Stanford University

News Service



Mark Shwartz, News Service (650) 723-9296; e-mail:

Astrobiologist and national security expert Christopher Chyba named 2001 MacArthur Fellow

Christopher Chyba, a prominent astrobiologist, former White House security adviser and co-director of the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), has been named one of this year's MacArthur Fellows.

Chyba, also an associate professor (research) of geological and environmental sciences at Stanford, is one of 23 people awarded a 2001 fellowship by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago.

In granting the fellowship, the foundation cited Chyba's "passion for understanding life on Earth and for protecting human civilization from self-destruction," as well as his recent work focusing on "the relationship between preparing for biological terrorism and improving public health."

There are now 23 winners of MacArthur Fellowships on the Stanford faculty.

According to foundation officials, the unrestricted fellowships are given to talented individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary originality and a marked capacity for self-direction. Each recipient will receive a $500,000 "no strings attached" stipend to be paid in equal quarterly installments over five years beginning in January 2002. Fellows may use the stipend any way they see fit even to change their fields or alter the direction of their careers.

"There is no way you can ever anticipate something like this," said Chyba, 41, who also holds the Carl Sagan Chair for the Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif.

"My wife and I have barely had time to talk about what to do with the award," he added, "although I will have a lot more flexibility now."


Origin of life

The MacArthur Foundation praised Chyba's scientific efforts at reconstructing the conditions that spawned terrestrial life, and exploring similarities and differences among other objects in the solar system.

"Chyba has developed models to understand how Earth could have sustained life 3.5 billion years ago, when the sun was 25 percent dimmer than it is today," noted the foundation. "He has proposed mechanisms for hospitable climatic conditions at that time due to greenhouse gas insulation."

The foundation also singled out Chyba's astronomical studies of Europa, one of Jupiter's 16 moons, which may harbor microbial life beneath its icy surface.

"Chyba's analyses have directly informed the process of designing spacecraft to explore that satellite," said the foundation. "He has also analyzed the geological record to understand the role of asteroids and comets in delivering organic molecules to the surface of the early Earth."


National security

Foundation officials noted that Chyba's research draws from many disciplines including geology, astronomy, chemistry, physics, mathematics and biology.

"The expertise he has developed in each finds direct public policy applications in the control of nuclear and biological weapons," they added.

During the Clinton administration, Chyba served as director for environmental affairs for the National Security Council and as energy liaison for the White House Office of Science and Technology.

In February 2000, he became co-director of CISAC part of Stanford's Institute for International Studies which brings together scholars, policymakers and other experts to focus on international security questions. In April 2000, the MacArthur Foundation awarded a $1,006,000 grant to CISAC's Stanford MacArthur Consortium to support graduate research on peace and security.

"My work at CISAC has almost completely consumed me since the events of Sept. 11," said Chyba, who has written several recent op-ed pieces for the New York Times, Science, the San Jose Mercury News and other publications, and has participated in public seminars on national security.

In announcing Chyba's fellowship, foundation officials singled out his dedication to communicating research to a general audience in a manner that "allows us to share his enthusiasm for the wonders of life on Earth and the importance of its preservation."


Stanford courses

As an associate professor in Stanford's Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, Chyba teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on the origin and search for life in the solar system. He also gives lectures in an undergraduate political science course titled "International Security in a Changing World."

Chyba holds a bachelor's degree (1982) in physics from Swarthmore College, a bachelor's degree (1984) in mathematics and a master's degree (1986) in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Cambridge, and a doctorate (1991) in astronomy from Cornell University under the guidance of the late astronomer Carl Sagan, a longtime advocate of planetary exploration.

Receiving a MacArthur Fellowship can be a life-changing experience, according to the foundation, but Chyba doesn't foresee immediate changes.

"I have kind of my dream job at the SETI Institute and Stanford, which allow me to pursue the upcoming search for life elsewhere in the solar system and national security issues here and now," he observed. "I don't anticipate radical changes real soon."


By Mark Shwartz

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300. Terms of Use  |  Copyright Complaints