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Physics Department Commencement Address

Professor Jan ChaloupkaWhen Professor Griffieon asked me to deliver a speech at the physics department commencement ceremony, I was, I admit, a bit hesitant. Weighing most heavily on my mind was the fact that most of the poor seniors seated before us had heard me ramble on for a full two semesters of quantum mechanics - that comes out to about four thousand minutes. Do they really need another ten minutes of my rambling? And this brought up another issue: just how long should the speech be? The suggestions that I heard all seemed pretty arbitrary, and notions of subjectivity never sit well with a physicist. But never fear, I have devised a perfectly rational and intuitive scheme to determine the length of this speech: The length of a speech should vary in direct proportion to the prestige of the speaker. Now, earlier today we gathered in William & Mary Hall to hear the college-wide commencement address. It was delivered by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and one of the greatest human rights activists of our time. He spoke for about thirty minutes. So if you'll bear with me, I will now calculate the appropriate length for this speech. ["my nobel prize ..... not yet ....... carry the three ..... psi star psi ......"] Hmm, according to my calculations, this speech should have ended forty-five minutes ago! Well, I never claimed to be much of a theorist, but I do promise to keep my time before you mercifully short.

As with our seniors, this is my fourth year here at the college. And as a result, I feel that I've grown up right alongside them. In the spring of 2002, while they contemplated which undergraduate institution to attend, I was interviewing for my first full-time faculty position. And I feel certain that many of the things about William & Mary that were so attractive to me as a new professor also drew our young students to this fine place. Williamsburg is no bustling metropolis, but it is a beautiful small town. While the economy of the area is largely based on the sale of funny hats and the manufacture of crystal-clear beer, it is strongly supplemented by a diverse European subculture ... complete with rollercoasters. And what will certainly be the clincher for future generations of students, is a new park filled with 20-foot sculptures of all of the American Presidents' heads - I am not making this up. What better place to seek one of the finest undergraduate educations in the country. The campus itself, the second oldest in the U.S., is gorgeous. Amidst the grand and traditional buildings, we see growth everywhere. In an effort to entertain and frustrate its students, the administration is committed to maintaining anywhere between three and thirteen major construction projects at one time. Sure, you spent most of your junior year eating in a massive tent, but isn't the new cafeteria worth it? And maybe your dorm rooms have felt a bit outdated, but isn't it comforting to know that future students will find themselves living in luxury that is rivaled only by the finest spas? And how could we forget about a project located just a stone's throw from Small Hall. If you know anything about early American history, then you know that covered, multi-tiered parking was a dream for the early colonists, and after over three-hundred years, William & Mary will make it a reality this year. I am only saddened that you will not be here to witness what promises to be the greatest mayhem of all, the renovation of Small Hall itself. But then again, you can't have all the fun.

But what drew me to this place most of all, and what I hope played a role in your choices as well, are the attributes and character of the physics department itself. When I first visited here four years ago, I was surprised by how friendly everyone in the department was. Certainly they were putting on a good face for a faculty candidate - no place can be that collegial and warm and supportive. I was wrong. The members of this department are easily the most open and friendly of any physics program I've encountered. But this does not mean that this is not a serious place. The faculty of this department do cutting-edge research and we have an exceptionally strong PhD program. And research opportunities abound for undergraduates as well, culminating in the senior research that every concentrator must take part in. Finally, the commitment to teaching that is embodied by this department is second-to-none; it goes without saying that this is hugely important for our prospective undergraduates.

