New CEO Shares Vision for the Future

By Sarah Scoles

David BlackDavid Black, the SETI Institute's new President and CEO, has been steeped in science since his adolescence. Thinking about the huge power locked within a single atom sent him to the library stacks and, eventually, to physics college classes. Since those teenage years, he's blazed a unique trail for himself, mixing pure research with the strategic planning and leadership necessary to make science happen in the real world. He's known for his work in star- and planet-formation, as well as the evolution and makeup of planets once they do form. He was the first Chief Scientist for the International Space Station, the Deputy Chief for Space Science Division at the NASA Ames Research Center, Director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, and the President and CEO of the Universities Space Research Association.

He retired from the latter position in 2006. But after he finished the long list of things his wife wanted him to fix around the house, he thought it was time to take on another title. In April, the SETI Institute chose Black to head up the organization.

When he's not riding his road bike around Mountain View or frequenting the farmer's market, Black is crafting a vision for the SETI Institute and guiding it into the future. It's an organization, he says, dedicated to investigating the origins, abundance, and variety of life on Earth and elsewhere: a place full of people asking big questions, getting big answers, and inspiring the question-askers of the future.

How did you come to be the head of the SETI Institute?
I got a call from Jill Tarter, who was coming to Houston last year for the 100-Year Starship Symposium. She was leading a panel that was supposed to talk about SETI, the search for other planets, and other connected things. But the person who was scheduled to talk about extrasolar planets bailed at the last minute. I was sort of the father of planetary detection, having started it at NASA, and I happened to live in Houston. So Jill called me and asked if I could come down to the symposium and fill in—this is a day and a half before the event. So I said I would do it, provided we met for breakfast first. During the meal, Jill mentioned the SETI Institute was looking for a replacement for the head of the organization. And more or less jokingly, I said I should consider that. And she said, “I think that's a great idea. Do you mind if I throw your name in the hat?” One thing led to another, and here I am.

What drew you from primarily research to being in management?
I'm not sure it was always a conscious decision. As you go through life, there are certain times in the path you're walking when you find a fork in the road. Mine started early on, when I was asked if I would be the chief of the theoretical studies branch at NASA. It afforded me the opportunity to represent the interests of all the people in that branch, which seemed like a good idea at the time.

For whatever reason, I seem to be one of the people who other people like to have lead them. I've been on two juries, and I've been elected as foreman for both. But once you go on the leadership path, you don't stop doing research. You just put on more than one hat.

In the course of that research, what's the coolest or most surprising discovery you've made?
Unquestionably, it would be the discovery of all these planets. I haven't personally been involved with any of the teams that have done the detection, but I started the planetary detection program at NASA. That, to me, has been one of the most exciting things, and that story is still unfolding.

Here at the SETI Institute, people study everything from terrestrial fossils to exoplanet atmospheres. How do you see all of those things as related to each other?
There's a simple construct formulated by Frank Drake many years ago called the Drake Equation. And it's not an equation in the way that we theoretical physicists think of an equation. It's a tool to help consider and understand the various pieces that go into the question “Is there intelligent life out there?” What are the factors that determine that?

For life to exist in any way we know it, they have to be around a star. So we start with the rate of star formation. And then we go to planets. And then how many are good for life, how many evolve intelligent life, how many evolve technology. We have several intelligent species on this planet, for example, that don't have technology at all. Looking for radio signals from whales is not going to happen. You can imagine another planet covered in water, having evolved very smart swimming animals, but we're never going to find out they're intelligent, because they aren't technologically advanced.

But at the SETI Institute, we have people who look into all aspects of that equation, not just the technology part. We have people who look into star formation, people who hunt for planets—probably half of the Kepler telescope team are Institute employees. Some of our scientists also look at planets' atmospheres for reliable indicators of life. Is it oxygen? Methane? Here on Earth, cows and termites produce much of the methane in the atmosphere. So if you were to look back at the Earth's atmosphere, you could deduce in a minute there was life on this planet. You wouldn't know if it was intelligent, but you would know it was there.

