[FoRK] [archive] Sandra Tsing Loh's Caltech commencement speech

Rohit Khare rohit
Thu Jun 16 18:14:58 PDT 2005

Gotta love defining an all-nighter as "Borrowing from tomorrow to pay  
for yesterday, today" ... bonus points for working in how she got  
fired -- and invoking Feynman to do it! --RK


Sandra Tsing Loh's Commencement Speech to the Caltech Class of 2005

"PS: The Last Caltech Lesson"

Congratulations Caltech, class of 2005! Welcome friends and family  
and no, you didn't hear wrong. . . I am indeed your commencement  

Yes, we are at Caltech, the top science school in the country -- No  
matter what MIT may pathetically try to claim-- Speaking of which, I  
thought we were promised a prank by MIT. A commencement prank. What's  
the matter. . . Too scared, Girlymen? I'm sorry-- What with our  
Governor, "Girlymen" is what we say in California-- It's a kind of  
Austrio-Hollywood term of endearment-a love tap, if you will.

Anyway-- As you know, historically gracing this podium are such  
eminences grises as Nobel Prize laureates, Fortune 500 CEO's, network  
anchormen, Time magazine Men of the Year. . . Even in 1991, an actual  
sitting president, George Bush, Sr.

Instead, here I am. . . One of those public radio commentators who  
does short personal bits five minutes before the hour, right after  
all the important news. . .
Some would describe the "I am not worthy" feeling to be terror--
Some would say, "Oh well--it's just another dreamlike, out of body  
moment. . . at Caltech--"

Because I am a Caltech graduate and--for those of us in this hardy  
group-performance anxiety is nothing new. We're people who laugh at  
fear--! samurai who've already proved ourselves by surviving. . . a  
"Caltech education." Which can seem like. . . secret Clubhouse code  
between "Techers"-- How hard this school is-- And for those visiting  
for the first time, relatives from out of town, to give you just a  
quick-snapshot-example of what your Caltech grad has triumphed  
over. . . Consider that beloved academic tradition-- The take- 
home. . . open-book. . . infinite time exam-

"That's right! Take all the time you want! Won't really help you  
because, PS, Problem Number Two? It's actually impossible. That's  
right! It's a famous impossible conundrum! Even Descartes couldn't  
solve it, after working on it. . . for 37 years. Then he went insane.  
Had a fight with Foucault, bar in Lyons, few drinks, argument,  
duel. . . Funny story, we thought it would be amusing to give this  
unsolvable drove-Descartes-mad paradox to you freshman. . . in Math  
1. . . your very first week at Caltech!" ["And then to really mess  
with your perfect SAT /high school valedictorian heads, we gave you,  
woo. . . infinite time."
But rest assured that Caltech students do learn to fight back, in  
this intellectual hazing process. Even the mediocre ones. I know,  
because I was not just one of them, I believe I'm on the short list  
of candidates for patron saint of those lost at Caltech. Junior year,  
I was assigned as physics lab partner classmate Sekhar Chivukula,  
widely regarded a genius, he's still in physics today. Of our pairing  
it was said: "Sekhar will do the calculations, Sandra will handle the  
radioactive samples." Thanks for the respect. Never mind-- By senior  
year, I'd developed my own law of quantum mechanics that had nothing  
to do with Wigner-Eckhart's Theorem or Clebsch-Gordon Coefficients-

No, Sandra's Theory was: "On any Phys 106 exam involving the spin of  
an atom, the answer is at least 63 percent likely to be. . . 1/2." I  
don't know why but. . . You'd be amazed how often it worked: To skip  
the calculations and just boldly put down 1/2 and then write next to  
it an illegible honeycomb snarl of curlicues that vaguely resembled  
any of the Greek symbols--lambda, iota, zeta, tau, ampersand-- With  
any luck a tired Pakistani TA might just look at it, get a headache  
and throw you a point--!

So by the time I graduated, I had a Caltech diploma entirely made  
of. . . partial credit, yes-- My degree was glued together, faintly  
pulsing with. . . radioactivity, graded less on a curve than on a  
kind of wild hyperbola asymptotically approaching. . . some  
imaginary. . . actual answer. . .

But good news, once Caltech gives you a diploma, apparently. . . they  
can't take it away. Rock on! So what do I have to be afraid of? As  
far as I'm concerned, this is all just some dreamlike follow-up  
oral. . . for show--!

But back to you. Graduates--! As you sit on Beckman Lawn, ruminating  
over your last four years here. . . Or five, or eight-- In my day,  
there was one Darb in astrophysics on the 12 year plan, who lived on  
nothing but Mountain Dew and Cheese Puffs. . . Anyway, Graduates--!  
You might be asking yourself: "What does my Caltech past mean? What  
of my present? Most importantly, what philosophical advice do I need  
to carry me, shiplike, into my future?"

