Graduation Speech: Think Like a Scientist

The following is the (approximate) text of the speech I gave Friday night at the Whitney Point High School graduation. Or, at least, this is what I typed out for myself Thursday night-- what actually comes out of my mouth on Friday might be completely different. That's why they do these things live, after all...


When I agreed to speak here, one of the first things I thought of as I tried to decide what to say was my own college graduation, where the speaker began by noting that nobody ever remembers anything said by a graduation speaker. We all thought that was pretty funny, and talking about it on the ride home, agreed that none of us could remember anything said by the speaker at my high school graduation. In fact, we couldn't remember who the speaker had been.

When we got home, my mother dug out a copy of the program from my graduation, and we found that there hadn't been a speaker at all. We couldn't even remember that nobody had given a speech.

So, that's the bar I'm setting for myself--I hope that what I say today will be more memorable than nobody at all.

These days, I'm a college professor, which means I hear a lot of graduation speeches--at least one per year. From these, I've learned that there are three main jobs that a graduation speaker has to do.

The first is to acknowledge and celebrate the accomplishments of the graduating class. And they're well worth celebrating--this is a major milestone for all of you.

I'm a scientist by training, so I can't resist giving a few numbers. To get to this day, you spent roughly 2,210 days in school, give or take a few for snow days and that sort of thing. That's a bit more than 13,000 hours of school, or just under eight hundred thousand minutes. That's a lot of time, though I realize that it probably feels like 200,000 of those were spent taking one Regents exam in math. It's something like one-fifth of your waking life to this point, and that doesn't even include all the hours spent on homework, practices, and rehearsals, in concerts and games, at dances and on school trips, and all the rest.

You've put in a lot of time, and a lot of work to get to this point. You've earned every round of applause, and every bit of the congratulations you'll receive today.

And these are incredibly important hours and years. The friends you've made, the classes you've taken, the activities you've been part of-- all of these will influence your life for years to come. They won't determine the course of your life-- that's for you to do with the choices you make from here on-- but the time you've spent here, the lessons you've learned, and the memories you've made have played a huge role in making you who you are today. That, in turn, influences the decisions you'll make from here on, often in ways you don't consciously notice.

After I graduated high school, I went to Williams College, a small liberal arts school, in large part because of the sense of community in a small school, which reminded me of home. I ended up liking it enough, in fact, that I went to graduate school specifically intending to become a professor at a small college, and that led me to Union. So I literally would not be where I am today without the influence of Whitney Point, not only through what I learned in school, but everything about the community.

So, as I said, this graduation marks an important milestone for all of you. Your life will be very different from now on-- I'm sure nobody's told you that yet-- and it's entirely appropriate to take a few moments to reflect on the things you've done to this point, and celebrate the good things that you've accomplished.

The second job of a graduation speaker is to offer some advice to the graduating class. Preferably something short and pithy, that could fit on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker. Again, I'm a scientist by training, so my advice to you is this: as you go through life, try to think like a scientist.

I don't mean that you have to be a scientist, or major in science, or even take science classes. Those are all good things to do, but they're not the essential part of science. Science isn't about facts that you learn in school, it's a habit of mind, an approach to dealing with the world. The most important thing in science isn't an organism you talked about in Mr. Wiley's biology class, or a reaction from Mr. Mannix's chemistry class, or a formula from Mr. Peck's physics class. The most important thing in science is the moment when somebody looks at the world and says "Huh. I wonder why that happened?"

Science isn't a body of facts, science is a process for figuring out how the world works: you see something interesting, come up with an idea of why that might happen, and test you're idea to see if you're right. You repeat this process until you figure out why things happen the way they do, and then you use that knowledge to explain new things, or to do things that you couldn't do before.

So, when I tell you to think like a scientist, what I'm saying is to use that process, which is something anybody can do. You don't need to be good at math, or take a bunch of classes--you just need to observe the world around you, ask questions, and look for answers.

So, think like a scientist. Pay attention to the world around you, even the little details. Ask questions of yourself, and of other people. And look for real answers--don't accept "that's just the way things are." Push a little, and find the real reasons why things are the way they are.

