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Berkeley Talks: Pulitzer-winner Wolchover: ‘Knowledge of physics is a superpower’

By Public Affairs

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Natalie Wolchover, a senior editor at Quanta Magazine and winner of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting, gave the keynote commencement speech to graduates on May 14. (Photo by Sarah Wittmer)

In Berkeley Talks episode #170, Natalie Wolchover, a senior editor at Quanta Magazine and winner of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting, gives the keynote commencement speech to the Class of 2023 at Berkeley Physics .

“‘Knowledge is power,’ my grandpa always used to tell me,” Wolchover began at the May 14 ceremony. “Well, I think knowledge of physics is a superpower. We tend to forget, when we’re in a bubble of people who’ve studied physics, as we are in this auditorium, just how unusual it is to understand the laws of nature. Galileo wrote that ‘the universe is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it. Without these, one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth.’

“You all understand the language of nature. You are not wandering about in a dark labyrinth. You have a headlamp on. That superpower will bring you many opportunities. The training you’ve had gives you the ability to reason clearly and logically about problems, to isolate the important details and ignore irrelevant ones, to model situations and make predictions based on equations. That all makes you really good at solving puzzles.

“And furthermore, it feels good to solve puzzles. Whether or not you end up being a research physicist and solving the puzzles of the universe, which if you do, call me. In all likelihood, you’ll seek the kind of job that regularly provides that wonderful thrill of having solved a difficult puzzle. People will pay you a lot of money to solve difficult puzzles.

“My advice or humble request, really, is to always ask yourself, ‘Should you be solving this puzzle? Who will the solution benefit, and who might it harm? Is it a puzzle that the world needs solved?’ Take personal responsibility for the power that you possess. Consider the moral dimensions of your work. Think about what really matters to you and the impact that you want to have on the world.”

Listen to Wolchover’s full speech in Berkeley Talks episode #170 and watch a video of it below.

UC Berkeley’s Department of Physics held its commencement ceremony on May 14. (Wolchover’s speech begins at 27:00.)

Read more about Berkeley Physics’ commencement ceremony and see photos from the event on the department’s website.

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