Freshman Convocation 2014

Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
Freshman Convocation 2014

Thank you, Vice Provost Phillips.

And welcome to the great Class of 2018!

I also want to thank Brandie and the entire orientation committee and staff, who did a phenomenal job with this year’s program.

Thanks to Janice and Jay for your welcoming words, to the Archipelago Project for helping our procession, and to the Sirens and the All Nighters for their stirring rendition of the national anthem.

I am thrilled to be here with our university leaders and faculty to welcome the newest members of the Johns Hopkins community.

[The fanfare from 2001: A Space Odyssey begins.]

I’d like to take you on a trip back in time…and space.

It’s 1995. You – do not yet exist.

[Music concludes.]
It’s hard, I know, but try to imagine such an impoverished world.

What we knew of our universe was limited.

We had ideas.

We knew there must be many other galaxies out there, but we didn’t know how they formed or what their properties might be.

Despite our active imaginations, we knew of no other planets that could possibly sustain life.

And, to make matters worse, our cell phones were the size of small dogs.

[Slide of the Hubble Space Telescope projects on screen.]

Some of you may be familiar with the Hubble Space Telescope – the world’s first ever large-scale telescope in space, launched through the combined efforts of NASA and the scientists of the Space Telescope Science Institute – located in our Muller Building – just across the street from where you are sitting.

In December 1995, the Hubble team decided to train the full observational power of the telescope at a blank piece of sky about the size of a pinprick for 10 days.
People thought that the director of the program might be a little, well, crazy. After all, every moment of Hubble’s time is in high demand not to mention extraordinarily expensive.

What if they didn’t see anything?

Undaunted, they went ahead with the plan.

And the international team of scientists waited.

For ten days.

Staring at blank sky.

At the end of 10 days, this is what they discovered:

[Slide of galaxies projects on screen.]

3000 galaxies from the deepest reaches of space.

From there the pace of discovery accelerated.

We went from imagining these other galaxies to knowing that there are 200 billion and to understanding how they were created.

By 2001, we had evidence of the fingerprints of life on extrasolar planets – ones that orbit sun-like stars – paving the way for future investigation of life in space.

[Slide of exo-planet projects on screen.]

Or framed another way, in just six years, we changed our understanding of the Universe – irrevocably, profoundly.

In 2018, the year we launch you into the world as Johns Hopkins graduates, our scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute will take the next step in deepening our understanding of the cosmos: launching the James Webb Space Telescope.

Designed to build on the results of Hubble, Webb will help us see farther back in time and delve deeper into how galaxies formed and what that can tell us about how life emerged in the primordial universe.

The technology to create Webb was simply inconceivable 18 years ago.

To be successful, we have to build a telescope that will emerge from a rocket and unfurl like a butterfly to its full two-story size – some 940,000 miles away in space.

Think about how many ways this can go wrong.

But as Matt Mountain, the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute likes to say:

People at Johns Hopkins are incapable of even thinking in terms of the impossible.

They just can’t.

Indeed, what distinguishes our place is our refusal to be cowed by seemingly impossible problems; what distinguishes our place is our capacity to devise masterful solutions, and to take leaps – based on instinct, ideas and information – that unlock extraordinary mysteries, address our most commanding problems.

This is true not only of space science.

It is true of our surgeons and systems analysts who are reinventing the artificial heart.

It is true of our neuroscientists and biomedical engineers who are pioneering new prosthetics that can be elegantly controlled like real limbs…by nothing more than the brain’s synapses.

It is true of our political scientists, economists and public health experts who are grappling with the complex reality that, on this planet, water is an increasingly scarce, sought-after and fought-over resource.

And knowing what I know about this class, you are a perfect fit for a place like Hopkins.

Forget your GPAs, SATs and AP scores.

Think instead of the challenges you have embraced and surmounted.

You have designed apps to make cancer treatment more efficient and created tech-based food recovery programs to serve the homeless.

You have taught robotics courses, written award-winning plays and sailed through the air on the flying trapeze.

So the question is: What is it you will risk finding out? What discoveries will you make that will alter you – and perhaps all of us –irrevocably?

In some cases, these may be academic breakthroughs – participating in a study of poverty that upends received wisdom about social mobility; finding the right chord to complete the sonata you were composing; teaming up with a classmate to build a low-cost device that will save the lives of children in the developing world.

But the transformation may strike even closer to home as you come into contact with new professors, new friends, and new ideas that help you reimagine your personal universe.

What’s clear is the trajectory of discovery in your lifetime has already been…epic.

And, we know, we know, we haven’t seen anything yet.

By the way, the launch of the Webb telescope is far from the end of the story. It’s more of a middle point. In fact, it will be your generation’s technology – the next version – that scientists believe will reveal that we might…just might…not be alone.

[Slides of Hubble Space Telescope images project on screen.]

So while you are here, over the next four years, don’t forget to pause, to take a moment to glance up, now and again, from your problem sets and practices, and with a sense of wonderment and awe, take in the galaxies visible in the night sky.

And remember that you are in a place that eschews the impossible.

I can barely conceive what these next four years will bring for you – and the way you will transform us.

We are thrilled you are here and delighted to have you as part of the Hopkins community.

So, in that spirit, let me invoke that most lofty of academic authorities, James T. Kirk, captain of the Starship Enterprise, and urge you to boldly go where no man or woman has gone before.

Bon voyage.