And when you find those answers, use them to make the world a better place. When you see something that doesn't seem to work as well as it should, find out why, and what you can do to improve it. When you see something in the world that seems unfair or unjust, don't just shrug and accept it, look for answers, and work to make it better.

The third, and most important job of a graduation speaker is this: to know when to stop. So, thank you again for having me. Congratulations to all the members of the Class of 2009, and may you all find success in your future lives and careers. Congratulations.

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This is a very different voice for you. Good speech, just reads so different than all your other writing.

I hope you got a few good laughs and that they remember you :)

In a compassionate world the cheese eats the dairyman. Compare the salary, benefits, and job security of a stoner high school dropout holding the STOP sign at a construction site with those of a senior NIH post doc. Who's genes will abundantly propagate? When do their summed earned incomes cross?

Go placidly amidst the noise and waste, and remember what comfort there may be in owning a piece thereof. Avoid quiet and passive persons, unless you are in need of sleep. Rotate your tires. Speak glowingly of those greater than yourself; and heed well their advice, even though they be turkeys. Know what to kiss - and when. Consider that two wrongs never make a right, but that three do. Wherever possible, put people on hold. Be comforted, that in the face of all irridity and disillusionment, and despite the changing fortunes of time, there is always a big future in computer maintenance.

(You are a fluke of the universe.
You have no right to be here.
Whether you can hear it or not,
The universe is laughing behind your back.)

Remember the Pueblo. Strive at all times to bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate. Know yourself. If you need help, call the FBI. Exercise caution in your daily affairs, especially with those persons closest to you... That lemon on your left, for instance. Be assured that a walk through the seas of most souls would scarcely get your feet wet. Fall not in love, therefore, it will stick to your face. Gracefully surrender the things of youth: the birds, clean air, tuna, Taiwan - and let not the sands of time get in your lunch. Hire people with hooks. For a good time, call 606-4311, ask for Ken. Take heart in the deepening gloom that your dog is finally getting enough cheese. And reflect that whatever misfortune may be your lot, it could only be worse in Milwaukee.

(You are a fluke of the universe.
You have no right to be here.
Whether you can hear it or not,
The universe is laughing behind your back.)

Therefore, make peace with your god, whatever you perceive him to be: hairy thunderer or cosmic muffin. With all its hopes, dreams, promises, and urban renewal, the world continues to deteriorate. GIVE UP!

Brilliant speech.
A good message to send to people who'll be a little uncertain of where they are and where they're going.

What are your thoughts on re-use of it? I've got to give a talk to some high-school kids on Science(TM) soon and would love to use this or something similar.

Good speech. I'd add: "Finally, remember that the real world, especially if you Think Like a Scientist, is not a Multiple Choice Exam."

Reference (reposted from Terry Tao's blog):

29 June, 2009 at 7:42 am

Gérard P. Michon

Not all multiple-choice questions are bad. However, students who have been routinely rewarded for speed with little or no âpenalty for guessingâ often miss the point of well-designed questions, like this superbly crafted example (not mine ;-) where actual thinking IS required and rewarded:

The source of every sound is something that is
A) undergoing simple harmonic motion.
B) accelerating.
C) a net emitter of energy.
D) moving.
E) vibrating.
Apparently, fewer than 20% of âguessersâ pick the ONLY correct choice (C) because most or all wrong answers may look better, or more âplausibleâ at first.

Questions of that quality being so rare, itâs still safe to say that multiple-choice exams are a disgrace (except, possibly, in quick self-evaluations).

Also, letâs not forget that exams graded by a teacher are a rare opportunity for students to assert themselves in a creative sense. That opportunity is denied to them if they are only asked to check boxesâ¦

The Big Picture: Education consists in passing civilization and knowledge from one generation to the next. Ultimately, some students ought to be able to write better questions than their elders, or else the whole exercise is pointless and/or doomed⦠Checking boxes in front of existing questions does not help at all in that process.