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The Johns Hopkins University
Thursday, May 22 | Homewood Field
[Note: Prepared text. Not checked against delivery.]
Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished faculty, guests, alumni,
especially those of the class of 1939, parents, and
especially students: Welcome and congratulations. You made
it. I know what you're thinking. I'm out of here; they can't
get me now. Well, they don't have to; they already have.
This place has changed you. And, our hope is that you will
go out and change the world.
Now parents, I know what you're thinking. Change the world?
Well, OK, but all things in moderation. We old people would
still rather talk than text, especially at the dinner table.
And, look; I didn't write it, but I admire this bumper
sticker: "It's not just that we're old; some of your music
really does suck."
I know that going to this wonderful liberal arts university
with the international reputation for excellence has, from
time to time, not been so very relaxing. But in my day, in
engineering school, it was just as stressful, maybe more.
There was no Internet, for one thing. Crazy rumors were much
harder to start. And get this: Back then, during some weeks,
not just some of the music — all of the music was by
When I was in school, we had slide rules. That's right, it
was in the middle of the '70s... uh, the 1970s... that we
changed from slide rules to calculators. Slide rules are
elegant. But, have you ever seen the old movies of rockets
on the launch pad that just fall over and blow up? Here's
why: Those people had to use the English system and slide
rules. In computing ability, we've come a long way —
in the price of gas, not that far. It's almost as expensive
now in equivalent dollars as it was in 1975 during the so-
called gas crisis. And, the public outcry was big —
somewhat bigger than it is now, or so far.
Along with the difficult military and policy situations that
we find ourselves in, there are some enormous, serious, grim
problems that your parents, professors, and I would like you
all to solve ... so that we can kick back and retire in
When my father was graduated from Hopkins in 1939 and my
mother from Goucher in 1942, the world was home to 2.3
billion people. That number has gotten somewhat larger
My parents took me to the Worlds' Fair in New York City in
1965. I remember well, what to a little kid seemed like, a
huge display depicting the estimated human population of the
world. It was getting larger, counting up by one every seven
seconds or so. I was very disappointed, because we had just
missed the number changing from 2,999,999,999 to 3 billion
humans on Earth. Well, you all lived through the transition
from 5 to 6 billion. If you look at a similar
population clock today, it says about 6.7 billion, and it
skips through three or four births each second. By the time
you reach your billionth second, when you're a little
over six months into your 31st year, we will probably be
over 12 billion and on our way to 15 billion humans on
Keep in mind also that half of those people have never made
a phone call. Their lives are agrarian and rural.
Nevertheless, they know our culture and have seen what
science and organized technology can do. I've traveled a
little, in India, China, and Africa. People are walking less
and driving more — more cars on the road every
Put roughly: if everyone on Earth were to consume, drive,
and especially use energy at the prodigious rate that each
of us does here in the United States, we would need two more
Earths. We don't have two more Earths. We barely have one.
So as you come of full-time employable, taxpaying,
leadership age, you and your contemporaries are going to
have to come up with new ways for many, many of your fellow
earthlings to live. And, I think you can.
When your parents or in some cases grandparents were young
or younger, we had the first Earth Day. The enormous concern
was pollution — our introduction of dangerous
substances into our environment. But pollution pales to a
more modern staggering environmental problem: Climate
When I was working on the Science Guy show years ago, I did
a few bits about the then relatively recent discoveries
concerning anthropogenic, human-made, climate change. It
seemed like a distant, albeit looming, concern. Since then,
I've interviewed chemists, who think about this all through
their periodic table days, and glaciologists who think about
it all through their bitter boreal nights. It's clear now
that climate change is the real deal. That's what you are
going to have embrace, plan for, and manage — a huge
problem that concerns virtually every species on Earth.
Consistent with recent discoveries, environmentalists have
said [or whined] for decades that we should all do less.
Don't waste so much paper. Don't use so much water. Don't
drive so many miles. Don't wear clean clothes. In fact, how
about if you just don't eat?
Now, the opportunities for energy conservation are of
course, enormous — 30 percent could be saved in a
year, easy. Excuse me, "easily." My father was quite a man
of letters, and this is his liberal arts institution, after
But conservation alone is not going to get the job done.
People around the world aren't going to sit by and let the
developed world use all the energy and pump out all the
And, here's some very bad news. Apparently we will never run
out of fossil fuels. That's right. There is so much buried
fossil fuel, that we'll never use it up — not for
centuries. There is oil. But there is also oil-sand, tar-
sand, oil-shale, and enormous quantities of coal —
coal, coal, coal, everywhere. So, people worldwide will
probably keep digging it up and keep on burning it. That is,
unless we lead the world on new paths, new ways to provide
electricity, new types of transportation, and new approaches
to doing business.
