Phi Beta Kappa Dinner
Excerpts of Remarks by Larry R. Faulkner
May 2, 1999
Austin Omni Hotel
Congratulations to the newly inducted members of Phi Beta Kappa. You have been bestowed an honor that will follow you for a lifetime. In fact, now you know how at least one line of your obituary will read.
While academic performance is not the only criterion for election to this august body, it is an important one. Your presence indicates that you have mastered many of the skills required in the pursuit of scholarship--and high grades. Tonight, I'd like to talk about something that may not appear on your final exams, but is even more important. And that is to discover what it is that will capture your interest, excite your passion, gratify your intellect, and nourish your spirit for a lifetime. If you leave this campus without a clue about what I'm talking about, then you have flunked an important test. Fortunately, you can take an "incomplete"--and there's no fixed deadline for finishing. Quite a few of us wander a while before we find the trail and begin the journey in earnest.
Phi Beta Kappa are the initials of the Latin phrase: "Philosophia Biouy Kubernetes." Love of wisdom, the helmsman of life.
I believe that for many people engaged in creative inquiry, love of wisdom may guide, but a powerful fascination is what drives them. A fascination so strong that it may be beyond their control.
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Last fall I gave the Pauling Address at a meeting of the American Chemical Society. The event honored my friend and mentor, UT Professor Al Bard, who received the Pauling Medal for his achievements in chemistry. Like other scientists of my generation, I grew up in a world where Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling represented a larger-than-life figure with a brilliant, far ranging legacy. To me, observing at a distance, he always seemed so focused by fascination.
* * *
This fascination seemed to have seized Pauling at an early age. Thomas Hager, Linus Pauling's biographer, reports that in high school, which Pauling entered at age 12, he shared interests with a boy named Lloyd Jeffress. (Incidentally, Jeffress would later become Professor of Psychology here at The University.) One day, Jeffress showed Pauling his chemistry set and performed an experiment. Jeffress mixed sugar and potassium chlorate together, then added a drop of sulfuric acid. The mixture burst into flame. (This was before product liability lawyers got into chemistry sets.) Pauling later said, "As I think back, what struck me was the realization that substances are not immutable. Here he had sugar and a few chemicals and ended up with a little pile of black carbon. That phenomenon--changing substances into other substances--is what impressed me. In chemistry, things happen. Very striking things." Pauling pointed to this moment as the beginning of his chemical career. "I was simply entranced by chemical phenomena," he said. Fascinated, I'd say too.
Pauling's fascinations led him to a life of achievement in the fields of molecular structure and bonding, the structure of DNA, the effect of diet and nutrition on disease, as well as global politics. He received a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954 and the Nobel Prize for Peace eight years later.
Fascination is its own reward. For example, let me share with you a fragment of a conversation between the late teacher and mythologist Joseph Campbell and journalist Bill Moyers. Campbell was talking about the freedom he experienced as a result of entering the job market in 1929, three weeks before the great Wall Street crash.
"...I didn't have a job for five years," said Campbell. "...That was a great time for me."
Bill Moyers, who is a UT graduate and will be our commencement speaker next year, replied, "A great time? The depth of the Depression? What was wonderful about it?"
"People were so good to each other...." said Campbell. "There was a wonderful old man up in Woodstock, New York, who had a piece of property he would rent out for twenty dollars a year or so to any young person he thought might have a future in the arts. There was no running water, only here and there a well and a pump. He declared he wouldn't install running water because he didn't like the class of people it attracted. That is where I did most of my basic reading and work. It was great. I was following my bliss." Following his fascination.
Joseph Campbell went on to become a distinguished educator and to write The Power of Myth and many other books. What do you suppose an undergraduate advisor might have told Campbell had he asked if there was much of a future in mythology? Could anyone have predicted that he would have become a best-selling author, the subject of an enormously popular series of television programs, and one of the most influential scholars of his era--by retelling familiar stories that are thousands of years old?
Campbell believed that following one's bliss is the key to happiness, and not something reserved for tomorrow, next year, or the great hereafter. He said, "I believe in having as much as you can of this experience while you are still alive."
I'd like to close with one last illustration, a quotation from the opening sentences of the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the renowned Colombian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. The novel begins:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice....The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.
It is my hope that you all have the great gift of enchantment--or fascination. That during your stay at The University, you have discovered the exhilarating magic of a discipline or a calling that for you, is so new, so strange, and so remarkable that its concepts can only be pointed to. If so, you have acquired more than an education--you have reached the trailhead of a great journey.
Congratulations on your achievements. And good luck in finding your own latter-day version of the awe and wonder we all experienced on the day we first discovered ice.