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Your Inner Spark (10 a.m. Summer 2010 Commencement Address)

  • Date: 08/14/2010
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall, Akron
  • There is an old saying: "The proof is in the pudding."

    While there are several suspected origins, one of the likely sources is Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote de la Mancha, first published in 1615.

    His exact phrase translates best as "The proof of the pudding is the eating," which most often is interpreted to "mean that the true value or quality of something can only be judged when it's put to use." Until then, it has no ‘proof'; no true measure of its value associated with it. 1 

    Indeed, actions do speak louder than words.

    Many of you have heard me say that The University of Akron is a place where you can dream and dare and do the things that it takes to change the world. And that is because dreams are simply adventures waiting to happen.

    In a few moments, we will honor an individual who put his dreams into action – Mr. Philip Kaufmann, chair emeritus of our Board of Trustees.  Mr. Kaufmann’s selfless dedication and determination have made him an admired and respected leader, not only for this University, but for the community as well.

    Often, you see, it is sheer determination that separates people like Phil Kaufmann from the competition.  And it is that same inner spark that helped you earn your degree and the opportunity to walk across this stage.

    That inner spark has driven many ordinary people to do extraordinary things, as evidenced by an unlikely hero – a sickly and academically inept Frenchman named Jean-Bernard-Leon Foucault.

    One of the last great amateur scientists, Jean Foucault beat the odds to become one of the most versatile experimentalists of the 19th Century.

    While hardly a household name, his discoveries not only helped change the world, but also helped us to better understand how the world turns.

    Home schooled during his early education, Foucault went on to obtain a Bachelor of Arts degree. He then entered medical school, only to discover that he could not stand the sight of blood.

    Yet, he showed great promise in mechanics. And while his mathematical and scientific training were deficient, he increased his knowledge as he became more interested and more proficient in invention and experiment.

    However, he was shunned by those in the French scientific community of that time. Indeed, he was an outsider looking in.

    One biographer described Foucault as "...a ‘science irregular.'" His only means of support was a job reporting on the discussions of the French Academy of Sciences. His great aspiration in life, aside from conducting his experiments, was to become a member of that academy. But for academicians, who addressed each other as ‘Cher Confrere Savant,' an uneducated science irregular was not an attractive candidate." 2

    However, his battle for recognition and respect took an interesting turn in 1851, when he devised one of the cleverest experiments in the history of science.

    While conducting research in his basement, Foucault noticed that when he put a pendulum in motion, it slowly and regularly changed direction over time. He realized that it wasn't the pendulum that was rotating. Rather, it was everything else – the floor...the building...in fact, the Earth itself.

    He was on to something big! He had solved an age-old scientific problem with which scientists had been struggling as far back as the 4th Century B.C. While confident that the Earth rotated on its axis, no one could actually prove it despite many attempts to do so by various means over many centuries.

    But now that Foucault had found proof that the earth rotates on its axis, how could he, a science irregular, convince the established scientific community to review his discovery?

    Well in this case, the proof was in the marketing.

    He issued the following invitation to members of the academy: "You are invited to come to see the Earth turn, tomorrow, from three to five, at Meridian Hall of the Paris Observatory."

    In preparing his experiment, Foucault used a 61-pound bob, which is the mass at the end of the pendulum’s cable. He suspended the bob from the ceiling of the Pantheon at the Paris Observatory using 220 feet of cable attached to a special device that would allow it to move freely. The longer cable and the heavier bob permitted the pendulum to swing slower and with less interference.

    He then traced its path using a ring of wet sand on the floor of the observatory. For the next 24 hours, the pendulum left traces in the sand about three-fourths the way around the circle, demonstrating the first visible proof that the Earth rotates.

    Indeed, the Foucault pendulum, as it has come to be known, had the desired effect upon the scientific community.

    "What was a surprise to the academicians – and maybe more scientifically important than the pendulum experiment itself – was that Foucault, using a function from trigonometry had worked out the law by which the pendulum's precession changed with latitude: 24 hours divided by the sine of the latitude." 3

    And now, he had gotten the attention of scientists, but more importantly, he captured the admiration of the emperor Louis Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte.

    Napoleon III, who set in motion the industrial modernization of France, created for Foucault the position of Physicist Attached to the Imperial Observatory.

    Foucault's legend grew, as did the range and breadth of his work. Among his many inventions and discoveries were the gyroscope, which also shows the earth's rotation; the detection of eddy currents in electric and magnetic fields; and the proof that light travels faster in air than in the denser medium of water. He also made improvements to the mirrors used in reflecting telescopes, which are still available today.

    Indeed his work answered many of science's age-old questions and opened avenues of new discoveries as well.

    Foucault's determination paid off in 1865, shortly before his death, when he finally was accepted into the French Academy of Sciences, which had been his dream.

    Within each of us is that same inner spark that helped drive Foucault's discoveries.

    I encourage you to pursue your dreams as diligently as you have pursued getting to this day of commencement, to never underestimate your abilities, and to reach for the uncertain rewards of never giving up, because even setbacks are instructive.

    Indeed, in the words of German poet Goethe, "Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, power, and magic to it. Begin it now"

    The proof is in the pudding.



    1. Word-detective.com, 8/11/2000 and Bartlett's Familiar Quotations 10th Edition

    2. Finkbeiner, Ann, "Getting the Swing of It,” Pendulum, The Wall Street Journal, August
      28, 2003, p. D18

    3. Finkbeiner, Ibid
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