“A Cosmic Service” - Prepared Remarks

Remarks delivered on May 19, 2018 to the graduating class at the Awty International School

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Thank you all for your time today. Congratulations to the young humans present that are stepping into a new phase of life. Today we celebrate you, your loved ones, and the educators here that have shepherded your growth and discipline to succeed. It is my honor to have been asked here today to share a few things I hope help you as you continue on with your journey in this world. And as the most unlikely of Awty alums, I wanted to share why I believe that your fortune is yours to mold and how my experience here helped me do just that.

I come to you from the Hills of San Francisco, where ideas are bountiful, hype is in excess, and Mark Zuckerberg can’t even afford the rent. Prior to this, I spent several years in the ‘swamp’ of Washington, DC, the training ground for national change and the original inspiration for Southern summer humidity. In DC, in December it snows, but in July, it’s a two-shower a day-kinda day. Even before this, I came from Los Angeles, the only place other than Houston where if someone asks how long will it take to get there, the answer is and always will be 45 minutes. No matter where or how far.

It is a pleasure to be back here at Awty. It is the first place that gave this poor little country bumpkin a chance to prove himself. You see, I am the first person in my family to go to college, the first to graduate school, and the first to my knowledge to have grown meat in a laboratory. Interestingly, I am not the first to host his own television show. That honor goes to my father.

I am proud to say that I am a professional scientist, and I have a singular goal: To leave this world a bit better than whence I came. That’s it. Easy to say, hard to do. And why have I chosen this path to improve the universe? Because of you all. You all need to know that the road to a better cosmos, better humanity, and healthful world is driven by ordinary folks who attempt to change the world for no other reason than because they choose to…and then do it. This is ironic: no one single human changes the world. We’re the product of diverse viewpoints and experiences collected consciously and subconsciously, as we move through life. We need others in order to build our world view and to be successful. The part that is up to you is building what I call your Big Tent —  the place where these events and inspirations and learnings can all meet in your mind to form your view of the the path ahead.

In my life thus far, I have worked on the cutting edge of biomedicine - genetically engineering embryonic stem cells to personalize medical therapies and understand the nature of disease and health. I’ve plumbed the molecular depths of our cells to understand how life can be so diverse using such basic instructions.

This scientific work taught me how important it is to have a pipeline of new ideas and technologies from which to choose. Through this, I was asked to help this country develop smarter domestic and international policy in the regulation of food and drugs at the US Food and Drug Administration. It was an honor to serve this country using my brain. This policy work taught me that science, policy, and politics are essential to our success as a society. We cannot have science without policy. And what we consider innovation today requires smart, passionate people to transition these innovations and make them into tradition. Every single invention, no matter how incredible, will become as familiar as a 10 dollar wristwatch or a first-generation iPhone. This innovation to tradition transition is at the heart of scientific policymaking.

From this, I learned that how we communicate the value of science requires training and theory. Science does not occur in a cultural vacuum. I then began speechwriting and starting my own company to explore this notion, which led to my hosting of the Smithsonian’s first-ever online STEM TV show. And from here, I realized how many important ideas in key global areas need people to champion them to completion. Now, I help build a better food system through science, engineering, policy, and communication. And I am here to tell you, that if this poor kid from the countryside of Houston can do it, you can too. Your experiences at Awty are setting you up to pursue success, and you can rapidly augment them by studying widely and deeply. Some of our greatest scientific achievements occurred because of two things: Someone openly believed in them and they were inspired by the learnings from a different field.

But let’s step back. Why do we value education so much as a society and as a species? Well, we can take a look at our history as a species for evidence:

We humans are particularly excellent at a few things that have led to our complete and utter dominance of this planet and its resources: One, we have an incredibly over-developed pattern sensing region in our brains that created a sense of identity around common non-physical ideas - like happiness and love and the rule of law. It was better to always presume there was a tiger hiding in the brush than to not.

Two, we have an incredible ability to eat nearly anything, which fueled our rapid cranial development and intellect. We then invented cooking, which unlocked even faster growth and the intellectual tools to command this growth, such as language and the rule of law. Remember, your brain consumes 30% of all the calories you eat everyday.

And three, we have an incredible capacity to create collective knowledge and use it. In short, we humans did something no other species has been known to do: We took the ideas we created of things that don’t physically exist and built social structures around them, which led to collective identity and security. Then we supercharged those ideas by transmitting them over time, as if by magic, where they could be improved by others. We call this storytelling and through it we humans literally figured out how to time travel - we think back to the decisions and lessons learned from those who came before us, we fight for or against the social forces forged by them, we build on what they knew,  and we pass it along. It is so mundane we take it for granted: Knowledge is an idea, a concept realized, that moves from generation to generation.

