Thad Roberts: my one-time friend, and one of science’s greatest betrayers

I’ve been sitting on this post for more than a year. I don’t know why. Its been more than a decade since I knew Thad Roberts, the infamous NASA intern who stole a safe full of invaluable moon rocks and tried to sell them on the black market. Thad was my study partner in undergraduate physics courses, and he was the president of our astronomy club. My first star parties were with Thad, along with my first experiences with astronomical imaging. He was charismatic and influential at the University of Utah.

It came as a total surprise one morning when I saw Thad’s face on the newspaper front page. Thad had been away at NASA for a year or two, hoping to become an astronaut. I was utterly bewildered by his crime. Thad’s crime goes a step beyond science fraud. If fake science discredits the difference between truth and fiction, that’s bad enough. But Thad’s actions declared that science is meaningless, as if to say, “Truth? Fiction? Who cares? I’ll take the money.”

As the evidence began to flow, Thad was painted as a serial thief and a con artist, a far cry from the noble young scientist I thought I knew. Today, Thad is out of prison and seems less than contrite about his past actions, having rationalized them  as acts of love (yeah but what about those fossils he stole from the museum??). He is now out of prison and styles himself as a public intellectual. He’s giving TEDx talks, operates a web site that sports a “public understanding of science” theme (and borrows the name of Einstein), and is working on a popular science book related to string theory. Thad’s crimes have been romanticized by a novel, an upcoming film and a documentary which all no doubt benefit Thad’s ego. According to NPR, the book was “one of the summer’s most fun reads” [Vomit]. I think blogger and author Catherine Ryan Howard summed it up better:

Thad Roberts had opportunities that I couldn’t even dream of. He got to work in the Lunar Sample Lab, the special facility that houses the moon rock the Apollo missions brought back to earth (if I was offered the opportunity to go anywhere at all on earth for one hour, that’d by my pick after the original Mission Control), and when news of the heist breaks, Roberts has just climbed out of the Neutral Buoyancy Lab where NASA’s astronauts practice working in zero gravity in the largest swimming pool in the United States. He actually has a chance of becoming an astronaut himself.

And what does it do with all this opportunity? He uses it to steal the most precious materials on earth, moon rocks, samples actually collected by hand by Apollo astronauts, and tries to offload them over the internet so he can make a buck. For a girl who was giddy for a week over a Kennedy Space Centre annual pass, this ridiculousness was hard to take.

Sex on the Moon is very sympathetic, and I couldn’t stomach the whole “he’s just a nice guy who did something impulsive and stupid” defense. Robert’s heist was as meticulously executed as Ethan Hunt’s trip to get the NOC list from Langley in Mission Impossible – this wasn’t a prank, it was a crime.

When someone explodes so publicly at such a young age, I wonder what happens in the many years that follow. Thad is an unusual case for two reasons. First, Thad is now a convicted felon, with all that entails. But second, Thad has managed to maintain a vision of himself as a sort of rogue science celebrity. For most professionals, self-destruction happens in the form of ethics violations, not outright crimes. They don’t go to jail, they don’t re-appear in the news or in interviews, and probably no one would want to see a movie about them.

But Thad doesn’t appear to be suffering. I’m bewildered by the apparent adventures described on his twitter feed. The way he tells it, he’s traveling the world, crashing with physicists, attending conferences… I’m not sure if he’s living it up with legitimate scientists of or weirdos, but either way… Today’s average 30-something scientists are slaving away trying to pay their debts to society (i.e. student loans). Apparently Thad has paid his debt in full and is now living the high life.

Am I being uncharitable? Should I accept that Thad has been rehabilitated, and let it go? I don’t know. But I suspect he’s as much a charlatan now as before.

10 thoughts on “Thad

  1. Chris, I’ve been dealing with this moron firsthand. He ‘s a master manipulator who betrays his wife, his friends and his colleagues without any remorse. He did not yet know his “girlfriend” three weeks before stealing the Apollo samples. He had his friend post an ad on my club’s website on March 9th already. Crime does pay, if you look at where he’s been lately….
    Axel Emmermann

    • I call this dude all self-aggrandizement. Maybe his I.Q. can be as high as 130 ish, but he is talking about “visualizing and thinking in 11 dimensions”. Really? Einstein spent decades contemplating on his 4th dimension of time. Now this guy can visualized 11 dimensions, WOW, what a rare genius! Give me a break!

  2. Chris, I recommend you view the entire documentary that is described in the article you link to in your post. It tells the actual facts of what occurred. I assure you it can do nothing for Roberts’s ego.

