Graduation address: Professor Alan Dearle

Thursday 7 December 2017

Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen, new graduates, now that all the hoc birretum impono’s and et super te’s are over, let me be the first to welcome you to the special family of St Andrews graduates. A family which I am very proud to belong and so should you on this very special day. 

You are all amongst the best of your generation. If you were not, you would not be sitting here today and graduating from what has been described as far and away the best university in the world by none other than our future king.

Today is about you, our graduates, of whom we all are rightly proud. You have worked hard to get here and worked hard to gain your Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate degrees and now it is time to celebrate. All you have to do is wait for me to get through this address.

But before I heap further deserved congratulations on you, please take time to acknowledge those who have helped you get here. Parents, partners, husbands and wives have all made this journey with you, some of them for years, to get you to this amazing day. Whilst we are talking of those that have helped, we should also thank all those who work behind the scenes to make a day like this possible: the cleaners, gardeners, porters, as well as the graduation office, print and design and registry staff. Please also remember to thank your teachers, some of whom are sitting behind me, looking resplendent in their academic dress.

Returning to you our graduates, let’s now consider what makes your Science, Medicine and Geography degrees from St Andrews so special. I believe it is the mixture of the analytic and the synthetic. You have all gained much knowledge about past discoveries, you have read many papers, learned about statistics and logical reasoning and what constitutes truth and what does not. In short you have become or started to become experts in your respective fields. And that is of great value: do not pay heed those who do not respect expertise in this so-called post-truth world in which we find ourselves in 2017. True expertise will always show itself to be valuable and worthy of respect.

However, it is not only the ability to analyse that changes the world. What does change it is the challenging of accepted truths, of asking difficult questions and the performing of experiments to ascertain if the accepted truth is correct or not. And for me the exciting thing about science is the next part – the synthetic – the discovery and creation of new things that were undreamed before.

My own field of computer science has revolutionised modern living and totally changed the way in which science is conducted, analysed and disseminated. The theory of computation, data storage and networking continues to create ever-changing opportunities in retail, medicine, science, communication and leisure. In 1945 Vannevar Bush, effectively the first American scientific advisor to the President, wrote an essay in the Atlantic magazine entitled As We May Think. In it he described a machine called the memex which would make information more accessible. He argued that the instruments were at hand which, if properly developed, would give society access to and command over the inherited knowledge of the ages. At that time, digital computers were in their infancy and his machine was based on indexed microfilm. He would have been amazed and gratified when, just forty-five years later Sir Tim Berners-Lee (an honorary graduate of this University) would create the world wide web and in so doing disrupt society, perhaps forever.

The world is changing faster than ever fuelled by scientific discovery and underpinned by data and science in ways that were not imagined even a few years ago. Information is so ubiquitously available, fuelled by Sir Tim’s world wide web, that it is becoming devalued. Which takes us back to the skills you have mastered whilst here at St Andrews: the analysis of information, the ability to sort fact from fiction, and the ability to take the known and create the future.

Our graduates have a great tradition of doing exactly that. We have John Elder a cartographer who presented Henry VIII with an early map of Scotland; Edward Jenner who graduated from St Andrews with an MD in 1792 and went on to pioneer the world's first vaccine for smallpox; James Gregory who used the transit of Venus to measure the distance of the Earth from the Sun (amongst many other remarkable discoveries); and today we have seen examples of this from our latest PhD graduates with new understanding on topics including the binding of proteins, luminescent supramolecular systems, the evolution of galaxies, and the behaviour of seals in our oceans. So, you all have a lot to live up to.

Many of you will now be going on to jobs in teaching, industry, medicine, business and a host of other fields. Some of you will be embarking on further degrees, PhD positions, or postdoctoral research. I am confident that as St Andrews graduates you will step out into the world ready to use your analytic and synthetic skills and apply them in new ways and in so doing make the world a better place.

Study the past, learn from it but be prepared to challenge it and be ready to disrupt the future. Remembering as you do this, the maxim of Alexander the Great and the motto of the University of St Andrews – aièn aristeúein – ever to excel. There is no better time to be a graduate, and no better place from which to graduate.

So finally, I wish you congratulations, to every single one of you. I wish you the very best and hope you have a super day. 

Professor Alan Dearle
School of Computer Science