Everything You Need to Know, You Can Learn from "The Big Bang Theory" : Commencement Address, UC Davis, 2013

Ralph J. Hexter, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor, UC Davis

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My deep thanks to all of you, and graduates especially, for allowing me to share this milestone celebration with you.

Speaking at a graduation ceremony is not an especially easy thing to do. It’s a bit like shouting at a convertible of cheering students as it speeds down the highway toward Cancun. Most graduation speakers—that is, with the notable exception of carefully selected distinguished guests and student speakers—are best appreciated when they appear only briefly, preferably in the rearview mirror.

This is a problem because your speakers don’t want to shortchange you. We don’t want to deny you the heavy and difficult ideas, expressed in ponderous and pedantic language, that you deserve—and have grown accustomed to during your years as UC Davis students. And speaking personally, as a professor of classical literature, I can say that ponderousness and pedantry have always been a winning formula for me.

So rather than merely shout at your convertible as it speeds past, I’m going to beg your studious attention just one last time, so that I can distil some serious commentary from one of our society’s canonical, and I think wisest, texts. In preceding years, I’ve done a close analysis of our UC system motto “Let There Be Light,” and then of a few ancient literary texts. My remarks this year are very much in this vein, and no less weighty.

My address is entitled “Everything You Need to Know, You Can Learn from The Big Bang Theory.” Now, I know what you’re thinking: let me quickly assure you that I won’t waste your time by exploring the many close correspondences between the origin of our universe and the beginning of your post–UC Davis life. No, my text this evening is the other Big Bang Theory—the one that truly matters. Thanks to inescapable reruns, it tells the “tale of our tribe” nearly 24/7 via the scientific miracle of television.

I know that some of you are more familiar with this popular comedy series than others. But I’m also confident that all but the most unnaturally studious members of this graduating class can boast more than a little expertise in it. More to the point, I believe the program’s characters and academic focus qualify it to speak with unique authority to you and your experience—much as earlier classes have seen themselves in such cultural ur-texts as Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, The Paper Chase, and, perhaps most profound of all, Welcome Back, Kotter.

For the parents and relatives here who may not be familiar with the series, here’s a thumbnail sketch:

The Big Bang Theory centers on a group of young people, most of whom are employed by, or study at, Caltech in one of the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Most of them can be described, with no disrespect, as “nerds.” Each episode is a new, bold step into a place where no TV show has gone before—a swirling nebula of scientific and mathematical ideas, bad fashion choices, social ineptitude, romantic ineptitude, other sorts of ineptitude, board games, superhero comic books, and Star Trek.

For the nerd and non-nerd alike, the program is a treasure trove of interesting factoids. We learn, for example, that Caltech has a surprisingly quiet and unimpressive cafeteria, and sometimes uses a local Cheesecake Factory as one of its remote research facilities.

I’m more interested, however, in some lessons of greater importance, ones that rise to the level of useful wisdom for the Class of 2013. I’ve culled seven of these lessons, and I’d like to pass them on to you now.

 

Lesson One: It’s a good thing to speak Klingon.

Besides reminding us that Klingon is language of considerable charm and subtlety, this lesson teaches us that the very act of following our intellectual passions—however abstruse or offbeat—brings its own rewards. These rewards are the intangible ones—like personal enrichment, wisdom, and even simple pleasure. But contrary to prevailing opinion, they are in no way inferior to the so-called “practical” goals of training for or building a career. Both types are essential.

 

Lesson Two: It’s a good thing to know when not to speak Klingon.

As rewarding as the life of the intellect can be, there are other priorities that are at least as worthy. This is the key to what I’ll call “The Penny Paradox.” Penny is the only one of the main characters who lives outside of the braniac zip code, hasn’t achieved career success, and often can’t pay her bills. And yet, her independent spirit, common sense, capacity for caring, and unpretentious, down-to-earth personality make her the closest thing to the program’s alpha character, or center of gravity. As such, she provides a much-needed counterbalance to the others’ hyper-intellectuality. As Penny explains to Leonard, girls don’t count knowing Klingon as competence in a foreign language.

 

Lesson Three: There’s more than one good way to make chili.

