essay
Indian School of Mines: Convocation 2002
15/9/2009  |  Dreamz.Unlimited: The Subir Raha Blog

"Thank you for the privilege to participate in this celebration of knowledge.

Learning has always been an adventure. There was a time, going back several millennia, when clans of people would walk away to new horizons, searching for food or to escape the advancing ice sheet. May be an intrepid hunter would reach a new river or an unknown sea. The routes would pass into the collective memory of the tribe. For the humans, challenged to survive without claws or fangs, knowledge became the weapon, and the brain - the memory - became the armoury.

The clans walked across the continents, setting up the building blocks of civilization. They tamed horses and elephants, and traveled faster. They learned to build rafts and boats, and ventured to the lands across the seas. Air was the next frontier. Balloons first lifted men off the ground, and then came powered flight. As the centuries went by, migrations for survival stopped and conquests for supremacy began. Instead of fleeing the ice, men went on adventure to discover glaciers. They discovered mountains and islands, even continents. Thousands of years passed before the surface of the Earth was fully, accurately mapped. There was practically nothing left to discover, except in deep waters.

The armoury in the brain kept expanding. The knowledge to understand the howl of an animal, the knowledge to transform a lump of ore into a weapon and the knowledge to predict the seasons -the ever increasing inventory of information and understanding crossed the capacity of tribal memories. Schools and libraries came up. As time passed, bhurjapatra became history, and magnetic media became the tool for inheritance of knowledge.

One potent tool, perhaps exclusive to the humans out of all the species that we know of, has remained trapped in the ions of the brain. So far, the electrons on the tapes and disks have not captured this. One dreads the day when that happens, if it happens, because the intrinsic difference between men and machines will vanish.

That tool is imagination. The ability to visualize what does not exist, what is beyond the known, what may never happen, or what may happen again.

To my mind, the champion of imagination, at least in the last millennium, is Jules Verne. One who could imagine going from the Earth to the Moon when Lillienthal was lifting off. One who traveled Twenty Thousand leagues under the Sea, when steamships represented the state-of-the-art. One who went on a Journey to the Center of the Earth, when the first oil wells were being drilled. One man who described all the physical frontiers that remain to be conquered - space, deep waters, inner Earth.

Many of the graduating students of this great institution are stepping out on the exciting journey to the frontiers of the inner earth and the deep waters; others are going on to equally challenging careers in arts, sciences and technologies. On each road, in ever direction, there are risks and rewards, penalties and prizes. You will be measured for success by many people and by many yardsticks. The true measure will be only one, the yardstick by which you will judge yourself. How many dreams you have realized, how many fears you have overcome, how many lives you have touched with joy.

Remember the ancestors who crossed the continents, with only the sun and the stars to guide them. Often, they had no choice but to go on. But some of them traveled from one horizon to another because they were just curious, or because they were driven by imagination. Many discoveries have happened by accident but all inventions happened because someone first developed a mental image of the outcome. Today, discoveries also happen because someone first creates an image in his mind. All the knowledge and all the experience gets focused on that image. How do you discover a new reservoir or oil? with all the data that you acquire, using all the hardware and software that you have, what you get to on the screen is the way the rock is stratified down below. You go to the armoury in your brain and build an image of entrapped hydrocarbons in some strata. That is discovery.

There are times when conventional wisdom is questioned because someone lets his imagination fly out of the box and builds a different image in his mind. Like Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, who imagined that the collective wisdom is not necessarily correct just because all the members of the flock accept it. He becomes unpopular, he gets isolated, he suffers, but he flies. He flies alone and he achieves.

I am certainly not talking of idle speculation, or someone arguing for the sake of argument. I am talking of a responsible process when an individual uses his training and expertise to make a logical case and dares to speak up. That's how the giant Gandhar oil and gas field was discovered. A colleague told me about it recently. He had questioned the conventional wisdom that there cannot be any entrapment in these formations. He stood up and made a case for his imagination. The discovery, when it came, was infinitely more satisfying than any promotion. The one success also more than made up for all the times when the process failed, when the image turned out to be a mirage. But, that is part of the game. That, in fact, is the game.

My young friends, as you go out to win the World, be brave. You will certainly face many disappointments, you will know many frustrations, and you will also earn victories, some remarkable, some inconsequential. That is the game. When you are down and out, remember Christopher Columbus, facing a mutiny when the New World was just beyond the horizon. When you are disappointed, remember Vasco de Gama, who went looking for a New World, and discovered an old one. When you feel deprived, remember Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose, and the credit that Marconi received. When you feel elated, remember the sadness of Oppenheimer when he saw a light brighter than a Thousand Suns.

Remain honest to yourself, and make the Indian School of Mines proud of you. I wish you God speed.

Thank you. Jai Hind."
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