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Prepared Remarks for Look 'Hoos Talking

October 15, 2015

Sixty-two years ago, two scientists came up with a great idea. The men were named James Watson and Francis Crick, and they developed the idea that the structure of DNA looks like a twisted ladder — a three-dimensional double-helix.

This idea was a game-changer. For years, scientists had struggled with the question of how DNA was constructed and how it stored genetic information. The double-helix solved the dilemma.

This discovery paved the way for molecular biology, and provided insights into the genetic code and how protein synthesis works. Decades later, it helped produce genetic engineering, rapid gene sequencing, and other techniques that became the foundation of biotechnology. This one idea changed our approach to the teaching of biology, and changed our view of disease and health.

Today we hear a lot of talk about “disruptive innovation” or “disruptive technology.” This theory is credited to Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, who coined the term while he was studying the evolution of the computer disk-drive industry in the 1990s. Over the years the theory played out in companies like Apple and Amazon that created new products and services that obliterated old industries and created whole new industries.

But let’s remember that Christensen’s idea about disruptive technology began as just that — an idea.

Disruptive technologies have changed the way we acquire information and interact with one another; they are changing the way we teach and learn; they are reshaping our consumer habits.

But disruptive ideas operate on an entirely different scale.    Ideas that are truly disruptive destroy preconceived notions and dismantle long-held theories, and open undiscovered avenues to new knowledge. In the process, they can permanently alter our comprehension of ourselves and our universe.

We have so many examples of disruptive ideas that led to transformational change in the human experience. Typically we think of the Internet as a disruptive technology, but it began as a disruptive idea. The Internet has given rise to all sorts of new technologies in the form of online products and services.

But without the original idea — the idea of a global system of interconnected computer networks — the technologies never could have been created.

McKinsey & Company published a report on the disruptive technologies that will have the most radical effect on life, business, and the global economy in the years ahead. The list includes advanced robots with keen senses and human-like dexterity; next-generation genomics that will allow us to improve healthcare and agriculture; and better energy-storage devices that will improve the performance of electric cars and bring electricity to undeveloped parts of the world.

Technologies like those will certainly have an impact. But the impact of disruptive technologies cannot compare with the more profound impact of the great, game-changing ideas in history.

The idea that the earth orbits the sun … The idea of universal gravitation … The idea that evolution occurs by natural selection … The idea of the human unconscious, and the study of our own minds … The idea behind the theory of relativity … the list goes on.

Disruptive technologies enable human achievement. But disruptive ideas transform the course of human history.

Here’s a perfect example of the distinction between disruptive technology and disruptive ideas … 

UVa History Professor Peter Onuf, a leading scholar on Thomas Jefferson, teaches a six-week MOOC on the life of Jefferson and his ideas — it’s called “The Age of Jefferson." You can sign up to take this massive-open-online-course at If you do, you will be just one of the thousands of people all over the world who have learned about Thomas Jefferson’s ideas through the MOOC.

Disruptive technology makes this MOOC possible. But the disruptive power of the MOOC technology pales in significance when compared with the disruptive power of what the MOOC is about — Thomas Jefferson’s ideas.

When he was a young man, Jefferson had an idea for a new Republic based on a set of inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In an age of monarchy, this was a radical, disruptive idea — one that promoted the power of the people through individual human rights and universal liberties.

Later in his life, Jefferson had another disruptive idea, this one about higher education. Jefferson looked at the world’s existing models for a university and discarded them, and created a new, unprecedented kind of university. This university’s curriculum, rather than focusing on a few, narrow areas of specialization, would, in his words, “be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”

Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about human rights gave birth to a new nation based on freedom and democracy. His ideas about education gave birth to new perspectives on the essential purpose and potential of learning.

Here’s my point: disruptive technology allows the MOOC on Thomas Jefferson to be transmitted to people all over the world, and that’s great. But the technology behind the MOOC is just an automated delivery system for disruptive ideas that altered the course of human history.  Measured side by side on the scale of significance, the ideas tower over the technology.

So, what will be humanity’s next, great disruptive idea? What will be the next double-helix? Who will be the next Jefferson?

For the students here tonight, this is your question to answer. And those of us in the older generation are counting on you to come up with great answers. We’re counting on you to solve the difficult problems that have confounded us in our time; to find the disease cures that have eluded us; to develop solutions to environmental problems that we failed to develop; to solve the problems related to over-population, as the global population count soars toward 7.5 billion. 

My greatest idea is to believe in your ideas; to have faith in you; to trust you to develop the disruptive ideas of the future that will shape the trajectory of human events.

So as we close tonight, I leave you with a question: What is your greatest idea? Take all the time you need to think about it,

But remember: 7.5 billion people are waiting, listening, eager to hear your answer.