Dr. Gibor Basri’s 2015 Commencement Address

“Congratulations Wizards! You have completed your prescribed courses in Wizardry in the House of the Golden Bear. These have included learning enough of the secret language of Wizards – mathematics – to comprehend the Four Basic Spirits (or Forces) of the Universe. Their names are, of course (1) Electromagnetism who rules chemistry and pulls back the curtain on everything from particles to quasars; (2 & 3) the Strong and Weak Nuclear Forces who call forth the elements and maketh the stars to shine, and of course (4) Gravity: the master mover of planets, stars, and galaxies, who decreed the Great Cosmic Web of  Universal Structure. You have been privy to the tablets of the Standard Theory in whose runes the particles reside, the predictably unpredictable craziness of the fairy-like quantum, the hidden secrets behind the frozen cryogens, the hot plasma, and the solid state.

You have learned the birthing rituals of stars and planets, and most awesomely, the Great Inflation of the Universe itself! You know that in the beginning, there was not darkness, but a most stupendous form of light, so savage that no form of matter could withstand it for even an instant. And before even that there was the miraculous act that gave birth to the Four Forces: the Moment of Creation: the breaking of the One Symmetry that ruled them all, and in the false vacuum bound them!

So now, mighty Wizards, we are here to induct you into the society of Those Who Know! [My apologies if this did not quite make sense to the Wizards’ families and friends here present, but then you have not slaved in the school of Wizardry that brings us to this august occasion.]

I use the Wizard analogy because, as Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any science that is sufficiently advanced will be indistinguishable from magic”. You graduates have just been educated in a form of science that would indeed seem like magic to people only 3 centuries ago (actually, much of it only 1 century ago). This magic is perhaps best captured by what most of you have in your pocket or purse right now (with the sound turned off I hope, and no texting!).

While our friends the engineers are responsible for the details of the smartphone and its connectivity, all of the basic principles they used to make it work would not have been possible if the basic physics had not first been developed. I’m also pretty sure that almost all of you are already coders, which makes you part of the whole computing and software revolution that is rapidly overtaking us and changing our lives in very significant ways. When you email a short video of yourself at this graduation to a friend in Europe or Asia in less than a second, you will have performed a whole set of magical feats that would be incomprehensible to Isaac Newton or even Lord Kelvin.

Many of you will now embark on the second set of activities to turn yourselves into higher Wizards: called graduate school. There you will learn how to develop your own magical incantations and spells using mathematics and computer languages. You will develop new types of wands that can perform feats not now possible. You will bring forth ghostly worlds inside computers that can be probed like crystal balls for deeper understanding. You will find artful new ways to see what cannot be seen, to gaze into the distant past and the future, to manipulate matter at the atomic level to perform unheard of new feats. You may release this magic in scholarly papers, or patent or sell it, or open source it. You should be thoughtful about what magic you unleash on the world, remembering that others can use it for good or evil.

I’m guessing that you are well aware that many great discoveries remain to be made. In the area of the Dark Arts, we have not yet determined what dark matter is, and have almost no clue about dark energy. Yet we already know that they are they, with Gravity, rule the Universe. During the great battle between light and normal matter, which took place while the Universe was still too hot for atoms to form, light was winning its quest for universal sameness. The galaxies only exist now because the dark matter surreptitiously and immediately called Gravity to the work of binding gas into galaxies, which it could manage because dark matter has the cloak of invisibility to the other 3 forces. And now the dark energy threatens to drag most of the galaxies out of each other’s sight forever. Maybe you can figure out what this is all about…

Einstein’s project of the Grand Unified Theory remains unfinished; string theory still needs a lot of work to be converted from mathematical to “real” physics. Room temperature superconductivity hasn’t been achieved. So many material properties are coming into view with applications that haven’t yet been thought of. Nanotechnology and photonics hold great promise in many different applications. Telescopes will soon reach back to the beginning of the era of stars and galaxies. You could be among those who capitalize on the recent discovery that most stars have planets (which one of the graduates sitting in this room had a lot to do with), and advance the search for extraterrestrial life, quite possibly discovering it in the next few decades.

Some of you will not go to graduate school, but will pursue careers in different venues. Some will go to industry, some will teach, some will start companies; some will take a totally different tack. No matter your path, your certificate of Wizardry from one of the premier Academies will serve you very well. You are now known as a person who can muster the intelligence and discipline to master difficult material. When you answer the “what do you do?” question at a party with “physics” or “astrophysics”, people are invariably impressed. Employers will be too! It won’t matter whether they are a science or other type of business, they’ll know they are getting a problem solver and clear thinker; someone who has already passed through very impressive filters and obstacles.

But they should also pass your tests. Be sure it is a place you actually want to work and learn at. It should definitely not have values that are at odds with yours; hopefully they are well aligned. Don’t work on things that you don’t think are good for you, or for society. Be ethical, and demand that of your co-workers and the people who run the place. Since you are graduating from Berkeley, you have even a higher standard to reach for. Try to either be making the world a better place in your work, or do something else that accomplishes that. This University takes pride in its public mission, and the impact its alumni have on their communities, their states and nations, and on the world. Take care that you are progressing in your goals, and take care that you leave time for bigger goals. Do well to do good.

Now, I have been using the word “wizard” in its modern gender-neutral sense; I could use the similarly neutral word “scientist”. In medieval times powerful individuals possessing uncommon knowledge were mostly men, but this room shows that is no longer the case. Ish. Sort of. In fact, one of the broader projects you should always be working on is to make the band of wizards reflect the full diversity of potential wizards. Men, that means checking your biases, making sure you are looking for and supporting women colleagues, calling out those around you who are not, and encouraging women to enter and thrive in your field. Women, this means not letting men discourage or frustrate your goals, looking for and supporting women colleagues, calling men out when they fall short, and mentoring and supporting those who are younger or in less advanced positions. Stay the course despite those micro-aggressions and don’t put up with inequities in pay, resources, or power.

