Michael Cohen (1992-2017)

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I first encountered Michael Cohen when, as a freshman newly arrived at MIT, he walked into my office unannounced to ask if I had any open problems for him to solve.  My first reaction was bemused annoyance: who does this punk think he is?  he’s ready to do theory, but doesn’t even know enough to make an appointment first?  also, why doesn’t he shave?

And then, five minutes later, I was practically begging him to do research with me.  “OK, so you didn’t like that problem?  Wait, I’ve got another one!  Hey, where are you going…”

Within those five minutes, it had become obvious that this was a freshman who I could—must—talk to like an advanced grad student or professor.  Sadly for quantum computing, Michael ultimately decided to go into classical parts of theoretical computer science, such as low-rank approximation and fast algorithms for geometry and linear-algebra problems.  But that didn’t stop him from later taking my graduate course on quantum complexity theory, where he sat in the front and loudly interrupted me every minute, stream-of-consciousness style, so that my “lectures” often turned into dialogues with him.  Totally unforgivable—all the more so because his musings were always on point, constantly catching me in errors or unjustified claims (one of which I blogged about previously).

Not once did I ever suspect he did it to show off: he was simply so overtaken by his urge to understand the point at hand, as to be oblivious to all niceties.  Yet somehow, that social obliviousness didn’t stop him from accumulating a huge circle of friends.  (Well, it was MIT.)

Michael stayed on at MIT as a grad student, racking up an incredible publication list by age 25.  This semester, he went to visit the Simons Institute for Theory of Computing in Berkeley.

Three days ago, Michael was found dead in his apartment in Berkeley, after having cancelled a scheduled talk because he was feeling unwell.  No cause has been given.

The horrible news came just as I was arriving in Germany for the Heidelberg Laureate Forum, to speak about quantum supremacy.  So I barely had time to process the tragedy—yet it was always in the background, especially as I learned that in his brief life, Michael had also touched many of the other computer scientists who I spoke with in Heidelberg, such as Dan Spielman, whose approach to Ramanujan graphs (with Marcus and Srivastava) Michael had made constructive in one of his most celebrated works.  Only now is the full weight of what happened bearing down on me.

I understand that memorial events are being planned at both MIT and Berkeley.  Feel free to share memories of Michael in the comments; see also Luca’s post and Lance’s post.

This is an unfathomable loss for Michael’s family, for his many friends and colleagues, and for a field that’s been robbed of decades of breakthroughs.

28 Responses to “Michael Cohen (1992-2017)”

  1. Travis Says:

    Thanks for posting this.

    Michael was one of my closest friends, even after spending the last 3 years apart from him. I’m still reeling from the news, which arrived to me shortly after I noticed that he hadn’t been online for several days.

    I first met him in high school, when we competed for the same spot on the us IOI team. Despite our initial enmity we quickly became friends and he has been a great presence in my life since then.

    Michael has always been energetic, funny, supportive, insightful, and all other positive adjectives. This is really a great loss.

  2. Hunter Says:

    Michael and I were undergrads at the same time—he was a senior when I was a freshman, and we lived on the same floor. His exuberance and generosity struck me from the first time I met him. He was a big part of my life at that time, and he’s been a role model for me in the years since. It’s amazing to see how many people he left a mark on, and tragic to think of what the world has lost.

    I will always be in awe of Michael. I feel lucky and proud to have known such a brilliant and humble person, and I’ll miss him dearly.

  3. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Sébastien Bubeck comments: https://blogs.princeton.edu/imabandit/2017/09/28/michael-b-cohen/

  4. Greg Says:

    Really saddened by this news. RIP
    Big loss for MIT and Harvard

  5. Marie Cohen Says:

    Thank you for this wonderful tribute to our son. We knew he was extraordinary but these tributes are making me realize the extent of what we all lost. It is unbearable.

  6. Scott Says:

    Dear Marie: it’s unbelievably moving to get a comment from you on this blog. I can’t even begin to imagine what you and the rest of Michael’s family are going through right now.

    You can feel proud that in his short life, Michael was able to touch so many people in our community, not to mention making a bigger contribution to theoretical computer science than many make in decades. He won’t be forgotten by those who knew him.

    We’re all shocked, depressed, and frankly also mystified by what happened. I’d like to know whether there are any steps that we can take, in the TCS community, to prevent something like this from happening again.

    In the meantime, thank you again for writing here, and my deepest condolences. If you tell me a cause that Michael cared about, I’ll be more than happy to make a donation in his name, and invite my readers to do the same.

