is helped if more champions articulate the beauty of chemistry’s fundamentals and the big picture of its mission, globally and in the U.S. We should look ahead, unswayed by pressures of fads or funding, and be driven by our own curiosity.
Curiosity-Driven Dreams. As brilliantly conveyed by Lewis Carroll in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” curiosity is the key to explorations that go beyond the “known unknowns” to delve into the “unknown unknowns.” Recently when I was on an official visit to Southeast Asia, a prime minister asked me, “What does it take to get a Nobel Prize?” I answered immediately: “Invest in basic research and recruit the best minds.” This curiosity-driven approach seems increasingly old-fashioned and underappreciated in our modern age of science. Some believe more can be achieved through tightly managed research—as if discoveries are predictable. This attitude is an unfortunate misconception that affects and infects research funding.
There are countless examples of valuable breakthroughs that came from research driven by the curiosity of individuals. Perhaps the best example comes from the work done to develop the maser and the laser by Charlie Townes and colleagues. Last summer in Paris at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the laser’s invention, Townes reminded us that he was driven at the start only by an intellectual curiosity about the microwave spectroscopy of molecules, which later led to the invention of the ammonia maser. In this odyssey, fundamental issues had to be addressed: how to enhance Einstein’s stimulated emission over absorption, how to sustain the gain, and how to “beat” the uncertainty principle and achieve monochromaticity through coherence. The laser was called “a tool in search of a problem.” No one imagined the technological impact it has today, from eye surgery to the information technology revolution.
As I mentioned at the Paris celebration, in my own career it was curiosity about questions pertinent to coherence and the uncertainty principle that brought about my group’s contributions first to femtosecond science and now 4-D electron microscopy. I doubt if the first grant proposal I wrote about coherence in dynamics, which had no immediate relevance to anything with so-called broader impact, would be funded today.
Quantum mechanics, relativity, the expanding universe, and the deciphering of the genetic code were discoveries made down the rabbit hole of curiosity. So, too, are revolutionary technologies such as MRI (developed from curiosity-driven research about the spin of an electron) and the transistor (discovered as a result of curiosity about the properties of electrons in semiconductors). The industries that followed now constitute the backbone of worldwide communications and the global economy. Curiosity pays! As Francis Bacon said, “A wise man [woman] will make more opportunities than he [she] finds.”
Global Dreams. Curiosity-driven science and technology has paid off for America, not only with wealth and overt power, but also with soft power, the power that sways hearts and minds. It would be wise and timely to make use of this soft power in global affairs. In today's world, America’s soft power is commonly thought to reside in the popularity of Hollywood movies, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Starbucks, but studies tell a different story. In a recent Pew Research Center poll involving 43 countries, 79% of respondents said that what they most admire about the U.S. is its leadership in science and technology. The artifacts of the American entertainment industry came in a distant second.
What I found unique to this country in the 1970s as a foreign student is what much of the world continues to value most about the U.S. today, namely, its open intellectual culture, its great universities, its capacity for discovery and innovation, and its spirit of entrepreneurship. The U.S., by harnessing the soft power of science in the service of diplomacy, can bring the best of its cultural heritage to bear on building better and broader relations with the world at large. In many ways, science embodies the core values of what the American Founders called "the rights of man" as set forth in the Bill of Rights: freedom of thought and speech and commitment to equality of opportunity.
Back To The Future. In his 2009 Cairo speech, President Barack Obama articulated a new initiative for cooperation and partnership that emphasizes the role of science in diplomacy, particularly with Muslim-majority countries. Shortly afterward, I was appointed the U.S. science envoy to the Middle East, and I embarked on a diplomatic mission that took me back to where I came from, but now with a different dream. What I learned from touring and seeing the state of science and education in the region was cause for some alarm, but also for considerable optimism.
Education in the U.S. faces many problems. The majority of the countries I visited face similar difficulties, but they also confront much more severe troubles that impede national and global progress. Yet there are positive signs as well. Countries such as Malaysia, Turkey, and Qatar are making significant strides in education and in technical and economic development. Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, and Indonesia are examples of countries rich with talents—about one-third or more of their populations are under the age of 30. We should not forget that the history of human civilization began and flourished in the Middle East. Today, there are many people from these countries living in the West who have excelled in all fields of endeavor. The latent capability of the people in the Middle East and in Muslim-majority countries elsewhere lies undiminished until circumstances are suitable for its development.
I recently read an important study that left me in awe of the knowledge demographics of our planet. In “Educating All Children: A Global Agenda,” Joel Cohen and David Bloom argue that the aim of achieving primary and secondary schooling for all children is urgent and feasible, and yet more than 300 million children will not be in school in the year 2015. Every effort should be made to change this bleak picture so we may hope for a better future for our world. The soft power of science has the potential to reshape global diplomacy and at significantly lower expense than that needed for the hard power of military involvement.
Revolutionary Dreams This address was written before the Egyptian revolution on Jan. 25 of this year. The revolution gave birth to a dream that materialized on this historic day, and I had the privilege of witnessing the event unfolding in real time with millions of Egyptians peacefully uprising for democracy. Living through such a dream is the experience of a lifetime; in this case, not only for me, but also for 85 million Egyptian citizens. Those who died in the struggle were seeking a better future. I hope we can honor their sacrifice by fostering education and science to help forge the future they fought for.
Epilogue. I would like to end by stressing the virtues of dreaming the future. Dreams evolve dynamically through space and time. Being in the right place at the right time can be a matter of luck, but dreamers must also actively seek out opportunity. Dreamers must be willing, and allowed, to take risks. In our profession of scientific exploration, as in the arts, the most creative work will materialize when intellectual curiosity is unhindered by the forces of bureaucracy and weighty management. As Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” but without the appropriate milieu, a dream cannot materialize.
This country was established as a dream, explored outer space propelled by a vision, and pursued a dream of a science policy—the “endless frontier” in the words of Vannevar Bush, after World War II. Despite current problems, the U.S. continues to lead the world through the power of knowledge. In the 21st century, America must return to its guiding principles and defining characteristics. I am hopeful that we will chart a new policy for innovation that is inclusive of international science diplomacy for partnerships in development. Some may argue that it is naïve to think of such idealistic values in our imperfect world, but the influence of science diplomacy is in the best interest of the U.S. Through the power of knowledge and curiosity, we can efface ignorance and shape a future that binds cultures and civilizations.
In his Stockholm address, the winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, Naguib Mahfouz, reminded us of our responsibility as citizens of a world made of haves and have-nots. He said, “In this decisive moment in the history of civilization it is inconceivable and unacceptable that the moans of mankind should die out in the void. … Today, the greatness of a civilized leader ought to be measured by the universality of his [her] vision and his [her] sense of responsibility towards all humankind. The developed world and the third world are but one family.”
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