The Informed Wonderer

by Amy Blakely November 15, 2014

Pulitzer Prize–winning science journalist John Noble Wilford believes he was hardwired to be a journalist.

At age six, as soon as he could read, he became a daily devotee of his Kentucky hometown paper, then called the Fulton Daily Leader. Reading it inspired him to write. He took a sheet of typing paper, divided it into three columns, and created his own newspaper. He appointed his mother the society editor. They “published” each Sunday.

“I did that until I was in high school,” he says. “It was required reading for every member of the family.”

That newspaper was just a precursor of what was to come for Wilford. He spent most of his professional career at the New York Times, telling some of the world’s biggest stories. The first walk on the moon. The search for life on Mars. The space shuttle Challenger disaster.

He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for his reporting of science and space exploration and then again in 1987 as part of the reporting team that covered the Challenger. 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.

Early Years

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.

He earned his bachelor’s degree at UT. His Sigma Chi fraternity house stood where the Communications Building is now and overlooked a much smaller version of Neyland Stadium.

UT’s close-knit journalism department provided him with a solid foundation, he says. But if he’d known the path his career would take, he might have focused a little more intently on his science courses. Wilford says he remembers only the highlights, like cutting up frogs in zoology.

“I had to learn on the job for the science I wrote about.”

After earning a master’s degree in political science from Syracuse University, Wilford landed a job at the Wall Street Journal. Six months later he was drafted and sent to West Germany.

While he was deployed in 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik. The space race was on, and US newspapers and magazines began beefing up their science coverage. Once home, Wilford returned to the Wall Street Journal. A few years later he moved to Time magazine. He fell into the science beat and, in time, the New York Times noted his work and hired him to cover the upcoming moon landings.

Wonder and Mystery

On July 21, 1969, the front page of the New York Times belonged to Wilford’s account of the Neil Armstrong “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” moon walk.

“It was the big story of my career,” he says.

Today, at eighty, Wilford still writes occasionally for the New York Times.
And sometimes—as he did when he wrote his account of the moon landing—he lets his mind wander to unfathomable realms to understand and describe what he’s writing about.
It’s a practice he calls “informed wonder.”

“Informed wonder is imagination modulated by knowledge, observation, and inspiration anchored in real possibilities,” he told College of Communication and Information graduates upon receiving an honorary doctorate of letters and science in May. “It requires one to be receptive to experience the new, the different, the unexpected.”

When nominating Wilford for his honorary degree, Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek noted Wilford’s numerous contributions to our understanding of the universe.

“Mr. Wilford’s words have allowed people around the world to experience history in the making, from traveling to the moon to discovering new planets. His dedication to creating and sharing knowledge is at the heart of what we value at UT. And while he has made a profound impact on the world of science journalism, he has never forgotten his alma mater—generously donating his time, talent, and treasure to UT.”

Wilford 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.

He has served as a distinguished lecturer for the College of Communication and Information and has given the Alfred and Julia Hill Distinguished Lecture. Wilford also served on the college’s Board of Visitors. In 2009, the college gave him its highest alumni honor, the Donald G. Hileman Distinguished Alumni Award.

Wilford said being a science journalist has been a never-ending learning process—complete with a few failed lessons along the way.

In 1976, he spent a month in Scotland searching for the Loch Ness Monster and covered the Viking spacecraft looking for signs of life on Mars.

“Thank goodness there are still mysteries,” he says. “Who would want to live in a world where all mysteries are solved?”

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