Next 50 years will bring many discoveries says Chaviva Hošek

As astonishing as the last 50 years have been, the next 50 years will be even more so because the range of scientific discoveries is speeding up, Chaviva Hošek told the graduands of the Faculties of Environmental Studies and Science & Engineering at York’s Spring Convocation ceremonies Thursday.

“The accumulation of human knowledge is impossible for any single human mind to grasp and that has been true for many, many years,” said Hošek. “Our increasingly rich knowledge base as humans beings requires us to create and sustain collective genius to find ways for many minds to collaborate together to understand the interactive systems which organize the world and nature.”

Hošek received an honorary doctorate of laws from York for her leadership as president and CEO of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), a not-for-profit organization that brings together leading researchers from across Canada and around the world to work collaboratively on complex advanced research projects.

Left: Chaviva Hošek

During the ceremony, Hošek was touted as the force behind some of the most creative scientific funding in Canada and behind spreading the excitement and importance of scientific inquiry to public leaders.

"The wonderful thing about having a scientific education, is not what you already know, hard though it might have been to learn it, rather it is the way it prepared you to learn more. And there will be much more to learn,” Hošek said.

An Officer of the Order of Canada and a former English professor, Hošek detailed some of the scientific findings of the last 50 years. “Nineteen-fifty-nine was the year the Soviet Union released its first pictures of the far side of the moon. Ten years later, the US Apollo put the first man on the moon, and today Virgin Galactic makes it possible for anyone with a spare $25 million to travel in space as a non-professional astronaut….”

That’s a long way in just half a century, but where science is going is even more fascinating. "At the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, our researchers are studying cosmology and gravity. They are trying to figure out the nature of the unknown matter and the unknown energy, what’s called the dark matter and the dark energy, that make up 96 per cent of our universe,” said Hošek.

“It turns out that everything we do know about the universe, and the human race has been learning for literally hundreds of years, only describes four per cent of the matter and energy in our universe.”

Hošek told graduands that in 1959, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to two researchers who figured out how DNA and RNA are synthesized, and three years later another researcher won the same prize for determining the structure of DNA. “They launched us together in to the genomic revolution we are all living in now. The entire human genome has been mapped and soon it will be possible for you yourself to have your own genome map, if you have a spare $5,000.”

At CIFAR, researchers are working on the next step. They are studying genetic networks and the ways in which genes interact with each other to make living creatures healthy or sick. “Understanding how these genetic networks function will transform the ways we treat complex diseases,” Hošek said.

It is at the boundaries of disciplines, in the unmapped spaces between disciplines, where the concepts and tools are not yet clear, where some of the next breakthroughs in understanding will be found. “The kind of breakthroughs that reorganize our mental landscapes and change the way we think about the nature of the world, about people, and of the societies in which we live.”

She encouraged graduands to keep an open mind about what they think they know, stay curious, keep their critical faculties sharp, remember that just because someone is in a position of authority doesn’t mean that he or she is right, and to take risks “because that’s the only way to discover really new things.”

Hošek was president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women for which she was named the B’nai Brith woman of the year in 1984 and a YWCA Woman of Distinction in 1986. She was also a member of the Ontario Legislative Assembly and director of policy and research in former prime minister Jean Chrétien’s office.

For a complete listing of the ceremony schedule, click here. York University’s 2009 Spring Convocation ceremonies will be streamed live over the Internet.