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President's report focuses on 'unknown'

The unknown, rather than what already has been learned, highlights the annual Report of the President.

"This is a period in American higher education when it is essential that research universities articulate their value to the nation and world," says President Charles M. Vest. "As a result, the discourse about our role in the community often is focused on university contributions that have obvious, widespread and positive impact. Research universities in general, and MIT in particular, have had and will continue to have an extremely strong story to tell in this context. It is inherent in our institutional nature, and we are proud of it.

"These circumstances invariably lead us to highlight our recent accomplishments, discuss current trends in education, and provide indicators of important technology transfer and medical advances-in other words, to talk about what we have already learned," he adds. "Yet as we consider the nature of universities, and as we continue a dialogue with the public, we would do well to remember that the ultimate rationale for supporting a university system derives more from the unknown than the known.

"It is the romance of discovery that draws young people to study and to pursue careers in science," the report continues. "It is the dream of creating entirely new devices, materials and techniques that drives engineers. Humanists and social scientists look for new insights into the human psyche and social systems. Architects and planners seek new aesthetics and systems to enhance the quality of our lives. Management experts explore new principles upon which to organize institutions and the way we work.

"We must teach our students to relate analysis and theory to the practical and the concrete," Dr. Vest says. "However, it is the pursuit of the truly unknown-of principles, insights, materials, and organisms of which we currently have no inkling-that will yield the greatest rewards for a society that invests in education, scholarship and research. New knowledge can advance the human spirit, strengthen the economy and enhance the quality of life."

In preparing the report, Dr. Vest said he asked several members of the faculty to give him their reasons for conducting research-in the form of the questions and puzzles they are seeking to solve. "Even with their contributions," he explains, the report "can offer only a tiny sampling of the countless gateways to the unknown."

This sampling, however, he adds, "offers more than sufficient justification for investing personal energy and public resources in building individual careers and major institutions devoted to education and research."

The report contains questions and puzzles in a wide range of fields, several of which are given below.

The Earth and its Climate

We do not know which classes of earthquakes are predictable.

We don't understand the processes that lead to ground failure, or the interactions among earthquakes and other events that occur along fault systems. We don't know with any reliability how serious an event will occur where and when, which is the level of understanding we need to protect lives and property.

Human Systems and Organizations

We do not know why national economies grow at such different rates, either at a particular moment or over time. We know the likely factors that affect economic growth-education, capital accumulation, national investment in research and development, tax structures, trade policies, regulation, and the basic legal and political structure. The relative importance of these factors and their interactions, however, are not known with any degree of precision, yet governments continue to develop and implement economic policy.

We do not know what the successful organization of the coming decades will look like. Even the most experienced business leaders cannot predict which companies will thrive and which will go under.

Using Information and Information Technology

We do not know what the consequences will be for the nation state of the explosion in networked electronic communications.

The enormous collective bandwidth of the Internet makes it quite unlike the telephone, and it has the potential to create a new kind of "society," an entity in itself. We cannot predict if we will have a society of very local nets, centered around individuals and small groups, or a massive global society.

We do not know how the vast store of instantly available information can or will be understood and used.

Access alone does not assure that information can be located or understood. How can knowledge be gathered from disparate sources and then represented and shaped to enhance our understanding and our ability to use it productively? Can we strengthen our ability to transmit and understand concepts as well as simple facts? Can we better the odds that individuals of different ages, language, experience and culture will be able to assimilate and use the knowledge to which they now will have shared access?

Memory, Language and Thought

We do not know how we learn and remember, or how we think and communicate. We do not yet know the chemical or physical nature of storage of information in the brain. We do not know where in the brain information is stored, how we retrieve it or whether there are limits to the amount we can store.

We do not understand the relationship between language and thought. Can we have thoughts that cannot be expressed in words? Can everything that can be expressed in one language be expressed in any other language as well?

Energy and the Efficient Use of Resources

We do not know how to convert solar energy into practical, cost-efficient fuels for a wide variety of applications, nor do we know how to create advanced fuels for nuclear fission reactors. Renewable, safe alternative sources of energy are critical to our ability to enhance our quality of life while sustaining the quality of our environment.

We do not know how to extract all the energy from existing fuel sources. We know that a certain amount of energy is stored in chemical bonds, but when we burn the fuel to break those bonds, we waste much of the energy emitted as untapped heat and chemical by-products.

Cancer and Health

We do not know all the specific genes whose mutations contribute to the development and progression of cancer, nor do we understand the mechanisms by which they do it. This includes both oncogenes, genes that can cause cancer, and tumor suppressor genes, genes that suppress excess growth and, if absent or damaged, allow tumors to develop.

We do not know how viruses form their elegant, geometric structures from commonly occurring protein building blocks, nor do we understand the role of these structures in the infection process. By applying mathematical methods to analyze viral protein structure, we hope to gain sufficient understanding of the infection process to aid in the development of anti-viral drugs for applications from HIV to influenza.

We do not know how living cells interact with molecules of nonliving materials. The answers to this question hold the promise of making great strides in the development of artificial limbs, organs and tissues.

The Physical Universe

We do not know how old the universe is, what it is made of, or what its fate will be. we do not know if stars other than our own sun have earth-like planets capable of sustaining life and we do not yet have the ability to detect life, or good methods of detecting planets themselves.

We do not know whether antimatter comes from other galaxies. The answer to that question would answer a fundamental question about the origin of the universe.

We do not know how to plan a mission to Mars that would not result in a dangerously unhealthy crew. Current knowledge and experience indicate that available countermeasures such as exercise may not be adequate to offset the deconditioning effects of prolonged weightlessness.

In summary, Dr. Vest notes that these questions-about our physical universe, our social systems, our biological systems-represent the thoughts of only a handful of faculty at one institution. "Such questions cause us to look to the future rather than the past, a particularly appropriate focus for the MIT community and those who would share our adventure."

Recalling that a professor had once remarked that students were always coming to him worried that all the really interesting problems had been solved, Dr. Vest writes, "We must remind ourselves, and the public, that our value to practical concerns like health, economic productivity and national security accrues ultimately from our enthusiasm for mysteries-our readiness, and that of our students, to explore the truly unknown."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 15, 1995.

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