Tom Brokaw, longtime managing editor and anchor of NBC Nightly News, recently visited the Institute to address the MIT community, urging students to use technology wisely.
“It will do us little good to wire the world if we short-circuit our souls,” he told a crowd of more than 300 who packed MIT’s Kirsch Auditorium.
“We see temperatures going up, ice caps and rainforests disappearing, and energy becoming more scarce and more expensive,” he said. “We have the technology to deal with all of these life-altering developments. But we can never forget that we also need people who will use that greater technology for the common good.”
Brokaw’s speech, Life is Not Virtual, was part of MIT’s Karl Taylor Compton Lecture Series, a lectureship that began at the Institute 51 years ago to honor Karl Taylor Compton, MIT’s ninth president who led the institution from 1930 to 1948 through the Great Depression and World War II. He was also chairman of the MIT Corporation from 1948 to 1954, the year he died.
The Compton lectures are the oldest and best known of MIT’s lectureships. From the start, the role of the series has been “to bring to MIT some of the great minds on the world scene.”
Over the years, the series has brought speakers to campus from the fields of science, technology, public affairs, education, and the arts. The great physicist and Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr gave the first of the Compton lectures, while other speakers have included Dr. Linus Pauling, who won the Nobel Peace Prize; Hubert Humphrey, thirty-eighth vice president of the United States; and last year, U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA).
Introducing Brokaw to the crowd, President Susan Hockfield said that as longtime anchor of NBC Nightly News, Brokaw “was truly an anchor for the nation, a wise, unwavering, trusted voice that helped us make sense of the world, from NATO air strikes in the former Yugoslavia to the vagaries of our presidential politics to the incomprehensible facts of September 11th.”
Hockfield went on to say that Brokaw “reported from the scene of the fall of the Berlin wall, from the Oklahoma City bombing, and from the tragedy of TWA Flight 800.” She added that Brokaw, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Television Hall of Fame, has “iconic status in American life.”
Taking the podium amid thunderous applause, Brokaw told the MIT community, “I am in awe of this institution…and the extraordinary young people, faculty, administration…and the work you’re doing, not just for the institution…but on behalf of the nation.
“…We are living in the midst of the most transformational technology that I can possibly imagine. What is particularly intriguing to me is that we are at the dawn of this new age, on the cusp of the era of technology. We’re in the seminal stages of what I call the second Big Bang, when a new universe is being formed just as our physical universe was formed by the first Big Bang.”
Urging that “life is not a virtual experience,” he told students that “if we develop capacity and leave out compassion, what is the reward?”
He went on to tell of a young doctor from Oklahoma he met in Somalia, who amid mortar fire in the middle of the night, stood in a surgical tent operating on a Somali child badly wounded by fragments. Brokaw asked if he were afraid, and the doctor said yes. “Then why are you here?” Brokaw asked. And the doctor replied: “God gave me these abilities. I’ve got a mountain of medical school debt back home, but I thought I should use these talents as best I can…to save poor children like this little girl.”
Brokaw also recalled a young Chinese student who stopped him “in the back alleys of Beijing at the time of Tiananmen Square and described the hopes of his generation for human rights and political rights in that country.”
He also recalled a New York fire captain whom he met “in the bowels of the World Trade Center at Ground Zero just eight days after the Twin Towers were brought down,” who was looking for the men who worked for him.
“These are the young and old…unhinged from the comfort of their home, willing to put their boots on the ground and put their hands in the dirt and spend their nights in scary places to make this precious planet a better place for all of us.”
Brokaw told the audience that “the possibilities are limitless for good, but they are equally great…for distortion, fraud, and anarchy. At the end of the day in this breathtakingly exciting time in which we’re living, most of all what is required of those of us who live in this privileged society is a recognition that we have a moral and intellectual commitment to leave this precious planet a better place than we found it.”
While we all have cell phones and PDAs, he said, and we can all be wired or go wireless, “these tools after all should always be an extension of our hearts as well as our minds, and they should be an extension of the legacy that we want to leave. We serve our time and our fellow citizens around the world best by loving our mother — Mother Earth.”