  7. Roksi Says:

    This is a really wonderful post about Michael. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him ever since I heard. He was brilliant, and had as much patience for others as arguing with him required. He seemed to have unlimited energy and patience for explaining things that I didn’t understand, anyone else would have made me feel like a dunce, but not Michael. On the contrary, he would gladly spend hours dissecting ideas to better understand, without bias. One time I was talking to him about my attempts to buy a cabin, and this time he didn’t understand me. I said that I wanted a place to get away from hectic city life, and we spent a long time talking about what that meant. He had no idea why anyone would want to bother doing that, but he wasn’t at all dismissive. He applied the same unlimited attention span to things that others were interested in as well. He was smarter than everyone, but he was also the epitome of a true scholar because of his zeal for knowledge and understanding in every respect.

  8. asdf Says:

    We also just lost Vladimir Voevodsky:

    Vladimir Voevodsky, Fields Medalist, Dies at 51
    https://www.ias.edu/news/2017/vladimir-voevodsky

    What a crappy year.

  9. Ehud Friedgut Says:

    Dear Marie,
    please accept my condolences for your terrible loss.
    It is so painful when the life of someone so young and talented suddenly comes to a premature end. I cannot imagine what you are now going through.
    Hugs from afar,
    Ehud (Yonit’s brother).

  10. John Sidles Says:

    Vladimir Voevodsky … alas … so very many untimely passings, this year, of true pioneers. 🙁

  11. Shravas Says:

    Hi Scott, do you happen to have any more information about the memorial services?

  12. Scott Says:

    Shravas #11: I believe that a memorial in Berkeley already happened. One at MIT is being planned. In any case, I’ll leave it to those organizing memorials to post more info here if they want to.

  13. evan kahn Says:

    i by no means knew michael well, but he went to my middle and high school and we rode in on the same bus when i was about 11 and he was 14. based on my somewhat hazy memories of those years and the conversations therein, he was the same man right up until the end. rest in peace

  14. Richard Says:

    If 2016 was the year the music died, 2017 appears to be turning into the year the math died.

  15. Scott Says:

    For everyone here who’s grieving over Michael’s loss, I thought I should share a brief update from Daniela Rus, the director of MIT CSAIL.

      I wanted to let you know that we have been informed by Michael’s family that Michael died of natural causes, though it will take some time to know exactly what happened. We also hope to share more information about a future plan to commemorate Michael among the wider MIT community.
  16. Tom Cohen Says:

    This is Tom Cohen, Michael Cohen’s father.

    I am writing to thank the numerous people in the theoretical computer science community who have written kind words about Michael on this blog, and in other places. But more generally to thank the community for the support they gave Michael during his, all too short, career. It was clear by the time that he went off to college that Michael, more than anything, wished to become part of that community and to engage in a meaningful way on relevant research in the field. At the time he doubted that he had the talent to do so. (Those who knew him recognize that he had a tendency to undervalue his abilities). The absolute joy he had in research is a consolation to Marie and me.

    Michael was in many ways unusual. His over-the-top exuberance, way of doing calculations while walking around muttering, absolute intellectual honesty, loud and fast way of proceeding when he was talking about interesting things as well as various personal quirks involving food, sartorial style and grooming might have made dealing with him difficult. Instead of being put off by this, the community really embraced him and he became completely part of a world that he longed to be part of. In addition to the very large number of people with whom Michael interacted on science but did not actively collaborate on a project, Michael had nearly 30 distinct collaborators on publications at the time of his death; in addition, there were several others with whom he was collaborating when he died that had not yet lead to publications (apparently, it was notoriously difficult to get Michael to finish writing papers). This is extraordinary for a 25-year-old researcher in this field, and shows how deeply connected Michael was with the community.

    Scott writes that he was frankly mystified by Michael’s death. While the facts are not entirely known, there is no real mystery, just tragedy. Michael died of “natural causes” according to the Berkeley police, meaning not suicide or homicide. The exact medical cause remains officially unknown, pending the results of various tests by the coroner’s office. But the coroner’s officer who investigated the case said that there are indications that his death may well have been due to an undiagnosed and untreated case of type-1 diabetes. In any case, whatever the underlying cause, we know that he had severe vomiting and diarrhea and that he did not call for help, either from friends or 911. Presumably, he thought he could just tough it out—as young men are wont to do. We will know more at a later date when the test results come in. In truth his death was almost certainly due due to a number of random and unrelated things. Principal among these was he was living alone and there was nobody to call for help when his condition become grave, but there were many others. The random nature of the events leading to his death makes it all the more tragic.

