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Arthur M. Bueche Award
Acceptance Remarks by Dr. Henry T. Yang
National Academy of Sciences Auditorium
Sunday, October 9, 2016
Thank you all. Thank you very much.
I am honored to be here this afternoon, among my engineering colleagues and friends, to accept this award. I could not have dreamed up a more rewarding way to celebrate my 25th anniversary as a member of the NAE. I am genuinely humbled that this esteemed group has chosen to recognize me, because every one of my accomplished NAE peers is deserving of the same.
As I reflect on this memorable moment, I am reminded of the people and experiences that have influenced my life and career.
Let me trace back to my early career, beginning with my appointment as assistant professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue University—right around the time the Boilermakers won the Rose Bowl and our alumnus Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. I was honored to become the Dean of Engineering after 15 years, while also holding the Neil Armstrong Distinguished Professorship.
One of my first challenges as dean was inviting visionary leaders, who have very busy schedules, to serve on my visiting committee. I went to Neil Armstrong for help, and to my surprise, he agreed to serve—he served during my entire tenure of a decade. When the committee roster started with the name Neil A. Armstrong, it seemed easier to convince other prominent members to join!
An original thinker, visionary leader, and, of course, an NAE member, Neil’s wisdom and guidance helped define a fundamental core value of engineering education, research, and service for the next century and beyond.
And he always added an unassuming touch of humor. Upon arriving at one of our meetings, we saw him step out of a passenger van into the snow—backward! He responded to our questioning looks with a chuckle, saying, “As you know, I had a lot of practice on this.” This was his “small step.”
At the time, he was living on his farm near Cincinnati. The farm had a landing strip so he could keep up with his hobby flying his Beech Bonanza and later his Cessna 310. And, no doubt fascinated by the moon, he used the Old Farmer’s Almanac—a lunar calendar.
Neil rarely agreed to public speaking engagements, so I was honored when he traveled to UC Santa Barbara for my inauguration as the new chancellor, 21 years ago. He spoke with sincerity and conviction about breaking boundaries, stretching the human perspective, and the importance of strength of character.
Just as Neil Armstrong has inspired me, every one of you is an inspiration to our engineering community and our future engineers. Together, we have made remarkable progress in science and technology, and witnessed its contributions to society in the interest of humanity.
Evolution of Engineering in Our Time
Now, as I take in the collective brilliance represented in this room, I see more than a few faces from my generation. Some of you probably remember being college students in the ’60s.
I still remember using a slide rule, which we carried on our belts around campus. We later encountered a mechanical calculator. We had to wait for this mechanical machine to crank out numbers, with far more consecutive digits than the slide rule. Then there was the electronic calculator.
I remember my first experience using the IBM 1620 computer. We carried boxes of cards, punched holes, fed these into a reader, and waited for the printout. I remember sending my first fax across the Pacific in 1985. And not until 1989 did I have the amazing experience of sending my first email and receiving an instant reply.
It wasn’t until the year 2000 that I first used a cell phone. My students now seem to think that cell phones and email have always existed—and they certainly have never seen, or even heard of, a slide rule!
Over the past decades, we see that there were hundreds, or even thousands, of technological breakthroughs. And paving the way centuries earlier were our US patent laws of 1790, which, according to President Lincoln, “added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.”
At the heart of each was an engineer. Theodore von Kármán said: “Scientists discover the world that exists; engineers create the world that never was.”
Royal Society President, Sir George Porter, once said, “There are only two kinds of science: applied and not-yet-applied.”
And this is our life’s work—not only making basic discoveries, but taking basic research and building once-inconceivable technologies.
Chancellorship: Retention and Recruitment of Talents
As chancellor of UC Santa Barbara for over two decades, there are many experiences and perspectives I could share. But allow me to focus on just one important aspect: the retention and recruitment of talents.
I am honored and fortunate to serve on a campus where six colleagues have won Nobel Prizes during my tenure. I humbly offer, as examples, two of my engineering faculty colleagues, both proud NAE members.
Let’s go back 40 years to 1976, when Dr. Herbert Kroemer joined the faculty at UC Santa Barbara, before my time. Professor Kroemer decided to focus not on silicon semiconductors but rather gallium-nitride, a semiconductor material that was “notoriously difficult” to use. Decades later, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics “for developing semiconductor heterostructures used in high-speed and opto-electronics.”
His original vision was, and has been, upheld by our university with unwavering support. Supporting such vision and creating an intellectual environment are two of the most important ingredients for retention and recruitment.
Professor Kroemer’s work, first proposed in 1963, is the foundation of the blue laser and LED’s efficiency in converting electricity into light. He said in his Nobel acceptance speech that his original paper was rejected, ignored, refused – rejected by Applied Physics Letters; ignored once published in the Proceedings of the IEEE; and finally, he was refused resources to develop this new laser.
About 30 years after submitting that paper, while at a conference in Berlin in 1996, Professor Kroemer witnessed what he said was “the beginning of the end of the lightbulb” when a young engineer from Japan, Dr. Shuji Nakamura, demonstrated his bright blue laser.
Kroemer later said, “We are not talking about doing things better, but about doing things we never could before.”
In the quest for talent, we went to Japan to recruit Dr. Nakamura to our faculty. As I’m sure you all agree, when it comes to the recruitment of talent, there are no borders.
Just one year later, Professor Kroemer won his Nobel in 2000. Then we wondered, would Professor Nakamura ever get a Nobel for his invention?
As we know, it is not very common to receive a Nobel Prize for invention. Even Thomas Edison did not win a Nobel. I have heard that, for invention, one needs to demonstrate a richness of consequences. And what would that look like for the blue laser and LED?
Professor Kroemer predicted, “Nakamura will win his Nobel when LEDs are sold in Costco.”
In 2013, when I saw the shelves of Costco stocked with LED lightbulbs, I knew the time had come. The following year, Professor Nakamura received his Nobel Prize in Physics: for an invention with a richness of consequences—for our field, for our economy, and for our world—through affordable, energy-efficient lighting.
This is our calling and contribution as engineers—to create endless innovations at the endless frontiers of science.
Today, I am honored to stand among you, the world’s most accomplished engineers, as part of a prestigious academy that has played a revolutionary role in shaping our nation’s education, technology, policy, and economy over the past five decades since the NAE’s founding in 1964.
And looking ahead, the NAE is leading the way to overcome the challenges of our future, and uphold our country’s long-standing scientific leadership in an increasingly collaborative, competitive, globalized world.
I am honored to thank the NAE for this award.