Science Writing, and the World, Loses One of Its Finest

The saddest song I know is one Lucinda Williams wrote about her brother:

See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world:

The breath from your own lips, the touch of fingertips,

A sweet and tender kiss.

The sound of a midnight train, wearing someone’s ring,

Someone calling your name.

Somebody so warm cradled in your arm —

Didn’t you think you were worth anything?

I did not know J.R. Minkel very well. But having read his work, having bantered with him on the web, I felt admiration, affection, and a sense of enormous promise about this young writer, who was only 31 when took his own life earlier this week. Minkel was one of those people, incredibly important to us, I think, who embodies so much that is fine in the world that you invest in him many of your hopes for it — more than you realize, I find, now that he’s gone.

John Rennie, who worked with Minkel at Scientific American, has remembered him aptly and gracefully:

This past week, those of us who knew JR have been sore at heart with the knowledge that we lost him, irrevocably. JR had family and friends who were genuinely close to him; I won’t insult the honor of those relationships by pretending that I knew him better than I did. I was one of his bosses back during the days he worked at Scientific American, but we also talked a lot about things that had nothing to do with the job because we had a similar sense of humor and we shared an interest in martial arts. Over the past year or so, as I became more active again in social media, we struck up our acquaintance all over again. I always admired him….

If you want a more true sense of who he was—and how much potential he was still grooming—go to his brilliantly named web site A Fistful of Science. That’s where you can see his self-deprecating humor and honesty, and the breadth of his interests. He was a postmodern libertarian-turned-socialist who had gone through a few personal epiphanies on the subject of gender politics and believed we should all wake up. Read what he wrote on “Gender performativity for science geeks (aka: Let them wear drag).” Or “Forget science vs. postmodernism; give me pushback against the status quo.” Or “Why I don’t buy – or maybe just don’t care – that xenophobia is an evolutionary adaptation.” Or (and you know I enjoyed this one) “Want: Ray Kurzweil to proselytize about climate change.” Or any of the rest.

Was JR original in a way that only highly smart people can be? Or was he smart in a way that only highly original people can be? I never cracked that nut.

I dearly hope that JR’s family, whose grief must be immeasurable, can take some solace knowing that JR’s light and intelligence and spirit, his michievous beauty, reached and delighted and inspired many people. He was one of those who makes you think better of the world. He still is, and he will continue to be.

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