Commencement Address (2006)

Fifteen years after graduating high school, I was invited back to give the commencement address. I was introduced by my favorite math teacher, Dianne Meier, who was retiring, and my favorite physics teacher, Don Graybill, already retired, as well as my parents, were in the audience.

Here’s the text of my address.

Thank you Dianne. 

When Mr. Coffman asked me to speak here this evening, I jumped at the opportunity.  Since leaving Bradford, I’ve lived and worked in many places, ranging from large cities like Chicago and LA, to remote mountaintops in the Chilean Andes.  But Bradford is the only place I’ve ever considered home, and my memories of this place in particular are especially strong and warm.  I am greatly honored to be addressing the graduating class of 2006 this evening.  And thank you for inviting me home.

In preparing for this evening, I tried to remember back to what my graduation speaker told me when I sat in those seats 15 years ago.  I couldn’t remember.  I tried to remember back to what my college graduation speakers told me only 10 years ago.  I couldn’t remember their remarks either.  And one of them was actually former President Clinton, someone who’s ability to connect with an audience is well known.  So I figure if I can’t remember what Clinton said to me on my graduation day, odds are slim that you will long remember what I say to you on yours. 

And that’s understandable.  Today is a very big day, and a very big deal, and I’m sure that you have so many other things on your mind than what I may have to say.  So I’ll try to keep my remarks brief and simply hope to make general impressions that last at least for a little while.

Now, as I was procrastinating in the preparation of these remarks, as I tend to do with many things, I began to dwell on the passing time.  So much so that I thought it a good subject to speak on.  As an astrophysicist, I spend a great deal of time thinking about time.  Usually measured in billions of years, or some fraction of the measured age of the universe.  However, the time that has passed since I sat where you now sit is considerably shorter, and can be thought about in much more human terms.

About a century ago, Einstein taught us that time doesn’t move forward uniformly, but rather progresses more slowly for those who move at high speeds, and for those in the presence of strong gravitational fields.  Now physically, he was right, as multiple experiments have since confirmed.  However, if thought about in human terms, I think he got it backwards.  The faster-paced life gets, and the more one feels the weight of the world, the faster – not slower – time seems to flow, and dramatically so.

I look back at my childhood, essentially ending in this room on this day 15 years ago, and I remember an eternity.  A very good eternity, I must point out, since my parents are in the room, but an eternity none-the-less.  By its end, I was chomping at the bit to go out and find my own way in this world, to really explore and experience what life has to offer, as I’m sure that many of you are today.

Now I’m nearly twice as old.  In the second half of my still young life, I’ve explored and experienced a good deal, and I’m still chomping at the bit for more.  But I must admit, when Mr. Coffman asked me to speak here this evening, the first thing that crossed my mind was, “What is he thinking?  I only graduated a few years ago.”  Only to then do the math and realize that 15 had flown by.

Where did all that time go?  These past 15 years, as full as they’ve been, genuinely feel like only 7 or 8.  And if this trend continues, the next 15 will feel like 4, the next like 2, and so on.  Students of Ms. Meier’s math classes I’m sure can tell you that this is what we call a convergent series.

Now, parents and grandparents in the audience, even though you weren’t fortunate enough to have math with Ms. Meier, I think you know what I’m talking about.  It goes by faster and faster and faster.  Biologically, middle age is around 40, but measured by how fast time seems to flow, class of 2006, you’re already over the hill!

Now, yes, I know, a pretty depressing message for a commencement address.  But there’s a point here.  Even at your still young age, life is short:  Don’t miss out.

Life is full of failure, and tragedy, and euphoric success, and surprise, and love, and heartache and heartbreak.  It’s a strange and crazy mix, and everyone gets different proportions.

I can’t advise you on how to navigate this mess.  Everyone has to find their own way, and make their own path.  But I can advise you to take the task to heart.  Take risks, be prepared to fall flat on your face, and then be prepared to pick yourself up and try again.  Don’t be afraid of failure, don’t be afraid of getting your heart broken.  The only thing to be afraid of in life is reaching the end, looking back, and wondering if it might have been different had you only the nerve to do this or that.  Have the nerve, and have it now.  As Yogi Berra would say, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” 

Now, I want to approach this from one more angle.  Instead of thinking about how quickly time flows, or seems to flow, let’s put our short time in this world into larger context. 

I spoke at my graduation 15 years ago, and pointed out that come January 1st, 2050, I’ll likely still be around, a mere 75 years old.  This drew laughter, which was partially its intent, but it drew less laughter today.  2050 was 59 years away and I was 17.  Now it’s only 44 years away, and now I’m 32.  Another 6 years and these two numbers will be equal.  And to me those 6 years, well, they’ll only feel like a few.

