Yearbook letter to the Harvard Class of 2020

by Oliver Knill

February 28, 2020

I'm honored to have been voted again by the Class of 2020 as one of their favorite professors. This is a draft for the yearbook letter.
  • Here was the letter for the Class of 2012.
  • Here was the letter for the Class of 2018.
  • Here (update 2021) is a letter from 2021.
Update March, 2020. When writing this in February, I had not aware what would await us. I would certainly not have chosen this topic. It is too close to home now.

Dear Class of 2020,

Survival is a serious topic. Challenges like artificial intelligence, climate change, war or natural disasters indicate that. There is also a brighter side to survival. Three stories.

The end of the rope

Kids do some dumb things. To find out what is at the bottom of a 100 meter TV tower we needed to climb up to the top, then rope down inside the center pole. It was pitch dark inside. Checking we noticed that the end of the rope was just before slipping through the descender which would have led to a 70 meter tumble to an almost certain death. I could stop in time. So: make sure you tie the end of the rope so that if you reach the end of the rope, it is not the end of you!

Shooting mice

At the end of freshmen year, rather than to study for exams immediately, we would go to a longer two-week hike in Lapland, Finland. After having hiked for a week in the beautiful lake area, we enjoyed a week in the wilderness of Lapland. We had almost no food as the plan was to fish and hunt. Acid rain had rendered the many beautiful lakes too acid for fish. Also hunting with a 22 caliber revolver was more difficult than expected. Except for mice! We were able to shoot a few. But there is not much meat there: mostly bones and fur. Still, they helped us to survive the trip. We also passed the exams.

Calling the devil

As a secular person, I do not believe in the devil. But how can we be sure? As a scientist one has to try out. I would always do my daily runs late at night in a large forest near our village. I know every part of it and can run it even without lamp at night. So, I once went alone to the middle of the forest, stopped and shout: "Devil, come take me!" The experiment passed and I survived. I had proven that the devil does not exist!

So long!

I'm confident that some of you will contribute to solve the major problems which humanity face. I also hope that that you avoid meeting the devil, never reach the end of the rope, and never, ever have to shoot mice in order to survive.