Robert Krulwich

To The Graduating Class of 2009

Prologue: The following is the graduation speech I wrote and auditioned. I didn’t end up being the graduation speaker, as you’ll know if you attend my graduation tomorrow. As Staples noted, “Their loss, dude. Their loss.” I couldn’t agree more. However, I put a lot of time and effort into this and still think it’s worth sharing. What’s presented below is the speech as I auditioned it, but with a couple dozen comments about my writing process, thoughts, and insides jokes. Special thanks to Corinne Johnson, Audrey Nelson, and especially Jeff Staples for reviewing this and giving me feedback.

The idea for giving the graduation speech started almost a year ago, as I was listening to the 2008 graduation speaker. I distinctly remember two things: the guy gave a pretty crappy speech and I could do significantly better, at least in my estimation.

I started working on ideas over the summer. Writing down themes, quotes, and phrases that came to mind. Eventually, I had a working copy. And finally I had this.

This was probably one of my best kept secrets during senior year: Codename Shakespeare. Initially, only one other person knew about it. However, as the date for tryouts grew closer, I had no choice to but let a few more people in on my little secret, although I still managed to keep the circle small. Before now, no more than a dozen people knew about the speech and even fewer had seen or heard it.

I think what’s most striking about this speech is how it contrasts with my high school graduation speech, especially in terms of target audience, content, and style.

Anyway, thanks for hanging out with me here on Andrew Ferguson dot NET the last five years. It’s been really fun. I look forward to the next 5 years and hope you’ll stick around.

President Scoggins, distinguished trustees, faculty, and alumni, proud parents, grandparents, friends, and, of course, members of the Class of 20091: after years of toiling, we’re finally finished. We’ve persevered — and some might even suggest suffered — through the four, five, or even six or more years of university. Along the way, we have been tempered2- by our professors, by our course work, by our friends, and by our school.

It is this process of tempering that I wish to speak to you about.

The act of tempering is generally defined as performing some action “A”, to some object “B”, to bring it to some new state “C”.

This could be, as Oxford defines it, as simple as “mingling one ingredient together with another, in proper proportions.” Such as might happen when students, and professors, from around Colorado, the United States, and the four corners of the World come together at an institution such as Mines.

This mingling process started even before school did, when we moved into the dorms3 our freshman year. Floor events organized by our RA’s forced us to engage with others, rather than staying inside to play video games by ourselves. This process was furthered by the small class sizes, smaller study groups, and even smaller lab groups. These intimate learning opportunities would lay the foundation for everything to come. At Mines, I wasn’t simply being taught, I was being educated4. Little did I know what I was getting myself into.

Another definition of tempering reads: “to bring into a suitable or desirable frame of mind.” One of the first classes everyone at Mines is required to take is Physics One. When I took physics, four years ago, the class was taught by a pony-tailed hipster named Professor Kelso — who, at the beginning of class, would often ask obscure science fiction questions in exchange for a candy bar5. Between the early morning lectures, late afternoon labs, and all night LON-CAPA homework sessions with fellow students, something interesting started to happen.

My world view — my frame of mind — began to change. I would look around and instead of seeing actors in a play6, I starting seeing forces and relationships: A father applying a 147 Newton force at a 428 degree angle as he pushes his son — who masses roughly 319 kilograms — on a swing that’s suspended two meters below a bar.

Perhaps a more applicable example: the ice that forms on those cold winter mornings in Colorado: What’s the coefficient of static friction on that ice? How fast can I run to my 8am class before I overcome that static friction and starting sliding? Once I do start sliding, how far will I go before I fall on my face? The answers is, predictably, not that fast and not that far; somewhere between two and three meters per a second for a distance of 8610 centimeters .

Of course, being a school with a mining background, it would not be fair to overlook the metallurgical implications of tempering.

The most common definition of tempering occurs when one brings “steel to a suitable degree of hardness and elasticity or resiliency by heating it to the required temperature and immersing it, while hot, in some liquid, usually cold water;”

This past semester, a friend of mine, Islin Moy, wrote a short note entitled, “Engineering Should Come With a Warning Label.”11 It reads, in part12, “In your senior year, second semester, you will experience stress levels not felt since failing your first test, over a prolonged period of time, at the same intensity. This is due to senior design and the random decision of professors to double your workload13. Senioritis and the general decline of your attitude towards school doesn’t help either. The question is, do you really want to graduate? If the answer is YES, then forge ahead, sipping your energy drinks during the day14 and taking your sleeping pills to fall asleep at night, only to wake up 4 hours later. There is no such answer as NO. You got this far.”

