Students from the class of 2018 gathered in McCorkle Place to see UNC Physics and Astronomy Professor Dan Reichart’s “Last Lecture.” The national tradition to deliver a final address to the senior class began in 2007 when Dr. Randy Pausch gave a final lecture at Carnegie Mellon after learning his pancreatic cancer was terminal.
Reichart assured the shivering seniors watching Thursday night’s “Last Lecture” was far from his last — he estimates he still has about 2,000 lectures to go before that happens, barring any more encounters with explosive devices.
Last semester, Reichart sustained second-degree burns when he attempted to put out the fire that threatened to burn the historic Davie Poplar. After being treated at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Health Care, he continues to make a full recovery.
He kept his gloves on, though — not because of any burn scars, but because he’d stumbled into a bad case of poison ivy. Reichart didn’t want students seeing the rash and thinking that his hands were disfigured from the fire.
“It’s been a very humbling year,” he said to start the lecture, just yards away from the Davie Poplar. “And not in the negative way one might expect from someone who just got their ass blown up.”
That humility continued to be a major theme. Reichart’s lecture focused on one's place in the universe, however insignificant that may be. The important thing, according to Reichart, is one's place in time.
“I’ve become increasingly convinced that we occupy a special — even critical — moment in time,” Reichart said.
Reichart emphasized the importance of human expansion and increased connectivity, comparing civilization to a network. He said that humans are currently undergoing immense civilizational momentum.
“We are now — all of us— literally connected at the hip,” he said, pulling his cell phone out of his pocket to further his point.
Where is that momentum taking civilization? According to Reichart, the moon, Mars and beyond. He predicts that within the century we’ll be colonizing other planets and creating sustainable environments there.
Reichart predicts that members of the class of 2018 are part of the last generation of humans to be confined to a single planet. Students felt inspired by Reichart’s message of progress, connectivity and exploration.
“It was really empowering to hear a man who has accomplished so much turn around and tell us what we’re going to accomplish,” said Jordan Showalter, a senior communications major.
The lecture was open to the public. The audience included community members, seniors, senior marshals, and current and former students of Reichart’s. One former student, senior business major Dante DiMaggio, felt most affected by Reichart’s comments about the point in time that students occupy and millennials’ continuing journey to the stars.
“That’s something that’s always going to be tagged with our generation,” DiMaggio said.
Reichart wanted his lecture to feel genuine. As an astronomer, he couldn’t get much more genuine than speaking passionately about space exploration.
“(This) will be the last time we are all together as a species, as we prepare to take our first steps out into the universe, to neighboring worlds,” Reichart said.
His words rang true for an entire generation, but especially so for seniors on the brink of graduation.
“Despite not being able to see the future,” Reichart said, "the future will look back and see you, and I hope that they will do so with a sense of awe and wonder.”
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