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We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

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Question: Who are you?

Vest: I’m Charles Vest. I’m currently the President of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, and I’m President Emeritus of MIT. I grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia, at that time a small college town. It was actually an extraordinary time and place to grow up. I had many wonderful dimensions to my life which was in the late ‘40s and through the ‘50s into the very early ‘60s in the sense that my father was actually a mathematics professors, and that I was living in pretty typical small town America and going to public schools with kids who grew up on the farm or who were doctors’ children. I was in about ninth grade at the time that the schools in West Virginia were integrated – a little bit before the Brown decision. And so it had real great economic and motivational diversity, social diversity – sort of the great combination small school, beautiful physical area, and yet having the advantages of being in an academic family. Both of my parents, not surprisingly, were terrifically influential on me. My father was a very precise mathematician, and also a truly extraordinary classroom teacher of a rather formal type. When I went to West Virginia University as an undergraduate I actually took two courses to my father. And he in the classroom, unlike at home, was such a disciplined kind of teacher that my fellow students actually didn’t find this odd. They never gave me a hard time. It was the only class I ever took that I didn’t ask a question all day. My mother was what would, at that period of history, been a fairly typical housewife. She was very intelligent. She was extremely well-read. Looking backward I sometimes have said that she didn’t grow up in the later era because I think she could have actually been a fine scholar or teacher herself. She was particularly interested in history, and a lot of our summer vacations and so forth were trooping around the old battlefields and cemeteries up and down the east coast, particularly in the South. So this kind of combination of a wonderful, warm home and two very influential parents. I also had a few people as I went on. There was a professor at West Virginia University named Bob Schloniger who really was the person who convinced me I should become a mechanical engineer when I had been planning to probably be either a physicist or an electrical engineer. And I always think back. You know in the ’40s and ‘50s it was a big thing in this country to always take aptitude tests to figure out what you should be, and engineer or scientist never really went very far up the scale. I usually was told I should be a psychologist or a journalist or a historian. So I think all these influences kind of came together. And after following a rather straightforward engineering education career, I later moved off into administration. I think maybe some of those other influences and maybe latent interests and talents helped out. Recorded on: 12/5/07



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