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The Freshman Address: Discovery
“Here at Yale you will have access to many people with answers and more than a few with wisdom. They will not always have the answers you seek, but they will encourage your curiosity and inspire you to make discoveries on your own.”

I am going to begin with a confession. This summer I got very excited about the Pathfinder mission to Mars. Perhaps it was nostalgia. I was about your age when the Apollo spaceships started circling the moon and only a little older when astronauts first walked on the lunar surface. The miniature robot Sojourner intensified my yearning for lost youth. It looked to me like something constructed by merging my old Erector set with my children’s Legos.

I was captivated by the photographs. I found them even more interesting than the lunar landscapes beamed back by the Apollo crews. We have, after all, seen dusty deserts set against the darkness of the night sky, but we have never seen red and blue deserts set against a red sky. What most enthralled me, however, was a short article I saw in the International Herald Tribune while on vacation abroad. It noted that the Pathfinder had recorded a ground level temperature reading of 70 degrees Fahrenheit, warm enough to go barefoot, while the temperature at an altitude of five feet was only 15 degrees Fahrenheit, cold enough for a wool hat. Even without canals and anthropomorphic aliens, Mars turns out to be as strange as we ever imagined and even more beautiful.

Humanity is entering a new Age of Discovery. In the next third of a century we will doubtless learn as much, and probably much more, about our neighboring planets than we learned about the earth in the comparable span of years between Columbus’s first voyage and Magellan’s last. I could go on to say more about how interplanetary exploration might expand our knowledge, our material well-being, and our collective imagination. Or I could go on to urge that we avoid the imperial ambitions and the environmental destruction that accompanied the last Age of Discovery. But I will do neither. I would prefer to comment on the phenomenon of discovery itself and how each of you might seize upon the abundant opportunities for discovery that Yale will make available to you these next four years.

To understand better the nature of discovery, I turned from perusal of the Martian photographs to the memoirs of some very distinguished scientists. I learned, to no great surprise, that discovery begins with curiosity. I was particularly struck by this recollection of Richard Feynman, one of this century’s great physicists:

“My father taught me to notice things, and one day I was playing with a little wagon. It had a ball in it, and when I pulled the wagon I noticed something about the way the ball moved. I went to my father and I said, “Say, Pop, I noticed something. When I pull the wagon, the ball rolls to the back of the wagon. And when I’m pulling it along and I suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front of the wagon. Why is that?”

It helps, if you are curious, to have access to people who have answers. Feynman was lucky enough to have access to a father who had not only the answer, but wisdom as well. To Feynman’s question—“Why is that?”—his father replied:

“Nobody knows. The general principle is that things that are moving try to keep on moving, and things that are standing still tend to stand still unless you push on them hard. This tendency is called 'inertia,' but nobody knows why it’s true.”

Feynman adds his own gloss:

“Now, that’s a deep understanding: he didn’t just give me a name. He knew the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something."1

Here at Yale you will have access to many people with answers and more than a few with wisdom, a distinguished faculty of 700 men and women with expertise in virtually every area of human knowledge. They will not always have the answers you seek, but they will encourage your curiosity and inspire you to make discoveries on your own. Here is how David McCullough, Yale College Class of 1955 and a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer, described one of his teachers to the seniors of 1997 during Commencement weekend: “He threw open the windows for us, threw open the shutters, let the light in. He got us to read, got us to think, he got us to see, to see, and he’s never stopped.”

Discovery requires more than curiosity and inspiration, more than access to information; it requires discipline and persistence as well. I used to teach a course on the economics of technological change, and one of my favorite invention stories serves well to illustrate this point. There was a chemist who worked for Du Pont who believed it possible to find useful applications for a polymer the company had patented. After thirteen years, he left Du Pont, secured the rights to the still undeveloped polymer, and went into business with his son, using the substance to manufacture ribbon cable. Another eleven years passed, and the chemist still believed that the polymer had important undiscovered uses. If the substance could only be made to stretch, he postulated, it might become impermeable to liquids but allow water vapor to pass through. Such a waterproof, but breathable, substance would have value in many applications; for example, it might be made into tape for use in vascular surgery, or, less esoterically, it might serve well to seal junctions in pipes. He began to subject a small rod of the polymer to a different experimental treatment each day. The substance was heated and cooled for various lengths of time and then pulled. Day after day, the rod snapped in two. Finally, at the end of one frustrating day, the chemist’s weary son, eager to get home, rushed into the lab, grabbed the rod out of the oven, pulled at both ends, and—lo and behold—Gore-Tex!2

