Rhodes Scholar unites varied interests


Tobias H. Ayer, MIT's most recent winner of a Rhodes scholarship, juggles many academic and extracurricular interests-literally.

Mr. Ayer, a senior in physics and linguistics, received word last month that he had been awarded the scholarship to study for the MPhil in general linguistics and comparative philology at Oxford University starting next year.

"The philosophy of language brings together an understanding of what language is and how people use it to reveal a part of the mind," he noted in his scholarship application, describing his MIT studies in philosophy, linguistics and cognitive science. When he got the word in early December, he was mostly relieved; "it was very tense that whole week, not knowing," he said last week.

He wanted to attend Oxford because of its rowing tradition in addition to its academic reputation. "Crew is really one of the larger things in my life-everything gets prioritized around it," Mr. Ayer said last week. He noted that as a graduate student in the United States, the opportunities to compete on undergraduate crew teams are very limited, but at Oxford, he hopes to repeat his experience of last summer, when he raced in the Henley Royal Regatta, and eventually row for the US national team.

Mr. Ayer pursues juggling as avidly as he does crew and academics. He began at age eight when an aunt gave him a book about juggling and he has performed for six summers with a youth circus in his home state of Vermont. Juggling has taken him farther afield as well. "Touring New England with a troupe of performers from the US, Canada, Russia, Mongolia and elsewhere is a physical and emotional experience, and takes me far from my studies," he wrote, adding that he has now visited England in three capacities: as tourist, juggler and oarsman.

Having such divergent interests is most enjoyable on the relatively rare occasions when they overlap, Mr. Ayer wrote. "A pool of water, running along the inside of a moving crew shell, indicates the boat's acceleration, and I think of Newton's second law; my fellow oarsmen pose me their semantic and philosophical questions while we stretch; my friend Allen, a mathematician, throws me a sequence of numbers, designating a specific juggling pattern to try; Volodya, a Moscow Circus star who speaks only Russian, teaches me to cook potatoes and wild mushrooms."

Though he is not yet decided on a career, Mr. Ayer expects his work to include writing about science. "In one role or another-as a scientist, scholar, or writer-I will want to explain and convey the intrigues and intricacies I see in the world," he wrote. "Helping others understand seems a worthy companion task-whether the topic is a new development in cosmology or the wonderful development of a child's language skills."


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