Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Wesley Harris facilitated a lively discussion with the 72 Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) students on June 24. Topics included recent technological advances and the intersection of science and ethics.
“Build something, do something, study something,” Professor Harris said. “Get a passion in your heart. Get a passion in your belly.” Professor Harris spoke to the eager group of students about finding their niches in higher education and the greater world, as well as the “wonderful problems” awaiting them.
The following discussion focused on responsible progress, with an emphasis on keeping human interests in mind. In an era of rapid scientific growth, robots have replaced entire populations of workers. While technology can eliminate jobs, it has the ability to cultivate and expand the job market, Professor Harris said.
“Would you build a robot for Ford that eliminates jobs?” Professor Harris asked. The challenge of balancing progress and human interests became obvious to the students: If more jobs are eliminated than created by new technology, the purpose of scientific advancement is defeated.
Professor Harris started his career studying ecology at the University of Virginia and later researched rotorcraft technology, aerodynamics and fluid dynamics, sickle cell pathology, financial management methods, and defense systems acquisition. His lecture incorporated anecdotes from years of research and teaching.
Throughout the discussion, Professor Harris posed the students questions from modern engineering challenges. One of these challenges involved stimulating human sensory responses with mere images and the obstacles associated with this task. “A rose is more than color. It has texture. It has fragrance,” he said. “How do I look at water visually and feel its wetness?”
“Our brains process things differently,” one student responded. “It is not your eyes that see, but your brain.”
Professor Harris also challenged the students to think of creative ways to ensure that space travelers return home with their original features and characteristics. “How does the human body respond to weightlessness? We want people coming back from Mars looking just like they did when they left, with one head, not two,” Professor Harris said.
Questions for the future
At the end of the presentation, students peppered Professor Harris with questions about glacial melting, genocide and efficient energy production without turbines, to name a few.
One student, Fabian Aristizabal of Hialeah, Fla., was concerned with the concept of life after human travel to Mars. “After Mars, what comes next? We’re stuck in our own neighborhood,” he said. Abigail Arnold from Seattle, Wash., asked, “Are humans fixed creatures, or do we move in conjunction with time and space to create our own perceptions of reality?”
Though the lecture focused primarily on engineering, Professor Harris left the MITES students with life advice. Asked to describe the legacy he wished to leave behind, Professor Harris said, “One: That I have been a good father. Two: To understand that I’ve been fair and positive, and that every day I move through this world with no intent to harm anyone. Three: That I’ve had a career in which there was modest success as a teacher and a researcher.”