Reproduced with permission from CREATIV magazine.
Words: Thad Roberts (Introduction by Jessica Cyrell) Photography: Courtesy of Thad Roberts
Forever enthralled by the mysteries of the universe – from quantum theory to human emotion – Thad Roberts has a love of nature that knows no boundaries. His first venture into the public eye was in 2002 as a young NASA intern, when he stole moon rocks from a Johnson Space Center vault in a brazen attempt to capture the affections of his then-girlfriend. Roberts spent six years in federal prison for his lead role in the moon rock caper, but he returned with a story to tell. A physicist, author, photographer, and explorer, Roberts has had a wild ride, but he has found peace knowing that we are each the hero in our own journeys. “The hero’s journey touches all of humanity,” he says as a nod to the literary monomyth made famous by author Joseph Campbell. “Each of us must journey to capture our own fire and then use it to brighten the world.”
“My memory of growing up lives in the shadow of feeling “not good enough”. I did my best to follow the rules, to believe what I was told to believe and to act as I was supposed to act, in hopes that this dedication to conformity would make me worthy of love, but it only served to make me invisible. I saw people ridiculed and demonized for small transgressions (swearing, or drinking coffee) and although I didn’t think these responses were fair, I knew I didn’t want to be treated that way so I remained invisible. Childhood left me believing that the world is socially defined and that the ranks of that world are determined by gossip.
At age 19 I went on a Mormon mission. Three months in, I confessed to having premarital sex with my fiancé. As a result, I was told that I was ‘not worthy to serve God’, sent home, shunned by the only community I had ever known and ostracized from my family. My greatest fears had become reality – yet strangely, this thing I had avoided and feared all of my life didn’t turn out to be the negative experience I had expected. Although I knew that back home people were busily repeating stories of the young man who had committed the sin next to murder (premarital sex), I was no longer dragged by the swirling morass of that gossip.
In the first steps of my awakening I discovered that gossip is not the arbiter of truth, and in my freedom to pursue my curiosities without blinders I discovered that nearly everything I had been taught was up for question. Delighting in my newfound freedom to be authentic about my ignorance and confusion, I began to ascend the footholds of personal discovery. What I found was that the real world is full of mysteries that are far more interesting than those cast by our fairytales. Attempting to make sense of these mysteries led to my fascination with physics and space.”
“Science is a human endeavor: an effort to expand the reach of our intuition and enhance our ability to understand the cosmos and our place in it. Science greatly benefits from rigorous methodology and meticulous logic, but creativity will always be its lifeblood, the source of its revolutions. As we explore new isles of thought, in search of one that will allow us to build the cosmos by pure deduction from elementary laws, our intuition and creativity will always be the winds that carry us. The space between art and science contains the most interesting places left to explore.”
“…the real world is full of mysteries that are far more interesting than those cast by our fairytales.”
– Thad Roberts
ON INSPIRATION & MYSTERY
“Some of my top scientific inspirations are Albert Einstein, Benoit Mandelbrot, and Garrett Lisi. Albert’s unwavering curiosity initiated a chain reaction that has reshaped the horizon of human imagination, an effect eclipsed only by the way his passion for uncovering Nature’s secrets inspires young scientists.
[My book] ‘Einstein’s Intuition: Visualizing Nature in Eleven Dimensions’ undertakes a voyage through the isles of human thought, exploring how our understanding of the cosmos has evolved and how mysteries have been the guideposts of that journey. It then suggests a heading for the next leg of our odyssey, based on a set of assumptions that could dissolve the mysteries that plague modern physics. This book aims to spark a new era of innovation, where creative insights once again play an active role in the great adventure of science. It explores the foundations of logic that support our current worldview and equips the reader with the tools to challenge that foundation. Offering one possible course, it then suggests that we model space as a superfluid medium with fractal structure, re-examining the mysteries of Nature through the lens of that new perspective – an eleven-dimensional construction that is fully commensurate with Einstein’s intuition.”
“’Sex on the Moon’ [the New York Times-bestselling book by Ben Mezrich] accurately depicted the events from [the moon rock] episode of my life, but I don’t think that it fully conveyed the internal experience of and motivation for those events. Then again, I don’t imagine it is an easy thing to fully portray the internal world of a scientist riddled with insecurities and a fear of abandonment – a yound man that, on one hand was enthralled with fanning the flame of his curiosity, and on the other, believed that in order to truly deserve the affections of his girlfriend, he needed to prove his worth by doing something big… like giving her the moon.
The book connected me to a wide variety of people across the globe. As more and more people reached out to me I became intimately acquainted with the fact that the world is full of people who feel overwhelmed by a sense that they don’t belong, who feel trapped by their culture, held down by the only worldview they know, and long for a more meaningful connections in their life. Many people opened up to me, bravely baring their most inner thoughts and some of them have become significant figures in my life.”
“I had a difficult time transitioning in prison. I was heart broken, cut off from the world, and I made things even worse by being very hard on myself. After two years in the darkness I reconnected to my curiosity, which transformed my captivation into a monastery-like experience. Now every minute was spent in pursuit of my new goals. I read physics, astronomy and philosophy books, ran 5-10 miles per day, taught astronomy, basic science, and beginning art classes, and kept an active log of all of my questions. Within a year that log developed into an outline of a book, which slowly turned into a tome that explores the many philosophical mysteries of Nature and proposes an adjustment to our models. My curiosity had once again given me a purpose, filling my life with vigor and direction.
I think many people are often harder on themselves than they are on others. It is easy to look out into the world and imagine that everyone we see is doing great, yet we remain vividly aware of the troubles that constantly fill our lives. We do so much to win the approval and adoration of others, but we fail to recognize that others are working just as hard to win ours. The path to our dreams is often stunted by this process. To return to that path we need to turn this process on its head. Instead of seeking for the world’s approval, I think we should offer our approval and praise. Tell a beautiful stranger that you think he or she is beautiful and why, but do not do it to get something in return. Tell those around you the traits that you appreciate about them. Letting people know that you believe in them is often all they need to commit to their dreams. Truth and compassion go hand in hand. When you tell yourself who you are, remember to be truthful – remember to be compassionate. Also remember that becoming is the most significant part of being. Our direction is the most significant part of who we are. The passionate pursuit of a higher goal can free us from even prison.“
“Being a “successful” scientist is almost the conceptual opposite of being a successful businessman or politician. Businessmen and politicians become successful by aligning themselves with the current paradigm and defending it. By contrast, history’s truly significant scientists tend to audaciously undermine the paradigm of their time, initiating a transformation to a newer, richer understanding of the world. This is a highly risky venture, as most new ideas turn out to be wrong, but it is only when we have the courage to explore new ideas that we have a chance of getting closer to the truth. Being a successful scientist requires that we don’t let gossip be the arbiter of truth. Instead, we holdfast to the creativity and curiosity inside us and keep climbing to a better perspective. It also means that we remain open to the possibility that any new idea we explore will turn out to be wrong, but we never let that get in the way of our journey. Science is the journey of human intuition; it demands that we risk it all for the chance of expanding what it means to be human.”
ON LIVING THE DREAM
“[I want] to feel that I participated in the adventure of life as fully as possible. To me this means always attempting to overcome as many delusions as possible, to love intimately without attempting to own, to make love as much as possible, to question honestly, to discover new places and new ideas, to share all the delights of life with those in my life, and to always shoot for the stars, which includes going to space before I die.”