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Jim Gates Receives the National Medal of Science

ByTom MillerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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It isn’t everyday that one of our subjects gets the National Medal of Science. So we were thrilled to hear that Sylvester “Jim” Gates was going to be so honored. And our friend Jim was good enough to provide us with a report on the ceremony.

The ceremony began with the President making remarks and the beginning of a call of names of the recipients. I was number four on the list. And once I was onstage, I was actually able to have a little fun with President Obama as you can see from this photo.

Jim Gates Receives the National Medal of Science-jim_and_barack_edited-1.jpg
“Two physicists walk into a bar and the first one says…” (Getty Images)

I had been thinking about joking with him for a month. I was still undecided as I approached him. But when he said, “Come on up to get your award, Sylvester,” I determined to go ahead, and he delighted by my effort. In fact, for a few seconds the President was still laughing as can be seen in video of the event.

So the ceremony was a lot of fun, especially because my wife Dianna and our twins were there in the room. In addition, having Chancellor Kirwan – University System of Maryland – and President Loh – CEO for the university’s College Park campus – join us on this day was extremely satisfying.

I had a friend seated in the back of the room right in front of the members of the press. After the ceremony, he said you could hear a buzz go up among them wondering, “Who was this guy that the President seemed so comfortable with and vice versa?”

But my fun resulted in a faux pas. I was so taken with the President’s reaction to the joke I told him that for the rest of the time I was onstage, I was “non compus mentis.” After he put the Medal of Science around my neck, I forgot to stand next to him for a picture I dearly would have loved. Oh well, no good deed goes unpunished.

The award ceremony also gave me another occasion to briefly reflect on how fortunate I have been to be a part of the University of Maryland community. Similar to a line from a song, they – after my family – have truly been “the wind beneath my wings.”

To see more of the ceremony, check out this television report and the official White House video .