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Secretary Chu's Remarks at the California Institute of Technology Commencement - As Prepared for Delivery

June 12, 2009 - 12:00am


Before I begin, I want to offer my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Brian Go and Jackson Wang and to the entire Caltech community. Tragedies like this touch us all. 

President Chameau, trustees, faculty, friends, family, and especially the new graduates, I am deeply honored to be your commencement speaker.

To the Class of 2009, let me congratulate you on your achievement. You should be proud of the fact that you survived many shocks and are here today. The first shock might have been the discovery your freshman year that you are not alone: child prodigies are everywhere.  Take pride in the fact that you have survived your last "Finals Week." You will never have to listen to the Ride of the Valkyries again, unless you want to.

You should also be proud that you now have one of the finest liberal arts educations possible. "How does my Caltech training qualify as a liberal arts education?" you may well ask. The goal of a liberal arts education is to teach you how to think rigorously and critically, and to give you the tools to teach yourself. Your quantitative and intellectually demanding training will allow you to venture wherever your curiosity will take you.

Finally, you should be proud to be graduating from an institution where nerds are welcomed. In the commencement speech I gave at Harvard last week, I noted that JK Rowling, the billionaire novelist, who started as a shy classics student, gave last year's address. She was preceded by Bill Gates, the mega-billionaire philanthropist and computer nerd. "Today, sadly," I confessed, "you have me. I am not a billionaire, but at least I am a nerd." 

Most of my Harvard speech was devoted to a vitally important issue: the climate change problem and what we could do about it. What made the newspaper headlines was that I had called myself a "nerd." Clearly the talk was too nerdy.

What is a nerd? I looked up the description of the nerd phenotype in that ultimate cyberspace authority, Wikipedia.

"The stereo-typical nerd" the Wiki article intoned, "is intelligent but socially and physically awkward.They typically appear either to lack confidence or to be indifferent or oblivious to the negative perceptions held of them by others.Some nerds show a pronounced interest in subjects which others tend to find dull or complex.especially topics related to science, mathematics and technology. On the opposite end of the spectrum, nerds may show an interest in activities that are viewed by their peers as immature for their age, such as . being obsessed with Star Trek and Star Wars."

First, I dispute that a fondness for Star Wars is at the opposite end of the intellectual spectrum. Second, I claim that many of my fellow nerds are widely read, socially engaging, talented musicians, and good athletes. You might think, "If a person is athletic, socially graceful, and has broad interests, then they are not nerds." Perhaps so, but I want to celebrate people of intelligence, focus, and technical achievement. The ability to understand details does not mean that you are incapable of forming deep insights. In your future life, it is important that you develop broad interests to help you see the forest as well as the trees. It is also important that you cherish your skill to understand something deeply.

Commencement speeches usually contain unsolicited advice. This advice, worth every penny you paid, is seldom remembered and never followed. While I will not depart from this time honored tradition, I will only give you only one piece of advice. Here it is.

Cultivate a generous spirit. In all negotiations, don't bargain for the last, little advantage. Leave the change on the table. In your collaborations, always remember that "credit" is not a conserved quantity. In a successful collaboration, everybody gets 90 percent of the credit.

Jimmy Stewart, in the movie Harvey got it exactly right. In that movie, Jimmy Stewart portrays an amiable Elwood P. Dowd, whose best friend is Harvey, an invisible, six-foot, three-and-one-half-inch tall rabbit. His sister, embarrassed by Elwood's eccentricity, wants to have him committed. In a memorable scene, Dr. Chumley, the head of the sanatorium, tells Elwood that he should be outraged.

Dr. Crumley: "Good heavens man: Haven't you any righteous indignation?"

Jimmy Stewart: "Oh know, years ago my mother used to say to me, 'in this world, Elwood, you must be you must be Oh so smart, or Oh so pleasant.' Well, for years I was smart.I recommend pleasant. You may quote me." 

I now come to the central part of my talk. I begin with a story about an extraordinary scientific discovery and the new dilemma it poses. I will end with a call to arms, and about making a difference. In the spirit of full disclosure, this talk borrows heavily from the Harvard commencement. In my defense, I have learned that in order to be heard, it is important to deliver the same message more than once. The major difference is that this talk will contain more techie details.

