Graduation address: Professor Mark Chaplain

Lauren Sykes
Tuesday 13 June 2023

Tuesday 13 June 2023

Morning ceremony

Vice-Chancellor, colleagues, honoured guests, and graduates of the University of St Andrews…

Under normal circumstances today is a day of joy and celebration, a day to celebrate the achievements and success of each and every one of you. However, for you all, for your cohort, the past few years have been far from normal. A good proportion of your studies and your time at university have taken place under abnormal, extraordinary circumstances that no one would want to repeat. So, there should be a particular sense of pride amongst you all in what you have achieved in the face of upheaval, uncertainty, and adversity.

I must be honest with you all – when I was asked to give this graduation address and had accepted, I was very tempted simply to go to Chat GPT and ask: “ChatGPT, please write me the perfect graduation speech.”

On further reflection, since half of the students at this ceremony are from the School of English, and given the classical nature of the proceedings, I thought that it might be more appropriate to go to Google Bard and ask: “Bard, please write me the perfect graduation speech in Latin – and in iambic pentameter.”

However, on final, serious reflection, knowing how carefully speeches are scrutinised in advance by the Principal (she is far stricter than Turnitin) and how well she speaks Latin, I realised I would be found out and so I have had to compose this myself (apologies in advance).

Although it may appear that the two subjects of English and Mathematics and Statistics are worlds apart, staring at each other across an unbridgeable divide, they actually have much more in common than first appears.

Allow me to quote from some famous mathematicians to give some insight into how mathematicians view their own subject:

Maxime Bȏcher: “I like to look at mathematics almost more as an art than as a science; for the activity of the mathematician, constantly creating as she or he is, guided although not controlled by the external world of senses, bears a resemblance, not fanciful I believe, but real, to the activities of the artist, of a painter, let us say.”

Gösta Mittag-Leffler: “The mathematician’s best work is art, a high perfect art, as daring as the most secret dreams of imagination, clear and limpid. Mathematical genius and artistic genius touch one another.”

Sofya Kovalevskaya: “It is impossible to be a mathematician without being a poet in soul.”

And finally, Karl Weierstrass: “It is true that a mathematician who is not also something of a poet will never be a perfect mathematician.”

However, mathematics and poetry are linked not only in an abstract sense, but also in a more concrete sense. It is perhaps not very well known that James Clerk Maxwell (mathematician and physicist) published a book of his poetry, and our very own Regius Professor Kenneth Falconer has a number of his own poems on his personal web page (although I must say, being from Dundee myself, that his poetry is more akin to William McGonagall than William Shakespeare). So, if you all look across the divide of the central aisle of this hall, you will find that you are closer in many ways than you imagine to your fellow graduates and share much more in common.

As I alluded to at the start of this address, you have all come through difficult times, largely due to a pandemic that seemed to appear from nowhere without much warning. My reference to ChatGPT and Google Bard, although slightly tongue-in-cheek, does have a more serious side. Perhaps at this very moment, we are now at the start of yet another ‘pandemic’ so to speak – the pandemic of artificial intelligence, which has also seemingly appeared from nowhere without much warning and is spreading quickly everywhere. However, unlike an infectious disease there is little hope of a cure, there will be no vaccine which will eliminate or neutralise it. ChatGPT and other such algorithms are here to stay, and we will all have to learn to live with them and, in my opinion, look to harness and use their undoubted benefits for the good of all.

Indeed, within the university sector, and education in general, artificial intelligence is already proving to be the next big challenge to the extent it may radically change the way some subjects are taught, learned, and examined. However, I firmly believe there is a big difference between what you all have gained from your time here at St Andrews and what artificial intelligence can offer. The clue is in the name. ChatGPT and other such algorithms have artificial intelligence, while you all have real intelligence.

Reflecting a little, I am certain that there is so much more to what you have learned during your time here than what has been distilled onto the piece of paper that you are now all holding in your hands. What each of you has learned from your time here at St Andrews can never be replaced by artificial intelligence. You and your real intelligence are ready to face the challenges of the next stage of your career.

Finally, although this is a day to celebrate success, paradoxically I would like to speak about failure: but not in a bad way (!) like Macbeth – “If we should fail?” and Lady Macbeth’s reply, “We fail? But screw your courage to the sticking-place And we’ll not fail.” – which implies an over-confidence in one’s abilities never to fail in the first place, an attitude which is neither realistic nor helpful.

No, I would like to draw your attention to failure as a way to success. Indeed, the success of artificial intelligence is down to its success with failure, so to speak. The so-called neural networks at the heart of artificial intelligence enable algorithms such as ChatGPT to learn from their mistakes and never to repeat them – just imagine how different the world would be if we could all achieve this!

From your own personal perspectives then, perhaps you could reflect a little on your own mistakes of the past few years. I am sure that no one here today has sailed through flawlessly with full marks at every stage. The ability to accept mistakes and more importantly to learn from and not repeat mistakes will stand you in good stead at all stages of your career.

In the words of John Backus, an American mathematician best known for the invention of the FORTRAN programming language, Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a recipient of a Presidential National Medal of Science: “I, myself, have had many failures and I’ve learned that if you are not failing a lot, you are probably not being as creative as you could be – you aren’t stretching your imagination. You need the willingness to fail all the time. You have to generate many ideas and then you have to work very hard only to discover that they don’t work. And you keep doing that over and over until you find one that does work.”

And so, to conclude, rather than wish all of you “every good success”, perhaps I can say I wish all of you “every good failure”! Congratulations to you all and enjoy your special day today!

Posted in

Related topics