2019 Commencement Speaker: Bill Nye

Bill NyeBill Nye, science educator, engineer, and television host, has been named the Goucher College 2019 Commencement speaker. Nye was previously the Commencement speaker in 1999 when he received an honorary doctor of letters degree. The 128th Goucher College Commencement ceremony will take place on May 24, 2019.

Nye is best known for making science entertaining with his Emmy Award-winning television show, Bill Nye the Science Guy. He is also a New York Times bestselling author of numerous books, including Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World and Everything All at Once: How to Unleash Your Inner Nerd, Tap Into Radical Curiosity, and Solve Any Problem.

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Commencement Address

The following is a transcript.

Thank you all so much, thank you so much for including me today. Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished faculty, distinguished speakers, alumni, parents, boys, girls, kids of all ages, and especially graduates. Congratulations, you made it. Nicely done. Yes. Now, you might be thinking, those parents and all those older adults, they can’t get me now. Well, it’s too late people, they already did.

Now, we want you to go out there and, dare I say it, change the world. As you may have heard a moment ago, I was awarded an honorary doctorate from Goucher 20 years ago. So when I’m here at Goucher especially, you can trust me, because I’m a doctor.

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    Bill Nye, the Science Guy, delivers the Commencement address to Goucher's class of 2019

For your entire life, I imagine, you’ve heard people say you are the future. And there’s a reason for that. Trust me, you are the future. And right now in the spring of 2019, your future looks both exciting, full of astonishing promise, and, trust me, it also looks terrifying for everyone on Earth.

You have access to more human knowledge, more computing power, and more fun, in your electric phone machines than your ancestors could imagine, let alone make use of. And it sure looks like information, transportation, and agricultural technologies are going to get better and better. The future is full of astonishing promise.

But our world is changing. There are now so many of us living increasingly energy-intensive lives and burning ancient plants to get that energy that we are changing the climate of a whole planet. You might say the world is on fire, and these are scary times for everyone on Earth.

Speaking of scary times for everyone on Earth, as you may have heard a moment ago, my mother graduated from Goucher in 1942, and in the winter of 1941 and 1942, everyone around here, in the United States, was terrified. They could see the troubles in Europe and Asia were about to become troubles for everyone on Earth. The first such conflict, the first big war to end all wars—which it didn’t—was rekindled and the U.S. was once again going to be dragged into the deadliest war ever, or maybe just so far: the Second World War.

That winter, my mother’s boyfriend disappeared, captured by the Japanese navy from Wake Island, a tiny atoll 5,000 nautical miles west of Pearl Harbor. That spring, my mother, along with several other Goucher women, class of 1942, became cryptanalysts, the codebreakers. They all went on to have remarkable careers; they all helped win the war. But back then, so did everyone. Everyone in the U.S., most people everywhere, went to work to solve a global conflict. I mean, win the war and get back to work—and they did. It was an extraordinary time because everyone was scared. Everyone pitched in, and in five short years, they got ‘er done.

Now all of you aren’t facing a global war, or, at least, not yet. Instead, you’re facing a global change of life itself. Our world is warming, and the living things around us are changing and dying at an unprecedented rate. So you are going to have to make big changes in the way you and your kids live. At the start of the Industrial Revolution, after James Watt came up with a very practical steam engine, we had about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. Today, we have nearly 415, a change by a factor of one and a half in just two-and-a-half centuries. We’re not talking about two million years; we’re talking about 200 years. The only other times climates have changed this fast here on Earth are associated with the occasional asteroid impact. There’s never been anything like it in all of human history.

When my grandmother, who grew up in Washington, DC, went to see the Wright Brothers aeroplane fly in College Park, MD, in 1909, there were a few more than one-and-a-half billion people on Earth. Today, there are almost six times that many. We are burning and breathing an atmosphere that’s so thin…how thin is it? It’s so thin, if you can drive straight up, you’d be in outer space in an hour. On 695, it would be two and a half hours. 

