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Michel Rappaz honorary doctoral degree addressJune 18, 2019

Michel Rappaz, a globally recognized leader in materials science, received his honorary doctoral degree from McMaster Engineering on June 14. This is what he wanted the Class of 2019 to know.

Madam Chancellor, President Deane, honoured guests, graduands, family and friends:

This is a great honour to receive this honorary degree from a prestigious university, known all around the world, in particular in the field of metallurgy with renown professors such as Dave Embury and Gary Purdy. I would like to thank the members of the Senate of McMaster as well as all the scientists who recommended my candidacy. I really appreciate it.

This honorary degree of Doctor in Science is being given to me, precisely the day that women in my home country have a one-day strike and are manifesting in order to have the same rights as men. Indeed, at least in Switzerland, the average salaries of women, the number of women as CEO or as administration board members still show that there is a large margin of improvement.

Therefore, I am very glad to see that the other honorary degree given today, this afternoon in the field of physics, is attributed to Professor Donna Strickland, from the University of Waterloo. Nobel prize winner in 2018 with Gérard Mourou, she has been recognized for her contribution to the development of chirped pulsed lasers. Congratulations to her.

Michel Rappaz.

To address a few words to all the graduands who receive today a master or a doctorate degree, I would like to take an example of a genius of the fifteen century. This example, and I am sorry for women but at that time the situation of women was much different than it is today, is that of a man: Leonardo da Vinci. Why? First of all, because we celebrate this year the 500thanniversary of his death in Amboise- France. But mainly because he was really a genius and is still remembered 500 years later for his paintings and his creative inventions.

He was born on April 15, 1452, from an out-of-marriage relationship between Piero da Vinci (successful notary in Firenze) and Caterina Lippi, the daughter of a poor farmer and orphan at the age of 14 living in Vinci. Although illegitimate relationships were quite well accepted at that time, Leonardo with his status was not sent to a Latin school and thus did not study classic humanities, arts and literature. Should he have studied Latin, he would probably have become a notary like his wealthy father and would not have become a renowned artist, inventor and a scientist well ahead of his time

With just a rudimentary basis of arithmetic and reading, Leonardo was essentially a self-made man and independent thinker. Combining theory, experimental observations and published knowledge at the beginning of the Renaissance, he was a pioneer of modern science.

Curious about nearly everything, he had an acute sense of observations — not only to improve his paintings but just for the pleasure to discover.

From anatomy to fluid dynamics, from optics to geometry, from architecture to perspective rules, from the observation of animal movement to physiognomy, he has concealed all of his observations in small notebooks. Unfortunately, he kept his notes just for him and they were rediscovered only many centuries later. Of course, at that time, the h-index factor of publications did not exist!

Michel Rappaz.

To make the story short, which is difficult with a genius such as Leonardo, what I would like to tell you is this: You have the chance of having been able to study at this great university of McMaster, as I did myself at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, nearly 50 years ago. You receive today a well-deserved diploma (master or PhD). Congratulations to all of you.

But the lesson taught by Leonardo is that diplomas should not be a goal by themselves. They should just be an attestation showing that you are interested and knowledgeable in a domain such as physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, materials science or humanities.

I hope that, like Leonardo, you will continue to show curiosity for your domain, but more generally for life and phenomena, for the cosmos and the atomistic world, for the human societies and the environment. And I also wish that you will keep the desire to always go beyond what you already know, what your professors have taught you or what the society or your employer tells you to do.

I realize that the years you are getting your diploma are not the same as mine. In 1973, when I got my physics degree, this was still the "glorious 30 years" after second World War: the economy was flourishing, unemployment was almost nil and we did not question too much our impact on the environment. The questions at that time were more related to social relationships, after the May 1968 societal revolution, the Vietnam war as well as the cold war and the nuclear race.

For you, the main challenges are now, how to manage pollution and limit global warming, how to sustain our economy while preserving the environment, how to help undeveloped countries to live better, how to control the Internet and avoid fake news while keeping the freedom it has given us to speak up, how to avoid extreme right or left parties and leaders to emerge in an increasingly large number of countries around the world.

So, in this complex and global world, you will have to find your own way, to make a living while keeping ethical rules, to climb the social ladder while respecting the others, to stay informed while remaining critical about fake news or wrong results published in journals, to be pragmatic while showing curiosity and some craziness for novelties, to get older while staying young in your mind.

On this memorable day for you and your families, which by the way have helped you to become what and where you are today, it is a great honour for me to wish you all the best for your future, in your professional as well as in your personal life.


To learn more about Michel Rappaz, read his profile.