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Commencement Speaker Steven Chu Says Science May Save Us

Nobel physicist counts on technology to mitigate effects of climate change

Commencement speaker Steven Chu says life is a series of random events. Photo by Albert L'Etoile

In what appears to be the latest Boston University tradition, a gentle rain graced members of the Class of 2007 as they made their way across Nickerson Field at Sunday’s 134th Commencement exercises. Most of the 5,800 graduates donned clear plastic ponchos and raised umbrellas as they waved to friends and family members from their seats.

President Robert A. Brown welcomed a slightly damp audience of approximately 25,000 to the ceremony. “This Commencement ceremony is a celebration of our graduates and the BU community,” he said. “Today, you join a long line of graduates that include a quarter of a million living graduates. I am confident that you will represent your alma mater well.”

Brown introduced this year’s keynote speaker, Steven Chu, 1997 Nobel laureate in physics and a professor of physics and molecular and cellular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, who is leading a multidisciplinary initiative to create sustainable, carbon-neutral sources of energy. Chu, the director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, reminded students that the things people understand best are the things they teach themselves. He encouraged graduates to ask questions and pursue knowledge after leaving the University.

“It’s good to have a plan,” Chu said, “but you’ll discover that life will unravel differently from what you expect. You will discover that life is a series of random events.”

Chu, for example, intended to become a theoretical physicist; instead, his life took an unexpected turn, leading him to experimental physics, molecular and cellular biology, and even administrative work, before he ultimately joined the Berkeley Lab. Today, he is at the forefront of developing technologies to reduce the harmful effects of climate change.

“Scientists predict that in the next century the planet will warm between one and six degrees,” he said. “This means that Greenland will be green, the oceans will be seven meters higher, and the world will be a very different place.”

Even if only a quarter of such predictions come true, Chu said, scientists will have to mitigate events by developing alternatives to fossil fuels. He listed some of the efforts under way at the Berkeley Lab to build better doubled-paned glass, solar panels, and energy efficient lightbulbs.

“Chu’s speech makes you think about yourself in the wider context of the world,” said Stephanie Kacoyanis (CFA’07), a classical singer who plans to stay in Boston to pursue teaching and performance opportunities. “I found it to be inspiring.”

Commencement student speaker Walter Edward Smelt III (UNI’07) told the crowd that while he didn’t know where life would take him, he is confident that his liberal arts education will prepare him for the next step. “If my education has been all over the map, so much the better,” he said, “because our world is all over the map. We not only have the opportunity, but the responsibility to study the world in which we live, and there is no better place to do that than BU.”

Honorary degrees were given to Chu; noted journalist, editor, and author Bill Kovach, who delivered the Commencement day Baccalaureate Address at Marsh Chapel; American painter Brice Marden (CFA’61); Judy Norsigian, executive director of Our Bodies, Ourselves; Samuel O. Thier, former CEO of Partners HealthCare System and president of Massachusetts General Hospital; and Peter Vermilye, senior advisor and portfolio manager at Fortis Investments and a Boston University trustee.

The Metcalf Cup and Prize for Excellence in Teaching, the University’s highest teaching honor, was presented to Jeffrey F. Beatty, a School of Management associate professor of strategy and policy. Metcalf Awards were given to Eric P. Widmaier, a College of Arts and Sciences professor and chair of biology, and Penelope Bitzas, a College of Fine Arts school of music associate professor of voice and voice department chair. 

Despite the rain, spirits ran high, and some realizations came slowly. “It hasn’t hit me yet that I’ve graduated,” said Sabrina Browne (CAS’07), whose family flew in from Texas, Florida, Maryland, and Jamaica. “I was sitting there, and it was kind of surreal. College is really over.”

Nicole Laskowski can be reached at nicolel@bu.edu.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.