SETI's Christopher Chyba Recipient of MacArthur Foundation Award

October 24, 2001

by Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer

Chicago's MacArthur Foundation has awarded one of its prestigious Fellowships to Christopher Chyba, a prominent astrobiologist and international security expert. The award, one of only 23 granted by the Foundation this year, goes to individuals "who show exceptional merit and promise of continued and enhanced creative work."

Chyba, 41, holds the Carl Sagan Chair for the Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, and is both co-director of the Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and an associate professor (research) of geological and environmental sciences. He is known for his wide-ranging work on the origin of life on Earth and its possible presence in the solar system, for example on Jupiter's moon Europa. Chyba led the Science Definition Team for NASA's planned orbital reconnaisance of this ice-crusted world, an exciting future mission that will search for conclusive evidence of a liquid ocean hiding beneath Europa's frozen surface. The orbiter should also help determine potential landing sites for a future lander mission that would begin the search for life.

Recently, Chyba proposed novel mechanisms that might provide a "food supply" for biology on such moons. "Even though photosynthesis isn't going to work underneath Europa's ice, there are other ways that a europan biosphere could be powered, even in the darkness beneath miles of ice," he said.

Chyba has contributed to our understanding of how oceans remained liquid on the early Earth, when a dimmer Sun sent fewer warming rays our way. This work was done together with his thesis advisor, astronomer Carl Sagan, at Cornell University. He has also investigated the nature of the meteor that slammed into Siberia's Tunguska river valley in 1908, a type of event that could occur somewhere on Earth as often as once a century.

As the Director for the SETI Institute's Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, Chyba oversees more than three dozen research projects dealing with cosmic biology. He recently chaired a series of workshops to map out future areas of focus for the SETI Institute's work in this burgeoning field.

In addition to his astrobiology work, Chyba has long been busy with issues of biological terrorism, public health, and nuclear nonproliferation. Since the events of September 11, his work in this area has intensified, and he has penned editorial commentary in such publications as Science and The New York Times.

His wide-ranging interests, cited by the MacArthur Foundation, are of long standing. "When I was an undergraduate, I majored in physics, minored in philosophy and mathematics, and did my senior thesis in political science," says Chyba. "From 1993 to 1995, when I was on National Security staff at the White House, I nearly went cold turkey on my science research. There was no way to do both science and policy at that time. Now I spend a majority of my time on astrobiology, and a sizable fraction on issues of international security."

National Academy of Sciences member Sandra Faber, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and member of the SETI Institute's Board of Trustees, notes that Chyba "is not a typical astronomer, using a telescope night after night. He's right down there in the trenches, worrying about how we could plan ambitious explorations of the solar system, and doing so specifically with an eye to finding clues on the origin of life on both Earth and other worlds."

"We can expect creative results when capable practitioners marry knowledge from several different fields," says Faber. "It's like grass that grows in the cracks of the sidewalk: the interface is a fertile place."

Tom Pierson, the SETI Institute's Chief Executive Officer, comments that "working alongside Chris, I have the day-to-day pleasure of observing his incredible talents. I believe that his work at the SETI Institute may some day change how we see ourselves and our place in the cosmos."

The MacArthur Foundation awards carries no obligations, as the organization believes in simply giving individuals the ability to "pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations." Chyba doesn't see any immediate change in his activities: "I'm doing exactly what I want to do at the SETI Institute and CISAC, so I don't anticipate any immediate changes there. But for the last few years, I've been thinking about writing a book. This gives me more flexibility for projects like that."

"There's no way you can anticipate something like this," says Chyba. "It was great news."