As the example illustrates, even years of persistence are not always enough; a certain amount of luck is involved. Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the double-helical structure of DNA, explains in his memoir that his colleague, James Watson, made a critical inference about the exact nature of the two base pairs by chance manipulation of a physical model of the molecule, even though, in retrospect, it could have been deduced logically. But Crick reminds us that “chance favors the prepared mind.” He observes that “Jim was looking for something significant and immediately recognized the significance of the correct pairs when he hit upon them by chance."3

I have so far identified curiosity, access to information, persistence, preparation, and luck as elements of discovery. Perhaps I should also add peripheral vision. It is not uncommon to discover something new while looking for something very different. Steven Weinberg, the Nobel laureate in physics, describes how he developed an elaborate mathematical structure to explain the strong nuclear force, realized that he could not reconcile the mathematics with experimental observation, but then recognized that the same mathematics were in fact the key to explaining the weak nuclear force and, ultimately, to a unified theory of the weak and electromagnetic forces.4

Let me also say a word about intellectual ambition, which I shall count as the final requisite of discovery. Or rather, let me quote at length from Frances Crick, who sums up eloquently:

“The major credit I think Jim and I deserve is for selecting the right problem and sticking to it. It’s true that by blundering about we stumbled on gold, but the fact remains that we were looking for gold. Both of us had decided, quite independently of each other, that the central problem in molecular biology was the chemical structure of the gene.We could not see what the answer was, but we considered it so important that we were determined to think about it long and hard, from any relevant point of view."5

I should hasten to add that the act of discovery can be deeply satisfying, emotionally as well as intellectually. When I asked Sidney Altman—our Sterling Professor of Biology, Nobel laureate, and a former Dean of Yale College—to comment on his own experience, he said: “When I was a post-doc, I did an experiment that resolved a problem that I had been working on for a year or more. When I saw the result, there was not only the feeling of relief you get when you stop banging your head against a wall, but, more important, I then understood some of the puzzling results that had been published by others in the years before. The feeling of great satisfaction at having solved my problem as well as having illuminated others kept me floating on air for weeks.”

I have been drawing my examples from the world of science and technology, but what I have said about discovery applies in virtually every area of human inquiry. Some of you will see flashes of blinding light working in a science or engineering laboratory here at Yale. But others will experience the joy of discovery in the University Art Gallery, in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the Sterling Library, or in a post-midnight conversation with a suite-mate.

Women and men of the Class of 2001, welcome to Yale College, where the possibilities for discovery are without limit. We set before you a treasury of resources, and you bring with you curiosity, years of preparation, and—we must infer this from your surviving the arduous competition for admission—persistence. All you need now is intellectual ambition and a little bit of luck, although with preparation and persistence, the luck will take care of itself.

Do not fail to be ambitious. One of last spring’s graduates published a book describing, with vivid prose and beautiful drawings, all the known species of trout in North America. Another invented a machine, made entirely of spare laboratory parts, that projects three-dimensional images in space. This patented device may lead to improvements in medical diagnosis and air traffic control. Achievements of this kind are within your grasp, if you set your sights high.

Above all, make the most of this amazing place. You have 1,800 courses available to you, a library with ten million books, three of the world’s finest university museums, a devoted and accessible faculty, thirteen hundred classmates from every state of the Union and all around the world, and faculty advisers, freshman counselors, deans, and masters to support and encourage you. These four years will enrich you for a lifetime. Enjoy them. Make them your Age of Discovery.  the end


1: Christopher Sykes, ed., No Ordinary Genius, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994, p. 24.

2: Lucien Rhodes, “The Un-manager,” Inc., August 1982, p. 34.

3: Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery, Basic Books, 1988, p. 66.

4: Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory, New York: Vintage Books, 1994, pp. 118–119.

5: Crick, op. cit., pp. 74–75.


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