McDaniel College Scholar Alumni Award

On March 28, 2013, I was awarded the McDaniel College Scholars Alumni Award. I love my alma mater, and it means so much to be honored by McDaniel in this way. The award description and my acceptance remarks are below.

McDaniel College Scholars Alumni Award – At a college recognized for changing lives, the McDaniel Honors Program challenges students to develop their intellectual potential as leaders for change in their local and global communities. This award recognizes College Scholars who have realized this potential by excelling in positions of leadership. It is awarded annually to one alumnus.

My acceptance remarks

Thank you and welcome,

The Honors Program is giving me an award tonight, but I am really here because of the experiences McDaniel College and the Honors Program gave me over a decade ago. The experiences I had during my time here paved the way for graduate school and my career and, more importantly, gave me a love for learning, intellectual curiosity outside of my field of specialization, and lifelong friends including my wife. For these reasons, I should perhaps give an award to McDaniel College and the Honors Program.

The goal of a liberal education like the one McDaniel offers is to fill you with knowledge of our heritage, our global community, and the natural world. When combined with experience, this knowledge leads to wisdom and expands your consciousness, and when combined with love, knowledge gives us compassion and empathy. Thus, the end result of a liberal education is an individual well prepared to be a force for positive change in the world. I am here tonight because the Honors Program believes I have been just that. However, being selected for this award has served to remind me how much more I can do. In our everyday lives, especially after leaving an academic community like the one you have here, it is easy to lose perspective, confuse our priorities, and forget the truly important things in life. Being selected for this award has reminded me of this tendency, and for that I am thankful.

I want to leave you tonight with a picture and a lesson. I am a professor after all. My hope is that this lesson, at least for a moment, gives you a new perspective, a chance to ponder your priorities, and the opportunity to remember what is truly important in your life. This picture does these things for me every time I see it.

pale_blue_dot

The picture is called the Pale Blue Dot. It was taken by Voyager I in 1990. Voyager I has been in the news recently because it is approaching a region of space called the heliopause, where the Sun’s solar winds, charged particles emitted from our star, are overpowered by the interstellar winds, the charged particles emitted by the rest of the stars in our galaxy. When it passes this point, it will have officially left our solar system and will be in interstellar space. It is already the farthest traveled man-made object. It is currently more than 120 times as far from the Sun as the Earth, about two and a half times as far as Pluto when the dwarf planet is at its farthest position relative to the Sun.

At the time this picture was taken, Voyager I was much closer but had already been traveling through our solar system for 13 years. It was launched in the fall of 1977 and had finished its planned flyby of Jupiter and Saturn. This diagram shows Voyager I’s approximate location when the image was captured, beyond the orbit of the Pluto. It was Carl Sagan’s idea to have Voyager I turn around one last time and take a sequence of photos that became known as the Family Portrait. This sequence included images of all the planets except Mercury and Mars. One of these photos is this picture of Earth, at a distance of 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles), the Pale Blue Dot.

Perhaps more than anything, this image reminds me of the vastness of the cosmos and our tiny place in it. Light travels three-hundred million meters per second, fast enough to complete over thirteen round trips from Washington DC to Tokyo every second, yet it took about five and a half hours for the light from the Earth to reach Voyager I’s camera and another five and a half hours for the data to be relayed back to the Earth. It now takes about 17 hours for Voyager I’s faint radio messages to reach Earth. Yet, light from the nearest star takes about 2,200 times longer to reach us.

Carl Sagan said, “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.” Additionally, one is reminded of the fragility of our planet, the absurdity of most of our conflicts, and the preciousness of life on Earth when one ponders the scale of the universe in comparison to this one bluish pixel.

Over thirty years since its launch, Voyager I continue to send back scientific data and will continue to do so until about 2025 when its plutonium-238 fuel is depleted. After this, it will journey on quietly for millions, perhaps billions of years, a testament to some of humanity’s best qualities. It will never send us any more images but this image will forever remind us to reevaluate our perspectives, recheck our priorities, and remember the important things here on our Pale Blue Dot.

I would like to thank the Honors Program again for this award and thank you all for coming tonight.

Link to Shepherd University Press Release
Link to McDaniel College Press Release