Illinois Humanities 2016 Public Humanities Award Acceptance Remarks

Walter E. Massey | May 19, 2016

First of all I want to thank the Illinois Humanities Council for this tremendous, and for me unique, honor. I really do cherish it. Also thank you for the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you this afternoon. The past few months have been very eventful and rewarding for me.

In addition to receiving this marvelous award from the Illinois Humanities Council, I am about to conclude my tenure as President of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago this July. Eight years ago I could not have even imagined having such a title, President of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago! I was also delighted to receive word in February that a research facility called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, was able to confirm the existence of Einstein's gravitational waves, one of the most significant discoveries in the history of science. Twenty-five years ago, as Director of the National Science Foundation, I was instrumental in securing the funds for this $205 million project.

So, the Illinois Humanities Council, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Science Foundation—you do not necessarily expect to hear these three institutions mentioned in the same paragraph. Yet there is a common thread between my involvement with each of them, and that is my lifelong belief in the enduring importance of the liberal arts, of interdisciplinary exploration, and of acquiring a broad exposure to as wide a range of ideas and perspectives as possible.

As an undergraduate at Morehouse College, my focus was in physics and mathematics, but some of my fondest memories are of studying music, literature, and "art appreciation" with my faculty mentors. I actually was a musician and briefly contemplated a career as a jazz saxophonist. Indeed, despite having spent much of my professional life in theoretical physics, I have retained a passion for the arts and humanities that has nourished and inspired me in ways that are perhaps difficult to describe, but that I nevertheless know to be true. I have often said that had I not pursued physics I would have been an historian.

But beyond the sheer pleasure of engaging with history and great works of art, thought, and criticism, I am also of the mind that my engagement in the arts and humanities has had other, more direct benefits on my career in the sciences.

The arts, the sciences, and the humanities—although they may represent differences of approach, they are not, as some might have you believe, mutually exclusive. In fact, I would argue that in many ways they are very complimentary.

Take this wonderful quote by Carlo Rovelli, an Italian theoretical physicist whose new book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, I highly recommend. In it, he describes the work of science in the following way: "...before experiments, measurements, mathematics, and rigorous deductions, science is above all about visions. Science begins with a vision. Scientific thought is fed by the capacity to 'see' things differently than they have previously been seen."

Although the methods and materials used are different, you could just as easily say the same of a great historian, philosopher, or literary scholar—of a great musician, sculptor, or painter. The arts, the sciences, and the humanities all come down to "vision," to our shared desire to describe our world and make sense of our experience, and for the great "creators" in any of these fields, there is the desire to "see things differently than they have previously been seen."

As a result, I think it is fair to say that artists, scientists, and humanists can enrich their practices by being open to different modes of thought. Some have argued that Einstein's immersion in the work of philosophers such as Hume and Spinoza expanded the possibilities of his scientific work, while da Vinci's investigations into human anatomy surely played a role in his perfection of the Mona Lisa. In my own case, I believe that my career would have never taken so many satisfying twists and turns if not for my background in the liberal arts, and the openness to new ideas and perspectives it instilled in me.

We are actively pursuing this notion in courses at SAIC that are co-taught by members of our science faculty and studio artists, and with our partnership in the Arts, Science & Culture Initiative, which brings together graduate students in the arts from SAIC with science graduate students at University of Chicago. In order to maintain the creativity I and so many others have discovered through broad-based learning and interdisciplinary exploration, I believe that professionals from across the disciplinary spectrum should speak up more about the value they find in engaging with other fields. I would argue it is especially incumbent upon those of us in the sciences and engineering to speak out on behalf of our colleagues in the arts and humanities, who continue to face unmerited challenges for support and appreciation.

I am sure that most of you here are aware of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences' "Humanities Report Card" from 2013, co-authored by Chicago's own John Rowe. This report rightly spoke to the lasting value of the Humanities in many ways, but in particular for developing good citizens. But it also warned that the humanities need much more public support if they are to flourish and to thrive.

It would truly be an unfortunate development for each and every one of us as individuals, whatever our professional background, if the humanities do not thrive, and would also be very damaging to our society as a whole.

Science has made astounding strides in recent decades, but these advancements do not come without their risks, without profound, and often deeply unsettling, questions, many of which are the province of the humanities, such as experts at many institutions, including in our city: University of Chicago, Northwestern, UIC, DePaul, Loyola, and others.

Consider, for example, recent advancements in the fields of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, just to pick two, both of which raise ethical and even existential questions that simply cannot be answered by scientists alone. Rather, they require the insight of skilled humanists—of philosophers and historians of science—to help us decide which knowledge and which innovations are worth pursuing, and how. Our very own David Spadafora, President of the Newberry Library, notes in an unpublished paper that: "...entirely on their own, the scientifically developed facts do not tell us what we ought to do about the way things are, how to regulate our behavior with other people, what determinations we should make in following or rejecting ethical principles. Nor by themselves do they allow us to make sense of our lives, how to bring meaning into our existence." I agree.

That is why the work of the humanities, and of the organizations that support them such as the Illinois Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities, is so important. Only by supporting critical inquiry into our values and into what it means to be a moral person and citizen can we hope to thrive into the future.

I am optimistic, and do sense that artists, scientists, and humanists have only just begun to figure out how to collaborate in support of each others' valuable, and necessary, work, and the Illinois Humanities Council plays a critical role in making that happen.

Thank you again for this wonderful honor. I intend to refer to myself in the future as Walter Massey, scientist and humanist. It's official. Thank you.