  3. I spent two years at the U of U’s physics department between ’98 and 2000 and met Thad at one of the first star gazing parties on the roof of the department building (you most probably were there Chris). We also took the same computational physics class with Prof. Ben Bromley (me as a graduate student). I remember not “feeling” him at all. The guy was all about becoming an astronaut, had his “~mars” personal webpage with “I do it all” (diver, pilot, geologist, dinosaur bone collector… hmm hmm thief, NASA “super intern”). He had this fearless look of the not so smart guy who want it all (recognition, fame, women, probably money) and gets easily support from “weaker-minded” or less-charismatic individuals (a common feature of many leaders and politicians). I followed the whole “moon rock” story and was not even surprised! I was not surprised to see him come up with a cheesy theory that solves it all with 27 constants of nature. Give me a f… break (@TEDx Boulder, I am sorry but you messed up). Because he still wants it all, he still publishes all kinds of bad copies of “bad ass” videos done with GoPros in Southern Utah (his play ground with the U), sometimes showing girls and having reckless “fun”, supposedly to enjoy the Nature that he understand so well to feed his philosophy. Philosopher, that’s what he claims to be now, still comparing his “work” with Fay Dowker’s (give me yet another f… break). Ultimate thing, he’s a motivational speaker, a raw model for anybody about to enter prison. He wants to help (understand use his media visibility to make money) anyone who gets sentenced for a few years.
    Man.. This guy is unstoppable. We should not even be talking about him. I truly hope the movies that comes out eventually based on Mezrich’s book will be a flop.
    Also, I wish (for him and everyone else) he would only use his speaker talents to make decent outreach on physics and astronomy that he can understand, without claiming any paternity of theories. But that’s probably not ambitious and dangerous enough for his ego.

    French guy who did became a professional astronomer and who does not pretend to be any mastermind scientist.

    • Julien, I have met a few people who “clued in” on Thad’s dishonest personality. I was perhaps more naive. He was actually a good student and a reliable study partner and an effective leader for the student astronomy club. He put in a lot of hours doing real service, so his self-promotional indulgences seemed deserved. We all have to promote ourselves to be successful, and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish self-promotion from egomania.

  4. Ha, I saw the Tedx talk, and thought it was worth looking into (because I had SOO many questions about the model that was proposed) went to the website *observed ego*, thought ‘ok..’ then went to the ‘done in life’ thing and think I saw everything BUT doctorate…or even degree, in physics. The whole thing blew me away, you should see the wishy washy opinion of people that comment on threads about the book, they’re so close to the obvious if they only looked at his own website. Then again I suppose people don’t have any BS detector internally now a days.

    • Not to say I don’t think he’s not bright, just not the super genius or even genius that is inferred. If I wan’t to read about such theories I want to see more numbers, less ‘touched a dolphin’. Pretty clear that when someone says they’re a physist who flys around discovaring dinosaurs on the weekend, something is detracted from their astrophysical credibility…IMO.

  5. Truth is stranger than fiction, as they say…
    I don’t know why I find this story incredibly entertaining on some level–a physics intern turned thief turned TED talk speaker!? I mean WTF? I just caught the TED talk a couple days ago when it automatically loaded after the previous TED talk I was watching. I was blown away at first. I liked the idea of having a visible paradigm of these conceptually impossible physics concepts. But then I decided to look up Thad’s background to see what credentials he has and whether these theories were at all accepted in the scientific community. I never would have expected what I read: theft, moon rocks, astronauts, sex, books, megalomania! I mean this reads like some sort of action drama…and very few seem to have caught on.

    I hope my entertainment does not come at the expense of anyone who knew him. I feel sorry for those whose work he destroyed and who have been betrayed by this con artist. I feel violated as a tax payer to have precious work in the national interest compromised. Completely inexcusable–especially considering he was a grown adult at the time of his crimes. Don’t know how it was written off as some sort of juvenile stunt (to make a fortune??). I would not want to be in the shoes of those who knew him like his former associates who have written here, save that this would be one helluva’ (true) story to tell the grand kids!

    All that said, the notion that there might be a completely different paradigm of looking at the universe (besides pure math and statistics) is compelling. I “want” to believe Thad. But if none of it is true, I hope someone else with more legitimacy comes up with an equally unique model to explain these elusive and unintuitive concepts. Are we sure Thad is not at least “on to something” and his ideas are simply being rejected because of his character alone?

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