But what is generally called "Business As Usual," with
fossil fueled economies and the just-do-less approach, will
not work. We have to instead find ways to do more with
less. That's how you are going to change the world... by
doing more with less:
Nowadays, one hears so much about being green. It's easy
being this kind of green: Don't throw your countless water
bottles away; don't leave the lights on. Change your light
bulbs to compact fluorescents. Recycle your printer paper;
print on both sides of each sheet. Okay, all good, fine,
charming... but these ideas are part of what we call
energy's low-hanging fruit. These things are within easy
reach. For most of them, we just need to develop new habits
rather than new products.
Like any environmentalist, I'm a big fan of energy's low-
hanging fruit. It's just wasting less by doing less. The
three R's of conservation: reduce what you use; reuse what
you can; and recycle as processes permit. Great.
But, you in a few moments will be graduates of Johns
Hopkins. You are among the very best in the world at
thinking about new techniques, tools, and even, if I may,
new tricks to reach for the high-hanging fruit — the
big prizes and the great big prizes... That's what we want
you to do. We want you to change the world in new, exciting,
and big, hugely big, "More with Less" ways.
By even conservative estimates, we have five times the
energy we need in renewable forms: Solar heat and
electricity, geothermal warm and cool sinks, and energy in
the wind that could power our world a few times over. But
the opportunities lie in new ways to store it. Right now, we
have just hydroelectric dams. But ask any fish; they're not
fans of dams. Dams can't do it. No, if I may, dam way.
It's got to be something much more sophisticated, much more
subtle. Perhaps, in the surprisingly near future, you can
help all of us use sophisticated legal agreements, along
with expert computer control, of our astoundingly complex,
enormous, electricity supply grid to use everyone's electric
car battery to store energy for everyone else. As the sun
rises and sets, we manage the energy stored from east to
west. Wild, I dare say — a plan so crazy it just might
Perhaps you all will negotiate with shoreline and riverside
property owners so that we can tune tide or river flow
turbines to take up the slack, when the sun's on the other
side of the Earth and winds are calm.
Perhaps we can use a high temperature-tolerant liquid, with
a high thermal capacity, to store the sun's heat. We'd use
old ideas for heat engines in new ways, with new materials
and control systems that will enable us to harness the heat.
It will part of the P, B, & J, the Passion, Beauty, and Joy
of nature. The P, B, & J of science.
The opportunities for entrepreneurs, lawyers, policy
makers, and especially engineers are enormous. Someone could
get rich and leave the world better than he or she found it.
We want you super sharp graduates of Johns Hopkins to figure
all this out. It'll be fun.
Of course, we have to hurry. There are baffling data from
isotopes in ice cores along with matching mathematical
models indicating that the world's climate can change with
alarming alacrity, very fast, almost overnight.
So while you're at it, here are few more problems to solve.
We need a better way to get fresh water to people than
damming and drying up rivers and streams. If we had a way to
get fresh water to the teeming millions around the world,
we'd have cleaner, healthier, less costly living conditions
Along with this, we need transportation ways for people to
have a high level of service without using as much energy,
and especially as much land as we do now. Oversized houses
waste energy for everyone. Twelve-lane freeways waste real
estate for everyone. Double-wide streets isolate everyone
from everyone. We want you to change it all; lead the way;
help the developing world, so people there can avoid our
How about a way to handle, control, and ultimately de-
energize nuclear material? Along with nuclear power proving
to be the most expensive way to boil water yet devised, we
have tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste, nuclear
fuel, and nuclear weapons that no one really has any good
idea what to do with. We're just stacking it up and crating
it underground. On the Earth, nothing we throw away goes
away. It's a problem we've ignored for the most part. It may
be an opportunity for some savvy engineer and some savvy
By the way, we're not going to toss the stuff in space.
Although it's only 100 kilometers from here, space is too
far away for that. Space is for exploring. Three days from
now, the Phoenix lander will explore the North Pole of Mars.
What if we discover liquid water, or even evidence of life?
Oh, my friends, that would change the world.
It is sobering to consider that many among you know more
physics than Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein did. You know
more about the universe than Galileo or Copernicus. But with
all that, no one exactly knows exactly where gravity comes
from ... exactly. The universe turns out to be accelerating
in its expansion. If you figure out why, you may be able to
control energy in a way that science fiction writers have
only dreamed of.
Now with all this heavy talk, I'd like to take a moment and
give you some advice. I mean just regular old advice. Ideas
like: Don't walk barefoot in a thumbtack factory.
Here's one I can tell you. When you get a bucket of water
thrown in your face, untuck your shirt. You wouldn't think
it would make that much difference. But, a shirttail, even
made of a hydrophilic fabric, directs water around your
belt. I say this, because I've run tests — several of
The point here is that everyone you'll ever meet knows
something you don't. It's surprising perhaps, but how else
could it be?
