Miami University (Ohio) selected Beyond UFOs as their Summer Reading Program book for the Class of 2012, requiring all 3,700+ incoming students to read and discuss the book. As part of the program, Dr. Bennett delivered the followiing remarks all these students, along with faculty, administrators, and some parents and upper class students — a total audience of about 5,000 — at Millet Hall on the Miami campus.
Thank you so much for those kind words of introduction, and thanks to everyone here at Miami University for inviting me to come speak to you. It’s a great honor, though I have to admit I’m also a bit nervous: You are the largest audience I’ve ever spoken to by about a factor of 10, so I’ll just do my best not to sound too intimidated as I speak.
I’ll start with a brief story about what this means to me personally. This began a few months ago when I received an e-mail telling me that my book had been selected for the reading program. To tell you the truth, I almost deleted the e-mail immediately, thinking it might be one of those “you won a million Euros” scams. But I read it more closely, and then looked at the link listing books chosen in past years. I saw authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Elie Wiesel, Toni Morrison, and Dave Eggers, and then I knew: This had to be one of my friends playing a hoax on me; no way could I be on a list with authors like that. Now that I’m here, and I’m pretty sure I’m not dreaming, I’ll just thank you again, because this is surely the greatest honor anyone has ever accorded me. I hope I’ll be able to do it justice.
It’s particularly meaningful to me to be following last year’s selection of Dave Eggers’ What is the What, about the incredible journey of the Lost Boys of Sudan — I urge all of you to read it. My wife and I have been privileged to get to know some of these remarkable young men, and one of them appears in my children’s books as the commander of the first human missions to Mars and Jupiter. And perhaps that fact is a good way to move into my main topics for today.
I’m sometimes asked why I chose a refugee from war-torn Sudan to lead futuristic journeys in space. After all, aren’t there more pressing issues for them — and us — to deal with? Yes, certainly. But as you probably know from my book, I also believe that we have a far better chance of solving any and all the problems that confront us today if we also spend some time thinking about what we’ll do after they are solved tomorrow. As baseball legend Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up some place else.” It’s very important that we all think about where we are going.
This is especially important for all of you as you enter college. For many of you, perhaps most of you, this is the first time in your lives that you will be on your own, and in a position to begin to choose your destinations for yourself. These choices must be made on many levels. In the shortest term, you need to choose what you’ll do when today’s events are over. Choices like that are usually pretty easy, and not too consequential, as long as you act responsibly so that neither you nor anyone else gets hurt. Over a slightly longer term, you’ll need to choose your major, but it’s important to remember that a major is not a destination in itself. Rather, it is something you should select based on where you hope to go and what you hope to do after you leave college. I hope you will give this careful consideration as you choose your major, so that you will find your entire college experience rewarding and valuable. And for a bit of college advise, remember that you cannot learn through osmosis. Learning is an active process. Engage in class discussions. Read and study your textbooks. Visit your professors. Take pride in work you turn in for assignments. Remember that what will distinguish those of you who succeed best is not how smart you are or how much you may known right now, but how hard you work and how much you learn. And if you want even more of my personal college advise, you can go to my web site and download my handout on how to succeed in college classes.
But today, I want you to think about your destination much farther into the future, far beyond college. I want you to think about your destination for life. This can be very difficult to do, because at ages like 18, 19, or 20, your lives have only just begun. To begin with, you should expect to have a very long life ahead of you. Even today, the average person lives to about 80 years of age. You should expect to live much longer, as we can see with some simple math. At the dawn of the last century, in 1900, people on average lived only to about 47 or 48 years of age. Think about that — a hundred years ago, someone in their 40s was essentially in old age; today, people in their 40s, like Dara Torres, may still win multiple medals in Olympic swimming. It also means that life expectancy rose more than 30 years during the last century. So if we merely assume that medical science continues to progress at the same rate in this century, you should expect to live to 110, and to still be alive in the year 2100.
What does that mean? First of all, it means that we really can’t have any clear idea of what it means. To give you another quote from Yogi Berra: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Consider some recent perspective: Just 10 years ago, the Internet was still a plaything for a select few; Google and YouTube did not exist; ipods and music downloads did not yet exist; gasoline prices, adjusted for inflation, were at a historic low of not much more than $1 per gallon; the federal government was nearly $5 trillion less in debt — which means your personal share of the debt has gone up by more than $15,000 since then; global warming was just beginning to emerge as a major issue in the global consciousness; and the twin towers in New York were still standing, with the more than 3,000 people who would lose their lives there — and the tens of thousands more who have lost their lives in the wars that followed as a result — with all those people still looking forward to their own bright futures.
