Buzz Blog

Inspiring Physics Commencement Speeches

Tuesday, May 29, 2012
As commencement season comes to a close, many students are eagerly awaiting the next step in their life — one possibly free of term paper all-nighters, exams and lab reports. But joining the "real world" has its own share of stresses, and they can be quite troubling for a recent graduate. Adult life's inherent lack of structure can leave many recent graduates feeling lost, and they may even lose sight of why they went to school in the first place.

That's why a good commencement speaker can be so inspirational. Aside from jokes about moving back in with parents, graduation speakers can provide the courage to face the nebulous journey ahead.

While physicists aren't always known for their eloquence, several notable physicists have delivered some inspiring pieces of advice for recent graduates. I've compiled a list of memorable commencement speeches delivered by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Steven Chu, Richard Feynman and more. Enjoy.

Richard Feynman


"But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school — we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation.

It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards.
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In his 1974 Caltech commencement speech, Feynman reflected on science, pseudoscience and scientific integrity while coining the term "cargo cult science": the sort of science that appears to be working correctly but is missing something essential. The video above has been adapted from Feynman's speech.

Neil deGrasse Tyson


"Math is the language of the universe, and this town knows that. If you want to have a conversation with the universe, you learn math."

Part I


Part II




In 2010, Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke to the graduating class of the University of Alabama Huntsville. He stressed the importance of the dreamers working with math and science. Scientific missions, such as NASA, help develop the culture of our nation, and Tyson warns that science can't succumb to the influence of politics, greed and selfishness.

Steven Chu


"Normally, commencement speakers are like corpses at an Irish wake — we're needed for the ceremony, but no one expects us to say much."

"Life is too short to go through it without caring deeply about something."



Energy Secretary Steven Chu addressed the 2011 graduating class of Pomona College. He emphasized passion for one's work, friends and planet while appealing to Carl Sagan's reflection on the pale blue dot that we all call home.

Bonus: Stephen Colbert


"In my experience, you will truly serve only what you love, because service is love made visible. If you love your friends, you will serve your friends. If you love community, you will serve your community. If you love money, you will serve your money. And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself. And you will have only yourself.

So no winning. Instead, try to love others and serve others, and hopefully find those who will love and serve you in return.
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Stephen Colbert is no astrophysicist, but his funny, personal and inspiring speech can't be missed. For a somewhat rare glimpse into the "real" Colbert, see how he advised the 2011 graduating class of Northwestern University.


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Posted by Hyperspace