We glorify knowledge as a species and a society - scientifically, we are certain it is a key component of our success. But why do exclaim for knowledge? Believe it or not, the notion where we each support the advancement of knowing is quite new. Prior to formal education, we had no way to evaluate if something beyond our senses was correct or not. Anyone could be ‘lucky’, right, or wrong. What caused sickness or health or the heritable variability of life was seen as a guess. And anyone could guess. What we needed was a way to evaluate the meaning of different sensory experiences. We needed new ways to talk about weird, complex ideas. Enter Art.

Not that long ago, the value of artists as a social class and art as cultural value did not yet exist. No modern society that has ever existed has created institutions of knowledge without first a well-established system to support and value art. In other words, without Art, we would have no Science. And without both, no modern world. Once humans built their cities upon a hill, they quickly realized the artisans produced knowledge in a way that allowed for new ways to express complex concepts. Art as a purpose unto itself is a new concept, and one that demonstrateS a prosperous society. If we could create value in culture, we likely weren’t spending all waking hours hunting and gathering. This in turn, over time, formed the basis for how we humans would escape the shackles of our senses and turn to the atom and the heavens for our newest frontiers.

Fueled by the notion that we can afford to create, humans adapted the tools of the arts and humanities to the well-hewn instruments of philosophy. We sharpened the edge of logic and planed the surfaced of reason until the tool ran true. The result of this intellectual outgrowth is the beginnings of what we would now call Science, and its descendent, Technology.

But you would be hard pressed to recognize the scientists of 500 years ago as compared the those of today. The difference is one I wish to highlight, for you, young humans. Early scientists were called natural philosophers - a much more accurate term - because they set out to understand the system of knowledge they were inventing rather than just knowing stuff. Early scientists studied multiple fields simultaneously (or, frankly invented them). It was quite routine for early scientists to study three to five different fields simultaneously. So much so, in fact, that they often would become bona fide experts in multiple fields. Can you imagine Sir Isaac Newton on CNN as talking head: “Breaking news: Light’s behavior can be explained in the same way the planet’s move. To better understand the math, we now turn to the inventor of calculus, Sir Isaac Newton. Thank you for being here today. To debate him on the math involved in light’s behavior, we now introduce the inventor of light optics…..Sir Isaac Newton.”

These seemingly extraordinary humans are what we now call expert generalists, and I cannot urge you enough to model this behavior in your lives. Success is not creating a pigeonhole for your comfort. Success is having the cosmos at your beck and call. We do this, not by increasing the rate of creating information - no. Humanity’s creativity rate is limited by the rate at which we render ideas and information obsolete. Nobelists like Marie Curie of France and Artists like Yayoi Kusama of Japan were able to see two unrelated fields and realize that if you combined them, a lot of unnecessary fluff would melt away. Seeing ahead in the field of knowledge often meant seeing how unnecessary certain elements were - literally and figuratively. This in turn created a new field, more robust and accurate. In the case of Curie, by linking the mystery of radiation to the structure of atoms, it allowed for the invention of an entire branch of non-invasive medicine in X-rays.

Early scientists were normal humans who understood two things I will advocate you all pursue: One, the world needs more expert generalists, more Curies, more Newtons, more Picassos, and more Dorothy Dunnetts - We’d call them polymaths today, but they are just really good at being curious about a lot. And two, they avoid hyperspecialization. The world doesn’t need more niche experts right now. Knowing one thing very well can be career and life-limiting. Have an expertise, but just don’t hang all of your curiosity on it. We need need better integrated theory, more conceptual breakthroughs, and better policy and leaders. We need the integration of culture, politics, and society into our way of knowing, and you all have the ability to do so.

We are the products of humans who knew so little that they had to invent the modern world just to be able to understand it. The story of us goes even deeper and more fundamental.

You - every one of you, right now - contain the entire history of the planet and all life on it. Inside each of your one trillion cells is two meters of some of the most elegant encoded instruction ever observed. Inside these instructions, buried under layers of cooridanted cellular machinery is the basic universal language - our DNA. This chemical code contains all we know to instruct life to be. Four distinct chemicals permutate themselves under the robust laws of evolution in such a way that every single lifeform that has ever existed has used this system. And knowing that greater than 99% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct, we estimate the variability of life to be even more wondrous that we could imagine. Young humans, remember: What IS is almost always more amazing and astounding than what can be imagined. Whereas your imagination is governed by your limits of experience, reality is shackleless.

But what I find amazing is not that we know this (it is amazing in its own right), but that I learned this concept, here, at Awty. Your education at Awty is the room you construct that will hang the artwork of your life and knowledge. The size and shape from which to view and derive value will be different for each of you, but it will there. Your pursuit of the cosmos hereafter will bring in the pigments to paint, the knife to sculpt, the thread for the tapestry. You will hang your life’s experiences on the intellectual and cultural mortar which Awty helped build. It is now for you, young humans, to investigate how beautiful this world is and can be.

