ARCS Luncheon Student Speech

by Steuard Jensen, 14 October 2003

The ARCS Foundation is "a national volunteer women's organization dedicated to helping the best and brightest U. S. graduate and undergraduate students by providing scholarships in natural sciences, medicine and engineering." ("ARCS" stands for "Achievement Reward for College Scientists"). I have been fortunate enough to receive ARCS scholarships for several years (including one as an undergraduate), and I was recently asked to be the student speaker at the Chicago Chapter's annual scholarship luncheon. The following is the text of my speech; it ran almost exactly five minutes, and seemed to be well received.

There are a lot things for a person to be passionate about in this world of ours. Music, sports, politics, social injustice... or even the world itself. I'd like to take these few minutes to share my passion for science — for physics — with all of you: to give you a sense of who I am, and more, to explain why I think that passion is worthwhile.

Not that I think this audience needs convincing! Ever since my first ARCS scholarship as an undergraduate, I have been consistently impressed by the interest and dedication that ARCS members show toward science and technology. It means a lot to me to know that there are people outside the ivory tower of academia who feel that way.

The thing is, there are countless important ways for people and societies to spend their resources. Although we live in one of the most prosperous nations in the world, we have neighbors who are trapped in abject poverty. Abroad, we see many centers of conflict, and chaos, and hatred, bred from misery and begetting more of the same.

In the face of all that, science can sometimes look like quite a luxury. A friend of mine once claimed that our field of physics, string theory, is purely an "entertainment industry": its only point is to entertain string theorists. He was joking, of course, but behind his joke is a valid concern: if there weren't some broader value in our work, how could we justify spending time and money on it?

As you might expect, I believe that science is valuable, on multiple levels. The first is very pragmatic: scientists' insights can sometimes have a direct impact on peoples' lives. A classic example was John Snow's realization that cholera was carried by water: as a test, he had a contaminated pump disabled, and a major outbreak ended at once.

It's rare that science makes a difference so directly: most of its contributions to our well-being come many years after the discoveries behind them. There's a famous story about physicist Michael Faraday, one of the early pioneers of electricity. Faraday had just given a tour of his lab to the British finance minister, who finally said, "This is all very interesting, but what use is it?" Faraday replied, "Sir, I do not know, but someday you will tax it."

Greedy tax collectors aside, the point is that today's abstract research may be part of tomorrow's everyday life. The "practical" justification for investing in science is that we need its new ideas in order to make peoples' lives better in the future. As much as anything, it is technical innovation that keeps global human welfare from being a zero sum game.

But the value of science is much greater than even this "longsighted pragmatism." The urge to explore and understand the world around us is far older than our theories of disease or electricity: it is one of the most basic longings of the human spirit. Every time we learn something new, the entire human race comes another step closer to enlightenment. That is the true value of science.

And I think it is that passion that drives people to become scientists, even if they justify their career choice with more "practical" arguments. In my case, my parents tell me that I was always eager to explore nature, though they deserve some of the credit for that. They encouraged me to ask questions and helped me figure out the answers. They're also the ones who showed me nature's beauties in the first place: one particularly vivid memory is a trip out to western Nebraska, far from city lights, where I saw the stars like I'd never seen them before, with the Milky Way strewn across the heavens in all its glory. I wish that everyone could have that experience.

On the other hand, no amount of parental encouragement can really explain why a third grader would read so eagerly about everything from stars and planets down to atoms and quarks. I guess some people are just naturally a little weird.

Those early explorations make it hard to pin down the moment when I decided to pursue science as a career. I know that I first became interested specifically in physics in ninth grade, when I read the book Einstein's Universe. That book describes General Relativity (Einstein's theory of gravity), and I thought it was the most incredibly exciting and beautiful idea that I'd ever seen. (And for the record, string theory, which I study now, is in some ways an extension of Relativity: looks like that initial passion is still going strong.)

Later on, I talked to a friend of the family (an engineering professor) about whether I should go into engineering or into science. He asked me if I was more interested in the "How" or the "Why." Both questions are important, of course, but my heart leapt at once to the question "Why"; I think that lies at the root of my interest in science. Of course, the ultimate "Why" is the province of philosophy and theology, but science can take us an awfully long way. Every step along the path of understanding is another little triumph of the human race, another reason for our hearts to soar with pride at what we as a people have accomplished, another precious fragment of knowledge that we can pass on to our children and our grandchildren. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to be a part of that journey.

And, standing here, I am grateful to all of you in the ARCS foundation for making that possible. Both your financial support and your excitement and interest in our work can make a real difference to the scholars here today. Thank you very much.

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