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Inaugural Concert
Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, N.Y.

Friday, October 3, 2008


Thank you, Chairman Heffner, and thank you all for being here on this exciting evening, in this very magical place, a place that is already being seen, and heard, and felt, in an extraordinary way. Let me explain.

Last week, the 2008 MacArthur Fellows were announced by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation – these are the so-called “Genius Awards,” for individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits. Among this year’s recipients was Jennifer Tipton, the acclaimed stage-lighting designer known for her body of work for dance, theater, and opera.

We know Ms. Tipton well, because in January, we invited her to create a lighting design for the exterior of EMPAC, to announce it to the world. In all of her years as a lighting designer, she had never done anything like this before, and we had no instructions for her. She let her imagination play, creating a light sculpture of mysteriously shifting forms and colors, that slowly changed in unexpected ways. Over several weeks the display became the talk of the town, and I am certain that this spirit of adventure and freedom, of belief in what is possible, was part of what the MacArthur Foundation saw in her potential to create even more inventive light forms in the future.

In fact, the aims of the MacArthur Fellows program are very like our own aims for Rensselaer, and for EMPAC – this astounding instrument that we debut this evening, because in both cases we are encouraging people of outstanding talent to pursue their creative, intellectual, and professional desires. The MacArthur award-winners include scientists and historians, artists and composers – and the awards are an investment in originality, insight, and potential – so that they, ultimately, will exercise their creativity for the benefit of humankind.

In that spirit, we, too, at Rensselaer seek individuals who have the ability to transcend traditional boundaries, who are willing to take risks, who will persist in spite of obstacles, and who can synthesize disparate ideas and approaches. The world today – and tomorrow – will demand no less of creative thinkers.

We began our celebration this morning with a colloquy entitled “Photons, Sound Waves, and Data Bytes – Creativity at the Nexus of Science, Technology, Media and the Arts.” Our discussion highlighted the need for the kind of “out of the box” thinking that occurs at the boundaries of disciplines, and at the leading edges of discovery.

We need people who think this way, so that we will be able to solve the complex challenges that face the world. We need approaches that incorporate new tools and new ways of thinking across the spectrum of the sciences, technology, and the arts, and at their nexus.

What the arts can bring to this process is the intangible – because we cannot quantify inspiration. The pathways of the human mind remain in great measure unexplored. Yet, there is research being done in neuroscience that attempts to explain insight – that moment when an artist, or a scientist, or an engineer says, “Aha! I’ve got it!”

Such moments are not merely a function of the right side of the brain, or the left side, but rather, they involve an intricate dance across the cortex. Although an insight seems to come from nowhere, the brain carefully prepares itself for such a breakthrough.

First, the parts of the brain involved with executive control activate, and the brain starts “computing” – looking for answers in all the relevant places, across the cortex. When it “finds” the answer, or the insight, there is a spike of gamma rhythm, the highest electrical frequency generated in the brain. It is thought that this comes from the binding of neurons, as cells distributed across the cortex draw themselves together into a new network, which is then able to enter consciousness. So an insight, then, seems to require the brain to make a set of distant and unprecedented connections. I believe this is a quite suitable metaphor for what we are trying to achieve at Rensselaer with the synthesis of ideas across disciplines.

Now – what is even more interesting, and fits intuitively with what we already believe: as the insight develops, the brain first focuses attention on a single problem; but then, the cortex has to relax in order to seek out the more remote associations in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. This relaxation phase is crucial, which is why so many of our insights happen while absorbing a beautiful sunset, or experiencing the beauty of music or art.

So while we know that EMPAC will be a powerful instrument for science and technology, for the visualization of scientific problems, it is also an artistic venue, designed for the senses. It is a bridge between the quantifiable – the photons, the sound waves, and the data bytes that are the “stuff” of science and technology – and the unquantifiable – the beauty, the wonder and the mystery – that bring a sense of the divine – that the arts inspire in us.

Tonight, I hope we will experience here, together, something that is greater than all of us. Thank you so much for being here to launch this dream into reality.

It is my pleasure, now, to introduce to you the man who already has been inspired by our vision for the arts and technology – our benefactor, Curtis Priem, Rensselaer Class of 1982.


Source citations are available from Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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