John Arthur Jacobs convocation address

When I left University, just after I had obtained my Master's degree, the second world war broke out and, after a short spell in industry, I joined the Royal Navy. In common with many other young scientists in Canada and Britain, I lost five years of my scientific life. However the magnitude and urgency of the task before us united people as a whole and sustained effort, hard work and a willingness to work together saw us through. Most of you here to-day were not even born at that time and cannot appreciate what it was like to live through such times. But there are equally vital problems facing us to-day that need just as much effort and co-operation, but whose urgency is not so obvious. Let me mention just a few.


In many areas we are destroying the air we breathe, the rivers, the lakes, the oceans and the land, and the damage we inflict can take years to repair. In some cases we have taken steps to stop these ravages - the improvement in the mining area around Sudbury, Ontario since I first visited it more than 35 years ago is dramatic. World-wide co-operation however is necessary - we may ruin our own land in Canada by driving heavy vehicles in the Arctic, but to stop acid rain fall out, one country cannot do it alone. The factories of Northern England can pollute Scandinavia and industry south of the border in th United States can destroy the rivers, lakes and maple trees of Eastern Canada.


This problem does not affect Canada. We are blessed with an enormous land mass, mineral wealth and agricultural potential. But this does not exempt us from helping to feed and educate the teeming masses elsewhere, particularly in the third-world countries.


This is a scourge that affects so many countries to-day including Canada. We must learn how to put new technology to our advantage and not just cause redundancies. We must also learn how to use our increased leisure time. With the resources in Canada we ought to be able to tackle this problem and be thankful that we have the time to enjoy and appreciate literature, music and the out doors. The key to trying to solve these and many other problems facing us to-day is education.

You don't need me to tell you the value of an education. We live in a highly competitive world and, whether we like it or not, modern technology is changing our lives at an eve r increasing rate. The age into which we are moving is one in which it will be essential to appraise the problems that society faces and which increasingly will have a scientific elements e.g. nuclear power and its risks (Chernobyl), in-vitro human fertilization and AIDS. We must be fully aware of the advance of scientific knowledge and apply it sensibly. This is not possible unless institutions of higher learning have sufficient research facilities in every field whose graduates have received the best possible education we can give them.

When I first joined the Faculty at UBC, its President was Dr. Norman A.M. MacKenzie who fully appreciated this problem. In his report for the year 1961-1962 he said, and I quote,

"I believe that our boys and girls, our young men and women, are our most important and valuable natural resource. I know that formal education, and particularly higher education, can only be acquired during a short period of our life span. If our young people do not get it during this brief period they will "miss the boat" and we will lose the contribution they might have made to Society and to the nation in a permanent way. In this they are not like most of our other natural resources, e.g. oil, gas, minerals, water power and the like, for these when dormant are not wasting assets and their utilization can be postponed. This is not so in the case of the education of young people."

The tragedy is that some governments (in particular that in Great Britain) are starving the Universities of funds and the damage caused is irreversible, and cannot be cured over night. In a recent speech the President of the Royal Society in Great Britain (Sir George Porter) stated that the morale among British scientists had fallen to its lowest point this century and that many o f Britainís best young scientists are going abroad to salaries and research facilities that just don't exist in Britain. Good basic science and engineering are essential to ensure a nation's prosperity but unfortunately many politicians and civil servants fail to understand their importance. In Britain individual universities are having to decide where to cut their scientific activities. Oxford is likely to abolish 140 posts, and Newcastle 120. Hull and the University of East Anglia propose to close their Physics Departments, and Cambridge may close the Department of Applied Biology. Cardiff and Swansea are being forced to amalgamate. I can but hope that Canada and British Columbia in particular, Mr. Minister, do not have to adopt the same disastrous policy.

I have recently returned from lecturing at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics at Trieste, Italy. This was founded by Professor Abdus Salam, the Nobel Laureate from Pakistan who has been its director ever since. The centre now covers a much broader field than theoretical high-energy physics (covering such subjects as management and microprocessors), mathematics and geophysics. The centre was set up mainly to help physicists from the developing countries, and throughout the year courses and workshops are run attended by faculty and graduate students from many countries--India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Argentina, Brazil, the Sudan to name but a few. Last year there were more than 3.000 participants. In addition some 350 associate members, all from the developing countries, are elected for periods of six years at a time and have a standing invitation to return every other year (on a small stipend provided by the centre) for periods between two and four months. Italy is not a rich country, yet it is the largest, single supporter of the centre, now supplying more than 80% of the annual budget. In some countries, as I have already mentioned, governments are not even adequately supporting their own people.

Let me give you one example of the value of pure research - superconductors. At very low temperatures, near absolute zero, materials become superconductors; i.e., they can carry electric currents with no energy loss. In the past there has not been much exploitation of superconductors because of the high cost of liquid helium coolant to achieve the superconducting state. Recently workers in Zurich have found materials which would superconduct at higher temperatures, opening the way for untold developments. Materials which would superconduct at temperatures obtained using liquid nitrogen would themselves be a major breakthrough (liquid nitrogen costs 22 cents a gallon compared to $11 a gallon for liquid helium). These new materials are a completely new type of superconductors and belong to a class of rare-earth ceramics. Small changes in the physical condition or chemical composition can profoundly change the nature of a material. In the absence of a simple explanation of the new results, current research relies on inspired guesswork and empirical extrapolation in the design of new materials. Perhaps some altogether new mechanisms may be responsible for high temperature superconductivity. In Britain, scientists are concentrating on the fundamental physics of the new ceramics.

Their discovery has sparked tremendous activity throughout the world, for the rewards are incalculable. The new materials become superconductors up to temperatures of 100 degrees above absolute zero, and the hope is that others will be found that will superconduct at still higher temperatures, leading the way for their use in high-field magnets, energy storage devices, magnetic levitation, computers and other electronic devices. Hans Kornberg, Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, recently stated that

"if you look back and ask which are the seminal ideas that have really changed the ideas of scientists, such as restriction enzymes or superconductivity, each came from an individual working almost independently. The birth of a new scientific idea is like the birth of a baby - what one woman can do in nine months cannot be done by nine women in one month."

Finally, although I am advocating more support for higher education in general, including the arts and social sciences, and for basic research in science in particular, let us, as individuals, be humble and respect the intellect that we have been born with and which has been nurtured in our universities. Let me quote to you one of my favourite passages from Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientists that ever lived:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.