I was a graduate student in John Hopfield's group at Caltech when an enthusiastic new student started hanging out in the group. He always carried an enormous blue backpack that seemed to hang down almost to the back of his knees. I never figured out why he needed that huge thing, for the important things that Sam really carried with him were enormous, vibrant enthusiasm, a wickedly charming smile that made you a co-conspirator in his curiosity and his fun, and gifts of clarity and intelligence that were breathtaking in their beauty and joyfulness. He soon joined the group, and how lucky we were! It was a magical time. Sam Roweis' desk was to my left, and Sanjoy Mahajan's to my right. I was older than both of them, but I was soon learning far more from them than anything they would learn from me.
Group meetings were an intellectual feast. The prevailing attitude that John had set was that we were scientists-- not simply neuroscientists, or computer scientists, or mathematicians, or physicists. We were scientists. That meant that any intellectual problem was fair game, and that what we were really looking for were the deeper insights, the ideas that, once understood, would apply broadly, across many fields and problems. Sam took to this like a fish to water.
I remember one of Sam's very first presentations at group meeting, where he vividly described a reduction in needed coding bits as "sending saved bits into a bit bucket." He seemed to have been born with a knack for memorable and clarifying imagery, together with the ability to draw you into the fun of finding revealing ways of thinking. I soon found myself trying to ape Sam's speaking style-- it was so appealing, it was so clear, it was so much fun!! Of course I was never able to do it anywhere near as well as he did. But striving to speak precisely yet informally is one of the many things I learnt from Sam that I will keep with me all my life. Teaching others simply by doing something so appealingly and so well that one wanted to do it like him too was something Sam did all the time.
He was a very generous and kind friend, always willing to hear you if you were down, always ready to join plans that were fun, and invariably adding joyfulness to any proceeding. As others have described here, Sam was the kind of person you just wanted to be around-- you knew life was better with him in the room. He was always ready to exert himself for others, whether he knew them or not.
In recent years I had kept less in touch with him, but I was happy to think that after his move to New York I would get to see more of him again. During these winter holidays, we invited him to come to Princeton to visit us, and he couldn't make it, but we were looking forward to getting together soon. Like many others, I will deeply miss him and the time we could have spent with him.
I am sorry that I did not meet Meredith and the twins before Sam passed away. I hope they can feel that the love we have for Sam extends to them, and that they can take some comfort from reading this blog and its many postings as a testimonial and reminder of the beautiful human being that Sam was.
Sam Roweis died unexpectedly on January 12, 2010.
He was a truly wonderful person; a beloved son, husband and father; and a treasured friend and colleague.
This is a place for all of us who were lucky enough to know Sam to share our memories and to help celebrate his life.
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