2010 Pitt Commencement Address: Meeting Life's 'Grand Challenges'

Issue Date: 
May 17, 2010

John A. SwansonJohn A. Swanson

This is the print version of the May 2, 2010, University of Pittsburgh commencement address delivered by John A. Swanson, a Pitt alumnus, trustee, and John Fritz Medal winner. Swanson, whose founding of ANSYS, Inc., helped revolutionize computer-aided engineering, received the degree Doctor of Science Honoris Causa during the commencement ceremony.

I did give serious thought about [giving this address after I was asked to do so] because I have never done anything like this before. But in thinking about it further, I said to myself, “That’s probably the best possible reason for doing it.” I’d like you to bear that in mind. To say yes [to something like this] opens up a new set of challenges. So if someone asks you to stretch yourself, to do a little bit more—please take advantage of the opportunity.  Also, the best way to learn is to teach. I think many of you have probably found that out already. Nothing gives you a deeper understanding of subject matter than to stand up in front of peers and try to explain yourself and explain your subject to those who, like this audience, are exceptional in their intelligence and exceptional in their learning.

In order to put the talk together, I had to find the theme. After some consideration, I looked at something the National Academy of Engineering has produced. It’s called “The Grand Challenges in Engineering.” I thought, “Why should it just be engineers who have grand challenges? Because most of the challenges combine engineering and philosophy and religion and education and teaching and everything else.” So let’s for a few minutes explore some of these grand challenges.

And I’m going to start large.

Let’s start with the world. When we were in college, we had a poster on the wall that said, “In five billion years, the sun will swallow the Earth.” Doesn’t that make your troubles seem insignificant? Actually, no. My troubles are my troubles. And to me, they are significant. But no grand challenge there. Five billion years—we’re not going to worry about it. We’re just going to let it happen. By then, if we have managed to survive, we’ll be long gone from this humble rock, and we’ll have spread out throughout the universe.

So what is a grand challenge? Well, a grand challenge is not something that happens and turns out to be a big thing. A grand challenge is something that you plan for, that you say, “I have a problem. I need to do something.” It’s also something that’s going to be major. It’s going to affect the world—all of the people in the world. The solution may or may not be obvious. It may be that you know exactly what needs to be done, but you don’t have the will to do it. That’s a case that I call, “You have the way, but the will is weak.” Or you may have the will, but haven’t the foggiest idea what the way might be. Both of those are grand challenges.

Let’s take a couple of examples just to put it into context. First, the invention here at the University of Pittsburgh of the Salk polio vaccine. That was a grand challenge. We knew exactly what the problem was. We knew what the desired goal was. We knew what the schedule was—as soon as possible—because many people were dying of polio.

The moon program was also a grand challenge. It had a stated goal: In this decade we will put a man on the moon. And we did it, and now it’s done. But that was a grand challenge. There are other things that are equally impactful but are not grand challenges.

Take, for example, the Internet. The Internet is transforming all of our lives. But we didn’t plan on that. That’s what happened. Not a grand challenge… but certainly a grand effect.

Or cell phones. Cell phones allow us to talk to anyone in the world at any time. If you were a science fiction buff many years ago, that would have been called “mental telepathy.” It’s exactly the same thing—the ability to communicate with anyone at any time. Whether that’s good or bad, of course, remains to be seen.

So anyway, the world is good. We’ve saved the world.

Let’s move down a step. How about the survival of life? Well, not to worry. Life is very robust. Life is everywhere. If we look in the worst possible environments, life is there. If we look throughout the universe, I’m confident that everywhere we look there will be life. Now, you might ask, “How about intelligent life?” And there is some question as to whether there is even intelligent life here, but assuming there is, I would argue that all life is intelligent. It has the intelligence it requires to meet its own needs. Our life is different as a species because we recognize not only our own needs, but the needs of the rest of our species. And that I think is unique.

If we focus on the survival of the species, where are the grand challenges? And I found just one, and it’s a big one—the problem of nuclear war. Mass annihilation. This has every potential to wipe out our species. And I did not realize how adamant I felt about this until I started putting the words on paper. It is absolute stupidity to maintain vast archives of nuclear weapons. First of all, we’re never going to use them. Secondly, who controls them? And if we look at the Gulf of Mexico, accidents will happen… and we do not want an accident to happen here. The way is clear, the will is weak.

But bear in mind that in that nuclear arsenal is energy—energy which can be made into electricity, energy which can [take a big chunk out of] the so-called energy crisis. So one of our survival challenges is, of course, energy.  And it is a big one because the other challenges such as water and food can be derived if there is sufficient energy. Energy is not a big problem. There is lots of energy falling on this Earth every day. The problem is timing, and the problem is location. No one wants to live in the desert, but the energy is there. So we have network problems. We can solve those. It’s a grand challenge. The end is clear. We have the tools. Let’s go and do it.

Also in the area of the survival of civilization, I would put the grand challenge of disease, things like the bird flu. And if we mention that, let us stop and consider that animals are part of our population. The health we have to look at is the health of the whole system, not just the health of the human species. We have to look at our animal friends and neighbors, because diseases can move back and forth between us. If we are healthy and the animals are not, we are not healthy. So we need to look at a total health system. That is a challenge. People understand it.

