REFLECTIONS ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

The Weizmann Institute of Science
Chicago Hilton, Chicago, Illinois
Thursday, October 22, 1998

Tribute Dinner Establishing the Betty and Leo Melamed Scholarship in Biomedical Research

deco line

The Twentieth Century, my father told me before his death, represented a new low in the history of mankind. "The Holocaust," he said," was an indelible blot on human conscience, one that could never be expunged."

Still, my father always tempered his realism with a large dose of optimism. He had, after all, against all odds, managed to save himself and his immediate family from the inevitability of the gas chambers. Were that not the case, this kid from Bialystok would not be here to receive this incredible Weizmann Institute honor nor tell his story. And quite a story it is!

I don't mean simply the story of how my father snatched his wife and son from the clutches of the Nazis. I don't mean simply the story of how my parents outwitted both the Gestapo and the KGB during a time in history when, in Humphry Bogart's words, "the world didn't give a hill of beans about the lives of three people." I don't mean simply the story of our race for freedom across Europe and Siberia during a moment in history when the world had gone quite mad. And I don't mean simply the story of Consul General Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Oscar Schindler who chose to follow the dictates of his God rather than those of his Foreign Office and, in direct violation of their orders, issued life saving transit visas to some 6000 Jews trapped in Lithuania - the Melamdoviches among them. Six months later all us would have been machine-gunned to death along with 10,000 others in Kovno.

No, I don't mean simply all of that, although all of that is a helluva story. But there is yet another dimension to the story here. I mean the story of the splendor of America! For it was here, here in this land of the free and home of the brave that the kid from Bialystok was given the opportunity to grow up on the streets of Chicago, to climb the rungs of social order without money or clout, and to use his imagination and skills so that in a small way he could contribute to the growth of American markets. In doing so he not only justified fate's decision to spare his life, but more important, attested to the majesty of this nation.

Because within my story lies the essence of America, the fundamental beauty of the United States Constitution and the genius of its creators. For throughout the years, thru ups and downs, thru defeats and victories, thru innovations which challenged sacred market doctrines, and ideas which defied status quo, no one ever questioned my right to dream, nor rejected my views simply because I was an immigrant, without proper credentials, without American roots, without wealth, without influence, or because I was a Jew. Intellectual values always won out over provincial considerations, rational thought always prevailed over irrational prejudice, merit always found its way to the top. Say what you will, point out the defects, protest the inequities, but at the end of the day my story represents the real truth about America.

For these reasons, after all was said and done, my parents were optimists. They agreed, that in spite of the two World Wars, in spite of the horrors and atrocities, the Twentieth Century was nevertheless a most remarkable century. They watched the world go from the horse and buggy--the main form of transportation at their birth -- to Apollo Eleven which in 1969 took Neil Armstrong to the moon.

Indeed, it is hard to fathom that at the dawn of my parent's century, Britannia was still the empire on which the sun never set; the railroads were in their Golden Age, automobiles were considered nothing but a fad, the phonograph was the most popular form of home entertainment, and life expectancy for the American male was but 48. Sigmund Freud first published his "Interpretation of Dreams," and Albert Einstein, the foremost thinker of the century, had just published his theory of relativity.

Of course, the event that would have the most profound effect on the direction of our present century occurred back in 1848--smack dab in the middle of the Nineteenth Century: Karl Marx and his associate, Friedrich Engels, published the Communist Manifesto. The concept of communism, would dominate the political thought of Europe and later Asia for most of the Twentieth Century.

Today, some 150 years after the concept was conceived, we know it to have been an unmitigated failure. Indeed, those of us, citizens of planet Earth, fortunate enough to be present in the final decade of the Twentieth Century, have been privileged to witness events equal to any celebrated milestone in the history of mankind. In what seemed like a made for TV video, we were ring-side spectators at a global rebellion. In less than an eye-blink the Berlin Wall fell, Germany was unified, Apartheid ended, Eastern Europe was liberated, the Cold War ceased, and a doctrine that impaired the freedom of three generations and misdirected the destiny of the entire planet for seven decades was decisively repudiated.

What a magnificent triumph of democracy and freedom. What a glorious victory for capitalism and free markets. What a majestic tribute to Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, Abraham Lincoln, and Milton Friedman. What a divine time to be alive. Surely these events represented some of the defining moments of the Twentieth Century. Ironically, the lynch-pin of all that occurred will not be found in the political or economic arena, but rather in the sciences. One hundred years after the Communist Manifesto, to be precise, on December 23, 1947--smack dab in the middle of Twentieth Century -- two Bell Laboratory scientists invented the first transistor. It was the birth of a technology that would serve to dominate the balance of this century and, I dare say, much of the Twenty-first as well. The Digital Age was upon us.

Transistors and their offspring, the microchip, transformed everything: the computer, the space program, the television, the telephone, the markets, and, to be sure, telecommunications. Modern telecommunications became the common denominator which gave everyone the ability to make a stark, uncompromising comparison of political and economic systems. The truth could no longer be hidden from the people. We had migrated said Walter Wriston of Citicorp from the gold standard to the "information standard."

In a very real sense, the technology of the Twentieth Century moved mankind from the big to the little. It is a trend that will surely continue. In physics, this century began with the theory of General Relativity; this dealt with the vast, with the universe. From there we journeyed to comprehension of the infinitesimal, to quantum physics. Physicists were now able to decode nature's age-old secrets. Similarly, in biology we also moved from macro to micro—from individual cells to gene engineering. We entered an era of biomedical research where we can probe the fundamental components of life and remedy mankind's most distressing afflictions.

Thus, in stark contrast to the signals at the turn of the last century, the evidence today is overwhelming that the next century will be dominated by the information standard. Today, millions of transistors are etched on wafers of silicon. On these microchips all the world's information can be stored in digital form and transmitted to every corner of the globe via the Internet. This will change the way we live, the way we work, and the way we play. Indeed, the Digital Revolution will direct the next century just as the Industrial Revolution directed much of the Twentieth.

So there you have it: the pain, the progress, and the promise of my parent's century.  It would be grand to believe that we have learned from our mistakes, that only enlightened times await us, but I am afraid that would be a bit pollyannaish. Still, we stand on the threshold of immense scientific breakthroughs and the future looks brighter than it ever was. Indeed, the Weizman Institute of Science symbolizes the scientific miracles of the Twentieth Century and points the direction for the world as we enter the Twenty First. If my parents were still present, they would surely tell this kid from Bialystok to await the next century with great anticipation and with infinite optimism.

Thank you.

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