On commencement

Saturday was graduation day for another crop of astronomy students, and for the third year in a row, I was "faculty at large". This meant I got to put on the cap, gown, and hood and take a seat in the second row with about 50 or 60 other faculty. This is actually a *big* change even from my first year at graduation, when I was one of about a dozen and most of those were folks from the Dean's Office rather than the Departments.

Anyway, I volunteer to go because it is nice to see our graduates walk across the stage and to meet their families and congratulate them after the ceremony. One additional benefit is that having been involved with summer camps where I've worked with students in other science departments I usually know another dozen students besides the handful of astronomers that are graduating in a particular year.

Some random points:

  • The speaker this year, H. Robert Horvitz was great. He was funny, interesting, didn't go on too long, and made some excellent points. Without being partisan, he told all of us what we know (science is being attacked) and asked us to help educate our peers and our congresscritters.

  • Another Horvitz point -- he won the Nobel Prize for his work, which began as basic research. That is, his work has many practical applications today, but when he started it was basic science. He advocated strongly for investment in basic science. Obviously, we are not going to cure Parkinson's by measuring the gravitational radiation from merging black holes, but basic science is basic science, and it is all good.

  • Change of gears from the speaker to the event -- I saw several students I know graduate from other departments. One pre-med told me that he's going to UVa for med school. That makes a third student I've worked with at PSU ending up at the same grad school I attended. I hope they all like CVille, otherwise I might be getting some complaints next Fall...

  • Post-graduation party for 2006's astronomers was fun as usual. One interesting conversation sticks in my mind -- one of our most successful students ever was at the party with his Mom. She was asking several of us about life in astronomy. She's an academic, and is very worried about her son's future (presumably, like every Mom in the world). After getting several opinions from folks in various careers in astronomy (including me and my very non-traditional job) she warned her son about what life is going to be like. Astronomy as a career is definitely not for everyone, but I think this particular student will be just fine.


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