What truly amazes me is how much of your education here you will practically use as you move through life. And a great education such as Awty prepares you to learn how to seek out that which you do not know.

We present a notion that we champion the confidence of knowledge. Knowing is a cultural synonym to confidence. In many daily activities, this is true. We should know the rules of the road or social decorum. But, in reality, professional science has taught me the importance of being earnest about how important NOT knowing is to your success.

The most powerful phrase we as a species have created is “I don’t know.” In science, we begin from a position of ignorance. From there, we can create. There is power in admitting what you do not know, and our culture does little to support our honest admission of ignorance. I ask that you help change this.

If you wish to bake an apple pie - of if you wish to change the world, first you must invent the universe. It has been said that we humans are the universe trying to understand itself. Scientists might say it as, “You are the atom trying to understand the universe.” Put simpler, why can we experience existence while this dais seemingly cannot? It should. You, me, and everything in this room and this planet are composed of the elements forged in the nuclear furnace of our nearest stars. We ARE starstuff. And yet, our particular arrangement of atoms is able to create works of art, music, science, math, and other wild iterations of reality while my dais is left inert. Why is this? Well, science does not yet have an answer (please young humans, help us figure out consciousness), BUT we can use this as motivation: We have somehow lucked out into a chance to help. We, given our particular atomic arrangement, our localized decrease in entropy, can go forth and be good stewards of our world and cosmos.

As a scientist, I find that what helps explore the unknown is to transport your mind to the place where the knowledge should exist and have a conversation with the unknown. Let’s imagine such a scenario now:

Imagine you are an astronaut couriering your craft to the outermost reaches of our solar system, but at the moment, you are just past the delicate rock and ice of the rings of Saturn. You, being curious, decide to turn your ship around and face back towards the direction of the Earth, the Sun offering a distant glow in the further behind. Despite the light of the sun, you position your camera towards the immense darkness that seems to envelope all.

You snap a single image out of posterity - you’re not expecting to find anything given the vastness of empty between you and there. Later, you review the image. What you observe amazes you: in a black field, a slightly grey blade of light cuts from left to right - a sunbeam. Within this barely visible beam, among the thousands of grey version is just one, single pixel. And this solitary pixel is the color of faded blue.

You stare, fixed upon this pale, blue dot. At this moment, I’d like to think that every human, no matter your lot in life, might look to their mind’s eye and contemplate their position in this universe a lot like my scientific idol, Dr. Carl Sagan might have. Please allow me to read a portion of his vantage point upon seeing exactly this image from the Voyager spacecraft:

[The Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan]

Consider again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

This humility does not end with the stars. If we look to ourselves we find that there is no evidence of a “Wonderwoman gene” or a “Superman genetic locus.” We should not look to our organic blueprints for the tools or right to change the world. No. We should look to ourselves, our communities, our cultures, and our collective abilities to demonstrate and build a cosmos worthy of our empathy and humility.

To those of you sitting here, you can choose to change the world. Choosing this path does not guarantee success, but I hope you choose it anyway. Learn what is needed and what is not. Be curious. And I hope you choose to change this world for the better. The skills you will need will not be the same at previous generations. Education will still be at the heart of your training however, building the future means building a system of knowledge and then deploying it.

At the dawn of rational inquiry five hundred years ago, we humans trained in multiple disciplines and used the frustrations of one discipline to inform the solutions to problems of another. A waterwheel if you will. As we set our sights on mars, launch our first probe to the sun and plumb the depths of our molecular identities, it is not a single specialist who is cutting the path. What is unraveling the tapestry of reality is the combined efforts of many expert generalists - those that understand many areas equally well. Be those masters of many.

Zooming out, if we consider the largest of questions, many viewpoints arise. I believe that we are here because of happenstance and probability. This does not render our world a purposeless place. Far from it. We are the privileged few that exist, and we should do all we are capable to ensure that the next - the better than us - continue to build a better cosmos from our privileged intellectual and social platform. We will secure a better future because of our command of reality and our efforts to bend the arc of our cultural tethers towards our common goal to realize the power we ordinary hairless apes wield: That from our beautiful hands, we together can make the atom submit its power to us, that we can forge our own star stuff, and we can we can bend the very fabric of reality to our needs.

The future is yours, young humans. Take it with humility. Make of it what you will with openness and kindness. Build your Big Tent. In plurality, comes understanding and empathy. From there, you will make great decisions

It’s not just what you know. It is what WE know. And WE don’t know a lot.

So it is with the greatest of jubilation, I say to you:

Per scientiam, ad atomos, ad astra.

Through knowledge, to the atom, to the stars.

Go forth and make this a better cosmos.

Thank you.

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