I know some facts about the early part of my father's life. I know he was born in 1937 in Ithaca, New York. I know there were farms in his childhood, and outhouses, and one-room schoolhouses, and model rockets and home-made explosives. I know he had polio once. I know he loved boats and was good at both sailing and rowing. I know he programmed computers back in the era of toggle switches and paper tape, and that he worked with early analog music synthesizers. I know he traveled in Europe and that he loved Greece more than almost anything.
But the fact is that I never really got him—I never really understood him as a person—until after I moved out. I'm going to mention a few things, but the first and biggest of them is how deeply he cared about the online physics communities he was part of.
During the last twelve years of his life he was amazingly fluent on the internet. If you saw him over those twelve years you would never have guessed this, but: in 1995, I tried to teach him how to use email, and he didn't get it. He totally and completely didn't get it. For probably eight or so years after that, I was his intermediary between himself and all but the most basic of internet related activities. If he wanted to put up a web site full of poetry or physics related material, I was the one who did it. He would give me material and I would format it as HTML, register a domain name, arrange for hosting, and handle the whole thing.
But then something magical started to happen. He signed up on various physics-related web forums. He invented different aliases, or handles, for himself, the same way any teenager who'd grown up with the internet might do. He dove headfirst into the world of threads, moderators, upvotes, badges, and markup formatting. He taught himself the kind of benevolent demagoguery that anyone who has learned how to herd cats on the internet eventually figures out on their own. How to deal with trolls. How to calm down fights between users. How to keep an online discussion moving in generally the right direction. He even was able to get a grasp on the finer points of Internet meme humor, which—personally—I still haven't managed to do.
I'm speaking—myself—from the perspective of someone who cares deeply about internet communities. I try to be a positive force in the communities I'm part of, and that involves having sort of a light touch. You have to take your best guess as to when to advance, when to retreat, when some encouraging words are needed, and when shutting up is the best medicine. Communities ebb and flow and you have to try to understand where people are coming from. During the last twelve years of my father's life I saw him doing many of those same things and facing many of the same kinds of situations where you just have to make a judgment call and go with your best guess. Sometimes you make the right guesses and sometimes you don't. I saw the things my father was doing in his communities and they were the same kinds of things I was doing in mine. I saw him as an equal.
Two of the other things he cared a great deal about were editing, and translating. I think both perhaps came from the same urge, the urge to actively and in a deep way involve himself with the written word. He would spend days getting a translation of a Rilke poem just so—so that it both fit into the right meter, and expressed just the right shade of meaning. He did the same thing when he was helping his friend Carlo proofread physics papers. Beyond simply correcting the typos, he would spend time with the text, try to understand deeply what it was trying to say, and when he suggested a correction he did so from a place of understanding of what the text was really trying to say.
He was also dedicated to singing. He was a loyal member of the bass section of several different Bay Area choruses over the years. It would be easy to gloss over just what a time commitment that must have been. It meant not just blocking out time for concerts and practicing, but also showing up at rehearsal every week whether he felt like it or not. I think he did feel loyal. I think he felt an obligation to be there and be a strong bass and help keep things together.
I believe that my father made real and significant contributions to society. He strengthened the choruses he sang in, he made concepts and feelings come alive in the prose and poetry he worked on, and he was a loved and needed member of the Internet physics community.
He will be remembered.