[FoRK] [archive] Sandra Tsing Loh's Caltech commencement speech
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
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
Dramatic pause. And here we go--a Caltech commencement tradition--
finishing with the obligatory Feynman story-- That. . .. brings it
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
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. . .
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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