Dyson takes Centennial Lecture audience on a trip behind the scenes

Esther Dyson took the audience at Rice’s Centennial Lecture Series on a candid, witty and inspirational trip Thursday afternoon in Tudor Fieldhouse.

Presenting “Traveling Behind the Scenes,” the former journalist turned international angel investor covered some of her life’s real and imagined travels and the lessons she has learned and is learning – from England to Harvard and Morocco and from Russia to, someday, she hopes, Mars.

The “trip” consisted of brief remarks followed by a wide-ranging Q-and-A session with the audience. “I haven’t heard that many hourlong speeches that were not slightly too long,” she joked.

Born in Zurich to a Swiss mother and a British father, both scientists, Dyson was raised in an intellectual household that encouraged travel. As a 12-year-old, she spent a year in England and attended grammar school. “I came back having learned a lot about England but was also quite appreciative of central heating.”

She entered Harvard at age 16 and cut her journalistic teeth while working for the famed Harvard Crimson student newspaper. After her first year, she left Harvard for a year and spent time hitchhiking around Europe and living in Morocco with her boyfriend, who was serving there in the Peace Corps. “When the Peace Corps people came to visit, I had to hide under the bed,” she said. “I learned how to cook by trial and error.”

After she graduated from Harvard with a degree in economics, her postcollege years in journalism were formative and guided her throughout her many careers, she said. “I was the altar boy of journalism,” she said. “I was a fact-checker. And that really, in a way, is something I’ve done my entire life. What is true? How can you prove that it’s true? How does it work?”

Moving out of journalism in the late 1970s, she entered the world of Wall Street investment banks and startup companies, in particular those operating in the burgeoning computer and software industry. “It was an amazing and exciting time,” she said. “It felt very much like what’s happening in Silicon Valley now.”

By the mid-1980s, Dyson was the owner of her own company, EDventure Holdings, a newsletter and conference business serving the technology industry, which she sold in 2004. With her business taking off by the late 1980s, her focus turned to Russia and Eastern European countries, which were in the midst of historic regime change. “In the end, the reason I love Russia is that I’m an American,” she said. “It has so many problems. I see them as opportunities. I love fixing things.”

There are still places that Dyson, who has served on NASA’s advisory council and trained as a backup cosmonaut for a space mission, has yet to visit, including Mars. “I want to retire on Mars,” she said, but added that she has concerns about NASA’s current state. “Its job seems to be employment rather than production.”

Tyson’s advice to the audience on how to travel well is to go above and beyond: “No matter where you are, just going somewhere and not visiting the museums or asking the taxi drivers, but somehow insinuating yourselves behind the scenes … getting to see how people think, not the ‘stuff’ they tell you and not the ‘stuff’ that’s written about them, but the ‘stuff’ that they take for granted, is where you really learn how different all parts of the world are.”

The Centennial Lecture Series also featured talks Oct. 11 by genomics pioneer Craig Venter, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President and physicist Shirley Ann Jackson. An additional speaker, Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr., will present “A Conversation with the Chief Justice” Oct. 17 in Tudor Fieldhouse. 

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