Convocation 2010

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Physics, the Best of all Majors, by Sheldon Glashow

Physics is often regarded as the Queen of the Sciences. Today I have the homor and the pleasure to welcome some of her most recently annointed subjects, along with their families, faculty and friends. Having mastered physics, our new graduates are prepared to pursue virtually any career. Most of you, of course, aim to be practicing professional physicists, working in industry, government, academia or the miliary. You may address societal issues such as clean energy and climate change, or you may create useful (or merely fascinating) new materials, or investigate the science of sports or music, or study the properties of matter under extreme conditions: at ultra-low temperature, immense pressure, high energy, or in the depths of space. But these are not your only options. You may, at some point, migrate to an allied science, such as geology, astronomy or computer science. Or, you may opt for law, medicine, management, architecture, journalism, politics or (heaven forbid!) finance, for each of which your understanding of physics and mathematics is increasingly essential.

Although some 28 physicists have become astronauts, today only three can be found in our Congress. However, one of us served for 15 years as the first president of Kyrgistan, and another is the current Chancellor of Germany. Many full-time physicists have made significant contributions to other sciences, such as paleontology, astronomy, mathematics and archeology. At a more committed level, Max Delbruck and Francis Crick, both trained in physics, helped to create molecular biology. Indeed, I suspect that some of you may find careers closely related to the life sciences…

Let me tell a tale of three physicists. Wally Gilbert, once a professor of theoretical physics at Harvard, switched to biology and learned how to sequence DNA. He founded a major pharmaceutical company and is now a renowned art collector and photographer. Alan Cormack, who was primarily a high-energy experimentalist at Tufts, pioneered the development of the first medical scanners. Lastly, Andre Sakharov, a gifted cosmologist, convinced the Soviet government to sign the limited test ban treaty and became a champion of human rights. Each of these three physicists earned a Nobel Prize: one for Chemistry, one for Medicine and one for Peace.

Imagine that you do choose science as a career, although that is in no way necessary. Does that mean that you must forsake the liberal arts? Not at all. The astronomer who discovered Uranus over two centuries ago wrote symphonies that are still available at Amazon, and Einstein never abandoned his violin. Maxwell, whose equations are emblazoned on T-shirts was also an amateur poet. Among his 44 published poems, I found this cute quatrain:

Atoms, you told me, were discrete,
Than you they could not be discreter.
Who knows how many millions meet
Within a cubic millimeter?

More recently, two famous chemists wrote the historical play `Oxygen,’ which has been produced throughout the world, including both Cambridge-East and Cambridge-West. Just last year, Lisa Randall, a star physicist at Harvard, had her first opera staged in both Paris and Barcelona. And one of today’s honorees, Michi Baubock, a double major in physics and classics, plans to pursue astrophysics in graduate school. Who knows what wonders he (and you) may create? So much for C.P Snow’s allegation of two irreconcilable cultures!

Studying physics is not only fun, but sensible as well. As BU physics grads, you have the opportunity to enter careers that will always be both enjoyable and rewarding. We thank you for your hard work, and we thank your parents for their generous support, but most of all we congratulate you all on this marvelous occasion!