And that’s only going back 10 years. If we go back 100 years, there were no airplanes, no car-filled highways, no TV, no computers or cell phones, no home refrigerators or washing machines. Einstein had not yet developed his general theory of relativity, the known universe was 100 billion times smaller than we now know it to be, most people believed travel to the Moon to be impossible, and if you’d said “UFO,” no one would have known what you were talking about. World Wars I and II were still in the future, as were most of the nearly 100 million lives that would be lost in those conflicts. If you were Jewish in Europe, you were part of a thriving community that would be wiped out in the Holocaust. The idea that we could do damage to our entire planet, whether through nuclear war, massive deforestation, global warming, or otherwise, was probably unimaginable.
Put in that historical perspective, the idea that you may still be here when the century turns again — and almost certainly, your children and grandchildren will be — this idea should give you great pause. You can expect to see changes in technology and changes in society every bit as remarkable as those that have occurred in the last 100 years. Perhaps you’ll see the development of a cure for cancer, of new technologies to provide clean energy and resources to eliminate poverty, of new and yet undreamed-of art forms. Perhaps you’ll take your children on spring break trips to the Moon, or to a year of study truly abroad, on Mars. Perhaps we’ll have discovered life on Europa, or Titan, or will have received an unmistakable signal from a civilization that predates ours by millions of years.
But if you hope to see these wonders, you must also remember that they are not the only possibility. Instead of great achievements, could this century instead become known for horrible world wars? Will terrorism become more a part of our lives, rather than less? Will there be more genocides, including some that could harm you and your families? Will you see our planet irrevocably changed, perhaps even to the point where our own existence is threatened? Think about this: When scientists project the effects of global warming, their long term forecasts generally go only to about the year 2050, when you’ll probably still consider yourselves to be fairly young. Just last night, there was a report on the news about a huge, miles-long crack discovered in a glacier in Greenland, which could potentially be a sign of faster-than-expected melting. Now, no one really thinks that the Greenland ice sheet could melt in less than several centuries — but no one really knows for sure, either. And remember, if Greenland were to fully melt, sea level would rise by more than 20 feet, causing problems for people everywhere, and putting your friends at the “other” Miami deep underwater.
Considered in that light, your destination in life lies deep in an unforeseeable future. To some extent, that means it will be affected by events beyond your control. But there is much that you can control, and much that you can do. I had the opportunity recently to hear one of the Presidential candidates speak, and he talked about the difference between “the world as it is” and “the world as it should be.” You may not be able to state your precise destination in life, but this much should be easy: Make your destination the world as it should be. Think about the changes you would like to see in this world now, a decade from now, and a century from now. Then decide the role that you are best able to play in making these changes happen, and set yourself on a path that will enable you to succeed in your role. Your college experience, which begins right now, is a crucial part of this process.
Way back in 1920, the great writer H.G. Wells said: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” If we are ignorant, if we fail to understand the power of our technology, we will surely face catastrophe. But if we can educate ourselves, and the world, so that we can be wise in our decisions, then the future will hold wonders beyond our wildest dreams.
As I explain in the final pages of my book, you have the privilege — and the responsibility — of being the generation that has been placed at the turning point. Thousands of generations have come and gone, each with its own challenges, but none has faced anything quite like what you will face. By accident of history, you are coming of age at a time when our species has achieved power that, if misused, could lead us to destroy everything that has come before us. But it is also a power that we could use to build a world in which every human being can live in dignity and health, and in which we can begin to step along a path that will take our descendents to the stars.
I believe that we live in a universe full of life, and that there are likely to be other civilizations that have come before us, and that we may someday join a galactic civilization, if we can successfully navigate our current trials. But while I believe this, I do not know it for sure. I do not know if there really is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. All I can say — or all I can hope — is that, through the choices you will make and the destinations you will seek, you will turn our world into the world as it should be, and thereby prove that there is intelligent life in at least one place, right here on Earth.
Good luck with your college experience. Thank you again for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today.