Lehigh graduates were challenged today to nurture the “joy of discovery” and bring their talents, insights and education to bear in solving the world’s most complex problems during an impassioned and often humorous commencement address by science advocate Bill Nye.
Nye, former host of three TV series, including Bill Nye the Science Guy, compared the difficulty of the challenges the young graduates face to those that his generation confronted in the early 1970s—war in Southeast Asia, an energy crisis, skyrocketing gasoline prices—as well as the lamentable cultural influences of disco, leisure suits and the Ford Pinto.
Speaking at Lehigh’s 145th commencement, Nye said the Class of 2013 will face “two world-sized problems that loom larger than ever”—a rapidly expanding world population and an environment that grows incapable of sustaining it.
“What to do? Well, you could run in circles screaming, but in general, I’ve found that’s not so effective. The shortest route to a solution is to raise the standard of living for women worldwide,” he said to sustained applause.
This one significant advancement would lead to “wanted children, well cared for, and richer and happier lives for all of us.”
Nye, the executive director of The Planetary Society, also urged his audience to work toward the scientific discoveries that could effectively address the crisis of an atmosphere that is “warming our world faster than ever in geologic history. It is the challenge of the future.
“I ask you to lead the way through new technology and new approaches to doing business. As Lehigh graduates, you have the capacity to reach the highest level, and to change the world in new, exciting and big ways.”
For starters, build a better battery
Simply creating a better battery, he said, would make the inventor “crazy rich—like Bill Gates-rich, and head of IKEA guy rich”—and would help address environmental devastation resulting from the plundering of natural resources to the enduring consequence of nuclear waste.
With the rapidly expanding base of scientific knowledge, Nye said the young graduates already had more knowledge than ground-breaking scientists such as Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton and the 15th-century astronomer and mathematician Copernicus. The Class of 2013 will witness world-class scientific discoveries in their lifetimes, he predicted, and will be well-positioned to maximize the opportunities presented by an expanding base of knowledge.
“It is entirely possible,” he said, “that in the next few years, we may well discover evidence of some sort of life on Mars. It would surely change this world and our sense of place in space in the universe.”
Nye shared a childhood lesson from a teacher, who once told his class that there were more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the beach. Later, standing on a beach in Delaware and pondering the significance of this message, he said he was paralyzed by self-doubt and the realization that he was a mere speck, on a larger speck, within an even larger speck, and that “I don’t matter at all.”
But he comforted himself with the understanding that he possessed the intellectual capacity and the imagination to fully appreciate this “wonderful, remarkable” concept and the vast potential of the human experience.
“So, Class of 2013, here’s wishing you that joy of discovery,” he said. “Keep reaching. Keep seeking. Respect the knowledge of others. Keep using your abilities to bring out the best in those around you. And let them bring out the best in you. And, as you do, you can, and you will—dare I say it?—change the world.”
“Trust me, I’m a doctor”
Following his talk, Nye was the first of four to receive honorary degrees. He took the second opportunity at the podium to remind the graduates that he “wasn’t kidding about changing the world—trust me, I’m a doctor.”
Nye also positioned himself at the bottom of the ramp leading graduates from the stage back onto the field of Goodman Stadium, and stayed until the end of the three-hour ceremony to shake the hand of every student who received a degree.
He was introduced by President Alice P. Gast, who urged the graduates to be prepared to deal with the “unexpected, the unanticipated and the unwanted,” in her address, and to learn to improvise, adapt and overcome a fear of failure.
“Graduates, you leave Lehigh ready to improvise,” she said. “You have the knowledge and experience. You can deal with uncertainty and you are willing to take risks. Be adaptable and flexible when the unexpected happens. Be willing to change direction. Be willing, and able, to improvise and you will succeed.”
Commencement day dawned under cloudy skies, which gave way to soft, 65-degree sunshine by the start of the 10 a.m. ceremony…a total of 1,889 degrees were conferred at Goodman Stadium: 1,180 bachelor’s degrees, 608 master’s degrees, 98 doctoral degrees and three education specialists….the Class of 2013 included 129 international students from 35 nations outside the United States…for the first time, the commencement ceremony incorporated live video through two large-scale video boards on either side of the stage. Lehigh’s website also featured a social media grid that included celebratory tweets, rave reviews of the commencement address and Instagram shots…the ceremony began with a blessing from University Chaplain Lloyd Steffen, and was followed by the national anthem, which was sung by Arielle Leacock ’13….Brad Eric Scheler ’74, ‘05P, ‘08P, chair of the Board of Trustees, welcomed the audience…Kellen Gunderson ’10G ’13G, delivered the Graduate Student Remarks, and Jarred Barnes ‘13, president of the Class of 2013, delivered the Senior Class Remarks….Commencement speaker Bill Nye, executive director of The Planetary Society, received an honorary Doctor of Pedagogy….other honorary degree recipients were author and columnist James Carroll, who received an honorary Doctor of Letters; U.S. Medal of Science Recipient Mildred Dresselhaus, who received an honorary Doctor of Science; and corporate and securities lawyer and former chair of Lehigh’s Board of Trustees James R. Tanenbaum ’70, who received an honorary Doctor of Laws…James M. Flanagan ’80, former president of the LUAA, closed the ceremony by welcoming the new alumni…the benediction was offered by Chava Weissler, professor of religion studies… the Allentown Band, under the direction of conductor Ronald H. Demkee, delivered its 32nd consecutive performance at Lehigh’s commencement ceremony. It is America's oldest civilian concert band, with its first documented performance on July 4, 1828.