Juri Toomre | December 17, 2010

Commencement Address   Juri Toomre   17 December 2010  

“Be Nimble and Be Bold in the Flat World”

Graduates, proud parents and friends – greetings!

From the time CU was started 134 years ago in 1876, it has grown into a nationally-ranked powerhouse in teaching and research. You are now becoming esteemed buffalo alumni, so greetings indeed.

Just 100 years ago construction started on Macky Auditorium. As is traditional, a treasure trove of ordinary things was put into a time capsule in its foundation.  This was just opened two months ago, and is now on view in Macky.  I was wondering if this message from CU’s past could provide some useful advice or perspective to us all.  Besides a bevy of newspapers and a splendid photograph of the regents, the capsule had a book with two speeches delivered at commencement a century ago. CU’s then third President James Baker gave a very philosophical address, quoting Emerson and a medley of Greeks.  His speech must have lasted well over an hour to deliver – and it was pretty heavy going!   So that one’s moral fiber would be truly fortified, Bishop Olmsted followed with another hour of rarified philosophy.  Our current president and chancellor spare you such lengthy philosophical advice.  Instead today they send out an astronomer, namely me, for brief reflections.  Possibly as an astronomer working with the vast times and distances of the universe and its stars and galaxies, I may have an unusual perspective about what may have significance as you proceed with your lives.  So what advice can I provide?

Not much from the time capsule, though it shows how rapidly CU has advanced to become a national force.  But I do have some big news from my viewpoint as an astrophysicist, and it concerns the digital revolution.  As you may well know, the big news is that our world, and even the universe, has gotten flat. Yes, flat.  So how can that be?  First let us take on the world.

It took many centuries to figure out that our Earth was a sphere and thus not flat.  It is now well over 500 years after Columbus sailed west and stumbled on the Americas, thinking he had arrived in India.  Thus he called the native peoples Indians, but they had been around here for over 10,000 years, and they certainly did not need nor care to be discovered.  And Columbus had not fallen off the edge of the flat Earth, but nor had he found the route to the riches of the Orient – that would come from others sailing east.  But thank you Columbus, even if you got it wrong.  So what is it with this flatness, and what does it imply for your life?

We thank Thomas Friedman for his book “The World is Flat”, emphasizing that there has been a major transformation in our world, especially accelerating in the past ten years.  Friedman says that the world is becoming a pretty level playing field for business and commerce, thus flattened in terms of opportunity, independent of where someone may be.  The digital revolution has enabled such a flattening of the world.  Four factors are involved.  It has come about through the explosion in personal computers, by their ability to interact nearly instantly through fiber optic cables that snake throughout the world, and by workflow software that allows tasks to be chopped up, carried out in many time zones, and then recombined to be visible to all.  Mixed in with this is the enormous power of web tools to access information, with little regard as to who you are or where you are.  All of this flattening means that we can expect rapid shifts in who is up and who is down, whether with corporations or even nations, and this should make us uncomfortable. 

But these shifts also offer opportunities and excitement, yet it requires you to be ready to accept and exploit change.  I hope that CU has taught you how to think and reason.  You will also have learned lots of facts, but these are less precious than being able to think independently and to act upon your own judgment. So view the changing and flattening world as providing opportunities, even though it brings major challenges.

My advice to you is to be nimble and to be bold.  You will have to be adaptable to technological and world-wide changes.  The continuing success of our country requires intellectual investments and boldness with inventions, and entering new areas, such as biotech.  Continue with your education and be intellectually active.  There are no guarantees, since big shifts can occur in a flattening world of 7 billion people, but so far we have persevered.  I believe that our intellect and proven drive has a very good chance of carrying us into a bright future.

The world is flat, but remarkably so is the universe, but for rather different reasons.  Here too our perspective has been radically changed by the digital revolution.  As you know, the universe began with a big bang almost 14 billion years ago and has been expanding ever since.  Recently using very sensitive digital cameras and telescopes like Hubble, we have been able to detect objects ever farther away and thus in the universe that was much younger.  Looking far back in time at distant exploding stars called supernovae, we can use them to probe how the expansion of the universe may be proceeding. To our amazement, rather than slowing down, the expansion has actually been speeding up.

We have had to conclude that a mysterious force, which we call dark energy, is giving the expansion of the universe an increasing push.  Its magnitude is such that in a mathematical sense this yields a universe that is flat.  It appears that ordinary matter, such as protons and neutrons and electrons out of which we are also made, is a very small fraction of the mass-energy content of the universe – namely only 4%.  The rest is dark matter and dark energy, and the overall combination appears to make the universe flat. Yet through deep thought and boldness, and aided by the digital revolution, here we as very minor partners are actually able to devise and begin to tell the story!  We leave it to your generation to try to sort out what really is the dark stuff.  But be prepared for many surprises. As little as thirty years ago we did not anticipate the vast changes that would come with the digital revolution. In turn, the Macky time capsule had not a clue about the developments in physics, chemistry and biology of this century.

Our prowess in the United States with technology and innovation should allow us to contribute to this planet and its welfare in far greater proportion than our size.  This is your challenge as you now proceed to the next phase of your lives in what is likely to continue to be an ever flattening world.   You will have to be nimble and to be bold.  And as our earlier President Baker devised in Greek for the CU seal, “Let your light shine” as you proceed forth.  This is something that an astronomer can truly appreciate.