Back to Switzerland | June 30, 2023
Since Thomas Zurbuchen stepped down as chief scientist at NASA, he’s taken on several roles at the same time. He is driven by his own success and self-doubt.
Thomas Zurbuchen is the longest serving Director of Science at NASA.Photo: Keystone, Anthony Annex
Anyone who talks to Thomas Zurbuchen quickly feels that he is constantly changing roles. In one moment he’s explaining the universe as a scientist and physicist, in the other he’s telling stories and then suddenly he’s a philosopher and catalyst.
Zurbuchen has just returned from a photo shoot, and he’s going to dinner in an hour. In between, he has 45 minutes to talk and has two skills. Since stepping down as NASA’s science director at the end of 2022, he’s been giving speeches, advising companies and speaking to the media.
He loves to tell them stories. How he was brought up in a free church in the village of Heiligenschwendi above Thun. How his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and also become a preacher. But how was he never comfortable at home and continued to marvel at the night sky and wonder if the stars looked the same everywhere. How he finally wanted to become a scientist to experience just that. How did he get to high school in Thun, then to the University of Bern and finally to the United States. First as a research associate at the University of Michigan, then as a professor.
View from Heiligenschwendi, the ancient birthplace of Thomas Zurbuchen.Photo: Manuel Moser
“It’s like a fish growing up in an aquarium and eventually jumping out of the tank into the ocean,” he says of his career while fully immersed in his role as a storyteller. The most difficult step for him was the step to Thun, the jump from the aquarium into the ocean. After that, it’s just a matter of penetrating deeper into the ocean.
On this journey he eventually joined NASA. “It’s actually a miracle,” he says. The term is used very consciously. Zurbuchen believes miracles can be created. By daring to try something new and exploring boundaries. This will eventually make the impossible possible. You just have to keep your eyes peeled for jumping opportunities. “Maybe I did it better than the others: perceived opportunities and tried things,” he says. He came across America because he had a conversation with two scientists in the canteen of the University of Bern. Finally, there was a job offer.
NASA is the US civilian federal agency for space sciences and aeronautics, founded in 1958.Photo: AP Photo/John Raoux, File
Zurbuchen recently announced that it will expand space research at ETH Zurich from August. Even so dare. He does not yet know exactly what is in store for him. But he is sure that they will be related in some way.
Just like his work at NASA. “The truth is, NASA’s science program has never been as successful as it was with me as chief scientist,” he says. Zurbuchen stayed around longer than any of its predecessors. NASA’s budget has never been increased to the same extent as under his watch, nor have more innovative partnerships been created. ‘is this for me? definitely. But I did all these things with a team.”
And then he becomes a scientist again, explaining his success in physics. “There is preserved greatness and unpreserved bone,” he explains. “Time is a preserved quantity. If I gave you an hour, I wouldn’t take it back.”
In the end, we are all just a product of our genes and the experiences we have
Thomas Zurbuchen Former chief of science at NASA
On the other hand, there are feelings like love. He can give all his love to his children and wife without having to share it. Same with success. “We can all be 100% proud of our success, even if we do it together. We don’t have to cut it in half.” Much more important than being responsible for success is that success happens at all. And then you can be proud of it.
That’s one of the things he learned from science. Just like life with questions to which there are no answers. For example what will happen in the future. “Sometimes there are things we don’t know about. Complete.” Even one of the most successful scientists in the world believes only there. Zurbuchen believes that people can have a positive impact on their environment. That everyone can make a difference. And that people are basically good. After the conversation, Zurbuchen pushed a two-franc coin and his daughter’s vote envelope across the table. Still to be candid and publicized. He hopes that the journalist, whom he met only for a short time, will be believed.
Thomas Zurbuchen fulfills many roles: physicist, scientist, storyteller, visionary, and catalyst. So are preachers.Photo: Keystone, Anthony Annex
“But I doubt it more than I think,” Zurbuchen adds. For him, knowledge and doubt are inevitably linked. As a scientist, he considers himself a professional skeptic. He constantly wonders what few answers he has. This doubt does not stop at itself. “Imposter Syndrome” accompanies his entire career. Feeling that you are not good enough. And the fear that someone might find out at some point.
“The same goes for every successful person,” he says. You are not only paid with positive things, but always with negative things. Through fear of failure. Or, as with Zurbuchen, feeling like you’re always in the wrong place. His hypothesis: The more of these stresses a person experiences, the more successful he is. Just talk about it, nobody wants that. It is very inconvenient.
In the future, students at ETH Zurich will be able to listen to lectures by Thomas Zurbuchen on these chairs.Photo: Keystone, Alexandra Wei
It is still possible to book. Because he wants to encourage people with it. Above all, he wants to be measured by the number of people he has opened doors to. This is another reason why he is now drawn to ETH, so he can support young students and make a difference. At the same time, as a scientist, he continues to try to answer humanity’s big questions. Where did we come from? How did life arise?
So he really didn’t miss out on his father’s footsteps? But what else would he have done as a preacher? “Yes, you can put it that way,” he says, and then speaks again as a scientist: “In the end, we are all just a product of our genes and the experiences we have.”
Anyone who has spoken to Zurbuchen for even 45 minutes will notice that he does not constantly switch roles, but combines them. Physicist, scientist, storyteller, visionary, motivator. So are preachers.
“Alcohol buff. Troublemaker. Introvert. Student. Social media lover. Web ninja. Bacon fan. Reader.”