Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist John Noble Wilford has told some of the world's biggest stories since he graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, almost 60 years ago.
The first walk on the moon. The search for life on Mars. The Challenger disaster.
Wilford—who received UT's sixth honorary doctorate and spoke at the College of Communication and Information commencement ceremony on Wednesday—won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for his reporting of science and space exploration and again in 1987 as part of the reporting team that covered the space shuttle Challenger disaster. His New York Times front-page story about the first walk on the moon in 1969 is the most widely used account of the historic event.
Now retired, Wilford still writes occasionally for the New York Times.
Wilford urged graduates to practice "informed wonder"—a practice he learned as a boy listening to his grandfather talk about wondrous places around the world, which later made him a successful journalist.
"Informed wonder is imagination modulated by knowledge, observation, inspiration anchored in real possibilities," he said. "It requires one to be receptive "to experience the new, the different, the unexpected. In short, informed wonder is an agent of inquisitive open-mindedness."
Wilford told graduates about going to Hell Creek Canyon in Montana in 1983 to talk to paleontologists looking for dinosaur fossils and clues to the asteroid impact that apparently wiped out the giant reptiles 65 million years ago. The scientists described what the area would have been like before the dinosaurs' extinction.
"This was a world I could not see, and neither could he, but it could be visualized through informed wonder," he said. "I realized that as a journalist I supply the inquisitive wonder."
But, he added, the practice of informed wonder is not just for journalists or scientists. It's what enables anyone—in any field—to make a difference in the world.
"One must seize opportunities to practice informed wonder," he said. "Or as the incomparable Yogi Berra put it, 'When you come to a fork in the road, take it.'"
Wilford said being a science journalist was a never-ending learning process.
"I wish each of you graduates success in the practice of informed wonder and in making a life in which you are always growing and learning and find ways to contribute to the human experience," he said.
He also cautioned that not all efforts are fruitful.
"My big stories in the summer of 1976, for example," he said, explaining that he spent a month in Scotland searching for the Loch Ness Monster and covered the Viking spacecraft landing on Mars to look for signs of life. Of course, both turned up nothing.
"Thank goodness there are still mysteries," he said. "Who would want to live in a world where all mysteries are solved?"
A native of Murray, Kentucky, Wilford went to Grove High School, just across the state line in Paris, Tennessee. During high school and college, he worked for the local newspaper, The Parisian, which ceased publication in 1961, as well as The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. After earning his journalism degree from UT, he received a master’s in political science from Syracuse University and served in the U.S. Army for two years, stationed in West Germany.
He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has authored numerous books including "We Reach the Moon," "The Mapmakers," "Mars Beckons" and "The Mysterious History of Columbus."
The Aviation-Space Writers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Space Press Club, among many other organizations, have honored him with top awards.
Wilford served on the College of Communication and Information’s Board of Visitors and taught for a while at UT as the Chair of Excellence in Science Journalism.
He has also been a distinguished lecturer for the college and has provided the Alfred and Julia Hill Distinguished Lecture. In 2009, the college gave him its highest alumni honor, the Donald G. Hileman Distinguished Alumni Award.
UT's other honorary degrees have gone to John Seigenthaler Sr., Howard H. Baker Jr., Dolly Parton, Al Gore and Charles O. “Chad” Holliday.