Graduation address given by Emeritus Professor Gavin Brown AO

Emeritus Professor Gavin Brown AO gave the occasional address at the Faculty of Science graduation ceremony held at 9.30am on 15 May 2009. Emeritus Professor Gavin Brown AO is the Inaugural Director of The Royal Institution of Australia (RiAus), was Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Sydney 1996 - 2008, and received the degree of Doctor of Science (honoris causa) at this ceremony.

The photo of Emeritus Professor Brown is copyright, Memento Photography.

Emeritus Professor Gavin Brown AO

Graduation address

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Fellows of Senate, Academic Colleagues, Fellow Graduates, Friends and Family of Graduates.

The University of Sydney has just done me a great honour and I am both grateful and humble. I would like to congratulate all of you who have graduated this morning and to thank on your behalf the family and friends who have been your support over the years.

In the United States the descriptor used for a Graduation Ceremony is "Commencement". This is to emphasise that this rite of passage is a stage on a longer journey which is now beginning. You have all been rewarded by a great University for your achievements and now you will go forth and return honour to your University by your future deeds.

At first glance it may appear different for honorary graduates because a long list of things done is read out and there is the danger that this suggests closure rather than opening!

That is very misleading because it is a characteristic of happy and successful people that they are possessed of restless energy and curiosity, always seeking new challenges. This is characteristic too of outstanding universities like Sydney. Both students and staff are ever exploring and ever conscious of the joy of intellectual discovery.

This was well expressed by Marie Curie, the only woman to have won two Nobel Prizes. "I never see what has been done, I only see what remains to be done". She also describes the scientist in the laboratory as "a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale."

Let me warn you that not everyone with scientific or technological training retains this childlike innocence - especially not when making fearless predictions.

In 1872, Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, declaimed that "Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction." In 1895 Lord Kelvin, while President of the Royal Society of London, stated flatly "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible" and in 1899 a Commissioner of the US Patents Office announced that "Everything that can be invented, has been invented."

It is not always negativity that gets one in deep water. Popular Mechanics magazine in the US was so excited by technical advances in 1949 that it boldly predicted that computers in the future may weigh no more than one and one half tons. Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, had six years earlier expressed an interesting piece of business analysis - "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." By 1977, Ken Olson, President, Chairman and Founder of DEC, had moved further, with
one proviso. "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."

It is perhaps more plausible that military leaders might make poor scientific predictions. The French World War 1 hero, Marechal Foch, had a red grape variety renamed in his honour. His indomitable spirit is encapsulated in the well-known quote, "My centre is giving way, my right is in retreatsituation
excellent, I shall attack." Less well-known is his prediction: "Aeroplanes are interesting toys, but of no military value, " Admiral William Leahy was assigned to the US Atomic Bomb project and after receiving a top secret briefing, he declared, "The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in

Just to show that over-confidence can affect all kinds of people, let me turn to the entertainment industry. Harry M Warner of the Warner Brothers spoke with vehemence some three years before
silent movies became a thing of the past. He expostulated, "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" Much later, in 1962, the Decca Record Company turned down a group, saying "We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out." The group was, of course, The Beatles.

Now all of these examples are a form of reality check. You deserve to be justly proud of your successful studies at the University of Sydney but, in my mind, the main thing you have acquired is the healthy habit of an exploring mind. I implore you to continue active questioning.

Our society is heavily dependent on science and technology. I believe that the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages but for democracy to be effective, all citizens should have some appreciation of the issues that arise. That is why my new job has a major challenge to lift the general level of scientific debate in the community.

If the world simply listens to those who speak most loudly or with most self-assumed authority then our problems will be compounded. You have a special role to play because you have been trained in scientific discipline. It is relatively easy to argue that a greater number of talented students should be encouraged to study science and engineering in order to generate economic prosperity for the nation. I am speaking about something different which is ambitious and slightly romantic. I believe you have an important role to playas engaged citizens with a scientific background.

I invite you to consider doing some of that by supporting the RiAus, the national institution which I now lead. Our policy is that every citizen should have science as part of their cultural frame, together with art, music, theatre, sport - but to do that we need the backing of the scientific community so that we are speaking with your authentic voice.

It is, of course, true that I have never been a lab scientist because I am a mathematician. This can be a character-building occupation. One goes to a party and everything is fine until you are asked what you do. "Research mathematician" gets a response only a few degrees up the scale from "Serial Killer". "I never understood math at school", they say. "How can you do research in a subject that's been dead for years?"

This is compounded by the fact that most mathematicians tend to be less than gregarious. ln fact there is a standard joke, "How do you recognise an extrovert mathematician?" "He looks at your
shoes when talking to you".

In fact mathematics has much of that fairy-tale beauty that Marie Curie spoke of. The trouble is that it can be unforgiving if you fail to be precise. There is another saying of Marie Curie which could be applied to mathematics. She said, "Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood."

Being serious, I think that is a very beautiful idea of general application. It transcends science and encompasses humility, courage and curiosity. "Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood".

I congratulate you once more and trust you will continue to show intellectual curiosity, firm but modest responsibility as a scientifically trained citizen and quiet courage in facing your next set of challenges.