In the past several decades, our climate has been changing. Climate change is not new: the Earth went through six ice ages in the past 600,000 years. However, recent measurements show that the climate has begun to change rapidly. The size of the North polar ice cap in the month of September is only half the size it was fifty years ago. The sea level has been rising since direct measurements began in 1870, but the rate since 1990 is five times faster than it was at the beginning of recorded measurements.

Here is the remarkable scientific discovery: For the first time in human history, science has told us that human activity is dramatically altering the destiny of our planet. Our carbon emissions since the beginning of the industrial revolution have caused the climate to change, and science is now projecting how our actions will affect the Earth fifty and a hundred years from now.

If the world continues on a business-as-usual path, a number of studies predict that there is a fifty-fifty chance the temperature will rise somewhere between 4 to 5 degrees by the end of this century. This increase may not sound like much, but let me remind you that during the last ice age, the world was only 6 degrees colder. During this time, most of Canada and the U.S. down to Ohio and Pennsylvania were covered year round by a glacier. A world five degrees warmer will be a very different place. The change will be so rapid that many species, including humans, will have a hard time adapting.

We also face the specter of non-linear "tipping points" that may cause much more severe changes. An example of a tipping point is the thawing of the permafrost. The permafrost contains immense amounts of frozen organic matter that have been accumulating for millennia. If the soil melts, microbes will spring to life and cause this debris to rot.

The difference in biological activity below freezing and above freezing is something we are very familiar with. Frozen food remains edible for a very long time in the freezer, but once thawed, it spoils quickly. How much methane and carbon dioxide might be released from the rotting permafrost? Even if only a fraction of the carbon is released, it could be greater than all the greenhouse gases we have released to date. Once started, a runaway effect could begin. 

Here is the dilemma. How much are we willing to invest, as a world society, to mitigate the consequences of climate change that will not be fully realized for at least 100 years?  Deeply rooted in all cultures is the notion of generational responsibility. Parents work hard so that their children will have a better life. Climate change will affect the entire world, but our natural focus is on the welfare of our immediate families. Can we, as a world society, meet our responsibility to future generations?

The United States has less than 5 five percent of the world population, but we consume more than 20 percent of the world's energy. We depend on fossil energy to keep our homes warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and lit at night. We use energy to travel across town and across continents. Energy is the fundamental reason for the prosperity we enjoy. By contrast, there are 1.6 billion people who don't have access to electricity. The life we enjoy may not be within the easy reach of many in the developing world, but it is within sight, and they want what we have.

Even if our collective societies accept a global generational responsibility, there are those who believe that it is impossible to transition to a sustainable world of nine billion people where the standard of living of everybody can be substantially elevated.

As a scientist, I refuse to accept this judgment. Scientists, if not optimistic by nature, have to be optimistic by natural selection in order to be successful. Without optimism, we would not have the audacity to believe we can go beyond the discoveries of the giants that went before us. Nor would we be willing to take on challenges where others have failed.

Part of my optimism comes from the fact that science has come to our aid in the past. As an example, I remind you of the agricultural revolution that occurred last century. 

In his 1898 inaugural speech, Sir William Crookes, President of the Royal Society, began with the warning "England and all civilized nations stand in deadly peril."  Crop rotation and manure were not sufficient to replenish the depleted soils, and he predicted that fertilizer based on South American bird guano (guano is the technical term for bird do-do) and Chilean sodium nitrate would soon be exhausted. The solution, Crookes proposed was to create artificial fertilizer. "It is the chemist," he declared, "who must come to the rescue."

In 1909, Fritz Haber demonstrated the catalytic synthesis of ammonia from air and hydrogen, a path unsuccessfully pursued by two distinguished chemists and future Nobel Prize winners, Walther Nerst and Wilhelm Ostwald. For this achievement, Haber was awarded the 1918 Noble Prize for Chemistry. The production of fertilizer was considered so important that the industrialization of ammonia synthesis was recognized by a second Nobel Prize to Carl Bosch in 1931.

The second part of the agricultural revolution was led by Norman Borlaug. He created hybrid strains of wheat that increased the yield per acre four to seven-fold in Mexico, India and Pakistan. Because of his work, the starvation of hundreds of millions of people was prevented.

