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Secretary Moniz's Remarks at he 2014 National Science Bowl -- As Delivered

April 28, 2014 - 11:44am


Well, this is a great day to be here, I must say, because it’s probably been said many times, but it really is true that this is looking at our future in terms of the science and engineering contributors of the next decades.

But anyway, so thank you, Pat (Dehmer). And also let me thank all the people who really made this happen: the Office of Science staff; I know many volunteers; of course the coaches, for their guidance; and most importantly, of course, the competitors. And so I think you all deserve a great amount of thanks for coming here. 

And hopefully it was a lot of fun for the students.  I’m told that over 9,000 high school students and more than 5,000 middle school students from all 50 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico participated in this year’s regional competitions. 

So as Pat said, I did spend 40 years at MIT, and I have to say that what I really miss in my – and this new job is pretty interesting, and it’s fun, but I still have time every now and then to miss the students, who really were just terrific.

I’ll just say a few words, in fact, about some of the things that inspired me in science and then come back to today.

But you know, when I went to high school, those were the post-Sputnik days, and there was lots going on in terms of changes of STEM education, satellites going up, all kinds of activity that really inspired a lot of us into science. 

A very important time for me was when I had the opportunity to visit Bell Labs in those days.  And probably many of you here, many of the students, at least, aren’t familiar with Bell Labs as one of the great science institutions for many – for many decades. 

(Background noise.)  Is that a woodpecker?  I don’t know.

Anyway, Bell Labs had all – I mean, the developments that they made in that laboratory really are behind many of the things that we carry around today, like cellphones, or, in our living rooms, things like flat-screen TVs, many, many just fundamental discoveries – the transistor, underlying, of course, much of electronics, but also, in their search for trying to understand microwave communications, they had all of this noise in their system, and once they eliminated the pigeon droppings as the source, they finally came around to discovering the background radiation in our universe, Big Bang.  So this kind of serendipity was also a huge part of doing science and discovering these new things.

I went down there and saw one of the first satellites, Telstar – it was the first telecommunications satellite; they were just developing it – covered with 3,600 solar cells at that time. And in fact I think if you go to the Air and Space Museum, you can find the model of this, the Telstar satellite. 

So it was really interesting to be able to see how all of this science and technology came together. And actually, along the lines of kind of serendipity and then subsequently to that, involving satellites, I became part of a small company who at that same period, before I was there, in the 1960s, they put up the very first X-ray satellite for NASA. And lo and behold, they created X-ray astronomy as they found surprising sources in the universe. 

So science is just a great journey, and I think the opportunity to have these experiences early on in your studies is just terribly important. 

Today is just as exciting. And I’ll just say a little bit about -- in my current, of course, focus of energy, the kinds of fundamental tools that we’re dealing with big data and large-scale computation, the frontier of being able to use those tools for discovery; high-energy plasmas; advanced materials, ubiquitous across energy; building materials from the bottom up, 3-D printing, building technologies from the bottom up. 

So these are all areas where there’s going to be just tremendous opportunity and excitement.

Just to elaborate on that briefly, we at the Department of Energy and our laboratories and our university partners, et cetera, we are advancing technologies for your future. And you’re going to have to pick up the flag and run with it because we are facing a real challenge over these next two, three, four decades of having to change our whole energy system. Today it’s 80 percent, roughly, fossil fuels, and we need to eliminate 80 percent of all the carbon dioxide that we are putting in the atmosphere by midcentury.

This is a huge transformation. It’s all about technology.  When we look at coal – if we’re going to use coal, we have to capture the CO2.  What are we going to do with all that carbon dioxide?  Well, cutting-edge science – you need a big use for it if you’re going to use all that CO2.  So CO2 plus water plus sunlight making fuels – that’s one of our big projects.  Long way to go, but that’s pretty exciting stuff with an enormous, enormous impact.

Oil – of course, in this country we’re producing more gas and oil than we have, but we still have to reduce oil dependence.  How do we do that?  Make our vehicles very efficient – cars and trucks.  How do we do that?  Lightweight materials.  Use large-scale computation to model – to develop new engines, to minimize the aerodynamic impacts.  We need new fuels, new biology to convert  biomass – not food but biomass – into new fuels, maybe drop-in fuels that go right in your car today, batteries, fuel cells, solar panels, new organic materials for solar, open up new uses. 

We can just keep going down the line, and there are enormous science and technology challenges that we will need to transform our energy system over these next decades, and again the students out here, all of these students, are those upon whom we will count for that to happen.

So I think, with that, I will end my brief remarks, and hopefully we can now move on towards recognizing many of those who have done so well in this competition.  Again, we really appreciate your engaging in this, and we look forward to your accomplishments in the years ahead.

Thank you.