So our seniors arrived here that fall, and so did I. They took introductory physics, and as the coordinator for the laboratory sessions, I had a chance to meet many of the seniors graduating today. Even then I was impressed with how bright and motivated these students were. You may think, just how impressive can one's mastery of pushing hockey pucks on an air table be, but it was the questions outside the realm of the class that surprised me. These students, just barely out of high school, displayed an amazing curiosity and drive. I knew right away that I had picked the right place to come and teach. Over the next three years, they took a wide range of courses, both within the department and all across the campus. All of these students before us today had at least one class, with one instructor, in common, namely my course in quantum mechanics. Poor kids! But this gave me the wonderful opportunity to get to know every single one of them. And an amazing group they are. For proof of this, you need look no further than the independent research that they did as seniors. I know that mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, and all the rest of us are very proud of these students, but if you had been here a week or two ago, to see their end-of-the-year research presentations, you would have been blown away, as I was. Now, you may think, doesn't Professor Chaloupka have anything better to do than to go see all of these student talks. Well, first of all, no, I don't. Second, I've been harassing and pestering these students for four years now, and that seemed to be my last chance to do it again. As it turns out, this, today, is my last chance. But most importantly, the work that our students do is so impressive, and so interesting, that I went to those talks for an entirely selfish reason. I wanted to learn some new physics, and in every one of those talks, I learned something new. If you ever want to save yourself the airfare needed to attend an international physics conference, but want to learn a lot of new stuff, come to Small Hall at the end of the academic year. An added benefit of this, over attending a physics conference, is that you don't have to spend a week living with physicists.

However proud we are of this group of students, I'm willing to bet that there remains a lingering question in some of your minds. Why physics? Sure there's the fame and the fortune, and the prospect of movie deals and appearances on MTV's Cribs, but what else? Physics is no doubt a hard major to choose in college. And, if you're willing to admit to being a physics major in public, you'll get some pretty odd responses. For example, you

might hear "physics is hard, you must be really smart", which sounds kind of flattering, that is, for the split-second before they turn and walk away. OK, maybe that's just my own personal experience, but I'm sure we'll all admit that studying physics is not the easy path through college. Keep in mind that this is a school steeped in the traditions of the early colony. A colony that relied on the handiwork of its citizens, a colony founded in the swamplands of Virginia. As such, and in accord with the skills that were essential to the colonists, underwater basket-weaving is in fact a possible course of study at the college. So I ask again, why do physics?

The standard answer is that one should study physics to understand the world around us. That's simple and concise, but really, you could be talking about any of the sciences with that answer. What makes physics special, is that it strives to reduce nature to its most fundamental and, in fact, simplest ingredients. Rutherford put it somewhat harshly, and I apologize to our double majors in the other sciences, that "All science is either physics or stamp collecting." So really, it's the paradox of studying a field that many consider supremely challenging, that is in reality very simple. Later today, ask your favorite graduating senior about the mysteries of quantum mechanics, the bizarre theory that Einstein found bewildering even though he helped invent it. They'll grab a pen and a cocktail napkin, and start telling you about what happens to electrons or photons as they pass through a pair of openings in a barrier. In about ten minutes, and without a single mathematical equation in sight, you'll bear witness to what is, according to Richard Feynman, the deepest, and in fact, only true mystery of quantum mechanics.

Now, next to Einstein and Newton, Feynman may be the greatest hero that physics has ever known. The general public might remember him for his remarkable sleuthing that led to understanding the cause of the tragic fate of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. This is actually a pretty confounding association, since Feynman was not a space shuttle designer, or a rocket builder, or even an engineer. He was, of all things, a theoretical physicist, and acknowledged as one of the greatest geniuses of the 20th century. Now, a man like this, complete with his Nobel Prize, must have felt pretty invincible. And standing on his shoulders, and on the shoulders of all the giants before him, it might sometimes seem like we've pretty much got it all figured out. But in 1955, in a report called "The Value of Science", Feynman wrote:

"The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn't know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty - some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain. Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure, that it is possible to live and not know. But I don't know whether everyone realizes this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question - to doubt - to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained."

Feynman finishes his report by telling us that "it is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress which comes from a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom; to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed; and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations."

Now, a few weeks ago, Professor von Baeyer, who is retiring after 38 years at the College, gave a beautiful and inspired lecture in the Wren Chapel. He spoke about William Small, the man for whom this building is named. He told us about the quiet but powerful impact that Small had on one of his favorite pupils, a man named Thomas Jefferson. The effect of Small's teachings on natural philosophy, entrenched in the principles of rational and logical thought, can be seen in Jefferson's masterful document, the Declaration of Independence. Now, I'm not crazy enough to think that I am the next William Small, but I wouldn't be surprised if the next Thomas Jefferson, or Richard Feynman, or Dirac or Schrödinger or Einstein, were sitting before us today. You will do great things, and, on behalf of this department and this college, we thank you for letting us play a small role in that. Congratulations and good luck!