CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Unlike previous MIT commencement speakers, NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin is not president of the United States, secretary general of the UN or even part of the famous radio duo Click and Clack.
But, he points out, "I am a rocket scientist."
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology awarded 2,369 degrees today (June 8) under blue skies at its 135th Commencement exercises. One thousand and sixty-four bachelor's degrees were presented, 1,094 master's degrees, 370 MBAs and 206 doctorates. A total of 2,122 people received degrees because some students receive more than one degree.
Goldin, the main Commencement speaker, wore a white fur cape speckled with black patches over his black graduation gown. He also put on the beanie-like black hat that completes the academic regalia of the University of Padua in Italy, where he recently accepted an honorary degree.
He said that he wore the outfit not as a victim of one of MIT's infamous hacks, but because "I want to give you a visual image. As you lift off from this wonderful institution...you may not remember me. But you will remember the cap and gown."
Predicting things to come
Goldin said that this year's graduates will be among those responsible for "perhaps the most dramatic revolution in the history of humankind."
In the next 50 years, the nano-revolution will make it possible to control technology at the atomic scale, cure diseases, solve global climate change, make sustainable development a reality, and replace traditional technology with systems that mimic biology or integrate biology. "Computers will behave more like the human brain. Airplane wings will adapt to different flight conditions. Systems will be self-sensing and self-correcting," he said.
Goldin received hearty applause when he predicted that in ten to 20 years, "a spacecraft will land ... a hatch will open ... a ladder will drop. The world will watch as an astronaut in a white suit with an American flag at the shoulder steps down and crunches her boot on the dusty red surface of Mars."
He talked about how the discovery of the so-called Mars Rock -- which some believe contains fossilized bacteria that are proof of life that once or still exists on Mars -- kept his father clinging to life for a time.
Goldin said that his father was a Depression-era would-be biologist who worked for the US Post Office. He eventually became a teacher, a career he loved, and was dying of cancer six years ago when his son first received word of the discovery.
"Even though he was weak and dying from cancer, we spoke for over an hour. He was just as excited as I was," Goldin said.
"About a month later, we made the announcement. My father passed away a few days later.
"I can't help but believe what kept my father alive until the announcement was made, in large part, was his lifelong commitment to learning," he said.
Tribute to hacks
In his speech, Goldin paid tribute to the high level of academic and technological achievement for which MIT graduates are known. He spoke about one of his heroes, Galileo, and receiving an honorary degree at the University of Padua in Italy, where Galileo built the first telescope and wrote his book detailing the satellites of Jupiter and the composition of the Milky Way. "In truth, there are 2400 Galileos sitting right in front of me."
Goldin also paid tribute to one recent hack and two old ones -- the big black 48-unit "anvil" perched on the dome a few weeks ago, one in 1982 in which MIT students launched a weather balloon (and, eight years later, a rocket) from the field during a Harvard-Yale football game and one in which the door to the MIT president's office was covered over in 1990.
"That the winner of the Harvard-Yale game every year is MIT tells me that you have the imagination and ingenuity thing covered. And that MIT students once made their president's office disappear says that you have audacity to spare," he said.
"Go with imagination, ingenuity and audacity. Explore, discover, change the world, and have fun while you're doing it."