    Scott also asked if there was any cause Michael cared about if people wish to make a donation in his memory. If people wish to make a donation in Michael’s memory, a good choice is givedirectly.com . Michael was very interested in the Effective Altruism movement and spoke about it with many people. Givedirectly.org is a charity that he believed exemplified the spirit of that movement. As its name suggests, It gives money directly to very poor people in Africa. There is often reluctance on aid givers’ part to do this, due to a fear that the money will be squandered. Givedirectly rigorous monitors the use of the money it gives and the money is, in fact, being used wisely. Recently, Marie and I communicated with Michael about charitable giving and he recommended Givedirectly.org to us.

  17. Scott Says:

    Tom #16: Thank you so much for writing here. As I said to Marie, it’s hard for me to imagine what you’re going through. My deepest condolences to you and to all of Michael’s family.

    I’ve made an $1800 donation to Givedirectly in Michael’s memory. I encourage others to donate what they can as well.

    If there’s any small lesson to take away here, it sounds like it’s: reach out for help when you need it. Pick up the phone and call. Or better: when in doubt about whether to do so or not—about whether your friends and family will be annoyed to be “burdened” with your health problem, or whatever else it is—think about Michael’s friends and family, about what they would’ve wanted him to do when in need, and see if that makes the choice clearer.

  18. Tasneem Ahmed Says:

    My heart goes out to the Cohens on the loss of their child. I can not even begin to process this loss or the loss of another one of our children – an MIT 2020 this past Friday. …. The heart feels heavy and the brain becomes numb.. as I silently pray for the two boys gone so suddenly , and for all our children, and for the universe to give the parents who have lost their children the strength to bear it with grace.

  19. Abha Oza Says:

    Dear Marie and Tom,
    Please accept my deepest condolences. I cannot still believe the news. I saw Michael at MIT after the graduation as he stopped by to say hello to all his Blair classmates.
    I was always awed by his genius as Anand shared several interactions and discussion between them

    It will take time for all of us to get through this loss especially family and friends. Words cannot describe the tragic loss. I am speechless and heartbroken.

  20. Jess Muskin-Pierret Says:

    I was a friend of Michael’s in middle and high school though our lives have diverged significantly since. My condolences to Tom and Marie, the rest of his family, and the many friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who will miss him. From your memories it sounds that he really did go on to do the great things that seemed foreshadowed in high school.

    I’ve also made a donation in Michael’s memory to GiveDirectly.

  21. Jess Muskin-Pierret Says:

    Scott –

    I happen to live in Cambridge though I’m not associated with MIT. If you hear more about a memorial service at MIT could you share it here? Thank you!

  22. Prabin Adhikari Says:

    I am deeply saddened by this tragic event. I didn’t know Michael personally. But Michael’s father, Professor Tom Cohen shared with me (while I was his student at the University of Maryland) — on more than one occasion, Michael’s interest in computer science, his job offer at Facebook, and his enrollment at MIT to pursue a graduate degree. Only a few days ago did I realize how much impact Michael had already made in the theoretical computer science community. I would like to offer my sincere sympathies to Professor Cohen and his family.

  23. Ken Bach Says:

    I do not know Michael but my heart is broken that we have lost such a talented person

    The entire Computer Science community will suffer for generations as a result of his passing

  24. Olivier Chatot Says:

    I met Michael when he was an intern at facebook, and I just heard the sad news. His impact within the company was just as impressive as his impact on the field of theoretical computer science. He also had an impact on me personally. I will never forget Michael.

  25. Michael Cohen 1992-2017 and Vladimir Voevodsky 1966–2017 | Gödel's Lost Letter and P=NP Says:

    […] on he was working with a great many people in the community. This has been noted in tribute posts by Scott Aaronson, by Sébastien Bubeck, by Luca Trevisan, by former colleagues at Microsoft Research […]

  26. Michael Cohen | A bunch of data Says:

    […] I first saw posts about Michael Cohen (see here, here, here) I […]

  27. Keshav Dhandhania Says:

    Thank you professor Aaronson for writing this tribute, and Tom for giving us a clearer picture of what happened.

    I was Michael’s roommate during our internship at Facebook about 6 years ago. When I heard the news a few weeks ago, I was taken by surprise and couldn’t digest the information. My deepest condolences to Tom and Marie, and all those who were close to Michael.

    You describe him very accurately in the tribute, “overtaken by his urge to understand the point at hand, as to be oblivious to all niceties”. That has always been the true hallmark of a genius, and Michael was no less.

  28. Tom Cohen Says:

    Thanks again, to Scott and others who have written such kind words.

    I am writing to let people know that a memorial for Michael will be held at MIT, on November 10. In the morning a mini-symposium organized by MIT’s theory group will be held beginning at 9:00. A Memorial Service will be held at 3:00 also at MIT.

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