Graduation address – Professor Chris Hawkesworth

Friday 30 November 2012

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen, and in particular new graduates of the university.

It is a great pleasure to add my congratulations to the many you will receive, thank you for being here, I hope you have had a great time, and thank you too for enriching us as an institution through your contributions. And a warm welcome to your families, many of whom have travelled considerable distances to be with us today. We appreciate that, we hope you have a most enjoyable visit in this distinctive corner of Scotland, and we look forward to meeting at least some of you in the celebrations afterwards.

This day is above all for the new graduates, to celebrate, to remember the good times and to look forward to the opportunities that lie before you. We hold this graduation on St Andrew’s Day, the day to honour the life of an apostle who was the brother of Peter, and who is closely associated with the parable of the loaves and fishes. He was present at the Last Supper, he witnessed the Ascension, and he preached the gospel in Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Southern Russia. He was crucified in AD 70 in Patras, Greece on an x-shaped cross, feared by the Roman Governor because of the large number of people he had converted. He is now the patron saint of Scotland and clearly gives his name to this University.

As we celebrate our 600th Anniversary, we ask ourselves how we should build on these foundations? Do those 600 years of history affect us in some way, have they made this university a different place, and if so in what way? Or does the anniversary just give us a warm feeling that things must be all right because we have been here throughout all the ravages of so much history?

I am a geologist, and perhaps geology provides two perspectives. One is that of deep time, the Earth has been here for 4 and half billion years, there have been recognizable fossils for 700 million years, and in that context we are but a tiny speck within innumerable communities that have been here before us. In many ways these are issues of scale and perspective, of us as individuals, of our communities and, in this case, of the planet as a whole.

The second is that for geologists the Earth is always changing, and yet to most of us rocks are the basis of our secure, immovable foundations. ‘Rocks of Ages’ and ‘Tablets of Stone’ are testimony to such security, but in the end surely the challenge is to take the best of the past, to research it, to be its scholars, to understand it, to process it in our different ways and to rely on it to give us the confidence to think differently, to do new things, and to shape the future. Foundations give us a framework, but we may build all sorts of edifices on them, and just perhaps our buildings will provide new foundations for those who follow.

So I hope your time here has helped to develop your curiosity, your sense of ownership of your future, your confidence to shape things as best you can. Intellectually I hope you have enjoyed questioning what you have been told, looking beneath the surface, learning not to compromise, at least in terms of ideas, and always pushing intellectual boundaries whatever the topic may be. But as Einstein warned us

“We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality.”

The fact that many of you are receiving PhD degrees today highlights the importance of research to the life of this academic community. I was wondering how many of you chose your thesis titles while being fully aware that they would be read out today, or of the opportunity that offered, but in many subjects you are the engine that drives much of our research that develops new and challenging ideas. As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the foundation of St Leonard’s College we pay tribute to the role of research students, and hope that many of you graduating with other degrees will be encouraged to undertake further research. We are under increasing pressure to undertake research that links in some direct way to the economy. But all research enriches society, and as individuals research is a wonderful vessel in which we and our ideas can develop.

Let me return to Andrew. When the Emperor Constantine established the city of Byzantium, or Constantinople, as the new capital of the Roman Empire, replacing Rome, there were five bishoprics and Byzantium was scorned by the others as a new-comer. Byzantium responded with the claim that its founder and first bishop had been Andrew the brother of Peter. More than that, Andrew’s remains were dug up from where he had been buried in Amalfi and taken to Byzantium to reaffirm its standing. Much more cheerfully the standing of our university lies with you, take it with you and shape it in your ways. We hope that your experience in St Andrews has given you the self-reliance and the self-confidence for you to lay your own foundations.

But for now, maybe we should let the future take care of itself. This is very much your day, the result of your hard work and I hope also a lot of fun. Very many congratulations on your graduation, and please make the most of what lies ahead. Much of it lies in your hands, and as a very good friend, who sadly is no longer with us, used to say, this is no dress rehearsal, make the best of every day. Please remember us, come back whenever you can, you will always be welcome.

Professor Chris Hawkesworth FRS FRSE
Deputy Principal & Vice-Principal (Research)

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