Sky’s the Limit for Versatile Scientist


Christopher Chyba insists he sleeps, but it’s hard to imagine how he finds time for more than a quick nap here and there.

An astrobiologist who also happens to be an expert on international relations, bioterrorism and nuclear security, Chyba is devoted to searching for intelligent life in the universe and doing his part to make life on Earth a little wiser too.

For being seemingly everywhere science can be, this 42-year-old renaissance man was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” last month--$500,000 to use however he wants over the next five years.

“The single most striking thing about Chris is what a fine gentleman he is. He is a wonderful person,” said Tom Pierson, chief executive of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute, where Chyba directs the study of life in the universe.


“You add to that his incredible breadth of knowledge in so many fields, those are the two things that make him extraordinary.”

Chyba (pronounced CHAI-buh) acknowledges that scientists who pursue policy work or other research outside their main focus often are not taken as seriously as ivory tower-only academics.

But he believes scientists must help nurture democracy--especially in the post-Sept. 11 world--because the intellectual inquiry, skepticism and debate it promotes is vital for the future of exploration and discovery.

“We face enormous challenges right here on Earth, and if our society doesn’t meet those challenges, there’s a sense in which finding lovely answers to big-picture questions somehow seems much less significant,” he said in an interview in his office at the SETI Institute in Mountain View. “I’m in this amazing position to try to contribute in both areas.”


Chyba jokes that he spends about 40% of his time at Stanford University--where he is co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation--and 75% at SETI.

It’s fitting that Chyba’s post at SETI is named for Carl Sagan, the popular astronomer who died in 1996 at age 62.

In 1985, Chyba was a graduate student in theoretical physics at Cambridge University in England when he wrote a letter to Sagan, explaining that he really wanted to pursue planetary science and the origins of life. Chyba didn’t have a phone, but he soon got a telegram from his father stating that Sagan wanted Chyba to call him collect at Cornell University.

Two years later, Chyba and Sagan were co-writing papers in the journal Nature about organic material in comets.


They worked together for years; shortly before Sagan’s death, they suggested that water--and life--formed on Earth when clouds of ammonia in the early atmosphere trapped heat below, in a version of the greenhouse effect.

Still, Chyba, who also studied political science as an undergraduate, never lost his interest in the here and now.

In 1993, he accepted a White House fellowship and directed environmental affairs for the National Security Council. The following year, he headed a White House group that produced a plan for fighting infectious diseases, and he examined nuclear security and arms control.

Even after Chyba returned to his scientific research--which has included such notable topics as whether microbes live under the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa--he stayed in touch with Washington.


In 1996, he helped the Clinton administration draft a report on how to prepare for bioterrorism. He testified to Congress this summer about the importance of space exploration and in recent weeks has advised officials on the anthrax crisis.

Chyba believes the government needs to communicate better with the public about what it knows and doesn’t know, and devote more energy toward monitoring and stopping disease outbreaks overseas.

Still, he believes “the right components are in place,” such as the growing stockpiles of antibiotics and vaccines, for a comprehensive approach to biological security.

As for the really big question, Chyba believes there must be something alive out there, somewhere in the universe.


“Almost as soon as the Earth cooled down enough for life to exist, there was life here,” he said. “This extrapolation is dangerous, but I think that means we’re going to find that life at the microscopic level is pretty common.”

Keep in mind that astronomers have been able to study only the 1,000 nearest stars--in a galaxy with of 400 billion stars.

Chyba hopes more definitive answers will come with the Allen Telescope Array, which is expected to begin operating in 2004 and let astronomers more closely study the 1 million nearest stars.

“The bottom line is, none of the evidence we have is very good,” he said. “And the only way we’re going to answer that question is to go look.”