On this day, as you enjoy the fruits of your hard work of many years and receive your doctoral degree, I wish you my heartfelt congratulations. I am sure the journey was a long one. I am sure you faced many hardships. In my own case, even now, decades after the fact, I clearly remember how hard it was. The last few months of dissertation writing were especially hard. While research itself is fun, bringing it all together and turning it into a single dissertation is truly an enormous undertaking. You are to be congratulated for completing it and passing your final defense.
Every year, I offer my congratulations on the occasion of this commencement ceremony. Now that you have formally earned your doctoral degree, I hope you will take a moment to reflect on what it is that you learned through the pursuit of your dissertation research. Through your research, you have tackled new problems in your respective fields, like no one before you; made discoveries, like no one before; and performed analyses, like no one before you. As a result, you have added a single, novel drop to the sum of human knowledge. In that sense, you have made a significant contribution.
Beyond that, however, what new abilities would you say you have acquired through the process of conducting your dissertation research and shaping it into a single dissertation? Compared to who you were several years ago when you first entered Sokendai, as a person, how would you say you have grown?
Since ancient times, humanity has pursued various forms of intellectual inquiry. The resulting sum of accumulated knowledge is vast. In that sense, intellectual inquiry is a joint labor of all humanity; and, as I just said, the results of each individual's research add a single drop to the sum of human knowledge, which may make that work seem like not very much.
Isaac Newton, born in 1642, is a towering scientific figure and often called the founder of modern science. Surely there is no one who has not heard of Newton and his accomplishments. By discovering the law of universal gravitation and laying the foundations of optics, he made significant contributions to modern physics. But have you heard of the physicist Robert Hooke? He, too, was a physicist living in England at the time and is known for Hooke's law of springs. He also used microscopes to observe various things and wrote a book, Micrographia, for which he is well known.
Newton and Hooke lived at the same time and engaged in various debates. Born in 1635, Hooke was seven years older than Newton. Whereas Hooke died at the age of 68 in 1703, Newton lived a long life, to the age of 85 in 1727. Following Hooke's death, Newton became president of the Royal Society and apparently used his power to diminish Hooke's achievements and lessen his reputation. Better to live long, I suppose. Many interesting stories exist about them, so if you are curious, I would encourage you to look into it.
In a letter dated 1676, responding to a question from Robert Hooke about how Newton had arrived at something as wonderful as his law of universal gravitation, Newton wrote, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." While the anecdote became famous, the expression, "on the shoulder of giants," was said to refer to the kind of cumulative progress that is made when the achievements of subsequent generations depend on the accumulated knowledge of those who come before.
But is that really what was intended by the phrase? Whatever Newton's intention at the time may have been, various interpretations have been put forward explaining what he meant. While some have taken Newton's words at face value, interpreting his intended meaning as an expression of humility, others have noted a hidden arrogance: "I alone have risen above those who came before and surpassed the sum of their knowledge, even when no one else has been able to," he seems to imply. Newton appears to have had great confidence in himself, so this interpretation is not necessarily wrong.
As it relates to the nature of scientific progress, there have been various positions taken over the meaning of the expression, whatever Newton's own intentions may have been. One interpretation is that scientific progress depends foremost on the contributions of a small number of scientific geniuses, so-called "giants," while the contributions of the multitude of scholars are not very important. Another interpretation of scientific progress, however, regards the "giants" as the entire sum of the collaborative work of a vast number of scientists that, combined, has created our current foundations, while the upcoming generation of scientists represents those who will stand upon the shoulders of that work to create the "giants" of the next generation.
Which of these two interpretations do you believe to be truer? In my own view, both interpretations have merit. That said, today it is the latter of the two that I want you to think about. None of you here today may be the "giant" of a genius that future generations will remember--though if you are, that will be quite wonderful! Be that as it may, knowing as I do that each of you has reviewed prior research, conducted innovative analyses, and achieved results, I firmly believe that you have already "stood upon the shoulders of giants."
Which is why I want you to ask yourself what is it that you have gained through this process? Is it the case, as Newton is said to have implied, that you could never have stood on the shoulders of giants had you not already possessed some special talent? Or is it perhaps that researchers do not need any particular form of genius to conduct their research? Genius aside, the fact that you successfully completed the enormous work of submitting a doctoral dissertation tells me that you have acquired something new that was not a part of you before. I am asking you to think not about what you possessed from the beginning, but rather about the "something" that you gained by doing this work, and what that something might be. And, once you have, I hope that you will put those abilities to full use in your life to come.
To be sure, it is quite possible that some innate quality is connected to a person's decision to dedicate themselves to doctoral research: the strength of one's curiosity and inquisitiveness, the sense of joy that comes when something can be explained, as opposed to when it cannot. Even so, these are a mere starting point. In the process of conducting your research and turning it into a dissertation, you have gained new abilities that you did not have before. I hope you discover what those abilities are and, as you go forward in life, use them to break new ground, wherever life takes you and whatever it entails.
We live in an age when it is increasingly difficult to build a career as a researcher. On the other hand, the label "researcher" no longer has the narrow definition that it once did. There is more than one way to thrive as a researcher. Obtaining your doctoral degree is a milestone. Do not be confined by the narrow boundaries of your doctoral research. Rather, ask yourself what general abilities you have gained during these past years and in what ways you have grown; be aware them; and put them to use. To the extent that Sokendai provided the environment for you to develop these abilities, all of us at the university are extremely pleased.
Again, my heartfelt congratulations to you all. I wish you all the best in your endeavors to come.
March 22, 2019
Mariko Hasegawa, Ph.D., President