You may not actually being thinking this--we certainly weren't at our  
graduation--but this is a commencement speech so let's get to it. The  

And historically, the one thing we know about advice is: So much is  
given, so little is remembered, and the little that's remembered is  
short. Think of Elizabeth Taylor. When asked what advice she had for  
tomorrow's actors, she said just two words: "Take Fountain." Fountain  
is a lesser known boulevard in Hollywood, a great short cut across  
town. Unusual: Advice that's pithy, useful, and still relevant today.

I was initially tempted to go even shorter, offering Caltech grads  
just four letters: I-K-E-A. Because in your twenties, couches and  
shelves are astonishing big deals--

But obviously I wanted to go deeper. . . And fortunately, I had an  
eager collaborator in my father, Eugene Loh, 85 years old now,  
Shanghai-born, Caltech Class of '54. . . The day he learned I was to  
be Caltech commencement speaker was both the most thrilling day in  
his life and then suddenly the most terrifying when he realized how  
much. . . could go wrong. So for the past few months my dad has been  
calling me every other morning--at 7:15 a.m.!--with the quickest  
routes into Pasadena, how to set a second alarm. . . I'm 43 years  
old, and my Chinese father was still having nightsweats about his  
daughter somehow, Caltech-style, sleeping through this. . .

My dad was also worried about my blowing the speech, so with retired  
scientist precision he drafted it for me on a napkin. First I was to  
list our family's Caltech credits: him, me, my brother Eugene. . . My  
father met my mother at the Caltech swimming pool but he didn't think  
that was important, more important was that she worked in Renee  
Delbecco's lab! My sister Tatjana went to UCLA but was born in the  
old St. Luke's which is now part of. . . Caltech! Rock on! Quote  
Goethe, praise David Baltimore, end with something vaguely uplifting  
like "Dare to dream". . . and above all, my dad said: "It's  
commencement. Don't 'try' to be 'funny.'"

And at that moment, the light bulb went on. I remembered the one  
thing that freed me, post-Caltech-- And I believe can free you. . . .  
The advice being not "Dare to dream"-- Every young person dares to  
dream-frankly, it's all they do all day! But many bright young  
people, under their A student masks, also harbor a secret  
passion. . . And the key to releasing that last exotic bird to flight  
is not "Dare to Dream," but, listen carefully, "Dare. . . to  
disappoint. . . your father."

That's right, Caltech graduates. . . Freedom begins now! Diploma in  
hand, start today veering wildly off course! have the fabulous  
graduation lunch, at the Ath. . . or Burger Continental. . . Let your  
parents get a few bites in, and then boldly unveil. . . your hideous  
summer plans! Skiing, snorkeling, belly-dancing, sleeping-- Maybe try  
out for American Idol, why not?

And you Asian students? That goes double for you. You know who you  
are?don't make me come and get you. Don't be shy. Look at me--I went  
into the liberal arts which, for a Chinese father, is like pole-dancing.

I'm not saying mothers can't be disappointed at graduation-- Mine  
said she disappointed mostly by what I wore-

But I think fathers--or father-shaped objects or male mentors-- 
resonate most here, as Caltech is a campus predominantly built. . .  
by fathers. Certainly women continue to gain presence-- For instance,  
I'm thrilled that my classmate Julia Kornfield is full professor here  
in Chemical Engineering. . .leading a graduating class of all women  
in chem. e.

We've come a long way, baby, from where we first met in 1979, on  
Caltech's first women's volleyball team. . . Woo! Which was great  
fun-- But unfortunately as females were still a new phenomenon on  
campus our athletic mascot remained "the Caltech. . .. beaver." So  
when we ran out onto the court at games, our fans would bravely yell,  
"Goooooo Beavers!" Never mind.

So yes, more women will continue to enter its history books, but for  
me Caltech, look around you, has always felt like a land of kings--  
Its heroes the fathers of modern chemistry, biology, physics,  
neuroscience. . . Who give name to the stately buildings-- Kerchkoff,  
Church, Von Karman-- busts of male elders surprise one at every  
garden turn, and oil paintings, including, most famously, in the  
Atheneum dining room, Caltech's Holy Trinity. . . Not Father, Son and  
Holy Ghost, but Noyes, Hale, and the virtual George Washington of  
Caltech, in full academic regalia, Robert Millikan.

As a female I must say I'm happy to be standing in front the most  
double-X chromosome-suggesting building on campus, the giant Beckman  
wedding cake.

But while Caltech is beautiful, at some point I think the weight of  
all these glowering Caltech fathers looking down on you can be  
daunting for a young person. Think of Amadeus, of Mozart cringing  
under his father's portrait-- Father-worship being important,  
but. . . it doesn't tell the whole story, does it?

