Cal Poly Pomona College of Science Commencement Speech
Harvey S. Leff, Professor Emeritus of Physics
Delivered June 11, 2005


College of Science graduates, relatives, friends, President Ortiz, Dean Straney, distinguished guests, faculty and staff colleagues, I am honored to be here today. I thank Dean Straney for inviting me to speak.

Doonesbury cartoonist, Garry Trudeaux, said the role of a commencement speech is to sedate college students before releasing them into the world. However, my hope is to to rev up each of you as you embark on the next phase of your life.

It was easy to decide what to talk about this evening, because you graduates and I have much in common. First, we have all studied a form of science or mathematics. Second, we are all at milestones. You are receiving a degree earned by hard work over a number of years. I am retiring from an institution where I have worked for 22 years. We each have understandable apprehensions about what our futures will bring as we stand at these crossroads. For me, and I suspect for you too, this is a bittersweet moment. The bitter part is that we must all leave the beauty of the Cal Poly campus and the many friends we have made, and head into the truly unknown. The sweet part is that we now have opportunities to do new and exciting things. For you, graduation brings an end to the seemingly endless list of required courses and the continual barrage of homework problems and term papers. Most importantly, though, it brings an exciting chance to find the job of your dreams or work toward a higher degree.

Six Pieces of Advice

As we embark on our mutual journeys into the future, I suggest that we attempt to take a global, rather than local, view of our lives. I shall offer six pieces of advice and will do a countdown from five to zero, highlighting important issues and offering tips as I see them. Physicists are accustomed to dealing with time and space, and my tips will touch on both.

Tip #5. Assess and plan your life using a global view of time

Imagine a meter stick to represent the time-line of your life. Each centimeter represents one year. The zero end of the meter stick depicts the time of your birth and we'll confine our attention to the first 80 cm -- that is, the first 80 years -- close to the average U.S. life expectancy. I am approaching the 68 cm mark. Most of you bachelor's and master's graduates are now between the 20 and 30 cm marks on the meter stick. Therefore, some 50 to 60 cm that is, 50 to 60 years lie ahead of you.

Despite the momentous nature of this graduation, today is but an instant in a lifetime of experiences -- a mere blip on the radar screen of life -- and simply a point on the meter stick. Tomorrow (and really, everyday) is the first day of the rest of your life. As you traverse your life path, remember where you are on the meter stick. When there are many days ahead of you, as there are now, you will want to proceed in a way that will help make them fulfilling. And when you have relatively few days ahead of you, as do I, you realize just how precious the remaining ones are, and you are compelled to spend them in a productive, satisfying way.

When you approach 70 or 80 cm on the meter stick, will you be proud of it? Will you have done your very best? I adopted a global view of time years ago. It provides me with a useful perspective and helps me to see the forest rather than the individual trees. Perhaps it will be helpful to you too.

Tip #4. Assess and plan your life using a global view of space

Earth can be viewed as a big, roughly spherical object, with bumps and water on its surface, some valuable stuff inside, and an envelope of air surrounding it. We poke holes in Earth to find resources such as oil, natural gas, coal, iron, aluminum, and the like. The Earth is finite and these resources are nonrenewable. We scientists and mathematicians understand this.

On Earth, everything is connected to everything else. Each breath we breath contains molecules that others have breathed out. As you listen to me speak you might be breathing in molecules from Albert Einstein, or perhaps even Paris Hilton. Smog from Los Angeles finds its way to Las Vegas. Dust from volcanoes has effects on the opposite side of the Earth. As a kid, I wondered what happened to cigarette smoke outdoors. Where did it go? It seemed weird to me that it could simply disappear. Now I understand that our atmosphere is a finite reservoir of gases that can, and indeed does, show the effects of human activity. Global warming exists, and is clearly exacerbated by humans pumping enormous quantities of carbon dioxide into the air. Will humans continue to do this throughout your lifetimes? You have the awesome responsibility to deal intelligently with global spatial issues such as these, issues that will no doubt affect the lives of your children.

The human population of Earth was 3.8 billion in 1971. Now it is 6.4 billion. By the time you are my age, you will likely be vying for Earth's finite, nonrenewable resources with nearly 9 billion others. There is already fierce competition for these necessities and during your working lifetimes, this competition will surely increase significantly. Our planet is a large house that humans and other animals share. Your space is not just your bedroom, your home, or your neighborhood. Your space is the entire planet, including its bodies of water and its atmosphere. Live your life with this in mind. A global spatial view will enable you to live more intelligently and to help the world deal with critical global issues.

Tip #3. Maintain your scientific curiosity and sense of amazement

One of the greatest personal joys you can have, regardless of your age, is an ongoing appreciation of how marvelous the world is and how much of it we can actually understand. Albert Einstein wrote that anyone who cannot wonder about the marvels of the world is "as good as dead, a snuffed out candle."

I myself am amazed by images of distant glowing specks transmitted to Earth by the Hubble telescope. I am even more amazed to know that this light has traveled several billion years and that each speck is not a star, but rather an entire galaxy containing millions of stars. I am amazed to know that new stars are born everyday and old ones die, sometime in dramatic Supernova explosions.

Never lose your sense of curiosity and amazement and your life will be exciting and rewarding on a daily basis.

Tip #2. It's never too late for personal change and improvement.

Although each of you is graduating in a specific major, in future years you might well be working in another area, depending on your changing tastes and job opportunities. I myself have made such changes. Outside the realm of science, I made a life-changing move at age 60. I learned the rudiments of drumming, mainly by watching video instruction tapes. About 20 months ago, three colleagues in the Physics Department and I formed a band called the Out-Laws of Physics. We have played 18 gigs since then (one just last night) and are having the times of our lives. We set up a physics scholarship fund using money we've earned, which makes us feel even better. All of this was unimaginable eight years ago. But it was not too late to learn and to do something completely different. As you live your life, remember that it is never too late for personal change and improvement. Learning new, previously unimaginable things can enrich your life and yield dramatic rewards.

Tip #1. Money is not everything!

Realize that while money is necessary for a comfortable life, it cannot buy good health or good relationships with others. It also cannot buy creativity. Those who spend their lives trying to maximize their incomes will miss many of the pleasures life has to offer. My advice is to seek out jobs throughout your life in which you can do things you truly like. Usually, you are good at these things or you wouldn't like them. Select your path in life according to what makes you happiest. Given the 40 or more years during which you will be working, this is extremely important! The objective is to pursue your interests as much as possible and try to find someone who will pay you to do just that.


Have you committed these tips to memory? I will post this speech on my website if you would like a reminder. This brings me to the final item in my countdown,

Tip #0: Carpe Diem Everyday!

"Carpe Diem" is Latin for "seize the day." My advice is this: Seize the present opportunity everyday. Use your time wisely and remember your place on this planet. Help to make the world a better place for your children, grandchildren, and beyond. You have the potential energy to do this. Let's see you transform it into kinetic energy! To close, I now ask you graduates, friends, relatives, faculty and staff, to chant "Carpe Diem" with me three times, as loudly as you can. Are you ready? Let's go:

Carpe Diem! Carpe Diem! Carpe Diem!

Thank you.