This is the speech I gave on 2017-06-18 at the Commencement ceremony of the Stanford Physics Department. Special thanks to Priyanka Raina for help with phrasing and editing.
To Fellow students, undergraduates and graduates: Congratulations on getting your degree. The sweat and tears of the past few years are culminating in some more sweat on this hot, yet beautiful summer day.
To Parents: thank you for your love and sacrifices and for making us what we are today. It is also Father’s day today, so a special shout out to all the Dads in the audience.
To Faculty: thank you for teaching and mentoring us, and for making us into mature physicists.
To the entire physics community at Stanford: thank you to Maria Frank and the entire staff for taking care of us and making this place a home away from home.
The first thing I want to touch upon in this graduation speech is why do we do physics?
I am sure every one of you has a great answer to this question, here’s mine.
We do physics because there are deep, serious questions about nature that we do not yet know the answers to. To pick one example out of many, we know that 23% of the universe is made up of dark matter, and we have no idea what dark matter actually is. That is a big chunk of the universe we are missing.
Secondly, there are questions and problems which are worth pursuing just because of their richness, and the beauty of the multiple ideas they touch upon. Slightly more than a year ago, we finally detected gravitational waves, that were predicted by Einstein a hundred years ago. A hundred years is a long time, and it must be a very beautiful, robust edifice of physics that can predict the motions of nature with such accuracy.
Thirdly, by virtue of their training, physicists can also contribute immensely to topical issues like energy, global warming and climate change, exemplified by some of the classes taught by the physics faculty here. I hope the funding agencies are listening, and I encourage all of you, no matter which profession you might take up in the future, to fight for increased funding to fundamental research.
Finally, there are more personal reasons why we do physics. We do it because we love it. And we all know that love isn’t all sweet. What I am going to say now applies essentially to any career in adult human life. We must learn to enjoy our vocation while consciously keeping in mind the daily “grind”.
Like everything in adult life, research involves brutal mundane days. On those days, we need friends and loved ones. But then, after weeks or months of confusion and hard work of trying out various things, the nut finally cracks. That moment is exhilarating. You feel true ownership of your result. What you just accomplished has a certain character of permanence, and I find that to be a very satisfying feeling. And slowly but surely, one begins to see beauty even in the daily routine.
So, those were my reasons for why we do physics.
I feel compelled to add a word on politics. Just like serious research is slow and painful, understanding politically divisive topics well requires effort. Serious decisions about society shouldn’t be made on frivolous premises. Even in this age of 140 twitter characters, click-baity headlines, in this frenzied fanatic world, it still may be that reading an extremely unsexy-looking long-form article, a detailed report or a book is the best way to learn about an issue. So, let us all strive to form opinions based on solid facts and good reason.
I would like to add a word about Stanford itself. My physics experience at Stanford was very special. In addition, Stanford was even more special to me because it is where I took a break from spending all my life getting A’s, and put to action the advice of an early teacher: “Raghu, apart from your job, try to learn well one physical sport that you can play routinely, and one art-form that you can make a part of your life”. The physics, the weather, the grass, the sky, the physical spaces on campus, and the people, I am going to miss everything so much.
As we move into adult lives, let us pledge to be ambitious and intellectually curious.
Let us strive to make ourselves better all the time. Let us choose wisely in what we do and think about, in accord with our personality and values. And equally important, let us invest time and energy into building meaningful connections with people around us.