The Big Bang Theory might at first seem like the ultimate niche comedy, but one of its goals is to advance the value of social and cultural inclusiveness. How else to explain the fact that the series focuses on an oft-derided minority culture—science nerds—and works to neutralize outsiders’ easy sense of superiority? Even Sheldon, the human C3PO who best embodies nerd culture’s extremity, repeatedly makes himself admirable and lovable.

The program’s call for inclusiveness also extends beyond this niche group—ultimately to all groups. It can be heard in the harmonious intermingling of Indian, Jewish, Texan, Nebraskan, and even Klingon cultures; Chinese and Thai take-out dinners; and female characters who are as strong and charismatic, and odd, as any of the male characters.

Probably the most eloquent embrace of cultural difference comes from Sheldon, after he tastes Priya’s inauthentic chili. (He has earlier pointed out that she can’t accurately call it chili, because it contains beans as well as meat.) “This is good,” Sheldon exclaims, “whatever it is!”

 

Lesson Four: The universe is stringy.

Sheldon and Leonard’s favoring of String Theory, beyond being a specific scientific affiliation, encourages us in a general way to think outside the box; I can think of few lessons more valuable than this one for your future career and academic success. But at least as important as this lesson is another one grounded on a more inclusive idea of “stringiness.” This lesson tells us that everything in our world—our air, earth, and water; our social and cultural institutions; our individual and collective actions; and perhaps most important, all human lives—are not best understood as discrete particles, or waves, but rather as thoroughly entwined, interconnected, and interdependent. We cannot hope to have a healthy environment, harmonious and ethical societies, deep understanding of the world around us, or even personal happiness without our attending to and respecting the stringy nature of our world./p>

 

Lesson Five: Thursday is comic book night.

This means that, as rewarding as variety can be, and as fixated as our society is on the “new,” there are also great benefits to the familiar. Stated more expansively: as valuable as scientific and cultural innovation can be, there is also much to be said for the continuing value of traditions, and for the ideas and accomplishments of earlier centuries.

 

Lesson Six: Find your spot on the couch.

Sheldon’s insistence that no one sit in his carefully chosen spot on the right end of his couch is based on a profound truth. There is nothing more valuable—certainly not material wealth—than feeling you are properly placed in the world: where you feel happy, healthy, proud, and able to do your best work. The luckiest among us find our proper place with respect to all of the important life coordinates, including career, family, friends, and where we live. 

 

And finally, Lesson Seven: Sometimes it’s right to play the Enchanted Bunny card.

As many of you will remember, Enchanted Bunny is “the weakest card in the game Mystic Warlords of Ka’a. (That’s “KAH-AH,” not “KAH.”) In one episode, Sheldon is playing in the championship round of a Mystic Warlords tournament against his archenemy, Will Wheaton. Sheldon is a couple moves away from certain victory when Wheaton invents a sad story about his “memaw.” Sheldon, who deeply loves his own “memaw,” is so moved that he decides to let Will win—and so he lays down the pathetic Enchanted Bunny card. When he discovers he’s been tricked into giving away the championship, he’s apoplectic.

But Sheldon is often the last to understand many things—including the fact that this defeat is, in a deeper sense, a victory, and a defining moment for him as a person. It demonstrates his capacity for deep compassion and his ability to act unselfishly. We might all follow Sheldon’s example and play the Enchanted Bunny card more often.

No doubt, I’ve given you much to chew on this evening—even without once mentioning the Carrot of Power! So I’ll proceed now to my conclusion.

I have every confidence that your experience at UC Davis, supplemented by this final Provost’s address, will leave you well prepared to achieve future success—in both career and life. You will, of course, face some difficult times and even some failures. But when you do, all that you’ve learned here will help you move on to new successes.

Once again, my heartiest congratulations to the Class of 2013 on what you’ve accomplished, and my best wishes to each of you for a bright, healthy, and happy future. Live long and prosper!

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View the videos for the ceremonies featuring this speech: College of Letters & Science (two ceremonies), Graduate School of Management, Graduate Studies, School of Medicine, and School of Veterinary Medicine