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Commencement Address, 2018

June 15, 2018
Thomas F. Rosenbaum

Congratulations!  You are all now graduates of the California Institute of Technology!!

Your parents, siblings, loved ones, friends, and teachers have all helped you along this path of adventure and accomplishment, and they too deserve our thanks and congratulations.

On March 3, 1958, in a letter sent from 309 South Jackson Street, Montgomery, Alabama, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote to thank Wesley L. Hershey, Executive Secretary of the Caltech Y, for "…making my recent visit to the campus of Caltech such a meaningful one…I was deeply stimulated by all of the discussions and the contact with the students." 

He then continued: "As I said riding to the airport the other night, I was quite pleased in knowing that students in scientific research were so interested in social problems. This, it seems to me, is very promising and it is certainly all important as we think of the fact that our scientific and technological progress has so far outdistanced our moral and spiritual progress."

We have been privileged today to hear the inspirational words of Congressman John Lewis, a man whose belief in a just society, in moral and spiritual progress, has illuminated a life of action dedicated to improving the world. As scientists and engineers, we are trained in a particular way to interrogate Nature and to represent the workings of the world around us. This approach has led to the impressive scientific and technological progress to which Dr. King alludes. It also leads to a particular responsibility for action, a responsibility to speak out for truth, to evaluate premises using data and evidence, and to recognize the import of a person's words based on the power of their ideas, rather than their position in society.  

In his poem Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot speaks to us about times of transition:

"For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice…
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from."

Graduation is both an end and a beginning.  At my own college commencement, Paris Review founder and author, George Plimpton, urged the seniors to go back, to refuse to graduate: "Stop now," he cried. "Tell them you won't go. Go back to your rooms. Unpack!"  Plimpton was harking to the idyllic life of a college student at remove from the world, a life where classes were programmed for you, various and for the choosing, meals were provided, guidance was freely dispensed, and the vicissitudes of life were modulated by the rhythm of the academic calendar.  For graduate students too, the ability to dive deeply into the canon and write new chapters in human knowledge is a rarefied existence largely shielded from the hurly burly of the world.

The Caltech experience, intense and daunting as it is, provides a certain safety and comfort, within the embrace of a tight-knit community.  But the world beckons. You will be entering into experiences that are rare in the pleasures they can provide and astounding in their potential. And you have been prepared to take full advantage of the opportunities ahead.

As you pack up your rooms, you take extraordinary possessions with you. You are fearless.

You are ready to tackle any challenge with your quantitative skills, but even more importantly, to use those skills to define new directions through distillation of the underlying principles.  You are ambitious. In the best sense of the word, you seek to advance your insights and discoveries for the benefit of generations to come. You carry with you Caltech's honor code. You have weighed your actions in light of the needs of others, in the broadest sense of community.  No matter which direction your travels take, you will be prepared to find true north.

As you embark on your new beginnings, you have the freedom to reimagine the shape of your lives and the directions of society. Change is manifest and inevitable, but it will not be powerful except in the context of our defining values.