With every passing second, there are four more people born on Earth. By the time you all reach your billionth second on this planet, a little over halfway into your 31st year, we will have nine billion people, we may have close to 10 billion people, on Earth.

We, by that I mean you, are going to find ways to feed us all. And you will, with technology derived from science, and with policies that support innovation investment in the greater good, policies based on facts. It is no longer a matter of only keeping the air and water clean, curtailing the accidental creation of plastic trash, like straws, and hoping that will be OK. No. Nowadays we, by that I mean you, are going to have to steer our spaceship, take charge of Earth. It’s no longer a matter of just being good stewards. From now on, we humans will have to deliberately control what we do to our atmosphere, the land and sea, to ensure that we maintain as much biodiversity as possible, while taking care of all of us.

Now when it comes to changing the world, don’t be scared. Don’t freak out. When you have to perform doing anything, be it a final exam, dressing for a date, winning a world war, or managing a planet, you might be nervous. You might be scared. And that fear can stop you cold. But don’t let it. As we say in the theater, and on television, take that fear and turn it into excitement. You’re Goucher graduates, for crying out loud. You can do this, people! Take a chance, make a difference. It’s what everyone here wants you to do in every challenge you face—turn your fear into excitement and change the world.

If you could, in Harry-Potter-magic-wand-ical fashion, make one sweeping change to the world that would address climate change, it would be this. You would raise the standard of living for girls and women worldwide. That’s a fact. My mom was a woman, for example. Now instead of a magic wand, let us provide these three things for everyone on Earth. And women of the world, they’ll be educated, they’ll have fewer kids, and the kids they do have will be educated, healthy, and productive, so here we go.

Bill Nye speaking to Goucher class of 2019 at commencementFirst, we want clean water for every citizen in the world. Water enables us to be healthy. It enables us to have agriculture, feed our populations. Second, we want energy for everybody. In general, when we say energy, we mean renewably produced reliable electricity for everyone on Earth. Electricity is magical. You can use it to light a room, navigate by satellite, produce TV shows, make instant-grams, or you can use it to make toast. It’s versatile, it’s transmittable, it’s efficient. Third, we want access to the internet, or whatever you kids call internet in the coming decades, to provide global information for everyone in the world. By connecting everybody electronically, landline or a constellation of low-orbiting satellites, we can change things.

When I think about those three big, big ideas, I sense some tough challenges. But I’m filled with optimism. This is as good a moment as any in our time together to talk about advice. Just regular advice. It’s a good idea, for example, to always wear shoes in a factory where they make thumbtacks. When crossing a highway in a car or especially on foot, it’s a good idea to look up from your phone once in a while. Once in a while! And it’s good to read the label on a can of paint—before you drink it. You see, you should be paying attention. It’s just what I’m talking about.

Now when I was in college, and for twenty more years in the workforce, if I wanted to know something fun, like the atomic number of rubidium, or if I wanted to know something important, like the score of the Orioles game, I had to look it up in a printed source, a newspaper, a journal, a chemical handbook. But now, facts like those are available in a few milliseconds from several generally very reliable sources. I mean, it’s not that likely that someone is going to create a website on which they deliberately state that rubidium has 38 protons instead of 37. Ha, that would be funny. Oh, man.

But people do make up a lot of misleading and just plain wrong things and post them on the internet. The skill we all need now is that of critical thinking. It’s what we used to call reasoning or logic, the ability to reason, whether or not something is reasonable, and then to find a way to check it, to verify it.

Now here’s something else I hope you’ll carry with you as long as you live. Everyone you’ll ever meet knows something you don’t. Everyone. Farmers know things about plants that most of us, even botanists, never will. Bricklayers have an intimate knowledge of what it takes to lay bricks. Cooks know how to use copper bowls to control egg proteins, and that’s cool. Respect that knowledge and learn from others. It will bring out the best in them, and it will bring out the best in you.

