This week I returned from a memorial service for my first collaborator in arts policy research, and my second PhD advisee, to find that my most recent coauthor, on biofuels and global warming, had taken his life. It’s been a tough week, as both were friends, optimal colleagues, much too young, and respectively central to the two main areas of my research.
J. Mark Schuster had been straightarming cancer for years, so we weren’t blindsided. MIT put on a wonderful event, hundreds of people sharing recollections and appreciations of a really remarkable person who had made all our lives better, more productive, more fun, and more interesting.
Alex Farrell was a much more private person; yesterday everyone associated with the Energy and Resources Group gathered to try to make sense of it and we failed completely. The afternoon before he died he was emailing people about plug-in hybrid batteries. No-one saw it coming, no-one remembered a conversation or a hint that he was in despair or depressed about anything. It was a complete black swan: incomprehensible, unanticipated, and devastating.
Alex was only in his mid-40s and high on a steep upward professional path with no inflection point in sight: a key player in California, nationally, and internationally on the most important issue of the current era, and a model of scholarship and commitment for public officials, students, and peers. His death is not only a frightening and painful experience for everyone he worked with but also bad news for ERG, Cal, California, the nation, and the planet.
I spend almost all my time among really smart people and I take it for granted that I can learn something from any of them. We’re all pretty good at defending our positions. Arguing with Alex, however, was a higher-level experience, because while he would roll over for nothing without evidence and some good science, it was obvious that he would rather be forced to change his mind than to change yours. Working with Alex we could all feel ourselves getting better at what we did.
He was an Annapolis man whose career began as an officer in nuclear submarines, and his management style evidenced the best in the military tradition, by which I do not mean command-and-control hierarchical authority, I mean leadership and understanding that the duty of officers is to be sure their troops have what they need to figure out what would advance the mission, and to do it. I wish I could ask him for some guidance on what to do when the captain is shot off the bridge while action is underway; now we have to improvise.