Taking into account continued advances in medicine, most of you will likely live into the 2070s.  I was born in the 1970s, a difference of a full century.  Many in this room remember the 1950s and those who do remember descriptions of what the world was like in the early 1900s from their grandparents.  Just think about how much the world has changed over the past century.  It boggles the mind.  The world will change an even greater amount in your lives.  People often write stories about traveling into the future.  You’re going to see it firsthand.

Often I wonder what your generation will do with this time.  And really, you and I, we’re not too different in age.  Some would consider us bookends of a common generation.  So I ask, what will our generation do with this time?  And with this world?

I look back at my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and we have a lot to live up to.

Like our generation, my grandparents’ generation was attacked, at Pearl Harbor.  At that time, the men went to war and the women went to work in the factories to support the war effort.  The entire nation mobilized, and this generation saved the world from fascism.  They literally saved the world.  That’s a tough act to follow.

My parents’ generation was presented with the Cold War, a different kind of war, much as we’re facing a different kind of war today.  This generation has lived much of their lives under the threat of nuclear attack.  On the evening of October 27th, 1962, as the US and Soviet navies squared off in the waters surrounding Cuba, my parents’ generation went to bed wondering if there would even be a world to wake up to the next day.  In the years that followed, they lost the president who saved them that day, and his brother, and other prominent leaders to assassination.  Then they fought a long and hard war in Vietnam. 

But like their parents’ generation, they persevered and by the late 80s/early 90s prevailed, leaving this country as the world’s dominant power for the next generation, for our generation.  Additionally, they achieved one of the greatest and I think most inspiring feats in all of human history.  They put 12 people on the surface of the moon and brought them home alive and well.  A feat that even today, over 30 years later, we have not been able to duplicate, and likely won’t for at least another 20.

And frankly, their Miracle on Ice wasn’t shabby either.

Every generation confronts great challenges, but with great challenges come great opportunities, including the opportunity to prepare the world for the next generation, your children, which most of you will have in, oh, not so many years.

Our generation has already been challenged by 9/11, the War on Terror, and the Second Gulf War.  However, we’re still a young generation and I don’t think that these are the challenges that will define us in the end.  In the end, our challenges will likely be even broader in scope, and I think will directly, and personally, affect everyone in this country, and the world.  I’ll mention two.

The first, and perhaps most immediate of these is the end of cheap oil.  Many times in our nation’s history, and in the world’s history, we’ve moved from more expensive to cheaper sources of energy, but seldom the reverse.  The world’s oil reserves are not endless, and demand is now beginning to outstrip supply.  $3 per gallon gas is only the tip of a much, much larger iceberg, and we’ll likely only have 10 – 15 years to switch over.  By some calculations, a national mobilization on the scale of our nation’s mobilization for World War II will be required.  Furthermore, what we switch over to is not yet clear, as none of the alternatives are currently viable on a national scale.  New technologies will have to be developed on very rapid timescales.  The nation’s power distribution and transportation systems will likely need to be overhauled or even replaced.

Now, power distribution and transportation systems.  Not very glamorous, I know.  But trying to operate this country without cheap oil will be like trying to operate this building on a 9-volt battery.  It won’t work for long.  The future of our country, and frankly the world, depends on our success here.

The second major challenge that our generation will face is the environment.  The world is warming, and now it looks like the warming may be accelerating.  Whether Katrina can be directly tied to global warming is not clear, but it is clear that global warming will result in similar disasters, and these disasters will only increase in magnitude and frequency with time.  Not since Sherman’s March to the Sea during the Civil War have so many of our citizens been refugees within our borders.

Energy and the environment.  One issue the domain of the right, and one the domain of the left.  But soon these distinctions will blur and they’ll simply be American issues, and global issues.  These are the challenges that I think will most shape our generation, and our responses to them define us as a generation.

So you’re thinking, “This is overwhelming.  What can one person do?” 

No one person can solve problems of these magnitudes.  Only the determination of a unified nation can solve problems like these.  But unity is something we’ve been lacking for many years now.

So this is your challenge.  Stay informed.  Vote and vote wisely, and not necessarily blindly along party lines.  Don’t take our democratic system for granted.  It is still a rarity in this world and in the history of the world.  Avoid divisiveness.  Be tolerant and compassionate of others.  We must first heal this nation before we can hope to save it.

And finally, and most importantly, try to find contentment and happiness in your lives.  If the world does require saving, it must first be worth saving to you.

Class of 2006, be proud of your accomplishment today.  May it be the first of many, many more.  I wish you, your families, the community of Bradford and the many communities to which you will eventually belong, contentment, happiness, and all of the opportunity that this country and this world have to offer.

Thank you very much.