barnabas_truman: (oldstyle)
[personal profile] barnabas_truman
This evening I went to the awards ceremony that concludes a summer orientation program that my department offers for incoming first-year students. I was primarily there to give out balsa wood gliders as trophies to the teams that had scored the most points in a Physics of Paper Airplanes workshop a few weeks ago... but after doing so, I realized that I had a moment in the spotlight with a captive audience of over 200 cheerful students who already think I'm pretty cool. I launched into an impromptu speech (because it turns out that what I'm really best at is making stuff up on the spot) about science, technology, and social responsibility. I'm going to try to type up as much of it as I can remember while it's still fresh in my mind...

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I'm a firm believer in the idea of salvation through technology; salvation through knowledge; the notion that we can make our lives and our world better by understanding the universe and finding ways to manipulate it.

It is amazing how powerful technology is in the modern world. We can communicate with people all over the globe instantly. We can travel to the other side of the continent in mere hours. We can survive injuries and illnesses that, a century ago, would have been assumed invariably fatal. We can produce enough food by having 1% of our population working on farms instead of 90%. Amazing advances.

But technology comes with dangers as well. We can kill each other with a twitch of a finger. We can destroy entire cities in the blink of an eye. We can poison our own air without even trying.

We need the technology, but we also need to learn how to use it responsibly, and how NOT to use it. The advances in what we CAN do must be paired with careful thought about what we SHOULD do.

So by the power vested in me by nobody in particular, here is what I wish for all of you, whether you're going into the sciences or not:
the perception to learn about the world around you,
the cleverness to design amazing new things,
and the wisdom to use them to make the world a better place for everyone.

And if you EVER need any help in ANY math or science class... you know where to find us.

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That's it as near as I can remember. It seemed to go over remarkably well with the students. (And no, I didn't actually say "With great power comes great responsibility," but I was thinking it pretty hard.)

See, I've been thinking a lot recently about my own responsibilities as a physics teacher who strongly believes in peace and social justice. I've known for years that it is my responsibility to teach physics to all who request it... but I also feel a need to be a paragon of pacifism. I have often worried "what if I teach physics to some students and then they use what I've taught them to design weapons?" Now I realize what I must do: pair my direct teaching of physics with some subtler teaching of ethics, using my mythic reputation as leverage. Good to know.
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