Being a professor at Caltech, I get to dress up in a gown and funny hood one morning every June and sit on stage, watch hundreds of new Doctors and Masters and Bachelors go by and listen to a commencement speaker impart words of wisdom on the graduates. One June, a few years ago, I even got to be one of those commencement speakers. I spoke at the graduation ceremony for Cal State LA in their football stadium, with 20,000 people in the audience – a personal record that I suspect will never be exceeded – and my image projected, rock star style, on multiple giant screens around the stadium. I had a few butterflies in my stomach that morning. But I managed to give a speech that I ended up liking. It went something like this:
First, I’d like to thank President Rosser for inviting me to be here to share this morning with you. I’d like to thank all of the students for inviting me, too, except that I can see all of you down there discretely picking up your programs and flipping through saying “um, who exactly is this guy again and why is he here?” So let me help you out with those two because really if you ask your neighbor he or she probably won’t know either, but that’s OK.
Who am I? You got the quick intro: astronomer, professor at that much smaller university about 5 miles north of here, discoverer of the 10th planet or perhaps destroyer of the 9th planet depending on who you talk to. And I guess those are the official qualifications for why I’m here talking to you today. But let me tell you how I would actually introduce myself if we met out in the parking lot. I’d probably ask where you were from and I’d say “oh I’m your neighbor; my house is about 10 miles up the road that way.” And then I would probably tell you that I teach geology classes to large groups of Caltech freshmen many of whom seem to have never been outside during the daytime before I take them and make them look at the world around them. And then I would start talking about my wife and our 11 month old daughter and you’d have to find a way to get me to shut up because, you know, you need to be somewhere by dinner time and I might keep talking for weeks.
OK. So that’s who I am. The next question is: why am I here? The goal of a commencement speech is to give you a seed of advice at this precise turning point in your life – some seed that is going to implant in you and grow and help steer you as you commence on your new life. It’s a powerful idea that that I could do that, that I could transfer a little bit of wisdom from me to you to help steer through all of the cross currents and distractions of real life to finally get to your ultimate goal. Now that would be seriously influential.
But I’ve got bad news for you, though. I’ve got no advice to tell you how to get along in life. No little words of wisdom. No seeds to plant. As my wife will attest, I barely know how to get along in life myself, and if I had any seeds I probably set them down somewhere in the other room and now I can’t remember where I put them even though I just had them a second ago. I can’t really give you any advice on how to get to the future because the most important thing that you will realize – which you probably already realize since you have made it this far -- is that really you just have to figure it all out on your own. OK maybe that even counted as advice, but if that’s all you get after all of those years of classes and driving and rearranging schedules to get here on time then you should really ask for your money back. No, really, I’ve got no advice to give, unless, of course, you wanna run off and find planets, then I’m definitely your guy. But otherwise? Nothing really.
So I thought: what can I do? No advice to give, but I’m supposed to talk for ten minutes I can just try to be funny for a few more minutes then we can get on with the serious business of whooping and hollering as all 3600 of you walk across the stage. Then I remembered what my wife told me: scientists are not funny people. Why do you think they put them all in the far back of the stadium there? Not funny at all. Don’t even try.
So I’m going to go out on a limb and try to do something that is a lot harder than trying to be funny, which is trying to be serious. I do have something I want to tell you, which is maybe better – or at least more rare – than advice. I want to tell you thank you. Thank you for everything that you’ve done to be sitting right there right now. But really this is not from me, I really want to tell you thank you from the future. And you might think that I am uniquely qualified to talk about the future since I’m an astronomer and all, but, um, really, being an astronomer has very little to do with predicting the future. That’s an ASTROLOGER. They’re the ones that get paid better. But people do get confused all the time.
So it’s not that I am an astronomer and thus know the future, no, I think that the one qualification maybe I have for talking about the future really is my 11 month old daughter. Some of you down here – and certainly many of you out there – know what having a child does to you: you immediately start projecting to the world of the distant future, but you also start thinking a lot about the past and your own parents.
So before I start talking to much about the past, first let me ask: How many of you are in the first generation of your family to go to college? (At Cal State LA first generation college students make up the majority of the population.) This thanks goes to you, but the rest of you need to listen to because it will be your job to pass this thanks on to the right person in your own family.
So first, let me admit: I’m not one of you. I’m in the second generation to go to college.
My father grew up in a small Missouri cotton farming town along the Mississippi River. My mother grew up in a small Illinois manufacturing town along the Mississippi River Neither of their parents had gone to high school in their little river towns. My mother’s family came from recent German immigrants and ran a series of grocery stores in town. My father’s family came from all over – Ireland, France, Nebraska, Pennsylvania – before settling down along the river and opening a small business repairing the newly invented TV sets. By the end of the 1950s with college opportunities beginning to expand around the country they both set off to do something no one in their family had never done: go to college. My mother traveled down the river to the big town of St. Louis; my father went up the river to the big town of St. Louis; and they both arrived at St. Louis University with little idea of what was in store for the next 4 (or 40) years
My mother and father both went to college in the 60s and so in my family there really wasn’t much question of college vs. no college. It was simply a where (in Alabama the choice was usually based on whether you were a fan of the University of Alabama or the Auburn University football team). But things were different for my parents. My father grew up in a small cotton farming town along the Mississippi. My mother grew up in a manufacturing town further north along the Mississippi populated by German immigrants.