Other threats that we see include solar storms. We’ve seen dramatic pictures of the sun with massive flares. We also have the distinct possibility that sometime soon Earth’s magnetic poles will reverse. If they do, the solar storms will strike the Earth in full intensity during that period. We also have the concept of global climate change. Let me tell you for sure, that our climate will change. What we don’t know for sure is which way it’s going. The studies of cyclic weather say we’re entering an ice age. Other studies say the Earth is heating up. The answer, I believe, is let’s plan on change... not on which change. But let’s not build on floodplains. Let’s get the houses away from the seacoast. Let’s do the incremental things that can be done, so that when the earthquake comes or the hurricane comes, the Earth will not be annihilated, that we can pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and go on again.

It would be presumptuous to think, I believe, that we can control the climate. We don’t understand it. But we do understand how to mitigate the effects—and that’s what we must do.

Another challenge, of course, is that even if we do manage to get rid of the nuclear problem, we still have the problem of war and conflict. And an underlying cause of that, unfortunately, seems to be religion. We almost all worship the same God, but somehow that does not seem to be enough. For those of you in philosophy, think about it. Find a way for all of our religions to coexist. The world is too small for us to be as fragmented as we are.

Let’s move down another step, to the survival of our nation. I can talk about this because I am a U.S. citizen. I am proud of it, but I am not necessarily proud of our government. A grand challenge is to balance the federal and state budgets. We cannot continue spending more than we earn. I have to apologize for my generation, because what you are facing in the national debt, you and your children, is abominable. You have your hands tied behind your back and we are imposing upon you the sins of the adults. So please be a little forgiving, accept the challenge, and see if you can dig your way out of the mess that we’ve put you in.

If we had a government of statesmen, we would be in good shape. Unfortunately, we have a government of politicians. And until we can convert politicians into statesmen, the government will not be what we hope for… the government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

I have heard that the most terrifying statement in the English language is “I’m from the government, I’m here to help you.” And the fact that that gives us a laugh gives us some indication of the depth of the problem.

There are some threats to our nation, and the biggest threat is cybersecurity. I’m sure that many of you are aware of that. The Internet has given us access to everything with only a little bit of hacking required to get to some items which are very threatening. We need to solve the cybersecurity problem.

Terrorism is a problem, but I would like to quote the distinguished philosopher Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” The impact of terror is much greater because of what we do than what any of our enemies do. And if you have traveled, you know what I am referring to.

If we move yet [further] up the pyramid of desire, we want to expand knowledge. And I think that the physics people in the audience will understand when I [speak about] the dark energy and dark matter that [are said to be] out there. But they [are said to make up] 75 percent or more of the universe, and they [the physicists] haven’t a clue as to what they [dark energy and dark matter] are. So either there is a great big unknown out there, or somebody’s got the sign wrong in an equation somewhere. And I don’t know which one it is. But there is a challenge there. It’s an intellectual and an experimental challenge, and it is being approached.

Now, as Mark [University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg] pointed out, you in this room, are, first of all, by far the most intelligent group I have ever been able to face, and that makes this a joy. You are also highly qualified to meet these challenges. One of your major qualifications is, of course, that you are or soon will be graduates of the University of Pittsburgh. This is the university that developed the Salk polio vaccine, that is a leader in transplant technology, and that is among the top 10 recipients of federal science and engineering grants. Its graduates have won three Nobel Prizes, two within the last 10 years, and include two Pennsylvania governors, two U.S. senators, three representatives, and innumerable scientists, engineers, and business leaders. You are in great company and you are great company.

Another thing you have on your side is time. Time is very much to your advantage. There are a lot of things you can do. If somebody says it will take 10 years to do that, for you, 10 years is but a portion of your lifetime. Don’t hesitate if someone says it will take a long time. Get started, because the 10 years or the 15 years will go by very quickly. If we start out, the world we see in 10 years will be much improved over the world we see now.

So, use time. Use it to invest in your future. Use it to invest in education—through yourselves. This is just the beginning of your education… not the end. Encourage education for your children. Make sure they get the [instruction] they [deserve]. And support your university. You have received; now is the time to start giving back. I got a scholarship; I would never have been able to get an education without it. My responsibility is to give back and make sure that others have the same opportunity. You do the same.

But some of you… one or two perhaps… will say, “Well, I’m not going to be in a position to address these grand challenges… not in my lifetime.” But I propose to you that your lives are the ultimate grand challenge. This is your challenge, and every single one of you has this challenge: Find a life partner, someone you can live with, and make it work. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Be informed. Learn how to get information instead of just raw data. Form opinions. Discuss those opinions. Be curious. Look at the other field—look at what they are doing versus what you are doing. There’s a lot of cross-information, which is very, very beneficial. Live within your means. You know, you don’t have to outspend everyone else. Be happy. Be comfortable where you are.

When we moved to Florida, it was right after the “chad” election [the election of 2000]. And I said to myself, “I need to get involved.” So I have worked there for many years at the polling places. Get involved in government, even if it’s a small thing. Make sure that you are a part of it and you understand. Work with society. Being a loner is not a good thing. Have friends. Have neighbors. Talk to them. Work with them. Stay healthy. It’s very tempting to just sit at your desk and work all day, [but] as you expand and expand, it’s not your mind that is expanding.

Volunteer. Work with other people. There are needs out there. There are needs that you can work [to meet]. I’m proud of Pitt; a lot of you students have gone out there on volunteer days. Thank you so much.

Now, when troubles come—and they will—a very useful thought is, “This too will pass.” It may hurt, and it may hurt badly. But a week from now, a month from now, it will get better.

So, you have a Pitt education. You are well on your way. Try to make each day a better day. Make the world a little better each day. And I’d like to conclude with—Hail to Pitt!