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The Unity of Human Knowledge

Christopher Chyba '82

I entered Swarthmore in the fall of 1977 and, through luck and the advice of upperclassmen, I found myself in Richie Schuldenfrei's Introduction to Philosophy, Jim Kurth's Political Science course, and John Boccio and Jim England's combined Advanced Physics and Math sequence. Quite a first semester! I was impressed by teachers who had thought hard about the world and were trying to live according to what they had decided. I remember walking home late one night from working on what felt like a totally cool assignment-I was computing and plotting the trajectory of a spacecraft transferring from Earth orbit to lunar orbit, in the days before personal computers-and watching the snow fall on me through the illuminated limbs of some of the pines, and being aware of how happy I was, how this was what I had imagined college could turn out to be if everything somehow went right.

Swarthmore is a college, not a university, yet it exemplifies the ideal of the university far better than many universities, whose inertial forces too often drive them to become multiversities, or polyversities. At Swarthmore, the ideal of the unity of human knowledge takes on concrete expression, and not just in course work. I remember Physics Professor (now Congressman) Rush Holt holding his weekly evening Physics in Public Policy seminars in his living room-no course credit offered-and getting an enthusiastic turnout of busy students and faculty from several departments. I remember reading After Virtue and Knowledge and Politics not because they were assigned in any of my courses, but because my friends were talking about them over dinner and I wanted to take part in the conversation. And I remember Jim Kurth, even after I was no longer in his class, once kicking me in the pants for getting so wrapped up in my science that I was paying too little attention to other issues. And for someone who had not often ventured beyond Baltimore while growing up, Swarthmore taught me great respect for the power and freedom that knowledge of other languages can bring.

Swarthmore gave me the rigor and training I needed to start out pursuing theoretical physics and philosophy, and the flexibility to switch to planetary science and astrobiology when those fields captured my imagination. It helped me gain the breadth I needed to work with Carl Sagan for a Ph.D. in astronomy and the confidence I needed to keep up with him as he roamed across the intellectual landscape. In John Boccio, Swarthmore gave me a scientific mentor whom I paired with Carl in my mind as having helped me learn how to think hard and deep about scientific questions.

The academy's tendency toward specialization and fragmentation pressures students and faculty to stovepipe their interests (and perhaps to create new verbs). Swarthmore helped me to avoid that track. In the mid-1990s, not long after completing my doctoral work, I was fortunate to spend two years serving on the national security staff at the White House. When I left the government and interviewed for my first tenure-track science faculty position, one senior faculty member made clear his opinion of my diversion from academic specialization: "Convince me, Dr. Chyba, that you are not merely broad and shallow." No faculty member at Swarthmore would have asked that question. I think that people at Swarthmore get it in a way that is less common at other schools. 

I am fortunate now to belong to two excellent organizations, the SETI Institute and Stanford University, where resistance to intellectual stovepiping is tangibly encouraged and where the divorce of science from the world is discouraged. I now teach undergrads and supervise grad students in researching the exploration of space and the possibilities for life elsewhere, and I also co-direct the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) in Stanford's Institute for International Studies. Within CISAC, more than 60 scholars pursue policy-relevant research on a range of "post-Cold War" topics, from understanding and diminishing the threat of ethnic violence or the proliferation of nuclear weapons to lessening the effects of mass-casualty terrorism. To whatever extent I am "getting away" with both doing scientific research and working in international security, the stage for this kind of dual career was set for me at Swarthmore. The College showed me that it was possible-even desirable-to do more than one thing and that I could indeed pursue such combinations. It was my great good fortune to have lived and studied there.

Christopher Chyba co-directs the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and holds the Carl Sagan Chair  for the Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif.