BU’s 134th Commencement Address by Steven Chu, 1997 Nobel laureate in Physics and director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

in News Releases, University Affairs
May 20th, 2007

Contact: Phil Gloudemans, 617-353-6546 | philipg@bu.edu

Thank you. President Brown, trustees, faculty, guests, and of course, students, I’m truly honored to be here to give this 2007 Commencement Address, so to the Class of 2007, I congratulate you on your achievement.

In the tradition of all commencement speeches, I’m charged to give advice to graduating students; however, unsolicited advice is rarely valued and almost never followed, and this is a cross that all commencement speakers have beared, so I’ll push on.

You should first thank those people who helped to finance your education. If you were on a scholarship or fellowship, thank your sponsoring institution. More likely, you might have been on a “father-ship” or “mother-ship.” Thank your parents. Your parents invested in your education for two reasons. One, they love you. Two, they don’t want to support you forever. They may cherish this day more than you.

You should thank your favorite teachers for their clear and scintillating lectures; however, at the end of the day, the things you will always understand best are the things you have taught yourself. Furthermore, a genuine understanding of anything you read, hear, or see occurs when you translated the experience into your own personal language.

During this reformulation, you will be transferring intellectual knowledge in your head to an intuition that lies in your gut.

In giving thanks, I should also warn you soon-to-be anointed alumni of yet another thank you, but before I do that, I have to set the scene.

This is the final scene in “Casablanca.”

Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart are planning to run away together, but at the last minute Humphrey Bogart turns to Ingrid Bergman, “Elsa,” and says, “If you don’t get on the plane to join your husband and the Resistance, you will regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday and for the rest of your life.”

Well, maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but someday and for the rest of your life, Boston University will be asking you to thank them.

In my advanced age, I have realized that, apart from my family, my college experiences at the University of Rochester and U.C. Berkeley have done more to shape my life than any other experience.

If you become successful, you should thank Boston University. If you are not successful, you are still part of the BU family.

This was not a paid announcement. I have no earned degree from BU. I hope an unearned degree does not put me on your mailing list from here on.

Here’s some more unsolicited advice. You will discover that your life will be a series of random events. It’s a good idea to plan, but in the end, your life will unfold differently.

Indeed the entire world around you will unfold differently.

When I was a small child, we were told that the continuing exponential growth of the world’s population would lead to mass starvations and other Malthusian disasters.

In half a century, the world population has grown from 2 billion to over 6.5 billion people, but modern agriculture has given us the capacity to feed those people. People are still starving, but not because of our capacity to grow food. While the population more than tripled, the amount of land used to grow grains has gone up by less than 20 percent.

Also, the population is no longer growing exponentially. Indeed the world population is expected to peak at less than 10 billion people. This was a total surprise, but it turns out that as people get wealthy, they have fewer children. I suspect that it has something to do with late-night TV. As an interesting data point, the blackout of the City of New York decades ago led to a mini baby boom nine months later.

On a personal note, as you heard, my career did not go exactly as planned. I intended to become a theoretical physicist, but ended up doing experimental work. By the way, the experimental work of my thesis in post-doc was to verify a theory that unified electricity magnetism and the forces responsible for radioactive decay, one of the authors of that theory is a BU professor, Shelly Glashow.

At the end of my experiment, I was rewarded with an assistant professorship at Berkeley. Seven or eight months later, Shelly was rewarded by a trip to Stockholm. But, instead of staying at Berkeley, I went to Bell Laboratories and then to Stanford.

During this time, I began a slow decent from the loftiest heights of fundamental physics to learning how to hold onto atoms with laser light and finally to a wannabe biologist.

Three years later, I have reached rock bottom. I am now an administrator.

I left a good life at Stanford as a professor to become a harried director of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab because of my increasing concern about the energy problem.

I truly believe that this problem is the single most important problem that science and technology must solve in the coming decades.

Our climate has warmed up over a degree and it’s predicted that in the next century it could warm up another one to six degrees.

Now, let me have caveat about this predictions, and for that I have to turn to the greatest American philosopher of the 20th century, Yogi Berra.

He said that, “predictions are hard to make, especially about the future.”

Having said this, let me tell you of a few of the predictions.

The average temperature, as I said before, will increase between one and six degrees, but what does this six-degree difference really mean?

During the coldest parts of the recent Ice Ages, the world was six to eight degrees centigrade colder than it is today.

In those times, an ice cap covered all of Canada and half of the United States down to Ohio and Pennsylvania. In a world six degrees hotter, Greenland will be green and the ocean will be seven meters higher. The Earth will be a very different place. There will be more frequent heat waves, rainfalls, drought, tropical cyclones and extreme high tides. Climate change doesn’t mean gentle warming. It’s more about violent swings, like rain in May and June.

Perhaps the first serious consequence will be water shortages caused by climate change. Much of the world’s mountain glaciers are melting. Water shortage in the form of snow-packed glaciers and alpine forests are a critical part of the storage and moderation of the water supply.

It’s been predicted that the snow pack in California will decrease between 30 percent and 70 percent in an optimistic scenario, where the carbon dioxide remains below 500 parts per million. I personally do not think we can keep it that low. In a business-as-usual area, the snow packs of California will be mostly gone.

Sometimes reporters want me to tell them that catastrophic climate change threatens the very existence of life. I tell them not to worry. The good news is that life on Earth is very robust. The microbes and insects will always adapt. Polar bears and poor people will have a rougher time.

So how sure do we have to be in order to actually act now?

My position is even if half of those predictions have a 50 percent probability of becoming true, I think it would be prudent risk management to take immediate steps to mitigate the risks.

If someone told you there was a 50 percent chance your home would burn to the ground, would you buy fire insurance? So, the decision quickly boils down to the price of disaster insurance if we really believe these terrible things can happen.

So now let me turn to what Lawrence Berkeley National Lab is doing about the energy problem. For those of you who don’t know, the Berkeley Lab is a science laboratory run by the University of California for the Department of Energy. It has a budget of $500 million a year. We do no classified work at the lab. In its 75 year history, 11 of its employees have received Nobel prizes. Nine of those scientists did their work at the lab and today three percent of the membership of the National Academy of Sciences works at the lab.

I took the job with the intent of enlisting some of the brightest scientists at U.C. Berkeley to use their intellectual horsepower in solving the problem.

I’m happy to say in my new career as cheerleader and kibitzer, it’s paying off. Dozens of scientists at Berkeley have been planning for over two years how to use their experience to help solve the energy problem. We’ve had workshops, teach-ins, open-mic forums and weekly lunch periods that continued over a two-year period.

During this time, the formulation of a new set of ideas has been terribly exciting to watch develop. Brilliant, fundamental scientists, when excited about challenging applied problems, have become brilliant applied scientists.

The University of California Berkeley, Berkeley Lab, and the University of Illinois have recently been awarded a $500 million contract by B.P. to develop better ways of producing fossil fuels.

We’re also preparing proposals to try to convince the government, foundations, and private donors to fund a multi-pronged approach to other ways of solving the energy problem.

Now, how do we actually go about solving the energy problem?

First, let me put a scale of what we’re up against.

If you look at people in the United States, the average energy consumption per capita is 350 billion joules of energy a year. Now, only a physicist knows what a joule is. In fact, most physicists don’t have in their gut what this really means, so I’ll translate.

In pre-industrial revolution day, a measure of wealth was the number of servants or slaves you had working for you, so when converted to the energy needed to feed and clothe the servants, this is an equivalent, the average man, woman, and child in the United Sates has the equivalent of 100 energy servants working for them 24/7. This is the fundamental basis for the wealth we enjoy and it’s the energy. Energy is the modern-day equivalent of servants or horses. China has 10 energy servants working for each person.

You might ask, is it possible for a world with 10 billion people to sustain a similar lifestyle as the United States?

I actually think the answer is yes. If we become smarter in our use of energy and in development of new carbon-neutral sources.

So what are we doing on the supply side?

First, on the conservational side, there is a 30-year history in the Lawrence Berkeley Lab of leading in ways to conserve energy. The compact florescent light bulb was invented at Berkeley Lab. Double-pane windows with a coating that reflects the heat was also developed at Lawrence Berkeley Lab and many other things, but we’re also now harnessing our basic scientists to work on the supply side.

Physicists and chemists are working to develop a new class of cells that can lead to wide-scale deployment without subsidy. The basic ingredients are actually there. All we need to do is coax the nano-particles in an orderly way.

Bio-mass offers the hope for oil. Corn is definitely not a solution, but in Brazil it costs less to run your car on sugar cane/ethanol than gasoline. I believe we can breed plants that will be much more efficient in converting sunlight and precious water nutrients into bio-mass. Already, wild grass is grown on non-irrigated, non-fertilized land in Illinois. It has yielded enough bio-mass to make ten times as much ethanol as an acre of corn. We understand the inner workings of microbes, and we want to use the same technology to develop new microbes that break down the cellulose material.

We must develop a safe means of trapping and sequestering carbon dioxide that’s emitted from power plants. There is even a possibility of using waste or other surplus energy from power plants to grab carbon dioxide out of the air and sequester it in stable geological formations; however, for this technology ever to be deployed, the world has to put a price on carbon emissions, otherwise there will be no economic incentive to trap and sequester carbon, just as there is no economic incentive to treat waste sewage water before throwing it in a river.

So, I’ve gone on long enough.

Let me leave you with one final bit of advice.

That is, you will never please your mother.

As it was said, I grew up in a family where education was not merely emphasized; it was the reason for existence.

Virtually all my aunts and uncles had advanced degrees in science and engineering, and it was taken for granted the next generation of Chus were to follow in the family tradition. All my cousins have Ph.D.s or M.D.s. My brothers have five Ph.D.s and a law degree. One is a wildly successful lawyer and the other is a university doctor/researcher at Stanford University.

So, in this family of scholars, I could only manage one degree, and indeed I am the academic black sheep. In my family, there are three career choices: doctor, lawyer, failure.

When I heard the news that I was awarded a Nobel Prize in physics, I called my mother that morning and said, “Mom, guess what, I just received the Nobel Prize.” To which she replied, “That’s nice, when are you coming to visit me next?”

In my family, getting a Nobel Prize only leveled the playing field.

So I end.

Thank you again, and to the graduates of the Class of 2007, congratulations, Mazel tov.

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