Posted: April 10, 2002
MIDDLEBURY, Vt. - Dava Sobel, a former New York Times science reporter and author of the best-selling book "Longitude," will deliver the commencement address at Middlebury College's graduation ceremony on Sunday, May 26. She will receive an honorary Doctor of Letters degree. The College will award honorary degrees to four other distinguished individuals as well."Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time" was first published in 1995 and is now in its 23rd hardcover printing. Translated into two-dozen foreign languages, the book became a national and international best seller. Book News called it an "engrossing story of John Harrison's (1693-1776) 40-year obsession with 'the longitude problem' which resulted in what is known today as the chronometer, a tool that finally made accurate ocean navigation possible."
The book won several literary prizes, including the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Together with William J.H. Andrewes, who introduced Sobel to the subject of "Longitude," she co-authored "The Illustrated Longitude," published in 1998.
According to Middlebury College President John M. McCardell Jr., Sobel's work has encouraged an awareness of science and technology amongst a wide audience. McCardell said, "We are honored to recognize her talent for demystifying what can be complex scientific subjects and making them accessible to the general public."
Sobel has visited the Middlebury campus on one previous occasion in 1997 when she gave a lecture and participated in a philosophy class.
Sobel is also the author of "Galileo's Daughter," her most recent book. Published in 1999, it is based on 124 surviving letters Galileo received from his eldest child, which Sobel translated from the original Italian. "Galileo's Daughter" won several awards, including the 1999 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for science and technology. The paperback edition was the number-one New York Times nonfiction best seller for five consecutive weeks.
In her 30 years as a science journalist, she has written for many magazines, including Audubon, Discover, Life and The New Yorker; served as a contributing editor to Harvard Magazine and Omni; and co-authored six books, including "Is Anyone Out There?" with astronomer Frank Drake.
Sobel has lectured widely and made a number of appearances on national broadcast media. A frequent guest on National Public Radio shows such as "All Things Considered," she has also appeared on NBC's "Today" and ABC's "World News Tonight."
Sobel, a 1964 graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, attended Antioch College and the City College of New York before receiving her bachelor of arts degree from the State University of New York at Binghamton. She lives in East Hampton, N.Y.
The College also will present honorary degrees to four other distinguished individuals, including, Ngawang Choephel, who will receive a Doctor of Arts degree. In 1993 and 1994, Choephel, a Tibetan refugee, was a visiting scholar at Middlebury, where he studied ethnomusicology through the Fulbright program. He subsequently traveled to Tibet, where he was making a documentary about the region's traditional music and dance when he was taken into custody in September 1995 by Chinese authorities. Choephel was later convicted of espionage and sentenced to 18 years in prison. After serving more than six years of his sentence, he was released on a medical parole on Jan. 20 of this year. The documentary that he produced after leaving Middlebury and before his arrest is titled "Melody in Exile."
The College will award Houghton Freeman a Doctor of Humane Letters degree. He is the chairman of the Stowe, Vt.-based Freeman Foundation, whose work includes strengthening the bonds of friendship between the United States and Far East through education; conserving natural lands and farmland in Vermont and elsewhere in the U.S.; and offering Freeman Vermont Scholarships, which provide support annually to 16 Vermont students with financial need enrolled at Middlebury. Freeman began his long career in insurance in 1947 with the American International Group, or AIG, where he remained until his retirement in 1994 and where he continues to serve as an honorary director. He held senior management and executive positions with AIG and numerous AIG companies and organizations, including the presidency and chairmanship of American International Underwriters and a directorship of The Starr Foundation. Freeman is a trustee of the Asia Society and trustee emeritus of his alma mater Wesleyan University.
Victor R. Swenson will receive a Doctor of Letters degree. He served as the founding executive director of the Vermont Council on the Humanities from 1974 until his retirement in February of this year. Under his leadership, the private, nonprofit organization, which is an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has become a cultural force in Vermont, offering programs with a strong focus on books, reading and literacy. Prior to this position, Swenson taught history at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, his alma mater Oberlin College, and Johnson State College in Vermont. He has served as a member and a trustee of numerous institutions, including the Lamoille Union High School board and the Vermont Historical Society, and as a member of planning committees for organizations such as the American Library Association.
The College will present Roger Wilkins with a Doctor of Letters degree. A journalist and civil rights activist, Wilkins has been the Clarence J. Robinson Professor of History and American Culture at George Mason University since 1988. He has worked at both The New York Times and The Washington Post, where, as a member of the paper's editorial page staff, he shared a 1973 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service awarded to the paper for investigation of the Watergate case the previous year. He is the author of "A Man's Life: An Autobiography" and "Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism." An active public servant, Wilkins is an appointed member of the District of Columbia Board of Education, a member of the board of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the former chair of the Pulitzer Prize board.
The outdoor graduation ceremonies will take place on the lawn behind Forest Hall on College Street (Route 125) at 10 a.m. on Sunday, May 26. More than 4,000 family and friends are expected to attend. In the case of severe weather, commencement will be held in Kenyon Arena on Route 30.