The Hall Fellow lecture, begun in 1964 in honor of outgoing Head of School Elizabeth B. Hall, was established to bring wider world exposure to the Concord Academy campus; this year’s lecture brought us the stars over Sudan. Dr. Lucy McFadden, Concord Academy class of 1970, returned to CA on November 17, 2011 to relate her experience recovering fragments of an asteroid in northern Sudan. Dr. McFadden is notable for her extensive research of the moon, Mars, the Galilean satellites of Jupiter, comets, meteorites, and asteroids. She took part in NASA’s Near, Deep Impact, and Dawn Discovery missions—the latter of which found her in Antarctica collecting meteorites from the ice. Currently, Dr. McFadden heads the intern and post-doctoral programs for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; she is founding director of the College Park Scholars Program, “Science, Discovery & the Universe,” at the University of Maryland; and she also co-edits an Elsevier/Academic Press publication, Encyclopedia of the Solar System. As a Hall Fellow, Dr. McFadden brought her universal perspective to Concord Academy.
Dr. McFadden’s lecture, entitled “Romancing the Stone: Recovering Fragments of an Asteroid in Sudan,” recalls her experience on a scientific expedition in late 2009. Her goal was not to be analytical about her life and field of expertise, but to “engage and share with you the adventures of a scientist.” She proceeded to tell an unusual story—the story of a meteorite. Dr. McFadden explained that an asteroid was discovered in a near-Earth orbit and crashed into northern Sudan. The impact site was named “Almahata Sitta,” or station six, for a train station nearby. The University of Khartoum, located farther south in Khartoum, Sudan, thus organized a scientific workshop to collect and discuss the scientific importance of this meteorite.
Dr. McFadden was eager to go on this adventure. She believes meteorites offer crucial scientific evidence of the pre-planetary conditions of our solar system. She commented, “it’s like looking back in time in our own galaxy.” Following a brief stay and lecture at the University, she set out with a few colleagues and about fifty university students to Almahata Sitta. After arduous travel on two lane highways and then through the desert itself, the group spent the following days walking in a line, covering every inch of desert within pre-determined regions (many, many kilometers) for any sign of black pebbles, which may have originated off planet.
But this assembly was not meant to defend the importance of looking at rocks—rather, it was about the importance of immersing yourself in an experience, and about “risk- assessment.” When Dr. McFadden first decided to go to Sudan, the State department gave her strict warnings—about terrorists, about disease, about any number of possible threats. But after careful consideration, she “decided the risk was actually pretty small…. After all, no one stopped me.” She embraced a rare opportunity and found a richer experience. In Sudan, she witnessed the pyramids of Meroe, shared lentils and tea with a number of local Sudanese, and most importantly, befriended the cadre of University students accompanying their expedition. Ultimately, Dr. McFadden’s scientific contribution was really quite small (according to her). “My scientific role was just in the beginning,” she explained, “I was a collector…. It is the students who are really beginning the scientific work. They are analyzing those pieces [of meteorite] to discover more about the origins of the universe.” Dr. McFadden’s real role was not as a scientist, or even a laborer. She was a mentor, inspiration, and friend to the next generation of astronomers—a trend she continues upon her return to Concord Academy. Dr. McFadden believes that noble, scientific endeavors are humanity’s great equalizer. Among the most important lessons of her trip, she noted, was recognizing how cultural differences gave way to common passion. She recalls, “All of a sudden, I had this feeling of familiarity. I’m not in a foreign country, really. I looked up at the same night sky I always recognized…. I had a feeling I was at home.”