To begin writing his winning essay, Daniel Mills, a geosciences undergraduate, jotted down a few questions: “The biggest question I have is why do humans even care what’s out there in space? Why do we want to find Earth-like planets and extraterrestrial life? How will these potential discoveries change our perception of ourselves?”
These questions became the major points of his essay that was chosen by NASA’s Kepler Mission and the SETI Institute as a finalist in their national essay competition. Essayists were invited to submit writings inspired by the imagery of an excerpt from Carl Sagan’s, The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean (1980).
Early in his college career his curiosity to answer these questions was spurred by reading Sagan’s description of how all the heavy elements in the universe were forged in ancient stars, and that “we are all star stuff,” says Mills. “After reading Sagan, I was so excited to go to class, to learn about the stars and the evolution of the earth. It may sound trite, but I simply wouldn’t be studying geobiology and astrobiology if not for Carl Sagan’s books. I wouldn’t have known these fields even existed.”
For the past four years, in the Department of Geosciences in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) Mills has developed more specific knowledge. He has studied biogeochemistry and geomicrobiology and is currently writing his senior honors thesis on the co-evolution of life and the earth’s atmosphere and oceans. “I’m interested in life’s role in maintaining earth’s habitability,” he says. He will present his poster on his thesis at the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco in December 2010.
Also, this year he came in first place for best undergraduate poster presentation at the 13th Annual Environmental Chemistry Student Symposium at Penn State and was awarded the Donald B. and Mare E. Tait Scholarship in Microbial Biogeochemistry. He is the third author of a paper accepted in Applied and Environmental Microbiology and was a finalist in the EMS Grundy Haven Paper Competition. He graduates in December and plans to go to graduate school to become a research scientist; he wants to follow the model of Sagan and communicate his science to others.
“Sagan was a scientist, but one that tried to really connect with the public at large. He was brilliant, just a sharp thinker and elegant writer and speaker. He was also very progressive politically and an advocate of peace and nuclear disarmament. He was imaginative and creative and didn’t limit his talents to science alone,” says Mills.
He would like to see more scientists follow Sagan’s example. “Musicians wouldn’t be very popular with the public if they only shared their work with other musicians. If you’re passionate about something you understand very well, then you have a responsibility to share your knowledge.” To read Mills’s essay, “Charting the Islands of the Cosmic Ocean,” visit NASA’s Kepler website at http://kepler.nasa.gov/education/sagan/ online.