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 speaker.
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. . .
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."
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 advice.
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 Curie.
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!