Science and technology was the basis of the agricultural revolution, but current agricultural practices are not sustainable. We need a second green revolution that will create perennial plants for food, fiber and energy that fix their own nitrogen, and draw precious nutrients into their roots for the following year.

We also need a second industrial revolution. In this revolution, there will be no single magical discovery will rescue us. We will need a wide assortment of solutions in both the demand and supply side of energy. A price on carbon, energy efficiency standards, and other policy mechanisms are necessary tools to align technology directions with environmental necessities. However, it is science and innovation that will provide the path forward.

As a scientist, I am extremely privileged to be part of the Obama Administration. The message the President delivers is not one of doom and gloom, but of optimism and opportunity. I share this optimism. The task ahead is daunting, but we can and will succeed. If there ever was a time to help steer America and the world towards a path of sustainable energy, now is the time.

America has the opportunity to lead in this new industrial revolution. In the coming decades, we will almost certainly face higher oil prices and be in a carbon constrained economy. We can either recognize this new reality and seize the opportunity, or wish it weren't happening. The great hockey player, Wayne Gretzky, was asked how he positions himself on the ice. He replied, "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it's been." America must do the same.

As Secretary of Energy, I have the opportunity to help rev up the remarkable American research and innovation engine that will produce needed solutions. By skating to where the puck is going to be, we will also lay the foundation of a new prosperity.

Energy efficiency and conservation will remain the lowest hanging fruit for the next several decades. The Department of Energy will help America recapture the technological lead in fuel efficient automobiles, and drive the development of advanced batteries needed for the electrification of personal vehicles.

We will nurture a system integration approach to building design, aided by computer tools with embedded energy analysis. It was the system integration of the automobile engine, transmission, brakes and battery that enabled Toyota to create the Prius. With computer control of ignition timing and fuel mix, today's automobile engines operate at 20 percent higher efficiency. With computer monitoring and continuous, real-time control of HVAC systems, lighting, and shading, far more spectacular efficiencies can be realized in buildings. There is a growing realization that we should be able to build buildings that will decrease energy use by 80 percent with investments that will pay for themselves in less than 15 years. Buildings consume 40 percent of the energy in the U.S., so that energy efficient buildings can decrease our carbon emissions by one third.

The Department of Energy will help re-start our dormant nuclear power industry, and seek to develop fourth generation reactors and proliferation-resistant fuel recycling methods to maximize the value of nuclear fuel and minimize its waste. We are collaborating with industry to test existing carbon dioxide capture and sequestration technologies, while we search for out-of-the-box methods that can dramatically lower the cost. We will also begin to invest in research that may allow us to capture and sequester carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere.

We will invest in nanotechnology and other approaches that will lead to low cost, efficient photovoltaic generation of electricity. In the area of bio-fuels, we support three bio-energy institutes. One of these institutes used synthetic biology methods to reprogram yeast and e-coli to produce gasoline-like and diesel-like fuels. The task is now to convince these organisms that their entire raison d'etre is to produce transportation fuel.

As we begin to lay the foundation for a sustainable energy future, we can frame the challenge, but the real answers will come from you. As our future science and engineering leaders, take the time to learn more about what's at stake, and then act on that knowledge with your considerable intellectual horsepower.

Finally, I appeal to your humanist side, and the humanist side in all of us.

One of the cruelest ironies about climate change is that the ones who will be hurt the most by are the most innocent: the worlds poorest and those yet to be born. A quote taken from Martin Luther King when he spoke of ending the war in Vietnam in 1967 seems so fitting for today's climate crisis:

"This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man ..We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late."

The final quote is from William Faulkner. On December 10th, 1950, in his Nobel Prize banquet speech, he spoke of the role of humanists in a world facing potential nuclear holocaust.

"I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past."

Graduates of the class of 2009, you have an extraordinary role to play in our future. As you enter the next phase in you life, you will no doubt follow your intellectual passions. Pursuing your personal passion is important, but it shouldn't be your only goal.

When you are old and gray, and look back on your life, you will want to be proud of what you have done. The source of that pride won't be the things you have acquired or the recognition you have received. It will be the lives you have touched and the difference you have made. I hope you will develop the passion and the voice to help the world in ways both large and small. Nothing will give you greater satisfaction.

Please accept my warmest congratulations. May you live long and prosper. May the Force be with you. May you help save our planet for your children and for all the future children of the world.

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