I extend these comments in very analogous ways to other dominant and underrepresented dyads. More stark than gender inequality is the deplorable underrepresentation of African-Americans, Chicano-Latinos, and Native Americans among American scientists. These groups are missing by factors of several up to an order of magnitude. That is bad news for the United States, since our demography is moving quickly to the same state that UC Berkeley has already been in for more than a decade: no majority racial or ethnic group. If science continues to look the way it does now, that means that the already small percentage of Americans who become scientists will keep shrinking, at the same time that countries like China and India are working to increase the percentage of their populations engaged in science. Our long-standing domination in science is under direct threat, and it is up to scientists today (which now includes you graduates) to address it immediately.

Part of this work is to examine whatever institution or business you are in and ask whether it is doing all it can to encourage access for all, supporting the advancement of everyone in it, and taking proactive steps to reach outside to encourage more participation. You can do these things yourself, and you can encourage your institution or business to do them. Check your privilege – and by the way, each one of you graduates have just gained a dose of privilege by virtue of your degree. Use it for good, and as you gain more, use it for more good.

While I’m asking you to keep these things in mind, by all means always make your own goals a priority. Also remember that although you may not be having fun at particular moments, you must always feel like what you are doing is fun in a grand sense, and where your passion lies. If that isn’t true, lay plans to change course.

Speaking of plans, always have a plan. It shouldn’t be too detailed, but it should be clear enough to allow you to make choices, when they appear, that advance it. That said, always have a back-up plan. Ask how what you are doing now (or could be doing) opens up related possibilities? Especially those that will still be attractive if the main plan doesn’t pan out. Finally, don’t expect either your plan or your backup plan to necessarily represent what is going to actually happen. Be prepared for opportunity – be very open to taking it – then make a new plan.  It’s partly what you know, but definitely partly who you know – so reach out to create or grab opportunity.

To illustrate what I mean, I’ll share a bit about how I got to this podium. In middle school I wanted to be an astronomer, but after doing a career report on it I decided it was too much of a long shot. I figured a physics degree would keep the option open, as well as providing many other opportunities in science. Like you, I went to a first-rate undergraduate institution. Hopefully not like you, the experience left me feeling not very confident by the time I was finished, even though I was reasonably successful. I had no words for it then, but now know that my situation was a strong version of stereotype threat. It operates most virulently for those in negatively stereotyped groups (for Physics that includes women and people of color) who actually really care about succeeding and have the talent to get where you all have gotten. A few of the graduates in this room may be experiencing something like this, and those who aren’t need to be understanding of that and even help mitigate it. It shouldn’t be too hard, since everyone has experienced the milder form of it, called “imposter syndrome”. If you haven’t at some point here felt like there were smarter people around you, then you have something different to work on!

I also realized, however, that I really did still want to be an astronomer. I went to graduate school in Boulder with that in mind, but with a backup plan to make sure I could also get a job in programming if astronomy didn’t work out. By the end of graduate school I was more confident and having fun. My advisor told me he thought I had faculty potential, but that meant he was kicking me out! He knew I needed to establish an independent program. My wife and I were both upset, especially since she had a great job there. There were only a few places we were willing to move, and Berkeley was one of them. She decided she’d like to get her doctorate here so I’d better get a job. This happened when we were sitting in the cafeteria of LHS. Our friend pointed to SSL just up the hill and suggested I go up there and get a job.

I pointed out that I’d just look silly going up the hill and asking about jobs. That is totally NOT how it works. After determined but ultimately futile resistance, I trudged up the hill. Only one professor was there right then, and the first thing he told me was that this was not how it worked. I agreed, and we began to chat. By the end of the conversation, however, we had established that he was about to look for someone in my area of specialty, and maybe this WAS how it worked. He decided to call my advisor and check me out. The rest of my career hinged on having walked up the hill and presented myself in an uncomfortable way. It also mattered, of course, that my work was good enough.

So don’t worry too much about what others may think; take chances. Know that outside forces will push and pull in unanticipated directions. As you gain confidence and reputation, start using them to make things better. Bring younger people along. Start looking for broader impact. People are always happier when they are “giving back”.  Success is not measured by how much money you make, but by how much you control your life to match your passions. Figure out what you really want and need, and what your true passions are. Make good connections with others (it’s no fun if you can’t share it and it’s great to have a support network). Family is probably important to you – if so make it a high enough priority to compete successfully with your work, which if you are lucky, will be a very high bar. Don’t forget to take care of your body and get enough sleep. Lastly, and least, do make some effort at being recognized if your work deserves it. You can’t quite count on others to do that for you.

I will end by speculating about the kind of world are you moving forward to. There are issues of enormous import to the human race: climate change, genetic engineering for good and/or bad, machines displacing too much of the workforce, potential artificial sentience. There will also likely be advances with great promise (some of which are related to those issues): fantastic connectivity, digital and robotic servants, tremendous medical advances, a fully global economy and citizenry, breakthroughs in knowledge leading to greater control of everything, enlightened sustainability. You will play a role in shaping this future. What an adventure to be part of! Go out and play with the magic! And every so often, remember where you became a Wizard. Go Bears!!”

Copyright 2015©, All Rights Reserved – Department of Astronomy; please email info@astro.berkeley.edu for permissions to publish.


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