Nanotech for the common man:
Make science simple, actor says

Click here to enlarge image

PASADENA, Calif. — “Take just one thing that you love about science and, no matter how complicated it is, figure out how to make it understood by a million people,” actor Alan Alda proposed to about 500 graduates Friday during his commencement speech at the California Institute of Technology.

Regardless of whether graduates take Alda up on his challenge, there will be more science for them to explain because funding has flowed into Caltech.

On the northwest corner of the campus, the Broad Center for the Biological Sciences is near completion. The building will be dedicated in September, according to Benjamin Rosen, chairman of Caltech’s board of trustees.

Click here to enlarge image

The building is the cornerstone of a $111-million initiative to strengthen Caltech’s research in the biological sciences, including nanobiotechnology.

As one example of the link between nanoscience and biology, James Heath, acting director of the California NanoSystems Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles and UC Santa Barbara, is leaving UCLA next year for a teaching and research post at Caltech. Building “an immune system on a chip” is his lab’s new challenge, Heath told Small Times recently.

The Broad Center is named for Eli Broad, Caltech trustee and Los Angeles business and civic leader, and his wife, Edythe. The Broads provided $23 million for the 120,000-square-foot building, which will include laboratories and offices for 10 to 12 new research teams working in such areas as structural, behavioral and computational biology.

In addition, Caltech last year received two gifts totaling $600 million, half from Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore and his wife, Betty, and half from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

“By far the largest gift ever given to any academic institution,” Rosen said. “Its effect on the institute will be enormous.”

Moore is widely known for “Moore’s Law,” which he formulated in 1965. The law stated that the number of transistors the semiconductor industry would be able to place on a chip would double every year, a trend he forecast would continue through 1975. In 1975 he updated his prediction to once every two years.

Gordon Moore was unable to attend commencement ceremonies Friday, and missed what Rosen described as a “mildly historic” moment. Alda was the first actor to ever give a commencement address in Caltech’s 108-year history, Rosen said.

Alda was there because he portrayed the physicist Richard Feynman in the play “QED.”

The play, which premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and concluded its run at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York on June 10, takes place in Feynman’s office at Caltech where he was a professor for 38 years.

“What part of him do you focus on?” asked Alda, who spent more than six years on a “maddeningly hard” journey to discover who Feynman was.

“He helped create the atomic bomb, he helped figure out why the Challenger blew up. He understood the most puzzling questions in physics so deeply that they gave him the Nobel Prize. Which facet of him do you let catch the most light? The revered teacher? A bongo player? An artist? The hilarious raconteur?”

In the end, Alda said it was a mathematician friend who suggested “just as Feynman saw a photon as taking every possible path on its way to your eyes, Feynman himself took every possible path through life.”

One path led to nanoscience. Feynman predicted the age of nanotechnology in 1959 during a lecture at Caltech. His talk, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” outlined the concept of moving individual atoms around to build molecules.

Alda asked the black-gowned graduates on a sunny day in Pasadena to “share science with the rest of us.” And, to share it as Feynman did.

One constant in Feynman’s travels, Alda said, was his honesty. “He never wanted to deceive anyone, especially himself. He questioned his every assumption. And when he was talking to ordinary people about physics — people with no training in physics — he never fell back on his authority as a great thinker. He felt if he couldn’t say it in everyday words, he probably didn’t understand it himself.”

Feynman “wasn’t interested in dumbing-down science,” Alda said. “He was interested in clarity. If he left something out, he told you about it … so you didn’t get a false picture of a simplicity that wasn’t there.”

There was another part of the equation. “Share your love of science with the rest of us. But just not because explaining to us what you do will get you more funding for what you do. Although it surely will,” he added. “But just because you love what you do.”


Easily post a comment below using your Linkedin, Twitter, Google or Facebook account. Comments won't automatically be posted to your social media accounts unless you select to share.