2003 Founders Award Recipient Acceptance Remarks

The 2003 Founders Award was presented to Carver A. Mead, Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, Emeritus, California Institute of Technology, for “visionary contributions in the field of microelectronics, including VLSI technology and computational neural systems.” These remarks were delivered on October 12, 2003, during the NAE Annual Meeting.


It is wonderful to be here with old friends and new friends. I very much appreciated Bill's talk earlier about engineering education, something into which I have put a large part of my life.

My students often asked me what the difference is between engineering and science. We were out in the research laboratory trying to figure out what was true. I always told them that “engineering is the stuff that works out in practice.” When you are doing research, you really don't know what will work out. Of course, things that don’t work in the lab don’t work in the real world, but things that do work in the lab often take a long time to work out in the real world. In my experience, it takes about 20 years from the time we can do something routinely in the research lab until it becomes common industrial practice. If you think about it, that is really too long. That length of time includes the time it takes students to learn how to do something, to have confidence in their ability to do it, to get out into companies, to rise through the ranks and become decision makers in the companies, and then to decide to use those techniques to contribute to real-world solutions. I think we are developing faster ways to get knowledge from our research universities into industrial practice, and there has been progress. But there needs to be a lot more.

Bill didn't mention one of the most fundamental problems in engineering education, so let me touch on it briefly. The amount of fundamental knowledge being generated by the research community is doubling every few years. Yet, we have only 16 to 20 years to train a student to be a member of the engineering workforce. The explosive growth in the number of facts, in the amount of information that it takes a student to master a technological field, and the limited number of years to educate students creates a fundamental issue. The default solution, of course, is specialization. We keep teaching more and more about less and less until finally we are teaching everything about nothing! That is one solution, but I don’t think it will make for a viable society in the long term.

Another, much slower and more imperceptible process, will make for a viable society. That process is the quest to see facts, not as isolated facts but as part of constellations of facts, to see any given fact as an aspect of a much larger fact. Science and engineering share the quest for a viewpoint into which facts can be integrated effortlessly, and things that were hard to remember become obvious. Fire is a chemical reaction, not a separate element. The planets revolve around the sun under the influence of gravity, not by the action of a flock of invisible angels. The atoms of all elements are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. These same electrons are the carriers of electric current. Electricity and magnetism are two manifestations of the same underlying properties of electrons. We have all come to take these insights for granted, and we seldom honor the ongoing process of unification and simplification that led to them.

I have spent a lot of my energy through the years trying to build frameworks of understanding that make otherwise obscure facts obvious. In my view, it is the only sustainable route to a bright future. In a very deep way, it is a fundamental quest that makes us uniquely human. I am very honored to receive the Founders Award today, and I accept it as honoring the process of building frameworks of understanding that make otherwise obscure things obvious.