And at the end of the Drake equation, there are also societal considerations. At the SETI Institute, we're interested in looking at social interactions here and figure out what they might tell us about alien life. How long will we survive? How would we interpret a message? Should we send a message, or is that inviting danger? These discussions are informative not just for SETI, but for the whole human condition.

Part of what we do here is study the past and the present to help inform us about what the future might be.

If you had to sum the SETI Institute scientists up in one sentence, what would you say?
They're intellectually stimulating, and it's my job to make it possible for them to succeed, and to put together creative opportunities to help them do what they do.

So why should the public care about and support the research here?
You could ask why the public should support basic research of any kind. But basic research is where you're going to discover the early steps for how you cure cancer. Not here, of course; that's is just an example. But sometimes you have an announcement like the one we had here recently: that we discovered an Earth-like planet. Somewhere out there, there's a girl named Susie Smith who saw that and got really excited and decided she wants to become a scientist. She may be the one who figures out how to cure cancer, because she got excited about this planet and chose science as a career. You don't get that kind of excitement with applied science. And that excitement is worth investing in.

What first drew your interest in science?
I was about 12 years old when I decided I wanted to go into nuclear physics. I used to dive under a desk at school for nuclear bomb drills. And the idea that you could get that much energy out of a small amount of material fascinated me. I started checking books out of the library about it. And when I got to college, my interests began to evolve more into astrophysics—how the Sun and solar system came to be, and then other stars ... and by then I'd stepped on a slippery path.

If you went back in time and told your 12-year-old self that you were the CEO of the SETI Institute, what would he say?
I don't think he'd be surprised about the SETI thing. I think he'd think that was pretty cool. But if he heard about some of the business stuff I was in, he'd say, “What are you doing? Boring.”

If you were not an astronomer, what would you be?
If I wasn't going to be a scientist, I think I'd have something to do with athletics. I played football, basketball, baseball, ran track. I was never going to do it at a professional level. But I love sports. I almost got into race-car driving as a teen. I watch NASCAR. Shoot me; I love it! But I prefer the road course stuff. One time, my wife surprised me with one of those race-car-driving experiences in Dallas. And it was actually raining, so there were standing puddles, and driving through those in a Corvette was just a ball.

What do you do in your free time?
Road cycling. I don’t do wheelies down stairs, but I admire the skill of the people who do .. and wonder how stupid they are. But they probably say the same thing about race-car driving. I enjoy the peace you get riding a bike. I do a lot of thinking while riding, which may not be safe. But I also enjoy riding with people. There's a camaraderie.

What is your philosophy of life?
Enjoy what you do. Be honest with yourself. Walk away at the end of the day knowing you did everything you could. If it's not enough, it's okay. It's when you walk away and you know you didn't do everything you could that you really fail.

What's the biggest adventure you've ever been on?
I spent a year in London. It taught me a lot that even if we speak the same language, there can be huge differences between the two countries. It also gave me an appreciation of my own country. I think travel, in general, is great. Because of my profession, and the fact that scientists have a proclivity to have meetings in interesting places, I've had the opportunity to see places I wouldn't have seen. It's given me the chance to broaden my perspective, see the world from different points of view.

What are five things you can't live without?

  1. Definitely my wife.
  2. My bike. It's the way I unwind.
  3. Being intellectually challenged. Not having that stimulation is a quick path to bailing out of life.
  4. My dogs. I have five, ranging from a three-legged pit bull to a lab retriever mix. They're all rescues, and they're part of the family. Dogs are very special animals. I have the ashes of my dogs who have passed, and my mother's ashes are right next to them.
  5. A good microbrew.

What is the SETI Institute's version of Utopia?
Our vision is to become the world's leading research organization studying the origin and nature of life. In my view, whenever anybody anywhere in the world says, “I want to do work on X, Y, Z, and it's related to some aspect of the Drake Equation,” someone else will tell them, “Go to the SETI Institute.” That's Utopia.