The last four years have been about tempering; about becoming hardened and resilient. This was accomplished by subjecting us to homework assignments that took all night long, near impossible projects , and test, after test, after test. We will inevitably grumble about these things, just as the hot steel screeches when submersed in the cold water15. However, one cannot deny that, at the end of the day, we are better for it; having been brought up that “suitable degree of hardness and resiliency.”

It is to this hardness and resiliency that Islin referred to when she wrote, “There is no such answer as NO. You got this far.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean it was easy getting here. As Jenny Holzer, an American conceptual artists, once quipped, “Some days you wake up and immediately start to worry. Nothing in particular is wrong. It’s just the suspicion that forces are aligning quietly and there will be trouble.”

There was definitely trouble. I can’t tell you the number of times I broke down in tears. I think only one of those times I cried over a girl16 — and she was from Boulder17 — but the other times I broke down for any number of reasons ranging from homework that was too hard or not well explained, to a chemistry lab that wasn’t going the way it was supposed to18, or just the general stress from being away from my home in Seattle.

As a freshman, I often bounced between elation, such as when I finally understood that one equation, to depression, over scoring low marks on any number of exams, to agony, after realizing I still had four more years left.

Four years later, and I’m still excited when I finally get some concept in class, and I still feel a bit queasy after getting some exams back. However, my overall emotions remain in-check and tempered, “reduce[d] to [a] suitable or desirable middle degree or condition free from excess in either direction.”

I expect that it is this desirable emotional middle ground that we will call upon many times during our careers. When the pressures of deadlines at work see everyone around us crumbling, we will stand strong. When the ethics of a project come into question, we will be brave. When the task at hand is so monumental, it will make going to the moon19 look like driving around the block, we will be triumphant. Through it all, and more, we will persevere20: because we are tempered.

So, where does that leave us? The end result of this tempering processes is a better and stronger product than the original. As such, we leave Mines as learned engineers, knowing more than we did coming in, confident that we have many21 of the tools we need to succeed in our endeavors. As Dr. Spock, the pediatrician, not the Vulcan22, once said, “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”

To the Graduating Class of 2009: We did it.

Now, go forth and make wonderful things, do good for the human race, live long and prosper23.

  1. This is basically the same introduction that David McCullough used in his 2008 address to Boston College, “The Love of Learning“. I’d also suggest you listen to “Why Telling Stories is Important to Engineers” by Robert Krulwich of Radio Lab. 

  2. I came up with four different topics: tempering, communication, luck versus design, and adventure. This was the theme I ended up going with 

  3. Apparently, “dorms” isn’t politically correct. The correct term is “Residence Halls.” Whatever. 

  4. This bit is a combination of Mark Twain’s quote, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education,” and Winston Churhill’s quote, “Personally, I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.” 

  5. If memory serves correctly, I did win once…it was a Star Trek question. 

  6. A nod to Shakespeare’s As You Like It: All the world’s a stage, // And all the men and women merely players; // They have their exits and their entrances; // And one man in his time plays many parts… 

  7. My soccer number 

  8. The answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything 

  9. The day of the month I was born 

  10. The year I was born 

  11. Observant blog readers will remember that I covered this note a couple months ago 

  12. With Islin’s permission, I tweaked her note to fit the speech better 

  13. A section was eliminated here 

  14. This part about energy drinks was added 

  15. This is one of my favorite passages 

  16. This is true, believe it or not 

  17. She was actually from out of state and went to school in Denver, but Boulder sounded better…and was funnier 

  18. Spring of Sophomore year 

  19. A nod to to Kennedy’s Moon speech: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” 

  20. I really wanted to make this “hupomeno.” However, it would have required too much explanation. 

  21. Deliberate choice to include this word, since I strongly believe that we don’t have all the tools…nor should we. 

  22. A Star Trek reference, the first of speech…but not the last 

  23. …the other Star Trek reference 

Why Telling Stories is Important for Engineers

Over the last few years, I’ve made a concerted effort, both on my blog and in meatspace, to become a better story teller. I’m still not a great story teller, but I do think I’m improving.

Robert Krulwich is the co-host of Radiolab on WNYC, which is “what you’d get if you put Freakonomics, Malcolm Gladwell, and This American Life in a blender.”1 This past spring, Krulwich gave the commencement speech at CalTech. He called it “Tell Me a Story” and he makes a case for the importance of telling stories.


