Not only did Barack Obama mention and quote Thomas Kailath in his remarks before presenting the StanfordUniversity professor emeritus of engineering with the National Medal of Science, the President also cited Kailath as a shining example of the brilliant talent of immigrants who make invaluable contributions to the United States and the world.
In a ceremony at the White House’s East Room November 20, Kailath, 79, was among the 19 scientists awarded for their leadership and achievements.
The diminutive and unassuming professor was lauded for his ‘transformative contributions to the fields of information and system science, for distinctive and sustained mentoring of young scholars, and for translation of scientific ideas into entrepreneurial ventures that have had a significant impact on industry.’
Kailath has mentored the likes of Professor Arogyaswami Paulraj, winner of the Marconi Award for 2014, and the India Abroad Award for Lifetime Achievement 2013.
After welcoming the awardees and their families to the White House, Obama said, ‘If you’ve ever been in a situation where you’re a little self-conscious because you feel like maybe everybody in the room is a little smarter than you, today you are right.’
“That’s how I am feeling, he said, ‘Because today it’s my pleasure to welcome a truly extraordinary group of men and women -- some of the world’s greatest scientists and researchers -- and I have got the extraordinary honour of presenting them with our nation’s highest honour for scientific and technological achievement, the National Medals of Science and the National Medals of Technology and Innovation.”
Attendees included Congress members, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, John Holdren, science adviser, White House; France Cordova, director, National Science Foundation; Michelle Lee, deputy director, US Patent and Trademark Office (who oversees the granting of these awards); and James Rathmann, chair, National Science and Technology Medals Foundation.
In his first reference to the Pune-born professor, Obama said, “As Thomas Kailath, one of our honorees today, says, “Scientists are intrinsically hopeful and believe in grand answers, and that if we work hard enough we can find some of them in our lifetime. And that’s a good phrase — intrinsically hopeful. I’m intrinsically hopeful.”
To applause, he added, “That’s who I am. That’s who we are as a people, as Americans, as a nation. We’ve had to fight to make stories like the ones here in this room not only possible, but sometimes likely.”
Obama went on to announce new commitments and progress updates on Educate to Innovate -- his all-hands-on-deck campaign to help more girls and boys be inspired to excel in science, technology, engineering, and math.
The President invoked Kailath again to make a pitch for immigration.
“Part of preserving America’s scientific edge is making sure we continue to welcome the best and brightest minds from around the world. So, Kailath came to this country from India at the age of 22, with a research assistantship that took him to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and then Stanford, where he made critical contributions in information theory and statistics, and mentored more than 100 scholars along the way,” he said.
Obama also mentioned Eli Harari, who, “After he came here as a foreign student from Israel, co-founded SanDisk with two colleagues, one from India, another from China.’
Alexandre Chorin, whose accomplishments led to a sea change in the way a generations of mathematicians use computers, summed up his experience: “I came here as a foreigner on an American fellowship, received the opportunity to study at great schools and work at great universities, and have been treated as if I belonged.”
“Treated as if I belonged,” Obama interrupted. “You do belong because this is America and we welcome people from all around the world who have that same striving spirit.”
Too often, Obama said, “We are losing talent because -- after the enormous investment we make in students and young researchers -- we tell them to go home, take your talents and potential someplace else.”
Obama argued, “Part of staying competitive in a global economy is making sure that we have an immigration system that doesn’t send away talent, but attracts it. We want them to initiate new discoveries and start businesses right here in the United States.”
Referring to Kailath’s phrase -- that started to trend immediately on Twitter -- Obama said, “So I want to congratulate these extraordinary men and women for their accomplishments. I want to thank each of you for the contributions that you have made to our country and the world -- your passion, your persistence and your intrinsic hopefulness.”
Image: Thomas Kailath, left, with President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images