Skip to main content

Inspiring Physics Commencement Speeches

As commencement season comes to a close, many students are eagerly awaiting the next step in their life — one possibly free of term paper all-nighters, exams and lab reports. But joining the "real world" has its own share of stresses, and they can be quite troubling for a recent graduate. Adult life's inherent lack of structure can leave many recent graduates feeling lost, and they may even lose sight of why they went to school in the first place.

That's why a good commencement speaker can be so inspirational. Aside from jokes about moving back in with parents, graduation speakers can provide the courage to face the nebulous journey ahead.

While physicists aren't always known for their eloquence, several notable physicists have delivered some inspiring pieces of advice for recent graduates. I've compiled a list of memorable commencement speeches delivered by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Steven Chu, Richard Feynman and more. Enjoy.

Richard Feynman

"But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school — we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation.

It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards.

In his 1974 Caltech commencement speech, Feynman reflected on science, pseudoscience and scientific integrity while coining the term "cargo cult science": the sort of science that appears to be working correctly but is missing something essential. The video above has been adapted from Feynman's speech.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

"Math is the language of the universe, and this town knows that. If you want to have a conversation with the universe, you learn math."

Part I

Part II

In 2010, Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke to the graduating class of the University of Alabama Huntsville. He stressed the importance of the dreamers working with math and science. Scientific missions, such as NASA, help develop the culture of our nation, and Tyson warns that science can't succumb to the influence of politics, greed and selfishness.

Steven Chu

"Normally, commencement speakers are like corpses at an Irish wake — we're needed for the ceremony, but no one expects us to say much."

"Life is too short to go through it without caring deeply about something."

Energy Secretary Steven Chu addressed the 2011 graduating class of Pomona College. He emphasized passion for one's work, friends and planet while appealing to Carl Sagan's reflection on the pale blue dot that we all call home.

Bonus: Stephen Colbert

"In my experience, you will truly serve only what you love, because service is love made visible. If you love your friends, you will serve your friends. If you love community, you will serve your community. If you love money, you will serve your money. And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself. And you will have only yourself.

So no winning. Instead, try to love others and serve others, and hopefully find those who will love and serve you in return.

Stephen Colbert is no astrophysicist, but his funny, personal and inspiring speech can't be missed. For a somewhat rare glimpse into the "real" Colbert, see how he advised the 2011 graduating class of Northwestern University.


If you want to keep up with Hyperspace, AKA Brian, you can follow him on Twitter.


Popular Posts

How 4,000 Physicists Gave a Vegas Casino its Worst Week Ever

What happens when several thousand distinguished physicists, researchers, and students descend on the nation’s gambling capital for a conference? The answer is "a bad week for the casino"—but you'd never guess why.

Ask a Physicist: Phone Flash Sharpie Shock!

Lexie and Xavier, from Orlando, FL want to know: "What's going on in this video ? Our science teacher claims that the pain comes from a small electrical shock, but we believe that this is due to the absorption of light. Please help us resolve this dispute!"

The Science of Ice Cream: Part One

Even though it's been a warm couple of months already, it's officially summer. A delicious, science-filled way to beat the heat? Making homemade ice cream. (We've since updated this article to include the science behind vegan ice cream. To learn more about ice cream science, check out The Science of Ice Cream, Redux ) Image Credit: St0rmz via Flickr Over at Physics@Home there's an easy recipe for homemade ice cream. But what kind of milk should you use to make ice cream? And do you really need to chill the ice cream base before making it? Why do ice cream recipes always call for salt on ice?