[In] the next hour or two, there you’ll be in your cap and gown surrounded by your family and by friends, and by friends of friends, and somebody, you know, maybe an uncle or a buddy, somebody, is gonna turn to you and say, “So, like, what were you doing at Caltech? I mean what were you working on?” Not that they really wanna know, you know. But after all you’ve been here for four years, so you know, or a different number if you’re a grad student, you must have been doing something here. So it’s only polite to ask.

And I know that a lot of you have scientifically illiterate dads and moms, some brothers and some sisters, not all of them, of course, but some. And let’s assume that one of these people…he’s not a scientist, he’s not an engineer, and the last time he had…a complex thought about biology or math was back in eleventh grade, when he got a C- in both subjects and vowed ever never to think about biology or math ever again. But because this is your day, and because this person loves you, or because he can’t really think of anything to say after ‘Hey!’, he asks you about your work.

And to make it still more interesting, let’s assume that if you explain to this person, what you’ve been working on, you might have to use certain words like protein or quark, or differential or maybe hypotenuse, and if you do, they’re gonna listen to you very, very politely, but upstairs those words are gonna mean not a whole lot to them, you know. Cause science is not their thing. They can lip-sync every words to ‘N Sync’s “Bye, Bye, Bye,” but you know hypotenuse is hard.

So here’s my question. When you are asked, ‘What are you working on?’, should you think, ‘There’s no way I can talk about my science with this guy, cause I don’t have the talent, I don’t have the words, I don’t have the patience to do it. It’s too hard. And anyway what’s the point?’, which is, by the way, not an unusual position. No less than Isaac Newton, and I mean Sir Isaac Newton, that one, when asked, ‘Why did you make your Principia Mathematica, your earthshaking book about gravity and laws of motion so impossibly hard to read?’, he said, ‘Well, I considered writing a popular version that people might understand, but’, and I am quoting Newton here, ‘To avoid being baited by little smatterers in mathematics,’ that was his phrase “little smatterers,” he intentionally wrote a book in dense scholarly Latin with lots of maths so that only scholars could follow. In other words, Isaac Newton didn’t care to be understood by average folks. But here is the argument I wanna make to you guys this morning. And you’re not gonna hear this advice often, I suggest you may never hear it again. When asked about your work, do not do what Isaac Newton did. No, no, no.

When a cousin or an uncle or a buddy comes up and asks you, “So what are you working on?”, even if it’s hard to explain, even if you know they don’t really wanna hear it, not really, I urge you to give it a try. Because talking about science, telling stories to regular folks is not a trivial thing. Scientists need to tell stories to non-scientists, because science stories, you know this, have to compete with other stories about how the universe works and how the universe came to be. And some of those other stories, bible stories, movie stories, myths can be very beautiful and very compelling. But to protect science and scientists, this is not a gentle competition. So you’ve got to get in there and tell yours, your version of how things are and why things came to be.

You know, you know that when you receive your degree today, you are part of and you’re celebrating something very rare, and very precious, and very fragile in our world. This place celebrates freedom and because you are now free men and women, you have to protect what you’ve been given by helping others who haven’t been here, who are never coming here to understand the value of what you do and what your teachers do, and what their predecessors have done, which is why an hour or so from now when your brother, or your aunt or your mom asks you ‘So what have you been up to while you’ve been here?’, take a chance, find the words, find the metaphor, share the beauty, and tell them what’s on your mind. Tell them a story.

Every engineer, scientists, mathematician, or anyone else with a Bachelors (or Masters, or Doctorate) of Science degree should listen to his speech, which I’ve included below. However, I’d also encourage you listen to it even if you’re not in the above category.


If You Happen to Be in NYC Tomorrow: Radio Lab Premiere Listening

After my entry two posts ago on Continuous Partial Attention and my ever so slight mention of Radio Lab1, David Bukszpan, the publicist for WNYC Radio, sent me an email:

I see you’re a Radio Lab fan. I also see you’re out in Seattle, so you won’t be able to make it, but wanted to let you know the Season 4 Premiere Listening takes place tomorrow (Thurs) at the Angelika Theater in NYC.

More info at &, in case you have readers in NY you’d like to tell about it.

So I know that at least a few of you are in New York, so I thought I’d pass this along.

And in case that wasn’t enough, check out scientist tickles rat in flattering red lighting at the Angelika Film Blog.

Perhaps Jad Abumrad or Robert Krulwich will call2 me next.

Update: See also:

1 It was a footnote mention that said, “See also”
2 My number is on the right column of the blog