Remembering Holbrooke

By Neil deGrasse Tyson

New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “Richard C. Holbrooke, 1941–2010: Strong American Voice in Diplomacy and Crisis” (front page, Dec. 14, 2010):

When I gave Ambassador Richard Holbrooke a personal tour of the newly opened Rose Center for Earth and Space and Hayden Planetarium in 2000, I could not help notice how fluent he was in the depth and breadth of his cosmic curiosity.

True science literacy is less about what you know and more about how your brain is wired for asking questions. Later in the tour he confessed that, as an undergraduate at Brown, he studied physics before switching to politics.

I could not resist asking him whether that exposure to physics made a difference in his career as a diplomat, especially in tense, war-torn areas of the world that are resistant to negotiated peace settlements.

He answered emphatically yes, citing the physics-inspired approach of sifting for the fundamental drivers of a cause or phenomenon—stripped of all ornament. To get there, one must assess how and when to ignore the surrounding details, which can give the illusion of importance, yet in the end, are often irrelevant distractions to solutions of otherwise intractable problems.

Mr. Holbrooke’s career was a living endorsement for more scientifically literate peace negotiators in the world.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

New York City