Graduation Speech: Think Like a Scientist

The following is the (approximate) text of the speech I gave Friday night at the Whitney Point High School graduation. Or, at least, this is what I typed out for myself Thursday night– what actually comes out of my mouth on Friday might be completely different. That’s why they do these things live, after all…


When I agreed to speak here, one of the first things I thought of as I tried to decide what to say was my own college graduation, where the speaker began by noting that nobody ever remembers anything said by a graduation speaker. We all thought that was pretty funny, and talking about it on the ride home, agreed that none of us could remember anything said by the speaker at my high school graduation. In fact, we couldn’t remember who the speaker had been.

When we got home, my mother dug out a copy of the program from my graduation, and we found that there hadn’t been a speaker at all. We couldn’t even remember that nobody had given a speech.

So, that’s the bar I’m setting for myself–I hope that what I say today will be more memorable than nobody at all.

These days, I’m a college professor, which means I hear a lot of graduation speeches–at least one per year. From these, I’ve learned that there are three main jobs that a graduation speaker has to do.

The first is to acknowledge and celebrate the accomplishments of the graduating class. And they’re well worth celebrating–this is a major milestone for all of you.

I’m a scientist by training, so I can’t resist giving a few numbers. To get to this day, you spent roughly 2,210 days in school, give or take a few for snow days and that sort of thing. That’s a bit more than 13,000 hours of school, or just under eight hundred thousand minutes. That’s a lot of time, though I realize that it probably feels like 200,000 of those were spent taking one Regents exam in math. It’s something like one-fifth of your waking life to this point, and that doesn’t even include all the hours spent on homework, practices, and rehearsals, in concerts and games, at dances and on school trips, and all the rest.

You’ve put in a lot of time, and a lot of work to get to this point. You’ve earned every round of applause, and every bit of the congratulations you’ll receive today.

And these are incredibly important hours and years. The friends you’ve made, the classes you’ve taken, the activities you’ve been part of– all of these will influence your life for years to come. They won’t determine the course of your life– that’s for you to do with the choices you make from here on– but the time you’ve spent here, the lessons you’ve learned, and the memories you’ve made have played a huge role in making you who you are today. That, in turn, influences the decisions you’ll make from here on, often in ways you don’t consciously notice.

After I graduated high school, I went to Williams College, a small liberal arts school, in large part because of the sense of community in a small school, which reminded me of home. I ended up liking it enough, in fact, that I went to graduate school specifically intending to become a professor at a small college, and that led me to Union. So I literally would not be where I am today without the influence of Whitney Point, not only through what I learned in school, but everything about the community.

So, as I said, this graduation marks an important milestone for all of you. Your life will be very different from now on– I’m sure nobody’s told you that yet– and it’s entirely appropriate to take a few moments to reflect on the things you’ve done to this point, and celebrate the good things that you’ve accomplished.

The second job of a graduation speaker is to offer some advice to the graduating class. Preferably something short and pithy, that could fit on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker. Again, I’m a scientist by training, so my advice to you is this: as you go through life, try to think like a scientist.

I don’t mean that you have to be a scientist, or major in science, or even take science classes. Those are all good things to do, but they’re not the essential part of science. Science isn’t about facts that you learn in school, it’s a habit of mind, an approach to dealing with the world. The most important thing in science isn’t an organism you talked about in Mr. Wiley’s biology class, or a reaction from Mr. Mannix’s chemistry class, or a formula from Mr. Peck’s physics class. The most important thing in science is the moment when somebody looks at the world and says “Huh. I wonder why that happened?”

Science isn’t a body of facts, science is a process for figuring out how the world works: you see something interesting, come up with an idea of why that might happen, and test you’re idea to see if you’re right. You repeat this process until you figure out why things happen the way they do, and then you use that knowledge to explain new things, or to do things that you couldn’t do before.

So, when I tell you to think like a scientist, what I’m saying is to use that process, which is something anybody can do. You don’t need to be good at math, or take a bunch of classes–you just need to observe the world around you, ask questions, and look for answers.

So, think like a scientist. Pay attention to the world around you, even the little details. Ask questions of yourself, and of other people. And look for real answers–don’t accept “that’s just the way things are.” Push a little, and find the real reasons why things are the way they are.

And when you find those answers, use them to make the world a better place. When you see something that doesn’t seem to work as well as it should, find out why, and what you can do to improve it. When you see something in the world that seems unfair or unjust, don’t just shrug and accept it, look for answers, and work to make it better.

The third, and most important job of a graduation speaker is this: to know when to stop. So, thank you again for having me. Congratulations to all the members of the Class of 2009, and may you all find success in your future lives and careers. Congratulations.