Darleane Hoffman, Professor in the Graduate School, gave the commencement address. In the first half, she focused on the great strides taken by women in the field in the last 50 years, noting that when she graduated in 1951, very few women studied chemistry. Now, nearly 30 percent of this year's graduating class are women, but "many problems remain to be solved, not just by women, but by men and women working together." Here are some excerpts from her speech.
...I have considered, from the perspective of 50 years after my own graduation, what I could say that might be of value to you...what are some of the warnings you should heed, and what are the major challenges you will face on your journey to "Fifty Years Later"?
First, I see a general deepening of the rift between scientists and the lay public and a deterioration in the quality of our public education system, especially at the K through 12 level. In the late '40s and early '50s, we felt that almost all ills could be solved by education, and science and technology were perceived by most as prime contributors to the general well being. Now there seems to be a distrust of science in general and a tendency to blame all our ills on the rapid advances in science and technology. Chemistry has not been exempt from this distrust, evidenced by the current advertisements of "all natural foods, no added chemicals, etc." As though "chemicals" were somehow unnatural and bad. This has been particularly true in my field of nuclear and radiochemistry: just mention the words "nuclear" or "radiation" and a large number of us recoil in terror. Even Berkeley and Oakland have declared themselves "nuclear free" zones—never mind that we are all radioactive with "natural" Carbon-14 and Potassium-40, as are the foods we consume...
Another example which is especially disturbing to me is that in the late '40s and early '50s, atomic energy, harnessed for peaceful uses, was seen as providing an unlimited, renewable source of energy which would eliminate the need for the belching smoke and pervasive pollution of coal-fired power plants. And, indeed, today, some 70% of the electrical power in France and about 20% in the U. S. comes from nuclear power, but now in some groups there is an almost religious fervor to stamp out anything nuclear.
Somehow, we need to find better ways of communicating with nonscientists and other scientists outside our own discipline. More teachers capable of teaching science and the scientific method and showing the relationships to our everyday life are needed at the elementary levels. They are needed not only to teach potential physical and biological scientists, but to teach potential journalists, sociologists, economists, political scientists, as well as those who may never pursue their formal education past the 12th grade. In our increasingly technological society, it is essential to have an electorate capable of making rational and informed choices, if our democratic society is to survive.
Another potential danger is our often enthusiastic abrogation of all responsibility for our own actions, and our expectations that the "government" should and will protect us from every possible mishap that might befall us, that if something bad happens it must be somebody else's fault. We have become a litigious society sometimes to the point of paralysis. Government regulations and bureaucracy are proliferating at an astounding rate. We used to worry about a "corporate" world peopled by "corporate" men. Now we worry about "big" government, peopled with bureaucrats who more and more control all facets of our daily lives.
Although our "humanness" has not yet been destroyed, we should contemplate the astounding developments of our current computerized society that make it so easy to compile dossiers on each of us which can be stored and utilized by a wide variety of both government and private organizations. It gives new meaning to Orwell's "Big Brother is Watching You" concept!
The only thing I can feel rather certain about, based on my experiences over the last 50 years since my "Commencement," is that your challenges will not be the ones that are foreseen in either the "Doomsday" or the "Pollyanna" scenarios that are getting the most attention today. Technologies we cannot even envision now may develop very quickly and revolutionize the way our society operates just as computer technology has in the recent past.
In spite of all of the uncertainties, you must set goals and make plans for the future. But you must also remember to be somewhat flexible, as you cannot expect the world around you to remain the same. The education you have acquired and your knowledge of the scientific method have prepared you to assess, analyze, and respond appropriately to new opportunities and challenges.
Finally, you must recognize that as scientists and engineers, you have a special responsibility—you have the knowledge, the ability and the opportunity to shape the world of the future either for good or for ill. I wish you fulfilling lives and "Bon Voyage" on your journey to "Fifty Years Later."