Graduation Address: Professor Ian Bonnell, School of Physics and Astronomy

Graduation Office
Monday 10 June 2024

Monday 10 June 2024Ceremony B

Vice-Chancellor, special guests, colleagues and, of course, wonderful graduates.

Congratulations to all our new graduates. It is wonderful to be able to share this special day with you and with your family and guests. You have succeeded in doing something I never achieved: attending your graduation ceremony. My mother eventually forgave me, I think. For a natural introvert the idea of parading across the stage appeared daunting. Now here we are, and I am honoured to be able to share graduation with generations of our students.

When I was asked to give this graduation address I was at a loss for what I could say to provide a summary of what a degree means for our students. Those of you who know me well will be aware that in such circumstances I like to think while walking. I am grateful that our building is a quadrangle to avoid the impression of pacing back and forth. The other aspect that helps creativity and decision making is perspective. That has led me over the years to hill walking in the wilds of Scotland and the UK.

Six weeks ago, I was participating in a 60-mile event through the Yorkshire Dales, seemingly including every hill they could find, while avoiding most paths. This might seem like an extreme way of seeking inspiration, but it can work. So, there I was, at about 3am, some 40 miles in, and at 500 metres elevation. The temperature was near zero, it was dark, windy, and about to rain, then snow. Oh, and I was knee deep in a bog and unsure where I was going. I must admit that at this point I was at a bit of a low. My initial enthusiasm, and ability to run, had been left behind some 20 miles back. The end was nowhere in sight and dawn was still a few hours away. Sheer determination, or stubbornness, (on top of training and preparation) is what kept me going. My brain was thinking “why am I doing this when I could be happily in bed?” That and “boy could I use a cup of tea, with six sugars”.

Then I realised that what I was feeling was eerily similar to what most of you will have experienced at some point during your degree. University inspires and stretches students, but it also almost inevitably includes some harder times where we question our goals, and if we can achieve them. For students from my School that typically means Junior Honours, where students have to dig a bit deeper, develop a new determination in addition to their enthusiasm, and at some points forego their creature comforts in order to complete that lab project or assignment.

As a professor of Astrophysics, I feel I should digress here and provide a snippet of what astrophysics is about. I could talk about dark matter, or dark energy, the origin of our Sun or the fate of our Universe. Instead, I will say a few words about energy. Stars are unfathomably large and far apart, yet gravity makes them interact. They are often found in groups called clusters and frequently have close partners they spend their lifetimes with. An interesting aspect of gravity in astrophysics is that it can provide a huge energy source, much higher than anything we can do on Earth. In fact, it powers the brightest sources in our Universe. As an object moves under the influence of gravity, be it a star in a cluster or a planet around a star, it has lots of energy in the form of its motions. If you remove some of this energy, it will fall towards the centre and actually speed up much as a ball rolls down a hill. It now has more motion, and hence more energy that in turn can be removed and the process can be repeated until all of the objects have merged together, or formed a black hole, at the centre.

Life is a bit like this, in that the more energy you put into your pursuits, the more energy you have to do so. There are, of course, limits to this analogy.

Challenges are certainly part of life whether we seek them out or have them handed to us. Being capable of facing our challenges, whatever they may be, is what drives success in all of its forms. Challenges are as individual as we are and what defines success is equally individual and just as valid.

You have faced challenges as part of your degree. You have overcome these challenges. You have achieved! You have undoubtedly faced adversity along the way. Not just the normal adversity of a degree. Let us throw in a pandemic, where interactions and peer support, the core strengths of a university were severely limited. That too you have overcome to be here today.

What does the award of a university degree mean? It says that you have worked hard over several years to understand your academic subject. It signifies the body of knowledge achieved, the skills developed, the determination in overcoming adversity, and most importantly the ability to address new ideas and questions that are at or beyond the edge of our current understanding. Hopefully it also means years of growth, of making friends for life, and having lots of fun.

On my first day at University some 40 years ago, my advisor of studies explained what he saw as the remit of a university education: “We are not here just to teach you a bunch of facts, but to help you develop the ability to teach yourself.”

Knowledge can be gained by books, and perhaps even from the internet. Nurturing creative thinkers, who can formulate and address questions that have not been asked previously, is the goal of a university.

This brings me back to challenges. You have the abilities, and hopefully the confidence, to be a creative thinker. This is why society and employers value university graduates. Over your life you will face new challenges, some of your choosing and some that are presented to you. Deciding on what challenges are useful and feasible to tackle is key.  We hope you will continue to keep learning throughout your life, to search out and achieve new challenges and, as the University motto says, Ever to Excel!

Thank you.

Posted in

Related topics