Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering

2008 Charles Stark Draper Prize Recipient Acceptance Remarks

Thank you very much, Dr. Vest. Thank you, Draper Lab. Thank you, National Academy of Engineering. I am deeply honored and very grateful for this high distinction.
The work that led us here began some 50 years ago. For inspiration and support I owe a debt to many. Unfortunately most of them are not here, cannot be here, and I have very little time to thank them individually. It works out costing about two dollars per millisecond.

But I would like to mention two people, at least. First, Professor Solomon Lefschetz, who could be regarded as a mentor, not because of what he did but because of what he did not do, namely interfere in any unpleasant way. And I certainly want to include my much younger colleague, Professor Larry Ho, whose predictions are sometimes even more accurate than those made using a Kalman filter.

I owe special thanks to the American dream. In my rare and unusual case, the American dream changed a DP into a DP. The first DP is a “displaced person,” and the second is a “Draper Prize” recipient. (Applause) I am, possibly, the only one of some 200,000 DPs admitted to the United States as permanent residents, by special legislation, in the years 1948 to 1951, who has received such a high honor. I said “the only one,” but I am not sure of that. There could be others.

Finally, I thank my parents, who are not here, for giving me such excellent genes, so that I can enjoy this honor at a relatively advanced, but by no means completed, age.

After such heartfelt, but perhaps not newsworthy remarks, I would like to express some strong personal opinions on the subject of research. My definition of research may not be suitable for a media sound bite, but I fully agree with Thomas Watson Sr. (founder of IBM), who noted that “research is not only looking for things but also finding things.” Whatever the definition, my intellectual motivation for a long time, especially after 1958 when I joined RIAS (Research Institute for Advanced Studies) in Baltimore, has been research. So why RIAS? What was RIAS?

In the wake of World War II, people who were eager to return to and continue their research—among them Lefschetz—soon came to the conclusion that basic research cannot be adequately supported by charity alone in the form of large fortunes committed to foundations or university endowments (like the Nobel Foundation, the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, or the then not-yet-existing Inamori Foundation). Instead, the business model for RIAS, which was started in 1955 as a place to do research, basic research, was as an independent nonprofit institution supported by current income (from industry) but not constrained by the bottom line. RIAS didn’t last, but it showed a way. Even after half a century, I am convinced it was an initiative that should be imitated.

The intellectual history of research, basic research, in the Western world begins with Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler and continues with Newton. Newton was a fanatic for research, probably more so than anyone before or after him. His fanaticism was only limited by a brutal objectivity—he forced himself to abandon a line of research when it became clear that he had found nothing.
So here is a message for the younger generation. Research is still the endless frontier, but it is not a frontier that can be traversed without serious effort and a passionate personal commitment. As with Newton, this commitment stems from intellectual ambition and the excitement and pleasure of doing research, irrespective of personal or commercial or financial or military or political or any other rewards. If this appeals to you and think you can do it, I recommend it highly.

My time is up. Thank you all very much.