Taking time to appreciate the Stars ~ by Thomas Zurbuchen

This post is about stars – real stars, the kinds that are made out of hydrogen and helium and are burning in massive spheres of light the night sky. It may be a peculiar piece to many who are used to reading this blog for lessons about dreams, about education, about setting goals and achieving them through perseverance and leadership. It turns out this post will include these values, however it comes from one of my favorite sources – I learned about these issues from looking at the stars.

Recently, I was spending a weekend in Kirkwood California, with the Ski Innovators – a group of 30 or so University of Michigan alumni innovators who meet yearly to gain insights from each other. Kirkwood is a beautiful place; about a 1.5 hour drive from Reno, over a mountain pass. And Kirkwood is dark at night, much darker than the nights of most people. And, because of this darkness, I saw the stars and I thought about what they mean to me.

Stars have been my profession for the past 20 years. Mostly, I think about the Sun- our star – and I work with my colleagues to get new insights about its activity, about its atmosphere – the corona – and how this variable affects our life.  There are many absolutely mindboggling things about the Sun, its size, its age and its sheer beauty made visible mostly by space instruments developed during my lifetime. But what’s even more stunning to me is the thought that there is no way to imagine everything I know – the earth, my friends and family, and my wishes and desires – without the Sun.

Some of the most important questions are ones that I do not have good answers for, but which come from the interface of what I know – through the tools of science – and the questions that come from a different space that we cannot easily unlock with science experiments, no matter how sophisticated. And, to me, these questions have always been about dreams and aspirations: “what could I be?”, “what could the world be?”

I cannot help asking these questions when I look into a night-sky. I asked them as a child, sometimes for hours, sitting on the roof of our house in rural Switzerland. I still ask them today after a career of over 20 years thinking about stars and doing original research. I puzzle about the enormous size of the universe I see. Many stars I see at night may not exist anymore today – I only see them now because their light had to travel millions of years to get to me, and enter my eye. I feel at the same time utterly insignificant, and important like no one else. I am insignificant because I am not even a speck of dust in this universe. We now know that there are nearly countless stars like our Sun, and earth-like planets are found all over. There is very little that is unique about me when I look at the stars. But, at the same time, I just collected the light from the deep universe and I see the universe with me in it, thinking about it and enjoying its beauty. There are evenings when it feels like the stars shine for me alone.

This deeper, more wonderful understanding of stars comes from education, not from the absence thereof. Education allowed me to learn that we are flying through space around the Sun, and that the Sun itself is flying through our galaxy which is in turn one of billions of galaxies that contain some of the most wondrous objects. Some of them are dead stars, and some of them are stars that are exploding. But other objects defy our attempt to describe them in simple everyday language and we need the language of science to open new ways of understanding and description! The stars are a miracle – I knew that as a child – but today I understand so much more about this miracle than I did as a child, because I had the good fortune of education. Education does not take childhood dreams and hopes away like some people tend to say, they make childhood dreams bigger and more important.

And education also allows making such dreams a reality and achieving goals that are first imagined under the stars. As a child, I imagined understanding more, doing something important, something that would matter beyond my immediate circle. I looked at the stars and imagined seeing the world in the pursuit of these dreams and hopes. Education and perseverance made my dreams move from fantasies into something that is reality. I understand more now but not enough, that’s why I am still learning. In fact, there are things I learned as the first person in the entire world because I became a researcher who studies nature. The feeling of discovery is amazing – I know that first-hand. In addition, I do something important – not primarily by what I do each day, but by empowering hundreds and thousands of amazing people that I have the honor of meeting as part of my job as a professor and associate dean.

My most important satisfaction and strength today comes from meeting former students who also pursue their dream and when they tell me that I actually helped them and encouraged them. I keep a number of cards on my desk that I will read again if I feel bad about my daily struggles. In fact, sometimes they tell me the actual meeting or date that meant something important to them, even today. In trying to achieve my dream, I became something I never actually thought about – I started helping and leading others. That is not because I think I know better than them what they should be doing, it’s because I noticed really quickly that the only problems worth working on are ones that are bigger than what I could achieve all by myself. Once you get that, leadership is an enabler for that change.

Last week, I looked at the stars in Kirkwood, surrounded by important people who have their own lives and hopes for the future, and I felt so deeply happy about knowing them as former students or knowing them because of their love for the University of Michigan. But, I also felt gratitude for the many people who taught me the tools that lets me see more when I look at stars, be in awe and disbelief about nature.

You may have something else in your life that gives you the view about the world and yourself that I get from stars. If not – find it! Perhaps for you it is in the desert. Perhaps it is in the mountains, or near the sea. Let yourself inspire and do not shut yourself off the questions that come up in your mind when you are in this space, especially if they stretch what you know and have experienced thus far.

And, for those of you who are thinking about being teachers, mentors and educators – if you can truly do it for the right reasons, it is one of the best jobs in the world. You get a front row view of others going after their dreams, their struggles and their successes that go well beyond anybody’s wildest imaginations. And, if you do not believe that, go hang out with some University of Michigan alumni …

If you are an alumni and want to reconnect to your alma mater, use the many programs of the MconneX initiative to learn about what’s new, to meet other alumni and give back as a volunteer and mentor or otherwise!

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