Coming Up With Diamonds

Leo L. Beranek, who received a Ph.D. in applied sciences from Harvard in 1940, recalled that while here, a professor once told him “that discovering something new was like falling down in the mud and coming up with diamonds.”

Engineering, in fact, has long been considered a “dirty” science in homage to the archetypical gears, grime, and grease often associated with it. Thanks to innovators like Beranek, a pioneer of modern acoustics who played a key role in the development of the Internet, the modern digital age changed our very notion of what technology could be: invisible, pervasive, and as clean as silicon.

These days, the field of engineering enjoys a more elevated status—on par with medicine, business, and law—which it has attained by being at the cutting edge of knowledge and by making positive contributions to society. Moreover, advances from the field now underpin almost every aspect of our lives—including the digital cameras you and your parents are no doubt clicking at this Commencement. When you go to post the files on Facebook, a company conceived in a Harvard dorm room, consider that few had heard of social networking at the start of your freshman year.

So indeed, engineering, at Harvard and elsewhere, has come up with a few diamonds. More broadly, the thinking behind and products from engineering now drive the economic engine of our “flattened” world. Over the past decade, I’ve watched the country of my birth, India, become a land of technology developers, and my adopted home continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible.

This past year, applied physicists converted light to matter (and back); an electrical engineer made a microrobotic fly actually fly; bioengineers and public health experts created an inhaled tuberculosis vaccine ideal for the developing world; computer scientists proposed a new type currency using bandwidth; and materials scientists and geoscientists developed an engineered weathering process that could mitigate global warming.

It is easy, of course, to get caught up in the marvels of engineering and its transformative impact. After all, the launch of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) last September was intended to celebrate Harvard’s recognition of the importance of engineering and applied sciences—from advancing knowledge to meeting human needs to enhancing prosperity to ensuring sustainability.

Yet technology is, and has never been, an end or a solution in itself. Building a “mechanical horse” (the automobile) speeded up travel, but also polluted our skies and made us dependent on unsustainable sources of energy. Going online opened up new roads, but, in turn, created new forms of cyber crime and the potential for social alienation.

Given these complexities, SEAS, an organization closely connected to the sciences and increasingly linked to Harvard’s professional schools, has a singular opportunity to help future engineers explore the interplay of technology and society. At the same time, SEAS is positioning itself as a resource to ensure that whatever path students pursue, they do not leave campus “technologically agnostic”.

Weighing the consequences of innovation is not a matter of using less or more technology. All students (especially those of you who will soon leave the Yard) must understand the how and why—that means getting your hands a bit dirty. Is ethanol a practical solution to the energy crisis? Is investing in synthetic biology the best (and most ethical) way to cure disease? Should e-voting become standard practice? How do we balance development with sustainability?

My few examples above are all fundamentally human questions—fit as much for a Shakespeare play as for a physics textbook. I suspect Beranek, now 93, vividly recalled his mentor’s words because they are universally applicable—useful for building a circuit, teasing out a moral dilemma in biotechnology, or confronting global warming.

While the products of engineering have often caused as many problems as they have solved, consider that, for us mere mortals (or Muggles in homage to Commencement speaker J.K. Rowling), engineering is the closest thing to magic that we have. Right now, bits are traveling to and fro like ghosts and mere numbers are being converted into music and images as if evoked by some spell.

I think the deeper point is that engineering is an inevitable expression of our inner drive to imagine and re-imagine. Our goal should be to remain wise enough to channel such passion in positive directions while always considering the broader implications.

A few weeks ago a group of Harvard students from all corners of the globe, and with expertise ranging from economics to engineering, won the World Bank’s Lighting Africa 2008 competition. Their invention of a microbial fuel cell-based lighting system literally creates energy from dirt. The device is intended to provide a reliable and safe means of illumination in a country where roughly only 1/4 of the population has access to electricity.

If that isn’t “falling into the mud and coming up with diamonds” I don’t know what is.

Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti is Dean of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and John A. and Elizabeth Armstrong Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences.


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