Statements to the Community

More Wondrous Than You Know (2013 Spring Commencement Ceremony Saturday Afternoon)

Dr. Luis M. Proenza
President, The University of Akron
E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
May 11, 2013

Many of you will begin professional careers following graduation, while others here will take their careers to new heights with advanced degrees.  In either case, you will begin your work with great excitement and enthusiasm, in part because it is novel and new, but also because this is the future you have claimed for yourself.

It is what you have sacrificed for . . . what you have prepared for.

Many of you will be continually motivated by the challenges and achievements of your career.  We will shortly present honorary degrees to two such individuals, Dr. Nicholas A. Cummings and Mrs. Dorothy Mills Cummings.  Their enthusiasm and advocacy for what they believed in propelled them on a lifetime journey of commitment and accomplishment.  

For others, however, the passing years may make it more difficult to sustain the sense of eagerness and commitment you presently feel.  But take heart.  As graduates of the College of Health Professions, you have an advantage.

While your peers in other disciplines likely will need to reach further than you to find meaning in their work, humanity is your stock in trade.  Your immediate goals will be to restore, preserve and improve the health and well being of others.  For many of you, this will mean daily interaction with people whom you will directly benefit.  Therefore, the final lesson I wish to share with you is not one of understanding, but one of wonder.

The 1993 epic film, “Schindler’s List,” popularized a saying found in the Talmud, one of the central texts of Judaism: “Whosoever saves a single life, it is as though he saves the whole world.”[i]

Some skeptics may claim this saying is too broad in scope. I tell you, if there is anything amiss with this sentiment, it is that it is too narrow.

Science demonstrates that indeed, whosoever saves a single life, it is as though he saves the whole…universe.

Consider these words from Neil Shubin, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Chicago: “…our own bodies contain the story of the universe and the planet.”[ii]

In his fascinating new book, “The Universe Within,” Shubin explains how the very atoms that make up each of our bodies can be traced back to the Big Bang.[iii]  The very molecules that are so busy right now with the myriad tasks needed to keep us alive, can also be found in the formation and maturation of the Earth.[iv]

He writes, “Seeing our connections to the natural world is like detecting the pattern hidden inside an optical illusion.  When you learn to view the world through this lens, bodies and stars become windows to a past that was vast almost beyond comprehension.”[v]

Another author, Bill Bryson, wrote even more elegantly on this subject in his book, “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”

“… the atoms that so liberally and congenially flock together to form living things on Earth are exactly the same atoms that decline to do (so) elsewhere.  Whatever else it may be, at the level of chemistry life is curiously mundane: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, a little calcium, a dash of sulfur, a light dusting of other very ordinary elements – nothing you wouldn't find in any ordinary drugstore – and that's all you need.  The only thing special about the atoms that make you is that they make you.  That is, of course the miracle of life."[vi]

"Whether or not atoms make life in other corners of the universe, they make plenty else; indeed, they make everything else.  Without them there would be no water or air or rocks, no stars and planets, no distant gassy clouds or swirling nebulae or any of the other things that make the universe so usefully material."[vii]

If that thought isn’t staggering enough, consider this from Bryson.

“…the fact that you have atoms and that they assemble in such a willing manner is only part of what got you here.  To be here now, alive in the 21st century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune.  Survival on Earth is a surprisingly tricky business.  Of the billions and billions of species of living things that have existed since the dawn of time, most – 99.99 percent – are no longer around.  Life on Earth, you see, is not only brief but dismayingly tenuous.  It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it."[viii]

"Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favored evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely – make that miraculously – fortunate in your personal ancestry.  Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth's mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so.  Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result – eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly – in you."[ix]

And what is true of you, is true of every patient who will come into your care.

Whosoever saves a single life, it is as though he saves the whole universe.

I will conclude by sharing with you a quote by George Wald, a scientist who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the role of Vitamin A in vision.

He wrote the following words, which I hope will resonate in your minds as profoundly as they do in mine.

"Surely this is a great part of our dignity…

That we can know, and that through us matter can know itself;

That beginning with protons and electrons, out of the womb of time and the vastness of space…

We can begin to understand;

That organized as in us, the hydrogen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the oxygen, those 16 to 21 elements, the water and sunlight –

All, having become us

Can begin to understand what they are,

And how they came to be."[x]

Once again, for this bears repeating:

"Surely this is a great part of our dignity…

That we can know, and that through us matter can know itself;

That beginning with protons and electrons, out of the womb of time and the vastness of space…

We can begin to understand;

That organized as in us, the hydrogen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the oxygen, those 16 to 21 elements, the water and sunlight –

All, having become us

Can begin to understand what they are,

And how they came to be."[xi]



[i] Folio 37a, Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin. www.come-and-hear.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_37.html

[ii] “Neil Shubin on ‘The University Within.’” Laidman, Jenni. Chicago Tribune. Jan. 22, 2013. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-01-11/news/ct-prj-0113-universe-within-neil-shubin-20130111_1_plate-tectonics-universe-planet

[iii] Shubin, Neal. The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets and People. Pantheon Books, division of Random House Inc., New York, NY. 2013.

[iv] Kean, Same. “Seeing Ourselves in a Grain of Sand.” January 11, 2013. The Wall Street Journal. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323936804578227662261445542.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

[v] Kean, Ibid.

[vi] Bill Bryson. A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003.

[vii] Bryson, Ibid.

[viii] Bryson, Ibid.

[ix] Bryson, Ibid.

[x] Wald, George, quoted in: Philip Ball, Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water, June 2000, p. 3

[xi] Wald, Ibid.

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