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Thursday, March 30, 2006


University of Michigan, 18 December 2005

I'm terribly sorry not to hear either Elizabeth Catlett or Samuel Zell give the speech. That would have been far more exciting, but I'll do the best I can.

When the princess Rosalba was baptized in Thackery's story The Rose and the Ring, her father, King Cavolfiore of Crim Tartary, gave a banquet and all the royal guests came with fine clothes and expensive presents and flattering speeches. Then at the end of a line of guests came the Fairy Blackstick, an ugly old lady with a long nose, carrying nothing in her hands but a plain black stick. She waved her stick over the baby and said, "As for this little lady, the best thing I could wish her is a little misfortune."

The king was furious and ordered his servants to remove the Fairy Blackstick from the hall. But of course, the magic was done and the Fairy Blackstick's present turned out to be more valuable than all the other presents put together. I will tell you at the end how the magic worked.
I am grateful to the University of Michigan and to you President Coleman for giving me the privilege of talking at this celebration. I find it strange that I should be talking here. In this company I am the fairy Blackstick.

You students are proud possessors of the PhD, or some similar token of academic respectability. You have endured many years of poverty and hard labor. Now you are ready to go to your just rewards, to a place on the tenure track of the university, or on the board of directors of a company.

And here am I, a person who never had a PhD myself and fought all my life against the PhD system and everything it stands for. Of course I fought in vain. The grip of the PhD system on academic life is tighter today than it has ever been. But I will continue to fight against it for as long as I live. In short I am proud to be heretic.

Unfortunately, I am an old heretic. Old heretics don't cut much ice. What the world needs is young heretics. I am hoping that one or two of you may fill that role. So I will tell you briefly about three heresies that I'm promoting.

The first of my heresies says that all the fluff about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of twilight model experts and the crowd of diluted citizens that believe the numbers predicted by their models. Of course they say I have no degree in meteorology and I am therefore not qualified to speak.

But I have studied their climate models and know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics and do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields, farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in.

The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That's why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.

There's no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global. The warming happens in places and times where it is cold, in the arctic more than the tropics, in the winter more than the summer, at night more than the daytime.

I'm not saying the warming doesn't cause problems, obviously it does. Obviously we should be trying to understand it. I'm saying that the problems are being grossly exaggerated. They take away money and attention from other problems that are much more urgent and important. Poverty, infectious diseases, public education and public health. Not to mention the preservation of living creatures on land and in the oceans.

My second heresies are about biotechnology. It says biotechnology will soon be domesticated. Fifty years ago in Princeton, I watched the Mathematician John von Neumann design and build the first electronic computer that operated with instructions coded into the machine. Von Neumann understood that his invention would change the world. He understood the descendants of his machine would dominate the operations of science, business and government.

But he imagined computers always remaining large and expensive. He imagined them as centralized facilities serving large research laboratories or large industries. He failed to foresee computers growing small enough and cheap enough for housewives to doing income tax, or by kids for doing homework. He failed to foresee the final domestication of computers as toys for three year olds. He totally failed to foresee the emergence of computer games as a dominant feature of 21st Century life. Because of computer games our grandchildren are growing up with an indelible addiction to computers. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, humans and computers are now joined more durably than husband and wife.

So what's the story of von Neumann's computer and the evolution of computer games to do with biotechnology. Simply this---that there is a close analogy between von Neumann's vision of computers as large centralized facilities and the public's perception of genetic engineering today as an activity of large pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations such as, Monsanto.
The public distrusts Monsanto, because Monsanto likes to put genes for poisonous pesticides into food crops just as we distrusted von Neumann fifty years ago because he liked to use his computer for designing hydrogen bombs. I see a bright future for the biotech industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that von Neumann failed to foresee becoming small and domesticated rather that large and centralized.

The first step in this direction was already taken recently when genetically modified tropical fish with new and brilliant colors appeared in pet stores. For biotech to become domesticated, the next step is to become user friendly.

I recently spent a happy day at the Philadelphia flower show, the biggest flower show in the world, where flower breeders all over the world show off the results of their efforts. I also visited the reptile show in San Diego, an equally impressive show displaying the work of another set of breeders. Philadelphia excels in orchids and roses and San Diego excels in lizards and snakes. The main problem for a grandparent visiting the reptile show with a grandchild is to get the grandchild out of the building without buying a snake.

Every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people, amateurs and professionals who devote their lives to this business. Now imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets.

Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. Designing genomes will be a personal thing?a new art form, as creative as painting or sculpture.

The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games. Designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age but played with real eggs and seeds rather than images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows to be the prickliest cactus or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur.

When they are grown up those kids will be at home in the new world of biotechnology. They will be ready to put their skills to use, designing new species of termite with a taste for heavy metal to chew up old automobiles and designing new species of trees with silicon leaves to make liquid fuel out of carbon dioxide and sunlight.

So lastly my third heresies, I say the United States has less than a century left as top nation. Since the modern nation-state was invented, about the year 1500, a succession of countries has taken turns as top nation. First it was Spain, then France, then and Britain, than America. Each term lasted about 150 years. Ours began in 1920 so it should end in about 2070.

The reason why each top nation's term comes to an end is that the top nation becomes overextended militarily, economically and politically. Greater and greater efforts are required to maintain the number one position. Finally, the overextension becomes so extreme that the whole structure collapses. Already we can see in the American posture today some clear symptoms of overextension.

Who will be the next top nation? It might be the European Union or it might be China. After that it might be India or Brazil. You should be asking yourself not how to live in an America dominated world, but how to prepare for a world that is not America dominated. That may be the most important problem for your generation to solve. How do the people who think of themselves as number one yield gracefully to become number two? So I?m telling you misfortunes are on the way.

Your precious PhD or whichever degree you went through long years of hard work to acquire may be worth less than you think. Your specialized training may become obsolete. You may find yourself overqualified for the available jobs. You may be declared redundant. The country and the culture in which you belong may move far away from the mainstream.

But those misfortunes are also opportunities. It?s always open to you to join the heretics and find another way to make a living. With or without a PhD there are big and important problems for you to solve.

So I'm hoping things will turn for you as nicely as they turned out in the end for Princess Rosalba as a result of the Fairy Blackstick's appearance of her baptism. A few years after the baptism the misfortunes began, King Cavolfiore was slain in battle and the rebel Duke Padella usurped the kingdom of Crim Tartary. Rosalba was left alone a toddler in the abandoned palace. She wandered out into the forest and was adopted by a friendly lioness. After living quietly for a few years with the lion family she wandered back to civilization and found a job as a serving maid in the household of King Valoroso the 24th of Paflagonia. There she took advantage of her situation to educate herself with the schoolbooks cast aside by her spoiled mistress, the Princess Angelica.

Finally having acquired the right sort of education, the education of hard knocks; she married Prince Giglio, rightful heir to the throne of Paflagonia, and lived happily ever after.

But now I must sit down quickly before the King's servants throw me out.

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