What lessons planets and their trajectories can teach us
I want to start by sharing with you my personal passion for space, the planets - the vast beyond just outside this precious atmosphere we all share together.
Curiosity recently led me to learn about Jupiter, asteroids and comets. One of the privileges of being a father is sharing my enthusiasms with my children and vice versa. Two days ago my soon-to-be six-year-old daughter Imogen walked into the house after school. I had read an email from her teachers that morning noting that Immy would be about to pursue the study of space and that there would be a “space play” (pictured above). I was intrigued about which part my daughter got so I gently inquired, “Immy, what planet did you get?”
Her response: “Well dad, I got the GAASSSY planet…the GASSY planet!” This was delivered with a mischievous smirk! Excellent, I thought. Who knew that flatulence could be a way in to future scientific insight! This, I thought, was a victory for overworked primary school teachers everywhere.
In reading more with my daughter, we learned that the two biggest sources of gravity in our solar system are Jupiter and the sun. The more we read, the more we became intrigued by asteroids and comets! Asteroids (unlike our planets) travel in hugely irregular and elliptical, long and very thin orbits (like stones from a slingshot) from the Ortt cloud (the outer skin to our solar system) into our region of space.
When asteroids or comets reach Jupiter’s immense gravity the big planet typically either sucks in asteroids or flings them out into orbits where they pose little danger to earth. Should asteroids make it past Jupiter, they go onward and into the warm gravity of the sun. The gravity of the brightest, most attractive object draws them in.
Intriguingly these asteroids are not guaranteed to hit the sun. A property called angular momentum (a measure of how much something is rotating around a central point and one of the fundamental properties of physics) usually means that most asteroids do not head on a trajectory straight for the sun. For something to fall straight into the sun it has to lose all of its angular momentum somehow.
While this is rare, it does occur that a number of asteroids lose enough angular momentum to get close to the sun and they vaporize.
Unlike asteroids, comets give off enormous plumes of gas when they get close to the sun. There is a satellite called the SOHO satellite, which has detected more than 1100 comets known as “sun grazers.” They glow brightly as they move towards either disintegration or (if they survive the close call) the slingshot ride back out to the outer solar system until their next long, unpredictable and elliptical orbit brings them back - if they return at all. Some asteroids return in 50 years. Some might take 500 or a million years. Some do not return at all.
I have been thinking that being an Upper School student, and a teenager, is kind of like being that asteroid or that comet. Each of you is delightfully unique. You are ALL on long, unpredictable and beautifully elliptical orbits streaking through the heavens, susceptible to different sources of gravity.
A couple of days ago while walking my children to school I noticed they sped ahead of me to get to their friends who were playing tag or “NOT IT” in the middle of Sprague Avenue. For them the gravity that drew them onward, away from me, was their group of friends, their peers. The same I know is true for all of you.
Your peers (of varying degrees of intimacy) are the sun to your individual comet. Friendship draws you into groups either planned or improvised. Friendship gives you light. It gives you warmth in a world of crazy schedules, immense workloads, vigilant parents, teachers and other adults like me with “expectations.” Friendships, rightly, sustain you. They sustain all of us.
As nothing is more paradoxical than life, friendships can also provide challenges as they give you light and warmth. How, you may ask? Here’s an example of challenging gravity - do I go to that party with my friends? Do I drink with my friends? Do I avoid a friend who does not appear to be able to “go with the flow” through space and time and do what everyone else thinks is a good idea even though it puts people at risk?
Sometimes the intense heat of peer pressure has the potential, while making you feel warm, fuzzy and brilliant, to compel you to do something risky. Sometimes, under the guise of friendship, “friends” do not make good choices either for themselves or for you.
This is the part of my conceit where comets (or all of you glorious teenagers) either sustain their angular momentum or are drawn into a loss of angular momentum towards potential disintegration, or at the very least a wobbly orbit.
All of this begs the question of what does it mean to be true to yourself, to think before you act and to be a true friend.
Being true to yourself means you have the singular courage to listen to your inner voice when placed in a challenging situation. You possess your own mass, your own strength. Being true to yourself means you persist and persevere in appreciating the beauty of your own long, unpredictable and singular orbit and that you do everything in your power to preserve that precious orbit. We adults appreciate your singularity and we want it to shine. Being true to yourself and others also means you acknowledge when you feel out of your depth, which is a sign of strength.
When you do feel out of your depth, I encourage you to reach out to the team of adults in our family who have chosen to dedicate their professional lives to protecting and guiding you. I would like to thank this dedicated team of faculty, staff and counselors who, on an ongoing and unselfish basis, act “in loco parentis” or as parents in the dorms, the classrooms, hallways, stages and playing fields, vouching for your safety. Of particular note in the last couple of weeks are the efforts shown by Dean Jay Harvey, Mrs. Kersey, Mrs. Mozeleski, Mrs. Bartron, Mrs. Slaff, Rev. Carrick, Ms. Montrella, Ms. DePhillips, Ms. Maxwell, Mr. Chase, and Ms. Casterline. I am proud of their efforts to support you, and I thank them now for their service.
Being a true friend means you protect the vulnerable, you support and pull for one another. It means you give yourselves and each other, as I am now giving you, permission to make mistakes, to learn and to grow. It also means you do not project your feelings on to others when you feel bad or insecure.
Instead, here’s my challenge to you: when you are feeling tired or insecure or hurt, take responsibility for the only thing you can - your own feelings and your own actions. As we all know, in this vast universe actions have consequences and not acting, not protecting others, itself constitutes an action.
Real friends encourage others to journey across the sky while pursuing their quirky and individualistic orbits. Friends protect others, they tell it like it is, see the best in others and have the courage to tell friends sometimes what they do not want to hear. They gently redirect. They love.
We are all (including me) streaking towards the finish line of the 2016-2017 academic year in seven short weeks. We all need to help each other get there. We will all make mistakes and we will all hopefully grow through our mistakes and imperfections - together.
In addition to shaking the hands of you lovely seniors and postgraduate students as you obtain your diplomas next month, I am now really looking forward to that space play and hearing my daughter’s lines about that big “GASSY planet.” Her way of appreciating Jupiter truly involves owning and taking a deep pleasure, as only a six-year-old can do, in the imperfections of humanity.
Some 40-plus years older than she, I feel that in an interesting way, I am encouraging you all to do the same. Notice your mistakes and have them be the gravity that pulls you closer together into your groups. I can assure you that in this way you will learn more about yourselves and each other. Isn’t that ultimately why we are all here - to learn together, to grow together and to flourish together as a school? I know it’s one of the many and deep reasons why I enjoy being President of Sem.
I wish you all a deeply enriching final run to the end of the school year. Your finish line awaits, and I will be there, amongst the first to congratulate you when you streak across it.