Madam President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, faculty, family, friends, and, most importantly, today’s graduates,
Thank you for letting me share this wonderful day with you.
I am not sure I can live up to the high standards of Harvard Commencement speakers. Last year, J.K. Rowling, the billionaire novelist, who started as a classics student, graced this podium. The year before, Bill Gates, the mega-billionaire philanthropist and computer nerd stood here. Today, sadly, you have me. I am not wealthy, but at least I am a nerd.
I am grateful to receive an honorary degree from Harvard, an honor that means more to me than you might care to imagine. You see, I was the academic black sheep of my family. My older brother has an M.D./Ph.D. from MIT and Harvard while my younger brother has a law degree from Harvard. When I was awarded a Nobel Prize, I thought my mother would be pleased. Not so. When I called her on the morning of the announcement, she replied, “That’s nice, but when are you going to visit me next.” Now, as the last brother with a degree from Harvard, maybe, at last, she will be satisfied.
Another difficulty with giving a Harvard commencement address is that some of you may disapprove of the fact that I have borrowed material from previous speeches. I ask that you forgive me for two reasons.
First, in order to have impact, it is important to deliver the same message more than once. In science, it is important to be the first person to make a discovery, but it is even more important to be the last person to make that discovery.
Second, authors who borrow from others are following in the footsteps of the best. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who graduated from Harvard at the age of 18, noted “All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients.” Picasso declared “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.” Why should commencement speakers be held to a higher standard?
I also want to point out the irony of speaking to graduates of an institution that would have rejected me, had I the chutzpah to apply. I am married to “Dean Jean,” the former dean of admissions at Stanford. She assures me that she would have rejected me, if given the chance. When I showed her a draft of this speech, she objected strongly to my use of the word “rejected.” She never rejected applicants; her letters stated that “we are unable to offer you admission.” I have difficulty understanding the difference. After all, deans of admissions of highly selective schools are in reality, “deans of rejection.” Clearly, I have a lot to learn about marketing.
My address will follow the classical sonata form of commencement addresses. The first movement, just presented, were light-hearted remarks. This next movement consists of unsolicited advice, which is rarely valued, seldom remembered, never followed. As Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.” So, here comes the advice. First, every time you celebrate an achievement, be thankful to those who made it possible. Thank your parents and friends who supported you, thank your professors who were inspirational, and especially thank the other professors whose less-than-brilliant lectures forced you to teach yourself. Going forward, the ability to teach yourself is the hallmark of a great liberal arts education and will be the key to your success. To your fellow students who have added immeasurably to your education during those late night discussions, hug them. Also, of course, thank Harvard. Should you forget, there’s an alumni association to remind you. Second, in your future life, cultivate a generous spirit. In all negotiations, don’t bargain for the last, little advantage. Leave the change on the table. In your collaborations, always remember that “credit” is not a conserved quantity. In a successful collaboration, everybody gets 90 percent of the credit.
Jimmy Stewart, as Elwood P. Dowd in the movie “ Harvey” got it exactly right. He said: “Years ago my mother used to say to me, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be … she always used to call me Elwood … in this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’” Well, for years I was smart. ... I recommend pleasant. You may quote me on that.
电影《Harvey》中，Jimmy Stewart扮演的角色Elwood P. Dowd，就完全理解这一点。他说：“多年前，母亲曾经对我说，‘Elwood，活在这个世界上，你要么做一个聪明人，要么做一个好人。’”我做聪明人，已经做了好多年了。……但是，我推荐你们做好人。你们可以引用我这句话。
My third piece of advice is as follows: As you begin this new stage of your lives, follow your passion. If you don’t have a passion, don’t be satisfied until you find one. Life is too short to go through it without caring deeply about something. When I was your age, I was incredibly single-minded in my goal to be a physicist. After college, I spent eight years as a graduate student and postdoc at Berkeley, and then nine years at Bell Labs. During that my time, my central focus and professional joy was physics.
Here is my final piece of advice. Pursuing a personal passion is important, but it should not be your only goal. When you are old and gray, and look back on your life, you will want to be proud of what you have done. The source of that pride won’t be the things you have acquired or the recognition you have received. It will be the lives you have touched and the difference you have made.
After nine years at Bell labs, I decided to leave that warm, cozy ivory tower for what I considered to be the “real world,” a university. Bell Labs, to quote what was said about Mary Poppins, was “practically perfect in every way,” but I wanted to leave behind something more than scientific articles. I wanted to teach and give birth to my own set of scientific children.
Ted Geballe, a friend and distinguished colleague of mine at Stanford, who also went from Berkeley to Bell Labs to Stanford years earlier, described our motives best:
“The best part of working at a university is the students. They come in fresh, enthusiastic, open to ideas, unscarred by the battles of life. They don"t realize it, but they"re the recipients of the best our society can offer. If a mind is ever free to be creative, that"s the time. They come in believing textbooks are authoritative, but eventually they figure out that textbooks and professors don"t know everything, and then they start to think on their own. Then, I begin learning from them.”
My students, post doctoral fellows, and the young researchers who worked with me at Bell Labs, Stanford, and Berkeley have been extraordinary. Over 30 former group members are now professors, many at the best research institutions in the world, including Harvard. I have learned much from them. Even now, in rare moments on weekends, the remaining members of my biophysics group meet with me in the ether world of cyberspace.
I began teaching with the idea of giving back; I received more than I gave. This brings me to the final movement of this speech. It begins with a story about an extraordinary scientific discovery and a new dilemma that it poses. It’s a call to arms and about making a difference.
In the last several decades, our climate has been changing. Climate change is not new: the Earth went through six ice ages in the past 600,000 years. However, recent measurements show that the climate has begun to change rapidly. The size of the North Polar Ice Cap in the month of September is only half the size it was a mere 50 years ago. The sea level which been rising since direct measurements began in 1870 at a rate that is now five times faster than it was at the beginning of recorded measurements. Here’s the remarkable scientific discovery. For the first time in human history, science is now making predictions of how our actions will affect the world 50 and 100 years from now. These changes are due to an increase in carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The Earth has warmed up by roughly 0.8 degrees Celsius since the beginning of the Revolution. There is already approximately a 1 degree rise built into the system, even if we stop all greenhouse gas emissions today. Why? It will take decades to warm up the deep oceans before the temperature reaches a new equilibrium.
If the world continues on a business-as-usual path, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that there is a fifty-fifty chance the temperature will exceed 5 degrees by the end of this century. This increase may not sound like much, but let me remind you that during the last ice age, the world was only 6 degrees colder. During this time, most of Canada and the United States down to Ohio and Pennsylvania were covered year round by a glacier. A world 5 degrees warmer will be very different. The change will be so rapid that many species, including Humans, will have a hard time adapting. I’ve been told for example, that, in a much warmer world, insects were bigger. I wonder if this thing buzzing around is a precursor.
We also face the specter of nonlinear “tipping points” that may cause much more severe changes. An example of a tipping point is the thawing of the permafrost. The permafrost contains immense amounts of frozen organic matter that have been accumulating for millennia. If the soil melts, microbes will spring to life and cause this debris to rot. The difference in biological activity below freezing and above freezing is something we are all familiar with. Frozen food remains edible for a very long time in the freezer, but once thawed, it spoils quickly. How much methane and carbon dioxide might be released from the rotting permafrost? If even a fraction of the carbon is released, it could be greater than all the greenhouse gases we have released to since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Once started, a runaway effect could occur.