Middlebury

Dava Sobel, Honorary Doctor of Letters

 

DAVA SOBEL

COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE

May 26, 2002

 

Greetings everyone on this day of joy, and congratulations to you students on your achievement. Maybe you don't think of yourselves as students any longer, but I hope you will remain students forever. My life has been an unbroken series of term papers, and the doing of them has made me a happy person.

Since I am addressing you today, not just as a commencement speaker but also a degree recipient, believe me when I say I am as excited as any of the graduating seniors. This is my day, too.

I count myself very fortunate to be here considering what happened the last time I visited this campus. Frankly, I am shocked to have been invited back. In 1997 I gave an evening lecture here about longitude. Following that I was treated to a festive reception at the home of a faculty couple, where I was also welcomed as an overnight guest.

The next morning, as had been further arranged for me, I attended a seminar in the History and Philosophy of Time. The professor made me a participant in the class discussion and afterwards took me out to lunch. While we were chatting and eating he looked at his watch and exclaimed to his horror that even if we fled the restaurant at that instant and drove like mad, we would barely make the airport in time for my flight. So we hurried over to the faculty guesthouse to collect my suitcase, only to find the house empty and locked. The suitcase, however, was visible through the windowpanes of the back door. Without hesitation my philosopher companion grabbed the axe from the porch woodpile and smashed the glass to gain entry. Did I say this was February?

As we rushed down the snow covered driveway, the lady of the house, who was pregnant at the time, returned, receiving as thanks for all her hospitality that scene of devastation in her kitchen. Yet here I am today with my family, rejoicing with you and your families, welcomed as a bona fide member of the Middlebury community of scholars. Thank you all for your generosity.

Today marks the first time I have ever received an honorary degree. I accepted the offer with delight, but also a certain hesitation, because an honorary degree is not the same as an earned one. With every due respect to my fellow honorees, it struck me a bit facile to collect all the paraphernalia without having taken the courses, paid the tuition, written and defended the dissertation.

On the other hand, honorary degree recipients are chosen for a reason. I suppose the kind of work I do, which involves research, writing, translation, and publishing is not so different from the steps to an earned doctorate, so I have convinced myself that somehow I really did earn this honor. And to receive it from Middlebury College, an institution that emphasizes writing across the curriculum, feels particularly appropriate and special. All the most so, because when I went to college, Middlebury, which enjoyed an excellent reputation for many reasons, was famous as the place to go if you wanted to excel in foreign language. So in my mind, this honorary degree is the unexpected and thrilling formal academic recognition of Galileo's daughter. I am, indeed, honored to receive it, and I thank the College with all my heart.

Today is also the first time I am delivering a college commencement address, an invitation I accepted for an entirely different reason. I agreed to make this speech because I still remember the commencement address given at my college graduation in 1969, when many of us student radicals wore armbands over our academic robes that said, "bring the troops home now."

Our speaker was Isaac Asimov, a renowned writer of science fiction and nonfiction, who already had some 200 books to his credit. He began by saying, "I envy you." Imagine, Isaac Asimov feeling envy for me or any of my classmates when none of us had yet done anything. In the moments before he continued I tried to think what, aside from our youth, he could possibly covet. "I envy you," he said, "because your generation is going to live on the moon."

That June of 1969 the Apollo Program was poised to make the first manned lunar landing, which occurred within the month. In the sunshine and the anticipatory mood of my commencement day, it was easy to believe that Asimov's prophecy would play out as he suggested. But thirty-three years have passed, and the dream now seems remote, much farther off than when I stood on your side of the podium, because by now it really could have happened, but it hasn't happened. So I've come here to repeat Asimov's words, to pass them on to you like a runner's torch. My generation failed, but your generation might yet get to live on the moon.

I suppose that although many of you may have studied some astronomy during your time at Middlebury, you've, no doubt, prepared to follow a different course through your lives. I understand that. In fact, that's why I'm talking about the moon. If I were addressing a group of new astronomers, I might have chosen a different theme. Astronomers are always ready to fly to the moon. They won't be allowed to return there, though, until everyone else wants to go, too, including the linguists and the poets.

I was a theater history major when Isaac Asimov told me my future lay on the moon, and I was glad to hear it. My generation, after all, had grown up with Sputnik. The moon was our manifest destiny. Asimov made me feel it was somehow my personal destiny as well, and, in retrospect, I think he had much to do with my choice not long after graduation to become a newspaper reporter and then to specialize in science writing.

By 1973 I was working as science writer in the news bureau at Cornell University, where a junior faculty member named Carl Sagan taught Astronomy 101 and where residence-based scientists were analyzing rocks retrieved from the moon.

One of those young astronomers fell in love with my best friend, and he gave her a quantum of real moon dust. I went wild when she told me. I insisted on seeing it immediately. I was so excited. Unfortunately she said she couldn't show me the moon dust because she had eaten it. You may wonder, as I did, whatever made her do such a thing. I can offer you only the explanation she gave me then: There was so little of it.

I wish there were more of the moon to go around now. In these frightened times, I think we need the moon more than ever to call us out of ourselves, to inspire giant dreams, and shared purpose. Some of your parents and teachers will remember the words of the plaque the Apollo astronauts left on the lunar surface. It said, "Here men from planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, June 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind. Go back that same way, please."

Did you notice the full moon last night? You'll get to see it again tonight, because the rain has stopped for you. Technically the moon reached the moment of exact fullness at 7:51 this morning, but it will still look full for another night or two. The full moon of May is traditionally called the "flower moon," but just for today, here in Middlebury, I think we'd be safe in renaming it the "commencement moon." I offer it to you that way.

That's what I came to say, that, and I envy you because you're young and smart, and the moon is yours for the asking.

Thank you.