The lecturer who urged his students to go out and achieve their childhood dreams has succumbed to a disease he fought against in the public spotlight. Randy Pausch, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University died on Friday, 25 July, of pancreatic cancer. He was 47.
Pausch was diagnosed with the disease in August 2006. A year later, he was told the cancer had spread. Coincidentally, he had already accepted an invitation to speak at Carnegie Mellon in a format called The Last Lecture, in which invitees are asked to ruminate about what they would tell others if they knew they had one last chance to impart some final wisdom. Pausch went ahead with his presentation, despite the fact that his doctors had estimated that he had only a few more months to live.
On 18 September 2007, Pausch delivered a speech entitled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams" before a packed lecture hall on the Pittsburgh campus. As he approached the podium, he was given a standing ovation from the hundreds in attendance. The word was out regarding his health.
In his talk that day, Pausch urged his listeners to work vigorously to overcome the obstacles life presents, to help others achieve their goals, and to seize the moment, because "time is all you have...and you may find one day that you have less than you think."
As fate would have, the presentation was videotaped and, thanks to the global reach of the Internet, it went viral, reaching millions.
Pausch was approached by a publisher to expand his remarks into a book. The result was The Last Lecture, which became an overnight success (and is currently No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller Advice List). That led to appearances on American TV talk shows, from "Good Morning America" to "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
With this whirlwind of attention from the media, Pausch found himself drafted into a position as unofficial spokesperson for persons with pancreatic cancer, appearing in public service announcements. In March of this year, he testified before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, advocating for increased government funding for cancer research.
A World of His Making
Pausch was born in Baltimore on 23 October 1960. His family moved to Columbia, Md., when he was a boy. It was an omen, of sorts, for the young man, as the town was the first fully pre-planned community in the United States, emphasizing educational resources upfront as a premium in its urban design.
Pausch received his bachelor's degree in computer science from Brown University, in Providence, R.I., in 1982. He earned his Ph.D. in the same field from Carnegie Mellon in 1988. While pursuing his doctorate, he worked briefly in Silicon Valley for Adobe Systems and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Nonetheless, he decided that education was his true calling, so he took a teaching position at the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science, where he worked from 1988 to 1997, specializing in virtual reality systems and human-computer interaction.
As he told the audience in his Last Lecture speech, Pausch pursued his personal dreams by working for a time for Walt Disney Imagineering and game maker Electronic Arts in California while on sabbaticals.
In 1997, Pausch accepted a position as an Associate Professor of Computer Science, Human-Computer Interaction, and Design at Carnegie Mellon, where he co-founded the university's Entertainment Technology Center. His course Building Virtual Worlds soon became a favorite among computer science students, as well as other undergraduates. To help novices understand the basics of using software to design virtual simulations, he invented the Alice programming environment, an intuitive Java-based 3D scripting tool, which Pausch got Electronic Arts to sponsor as an open-source project on behalf of Carnegie Mellon.
An IEEE member, Pausch received many honors for his work during his short life, including the National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator award, a Lilly Foundation Teaching Fellowship, and the Karl V. Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award from the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). He published extensively in technical journals, especially those of the ACM and IEEE. He also co-authored the textbook for the language he created, Learning to Program with Alice (Prentice Hall, New York, 2005), along with several other books on software.
Still, it will be his final book, The Last Lecture (Hyperion, New York, 2008), for which he will be most remembered. Its popularity (currently ranked by Amazon as its No. 2 bestseller) will ensure his place among the ranks of writers who have popularized science.
In May 2008, Pausch was named by Time magazine as one of the "World's Top-100 Most Influential People."
After his Last Lecture presentation last September, a spokesperson for Electronic Arts said the company will honor Pausch by creating a memorial scholarship for women, in recognition of Pausch's support of women in computer science and engineering. And Carnegie Mellon has set up an honorary fund in his memory.
Pausch passed away at his home in Chesapeake, Va., last Friday surrounded by his wife Jai and their three children: Dylan, 6, Logan, 4, and Chloe, 2.
Tonight at 10pm EST, the ABC network will present a special documentary on his life appropriately entitled The Last Lecture: A Celebration of Life.
It will undoubtedly include a reference to a line he delivered in his famous presentation: "We can't change the cards we're dealt, just how we play the hand."