The Homecoming 2013 lecture, organized by the College of Science, started off with a welcome message by Dr. Martin C. Jischke (PHYS ’63), who spoke about how a solid academic background (including a whirlwind seven week course in classical thermodynamics) prepared him for an exciting career in university leadership. He then introduced Dean Russell Betts of the College of Sciences, who himself has had a stellar career at various top educational and research institutes around the world, and great success in his work with atomic, nuclear and high-energy physics. Probably one of the most apt personalities at IIT to deliver the content of the day's lecture, "Science: the Raw Fuel behind Innovation" - talking more about how science drives creativity and fuels our economy. Dean Betts started off with a brief insight into the nexus between revolutionary ideas (Newton, Einstein, Mendeleev), out-of-the-box methods (Perkins, von Braun) and products (everything ranging from sliced bread to the iPhone). The correlation between science and it applications are what have created innovation, wide-ranging even in the law and business market.
He then went on to give some highly relevant and inspiring examples of great scientists who have gone on to create some of the most path breaking inventions of our times. The crinkle in hairpins, the Carnot heat engine, Louis Pasteur's work ("Fortune favors the prepared mind", he said, inspiring the College's motto: "Preparing Minds"), the MRI machine's ability to differentiate density, the University of Chicago's Albert Michelson and his work on proton magnetic structure, and finally Kammerlingh Onnes' work on superconducting magnets and their industrial scale production.
The hallmarks of an innovator, he went on to stress, are to be able to connect and communicate across disciplines, have an adventurously creative spirit, have access to time and resources, as well as a knack for profound, rather than passive thinking. The independently wealthy scientists of Europe have traditionally enjoyed the privileges of strong industrial connections, whereas the privately funded research institutes of the US have lagged behind due to a shortage of PhD and research degree conferring institutes. This changed after World War II, which brought with itself a spurge in government and academic research partnerships, starting with President Roosevelt's association with Vannevar Bush, as well as necessitated the differentiation between pure and applied research. On one hand, pure research is curiosity driven, with a strong potential for future innovation; whereas applied research is goal driven, often for business and commercial applications. He also made a comment about how technical research labs in countries like Germany would not be run by MBA graduates - whereas many of their counterparts here in the States are becoming increasingly short term, profit oriented.
Recent government legislation has pushed for greater economic incentives for innovation and investment, aiming to keep the best and brightest in science and engineering rather than sending them off to MBA and law programs. There is also an increasing shift from inter-disciplinary to trans-disciplinary research. The question is, how and where does an academic program as rigorous and relevant as IIT's, as well as our own path breaking visions like the Innovation Center, fit into this larger scheme of things?
2013 - Fall - Issue 5