Johns Hopkins University
Photo of happy graduates in caps and gowns

Remarks by Bill Nye
2008 Undergraduate Diploma Ceremony
Krieger School of Arts and Sciences /
Whiting School of Engineering

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 Barry Manilow.

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 peace.

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 recently.

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 Earth.

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 week.

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 Change.

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 all.

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 carbon dioxide.

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 work.

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 for everyone.

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 mistakes.

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 negotiator.

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 'em.

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 found it.

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 the world!

©Bill Nye 2008

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