And, so, in case you haven’t figured this part out yet, my parents are you.
And if my parents are you, I am your children.
You are my parents. I am your children. Your children, though, will never quite understand this well enough to thank you for all that you did. So I’m going to thank you instead.
I’ve got a second thank you that I need to say this morning. It’s not really for you, so I’m only going to give it to you so that you can pass it on. And this is the thanks for the parents and the siblings and aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins and everyone else who is here supporting you today and who has been supporting you through all of this. Those people – all of you out there – are like my grandparents pushing their children from opposite ends of the Mississippi River in the same direction towards their own goals. The funeral for my grandmother – the last of my living grandparents – was just this last Monday in that little Mississippi River town. Until I sat down to think about what I was going to say this morning to you it never really occurred to me to think very hard about all that she had gone through that allowed me to be where I am today. It certainly never occurred to me to tell her thanks. But she deserves the same thanks that I just extended to you. I wish this one could be from me to her, but I’ll have to settle for from the future to all of you. For your parents out there, your grandchildren – present and future – thank you for all of the things that you did that will make their lives better, even though they won’t really know most of them.
Once you start thanking people it actually gets kind of addictive. Particularly when you are actually doing the thanking for someone else in the future. I’ve thanked you from your children and from your grandchildren, but I’ve got one more that is a little closer to home for me. I think a lot about my daughter these days and I think a lot about the future that she is going to have. In maybe 21 years or so – let’s say June of 2027 -- she could be sitting down right there where you are now. What will the world be like then? I sometimes think the bad thoughts: with 20 more years of global warming will LA be a place that we can live? Will the WORLD be a place we can live? Will the top speed on the freeways be 10 MPH? Will some psychopath figure out how to get a nuclear device into LA before Jack Bauer can stop him? But you think the good thoughts, too: in 20 more years maybe people will have learned to be nicer and more understanding. For the most part, though, most of these things are going to be imposed on us all from the outside and there will be little we can do. [sorry; this is a commencement speech faux pas. I’m not supposed to admit to you that much of what happens in the world you can do little about. Ok, for the record everything is possible you can be anything you want to be and completely change the world and we all believe in you to do anything. OK? OK. Now back to the real world]. OK, no, but really most of the thoughts that I have when I think about what the world will be like in my daughter’s future involve things that few of us – no matter how influential Time magazine says we are – can do much about. They are just the fabric of life, the collective interactions of the millions of people living out their lives at the same time in our community. And I can’t tell the future, so as much as I try to use the Tarot cards they issue you with the astronomy degree to predict what is going to happen, I really have absolutely no clue whatsoever. But there is one thing that I know – one part of my daughter’s life and future – that will be a constant no matter which of these things – good or bad – comes about. That one part will be you. You are the future fabric of this community of Los Angeles. You know, somewhere out there might be my daughter’s mayor – and by now you gotta trust that I don’t mean that in the cheesy commencement speech “you can be anything” kind of way – I mean that in the very literal “somewhere out there might be my daughter’s mayor or maybe city council member or Senator or whatever” way. Really. It actually seems pretty likely doesn’t it? Somewhere out there might be the high school English teacher that inspires my daughter to go write the great American novel. Somewhere out there might be her older next door neighbor who feeds her cats when she is out of town. Somewhere out there might be the parents of her husband. [If so we will need to talk right after this ceremony is over]. Somewhere might be the owner of the first company she ever works for. Somewhere might be the doctor who delivers my own daughter’s own daughter. Big parts of the fabric of her life, of the fabric of this city are sitting right here.
So, as her father, I’d like to thank you. It will never occur to her to thank you for anything since you’re the fabric and people tend to take fabric for granted, but I’ll thank you from the future for making and being the city and community of her future.
And, OK, I have one request. Really just one thing for you to remember to do when you leave here today. (And, of course, don’t forget what I said before about thanking those people who are here for you today). I still really don’t have meaningful advice, but I do have this one request. You guys are the Los Angeles of my daughter’s future, the fabric of her life in this community. And I just ask that you be nice to her. And to look out for her. It’s not too much to ask of you is it? Just to be nice to someone? Like she’s your own daughter, or your baby sister, or your favorite niece? And I meant to bring with me a big poster board picture of what she looks like so you could know who you were promising to look out for and be nice to, but I got up way too early this morning – astronomers aren’t traditionally morning people – so I just plain forgot. No baby pictures for you, so you really don’t have any way of knowing what she looks like – although you probably wouldn’t go wrong by looking for someone who looks an awful lot like me but is a good bit shorter and much much much cuter– but still, you’ll never know for sure which one of the toddlers then kids then teens then adults that she is, so really I guess the only safe way to honor my request to be nice to my daughter is just to be nice to everyone. And look out for them. You are the future of everyone’s community of Los Angeles and I want you to look out for everyone. It will make the Los Angeles of all of our futures a better place to be.