When you get jobs in corporations or anywhere, do what you
can to get in at the beginning, get in on the design. The
obvious reason is that that's the most creative part. True
enough. But, there is a more subtle feature of the design
that I hope all of you will take a moment to consider. It
almost doesn't matter what you're working on. It's true of
making 747 hydraulic resonance suppressors or a TV show
about science for kids. In every case, the basic or basis
ideas are the key to success.
See, no matter how good the people are, who come to work and
build your car, your phone, your electronic devices, or your
shoes, if the design is no good, so is the product. It all
starts at the bottom of a giant upside down pyramid. As you
go up the pyramid, the money committed in manufacturing,
packaging, shipping, and marketing gets bigger and bigger or
huger and huger. If the design is deficient, so will
everything be. Make time to work the design.
Next about writing: Text messages to your friends don't
count for corporate communications or legal letters. For
anyone working in a corporation, for anyone working for him
or herself, or for anyone working for someone or something
that might be called "The Man:" Never write a memorandum, a
memo, or a letter to a client, or a boss, or a customer,
longer than one page. Make it fit on one page or one screen
on a computer.
Now, you can attach all kinds of other stuff. Attach graphs,
histograms, figures — documents in the Portable
Document Format or pictures compressed in accordance with
the Joint Photograph Expert Group — in short, the
extended dance mix version of whatever it is you want to
say. But, make that first page tell.
Now, for my most important recommendation, my most
significant piece of advice: Vote. You have to. If people
don't vote, the least they could do for the rest of us is
shut up. Oh, if but that they would...
You saw the United States attacked on her own soil (for the
first time since the War of 1812). You have become voters,
while the U.S. retaliated to limited effect, against an
elusive, nearly invisible enemy. There are probably a few
things you would have done differently had you been in
charge. Well, now is your chance.
You live in the most powerful country on Earth. Voting is
your power. As you know, our last two presidential elections
were won and lost by that much. If a few others had
voted differently, if a few more had voted — or if a
few more had stayed home — then much of your time in
college would have been quite different. The world's
environment would be quite different. The president of the
United States affects every species on Earth. Vote, every
single time you can. Vote.
Here's a little more advice. Be skeptical. Don't believe
everything people tell you. Don't believe everything you
read. Don't believe much of anything about diets. Be
critical in your thinking. If someone says, "Trust me, I
know this car; the gas gauge always reads empty." "Trust me,
this invasion will work out fine." Bear in mind that he or
she may be lost. For example, this advice about being
skeptical may be bunk. It's worth considering.
You are living when, for the first time in history, humans
are coming to understand that we are all one people. There
really is no such thing as race. Humans everywhere are all
of one species. The ultraviolet light that our ancestors
lived under affected the color of their and ultimately
our skin. We are much, much more alike than we are
different. We all came from Africa. We all are of the same
star stuff. We are all going to live and die on the same
Pale Blue Dot. We are humans. We all share so much. Let's do
our best to share the Earth.
As I mentioned to a few of you a few months ago, my third
grade teacher, Mrs. Cochran, told us that there are more
stars in the sky than grains of sand on the beach. I stood
on the beach that summer in Delaware, and I got to thinking
about this. There are, by any measure, a lot of grains of
sand on a beach. There are more than you can count, of
course. But not only that, there are perhaps more than you
can imagine. I stood there thinking. Does she mean all the
grains of sand that I can see? Does she mean the ones I
can't see, the ones that must cover the beach a few meters
deep and a few thousand nautical miles north and south?
That's a lot of grains of sand. So there are more stars than
all of those grains of sand? In a moment I was paralyzed by
self-doubt. I am just a tiny speck of a kid standing on a
beach. And that beach is a one of many beaches on a planet
that turns out to be, in the cosmic scheme of things, pretty
small — a speck really. Furthermore, my home speck,
the Earth, is a just a speck orbiting a star that really,
considering all the other sand-grain-numerous stars, is just
another speck in the galaxy of stars. The galaxy, in turn,
being another speck among galactic specks. I am a speck on a
speck orbiting a speck in the middle of deep spacey
specklessness. I am a loser. [I suck.] But then I think,
wait. I have a brain, albeit only this big. [My old boss's
is somewhat smaller.] And, I can imagine all of this. That
is wonderful. That is remarkable. That is venerable —
worthy of respect! That is the Passion, Beauty, and Joy, the
P, B, & J of science. The joy of discovery, the joy of
creation, and the joy of leaving the world better than you
You're Hopkins graduates. You can enjoy the P, B, & J, my
friends.You can make our planet a little bit better and we
hope a great bit better...
Take good care of the low-hanging fruit, and find ways to
reach for the high ones. Go get 'em Class of 2008. Change
©Bill Nye 2008