Charles Vest is a professor and President Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Vest earned his BS in mechanical engineering from West Virginia University and his MS and PhD from the University of Michigan. His academic work focused on thermodynamics and fluid mechanics. Vest joined Michigan's faculty in 1968, became a full professor in 1977, and was promoted to Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs in 1989. In 1990, he was appointed President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a position he held until 2004. Vest has served on both the Bush and Clinton Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and has been a director of DuPoint and IBM. In July 2007 he was elected to serve as president of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) for six years. He has authored a book on holographic interferometry, and two books on higher education. He has received honorary doctoral degrees from ten universities, and was awarded the 2006 National Medal of Technology by President Bush.
Question: What’s new and exciting in engineering?
Vest: Well I think that the primary thing to understand is that the last half of the 20th century, in which most of us played out our careers and so forth, was largely built around physics, and electronics, and high speed communication, and creating large infrastructure – electricity, power, road ways, and so forth. This new century, at least its early decades, are clearly going to be centered around the amazing advances in life science, in information technology, and very small scale physics – so-called nanotechnology. It is the merging of those three things that creates the amazing and interesting opportunities. But at the same time if we think of that as the frontier of things that are smaller and smaller, and faster and faster, and more and more complex, at the same time we have another great frontier that’s of terrific interest to the lay public, and that’s what I call macro systems engineering. This is the domain in which the energy crisis needs to be resolved; in which we need to move forward to stop global warming and mitigate its consequences; where we worry about production on a global scale, our communications systems, the delivery of healthcare, logistics – so sort of the very small, very large. Both are increasingly complex. Both have deeper and deeper scientific underpinnings. And I believe that the public needs to understand that we have these two very important frontiers that are largely, though not exclusively, driven by science and engineering. And the big payoff that we look forward to is bridging from the small scale to the large scale so that I’m convinced that the great challenges that this current and next generation of engineers are going to be able to deal with are the creation of bio fuels; of designing things that can be manufactured and used with much smaller environmental footprints; in increasing the efficiency and the personalization with which we deliver healthcare. These are the grand challenges in my view, and this honestly is the most exciting period in human history in both science and engineering. Recorded on: 12/5/07