Consider, in the Dabney House courtyard, the bas-relief of a kind of  
Last Supper. . .. Except the apostles are named Archimedes, Euclid,  
Copernicus, Newton, Pasteur, da Vinci, Darwin, Franklin, who are all  
paying homage to a Christ-like. . . Richard Feynman. The pomp, the  
saintliness. . . Lovely to look at, but is this really how one should  
remember Feynman?

Dramatic pause. And here we go--a Caltech commencement tradition-- 
finishing with the obligatory Feynman story-- That. . .. brings it  
all together.

Here's mine. Flashback to 1979-- We are freshmen in Page House, in a  
glaze from our first "infinite time" exam. . . Which has triggered  
our first "all-nighter"--known as: "Borrowing from tomorrow to pay  
for yesterday, today." (It's hard to figure out, I know). And in  
walks our first after-dinner guest--author of those great red bibles:  
The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Feynman. It's Feyman! Nobel Prize  
laureate in physics. We freshmen sit stunned, our mouths hanging open  
as he talks. And Feynman, a brilliant anecdotalist who's used to  
going into a room and just killing-

Well he sees we're in a glaze, and so, to perk things up, in  
describing electromagnetic induction, where a magnetic coil pulls a  
needle in, out, in, out. . . He suddenly stops, in amazement, and  
erupts comedically, in his thick Bronx accent: "Look at that! It's  
little like?.

And then--to our shock--he utters a non-FCC approved word for which,  
on public radio last year, I got fired-

So I won't say it again but you may figure it out if you consider  
that Feynman's own commencement speech right here. . . in '74 began  
with Feynman's famous riff on pseudoscience which features. . . a  
naked woman getting a massage at Esalen. And he doesn't mean Madame  

So under the bas-relief of Feynman as God, I suggest. . . Maybe a  
little electromagnetic coil. . . Flanked by a bottle of champagne,  
two wine glasses and. . . maybe some bongos.

Because his examples were truth, though, Feynman didn't consider them  
particularly shameful. But obscuring the truth. . . that, to him, was  
embarrassing. For instance, in 1909, Millikan. Robert Millikan, the  
father of Caltech, measured the charge of the electron via falling  
drops of oil. Over ensuing years, when scientists repeated the  
experiment, the results kept creeping upward, by tiny increments,  
until the value eventually became fixed at a number. . .  
significantly higher.

Feynman's commencement question to his graduates was: why didn't they  
get the right answer sooner? Because when the researchers got their  
results. . .. Well, I picture them having lunch at the Ath, saying:  
"Our data is so far off! Could Millikan be--?" And then they look up  
from their salad, see Caltech's Father, Son and Holy Ghost looking  
down from that oil painting and they think: "No. It is I who  
must. . . be wrong."

Because Caltech's motto is: "The truth shall make you free," I think  
the last great Caltech gedankenexperiment is just that, graduates, to  
imagine your literal--or metaphorical--dad being wrong. [Look at  
Stephen Hawking, 30 years later--"All that stuff I said about the  
universe? Sorry!] Course, he didn't go to Caltech.

And of course, as more female alumna start sending daughters to  
Caltech-- My eldest Madeline is four, so even with early admissions  
we've got a few months to go.

Hopefully, eventually I will be proved wrong, by a commencement  
speaker who says: "Disappoint your mothers."

Either way, I believe, failing one's elders is serious business, and  
not currently in fashion. These are times of great anxiety, and great  
conventionality. With ever-escalating academic pressure, there is a  
danger of creating perfect performers, trained monkeys unable to  
break through to a new paradigm. Not that this implies any Caltech  
students. . .

But as, for 111 years, there have never been any humiliated parents  
at Caltech graduations-- I see very few black armbands here today--  
We can deduce that the only thing graduates didn't learn is how to  
fail you, parents. So let them-- graduation is the beginning of the  
hero's journey-- Which is a little bit Oedipal--just a little, I'm  
not saying kill your father! But the hero's journey does begin by  
leaving. . . the safety of the village. . . (And, yes, I think women  
can be heroes. If a beaver can be a woman, a female can be a hero!)

And in the beginning of this journey, boldness is all-- boldness has  
genius, power and magic in it. Dig me, I got in some Goethe.

And so what if June is traditionally a treacherous time for  
irreverence. . . A time when elder authority reigns, with heavy  
hand. .. . What with Father's Day, Graduation, and so many  
commencement speakers roaming the land--the CEO's, network anchormen,  
even presidents and vice-presidents. . . The only ruler not currently  
touring, I think, is the Pope!

If there's a Medieval image I'd suggest for Caltech genius, it's less  
great circle of old grizzled kings than card zero of the Tarot deck:  
the one Fool. . . stepping off a cliff. You. Who proves them all wrong.

In other words, new motto: If you happen to be a Buddha in the road  
and you see a Caltech grad coming. . . Be a little nervous.

Thank you all, sorry about the disappointing speech, dad, and Class  
of 2005. . .

Congratulations! Go get 'em!

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