And then I wrote… this address was at the main science and engineering campus of the the University of Missouri system, Truman State University. I had a wonderful time there, starting with the plane ride from St. Louis in a ten-seater prop plane…
To the president, the provost, the dean, I thank you; honored guests, I greet you; to the Truman State University Class of 2015, I congratulate you. I am honored to share this stage with you.
Thinking about the class of 2015, I did some calculations… it’s the nerd in me, I know… and I realized that most of you were probably born in the early 1990s, which means you would have been around Harry Potter’s age when those movies came out. You are the generation who grew up alongside Harry Potter. That’s pretty wonderful. No other generation will be able to say that.
And I mention that, because there’s connection between you and Harry Potter. Like Harry Potter, you are all wizards. And you’re all about to graduate from Hogwarts.
I mean, think about it. What do we know about magic – the way it’s presented in the movies? You wave a wand, and say a few magic words, and amazing things happen.
But isn’t that what you’ve learned here? By learning to speak, learning to write, learning to learn, you have learned the magic… [In order to read the rest of this post, you have to be a paid-up member of Sacred Space, and logged in as such!]
… of words. You have learned how words have the power to transform the people around you; and how you, yourself can be transformed by words. (And you don’t even need the wand, though sometimes it might be useful!)
And, of course, if you get the words just a little bit wrong, the magic doesn’t work. Anyone who’s written a computer program knows how that feels!
The magic of words is a tremendous power. It can be used for good, or for evil. We’re all tempted to be Lord Voldemort at times. Maybe that’s why they invited a guy with a collar to speak to you this afternoon.
[And from here you may recognize how I cribbed from my earlier addresses!]
As you have heard, I am a Jesuit brother. I am also a planetary astronomer; and I work at the Vatican Observatory. A lot of people are surprised to hear that the Vatican City State has its own national observatory. That’s one of the reasons we have it: to surprise people.
This is an exciting time to be a planetary astronomer like me. The Dawn mission is orbiting our closest dwarf planet, Ceres, the first body ever discovered in what we now call the Asteroid Belt. (Ceres was discovered by a Catholic priest, by the way, from Italy.) The International Space Station has housed people in space continually for nearly 15 years. NASA’s Orion capsule has flown its first test orbit; some day we hope it will bring astronauts to asteroids, or back to the Moon, or maybe even to Mars. And next month, the New Horizons spacecraft will encounter Pluto. Talk about magic!
My own career has led to some pretty magical encounters. When I was a post-doc at Harvard I would talk interplanetary dust with Ed Purcell, who had won the Nobel Prize in Physics the year I was born. When I joined the Jesuits and was sent to Rome, I got to meet three Popes. Pope Francis is a Jesuit, like me, and a friend of science; he once taught chemistry. And he sure knows how to electrify a church, which I guess we needed… kind of like those big paddles they use to get your heart beating again.
But there’s another connection between science and religion, and it may surprise you: it’s the need for faith.
A friend of mine once told me once about a geology class he had taken, where they went out to a road cut — a place where the road had been cut through a hillside and all the rocks had been exposed. The professor had explained all the different rock layers, the faults and folds, where this layer had been emplaced and then bent and shifted by the forces inside the Earth.
The way my friend described it, he said, “at first, all I could see was a pile of rocks. But I trusted the prof, so I tried really hard to see what he was describing. And suddenly it all popped out; I got it. But if I hadn’t believed it, I never would have seen it.”
Science depends on faith. Before you go looking for an answer, you have to believe that the answer is there to be found. You have to believe that you are actually capable of finding that answer. And you have to believe that the project is worth the time, worth the effort. If it turns out that your beliefs were justified, you’ve got yourself a thesis. If any of those beliefs were misplaced, well… those are the ones who didn’t make it to this ceremony.
And it’s just after such moments of failure that continuing to believe is the hardest — and the most necessary. That’s when sometimes you need the jolt to the heart, to get things moving again. That’s when you need the magic you learned here.
All of life is making decisions based on inadequate data. Was this the right university for me? Was that the right major to choose? Well… too late now!
Think how young you were when you made those choices… it was just a few years ago, but you’ve learned a lot since then.You’re a different person from the one who chose to come here, chose your major, chose your thesis topic. It’s been a transformation as magical and unexpected as anything you’s see at Hogwarts.
In retrospect, you may find that even the choices that turned out to be right, were made for crazy reasons; and the choices that seem like a mistake, are often the ones that lead you to places you’d never expect, things you would never want to give up. Surprise!
Our lives are the sum of our choices; the sum of the places where we put our faith. Whether your life leads you to working with Popes or Nobel Laureates or the poor… there is one thing you can believe:
You can have faith in the things you learned here; you can have faith in the magic. You’ve learned how to learn, and how to keep learning. But even more, you should believe that there are all sorts of “easter eggs” hidden in what you’ve learned, things that you didn’t even realize you learned until some day, in some surprising way, that bit of wisdom pops out, just when you needed it.
I believe these things because I have seen them in myself and in my fellow graduates.
I have faith in you. I believe in the magic that you have learned here. I have faith in the surprises that will come your way; especially today, as the choices you made in good faith culminate into this surprisingly satisfying moment: when you hear the words that with their magic power pronounce you as graduates of Truman State University.