Dave Reitze Commencement Speech for Fall 2021 Doctoral Ceremony

Dave Reitze is a physicist, a scientific leader and a longtime professor of physics at the University of Florida. He is currently a research professor at the California Institute of Technology and the Executive Director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, or “LIGO.”

In that capacity, Professor Reitze led a group of 1,200 scientists around the globe that in 2016 announced the first-ever direct detection of gravitational waves. That phenomena had been predicted, but never observed, by Albert Einstein in his general theory of relativity more than 100 years ago.

Professor Reitze in 2017 received the National Academy of Science Award for Scientific Discovery. He has shared in numerous other awards with his LIGO colleagues — including the Einstein Medal. 

His speech for the Fall 2021 Doctoral Commencement Ceremony is below:

Thank you very much, President Fuchs.

And hello University of Florida doctoral graduates! I cannot tell you how absolutely delighted I am to be here speaking to you. In person! In 3D!

I have the privilege and pleasure of speaking to you today because you all have accomplished something truly remarkable. You, each one of you, are likely the world's expert in your chosen field of study -- be it Victorian Literature, Enhanced Soil Management, Transistor-Based Biological Sensors, Computational Investigations of Electronic Structure, or Taxation Law. What's even more impressive -- you've accomplished what you did under some of the most profoundly challenging conditions ever faced in higher education.

I'm guessing that none of you expected when you began your doctoral journey that you would be carrying out your research and writing your dissertation while living through a global pandemic. Resiliency is a word that you've probably heard a lot of times in the past 21 months. Let me tell you this - You all are the living embodiment of what it means to be resilient. You should all be very proud of yourselves and your accomplishments.

Traditionally, commencement speakers are charged with doling out profound and life-changing advice that will carry you into the bright future that you are all destined to have. But honestly, what can I possibly tell you that you haven't already figured out for yourselves?

You've successfully navigated your way through the complex educational maze of your undergraduate degrees, your graduate coursework and on to everything you did for your terminal degrees, from qualifying exams to research to publishing papers, completing capstone projects and writing and defending your thesis. All of this while making your way through life, while raising families or perhaps managing difficult personal circumstances, and, of course, having to cope with the twists and turns of a global pandemic that has impacted us all in some way.

What I'll do instead is share with you a few things I've learned along the way that I remember every once and a while to help me avoid making the same mistake twice.

My first lesson: Be open to possibilities. My path was almost never pre-ordained or planned in advance. I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I never set out to be a physicist. I majored in physics in college because it was a challenging subject and I loved challenges. I went on to graduate school to take more classes and learn more about physics.

So naturally it came as a big shock to me that once I got to graduate school I would actually have to do original research and write a dissertation. You might call that naivete. I think of it more as total cluelessness. If I'd done some research, I might never have started -- getting a Ph. D. was more work than I was willing to put in. I dropped out of graduate school for a semester to rethink my career plans. But I went back and persevered.

My second lesson: Take chances and trust my instincts. When I came to a fork in the path of my life, I followed my intuition. I was lucky enough to be a young assistant professor at UF when an opportunity fell into my lap in the form of an invitation to get involved in a big physics project to search for gravitational waves: LIGO.

I was working on developing new types of high intensity lasers at the time. I didn't know much about gravitational waves other than they were a prediction of Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. I, like many people who go into physics, aspired to be the next Einstein and was eager to prove it. And 'Laser' was the first word in the name of the project, so that was pretty cool.

I started doing some research into LIGO. That's lesson #3 - do some research! The idea is simple enough on paper -- construct a detector that can measure very tiny changes in distance as a gravitational wave passes through the earth, so called 'ripples in space-time'. But the more I learned, the more I thought to myself, this project is completely nuts! I'd have to be crazy to work on this! While Albert Einstein predicted that they exist, he himself is on record as saying gravitational waves could never be detected.

And for a really good reason - detecting gravitational waves demands building immensely large detectors that can measure distances to better than 1/1000 the diameter of the nucleus of an atom. Something that small is hard to get your head around.

To measure gravitational waves, you have to build a device that can determine a change in distance to a level comparable to measuring the distance between the Sun and the nearest star Proxima Centauri to better than the width of a human hair. Proxima Centauri is about 25 trillion miles from earth (that's Trillion with a 'T'). If you do the math, that's about 1 part in one one billionth of one one trillionth. That's a mind-bogglingly small number.

I consulted a senior esteemed physicist in the laser community -- a Big Shot -- who strongly advised me not to shift my research program to LIGO. It would be, and I quote, 'a career killer'. Congressional hearings were held in the 1990s during which expert scientists opined that LIGO would never work. Funding it would be a colossal waste of money.

Logic and reason told me not to get involved and continue along the path I was on. LIGO was a scientific great opportunity but also a huge risk. My instincts simply said 'Go for it!'. Instinct versus logic - no contest! Forget about the Big Shot! I took the leap.

Fast forward about 20 years, and the detection of gravitational waves by LIGO has been hailed as one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the 21st century. Our team of more than 1000 scientists and engineers from the US and around the world came together and built machines that made the first ever measurement of gravitational waves from a pair of black holes, each 30 times the mass of the sun, colliding into each other about 1.3 billion light years away. LIGO has opened a new window, allowing us to probe the most extreme and cataclysmic conditions that can be found in the Universe. And that leads me to the fourth lesson - the experts, even Albert Einstein, don't always get it right. So don't be afraid to challenge them.

Amazingly, we now detect gravitational waves from the cosmos about once a week with LIGO when it's in operation. And I here must proudly point out that several of my colleagues at the University of Florida, including Professors David Tanner, Guido Mueller, Sergei Klimenko, Guenakh Mitselmaker, Bernard Whiting, and Hai-Ping Cheng, some of whom are in the audience today, played a major role in building LIGO and in the first and many more recent discoveries of gravitational waves. What was once thought impossible by many and challenging by everyone is now almost routine.

This brings me to the fifth lesson -- that working together with a purpose, a motivated group of individuals can do just about anything. It took more than 20 years of coming together focusing on a singular mission to design, construct, and refine one of the most complex and precise scientific instruments ever devised. And eventually it worked.

Things did not always go the way we wanted them to. Running up against seemingly insurmountable problems was a regular feature of working on LIGO. "You want to make a laser that produces 100s of watts of power day-in-and-day-out year after year? No way, it can't be done." "You want to build a giant L-shaped ultrahigh vacuum system 2 1/2 miles long on each side? Hah, good luck with that!" "You need to keep your mirrors still by more than a trillion times compared to the shaking of the ground? What are you smoking?? Whatever it is, I want some!"

Often, the solution would emerge by someone saying “well, that didn't work, let's give that a try …” and after days, weeks, months, and even on occasion years of several more tries, we'd be on to the next problem. And then the next one. And then the one after that.

And that brings me to my last lesson - the world faces no end of challenges. It kind of feels to me overwhelming at times. We're all learning the Greek alphabet for reasons we could never imagine. But here's the thing. The world has always faced challenges, and it will always face challenges. And we will get through them.

I know that you, doctoral graduates will guide us through, and that you will do so by taking chances, doing research, challenging the experts and working together with a motivated community of colleagues and allies to solve the toughest problems of our time. Thank you, and once again congratulations!

UF News December 17, 2021