Keep in mind, everyone, that if you couldn’t choose where to be born on Earth, but you could choose when, this would be the time to be born. This is the most exciting time in human history. Life is better now, for more of us, than ever before in history. As strange as it may seem, this really is the best time. The opportunities before us are amazing. No matter what else is going on, everyone, please be optimistic. People who are not optimistic don’t get very much done. They get spun up and worn down by their own self-doubt, and they’ll bring you down with them.

When my grandparents joined our merry band here on Earth, no one had any idea what relativity was or is. They saw the creation of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. My grandmother was alive when the first Wright brothers’ flight took place, which would later fit in the cargo version of a 747 airplane that I worked on. The whole flight would fit inside, height and distance.

Your mobile phone uses both special and general relativities so that it can tell you what side of the street you’re standing on. And speaking of relativistic physics, you were all in college when gravitational waves were proven to exist. You were in first grade or so when the universe was shown to be not only expanding but accelerating outward. And dark matter and dark energy are responsible. And you know what dark matter and dark energy are? Nobody knows!

Understanding those currently mysterious forces may lead to everyday technology like a mobile phone and will be in your lifetime. And by the way, I’m predicting right now that gravitons, particles of gravity, will be measured or even isolated. So will darkons. Darkons—particles of dark. It’s just a word I kind of made up there. Mark my words, or my word. Darkon, well, they’ll be dark.  

And what I’m saying is, as troublesome as some of our global problems seem to be, you are all up to the challenges. You know more physics than Isaac Newton or Copernicus, you know more about evolution, biology, and genetics than Darwin or Wallace did, or even could. Those guys didn’t even know there was DNA.

And speaking of biological acronyms (who isn’t?), Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR, is going to change the way we farm, treat diseases, and give birth. In your lifetime, we may discover evidence of life on Mars or the ocean moon of Jupiter, Europa. The future, your future, is going to be extraordinary.

As graduates, I imagine more than a few of you are concerned about what’s next. What you’re going to do for a living. What you’re going to do for the rest of your life. My advice: Just get started. Just get started. As you may know, I worked on a TV show intended to get young viewers excited about science so in the future we’d have a more scientifically literate society and, of course, more scientists and engineers. But please, keep in mind, I’m not advocating for everyone to become a scientist, and I’m certainly not asking that everyone become an engineer. The fashion consequences alone would be very troubling.  

I got here today by taking a good job in the aerospace industry. I started writing jokes for a local comedy show. I left my full-time regular engineering job October 3, 1986 roughly, to pursue a career in television. I just got started and one thing led to some other pretty good things. So turn any concern you have, any time you have it, about your future into excitement.

Wait, wait, there’s one more thing that’s not really advice, people. I guess it’s the closest thing I can provide to a command. Vote! You have to vote. Thank you! I’m glad this is not controversial. Hang on, there’s just a little more! Voting is how we influence policymakers, it’s how we make big changes, it’s how we get things done. If you don’t want to vote, will you please just shut up, so the rest of us can get on with changing things for the better.

To me, the Founding Fathers, the people who wrote the U.S. Constitution, were nerds. They were trying to come up with a system that would always work for people who, for some reason, don’t always get along. And built in is change. That’s the key, and for me, the key to the progress—to the process—of science. And I remind you, Article 1 Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution refers to the progress of science and useful arts. And that, to me, reflects this insight that our Founding Fathers had. Change is what you have to have in order to adapt. And that’s what you all are going to do as you go out to, dare I say it, change the world.

As Bruno Mars remarked, before we leave, I’d like to tell you a little something. Take a moment and consider what you have accomplished here at Goucher, and what you’ll be able to accomplish on account of your Goucher days. Whatever it cost, it’s priceless. Your diploma will be worth more tomorrow than it is today. It’ll be worth even more, far more, ten years from now. You have a liberal arts education. This enables you to understand the world in ways that many other people choose not to. So class of 2019, here’s wishing you excitement, optimism, and joy in what you do. Use your knowledge and your abilities to bring out the best in those around you, and let them bring out the best in you. We are all excited about your future because you can, and you will, dare I say it, change the world! This has been an honor. Thank you, thank you so much. Thank you. Woo!

Previous Commencement speakers