Machine Learning (Theory)

1/13/2010

Sam Roweis died

and I can’t help but remember him.

I first met Sam as an undergraduate at Caltech where he was TA for Hopfield‘s class, and again when I visited Gatsby, when he invited me to visit Toronto, and at too many conferences to recount. His personality was a combination of enthusiastic and thoughtful, with a great ability to phrase a problem so it’s solution must be understood. With respect to my own work, Sam was the one who advised me to make my first tutorial, leading to others, and to other things, all of which I’m grateful to him for. In fact, my every interaction with Sam was positive, and that was his way.

His death is being called a suicide which is so incompatible with my understanding of Sam that it strains my credibility. But we know that his many responsibilities were great, and it is well understood that basically all sane researchers have legions of inner doubts. Having been depressed now and then myself, it’s helpful to understand at least intellectually that the true darkness of the now is overestimated, and that you have more friends than you think. Sam was one of mine, and I’ll miss him.

My last interaction with Sam, last week, was discussing a new research direction that interested him, optimizing the cost of acquiring feature information in the learning algorithm. This problem is endemic to real-world applications, and has been studied to some extent elsewhere, but I expect that in our unwritten future history, we’ll discover that further study of this problem is more helpful than almost anyone realizes. The reply that I owed him feels heavy, and an incompleteness is hanging. For his wife and children it is surely so incomparably greater that I lack words.

(Added) Others: Fernando, Kevin McCurley, Danny Tarlow, David Hogg, Yisong Yue, Lance Fortnow on Sam, a Memorial site, and a Memorial Fund

40 Comments to “Sam Roweis died”
  1. Mugizi says:

    Wow, this is shocking and saddening.

    I only had the chance to see him a few times in person, he seemed so energetic and vital.

    But as you said – it is hard to know what someone else is going through.

    His friends and family must be going through a terrible time right now.

    I hope all them (and Sam) are able to find some measure of peace.

  2. Drew Bagnell says:

    It is remarkable how many people were touched by Sam and how many people called him a friend. It’s so hard to understand. I know how much we will all miss him. Thank you for the post.

  3. Lev Reyzin says:

    I want to echo your sentiment. Sam’s death is both shocking and incomprehensible to me. I was lucky to have gotten to work with Sam in the past, and I was stuck not only by his thoughtfulness, but also with his patience and enthusiasm. He was also clearly a gifted teacher who could make complicated ideas seem easy and natural, and his contributions to our field clearly extended beyond his research. He will be very missed.

  4. I met Sam during his high school days at UTS. Our friendship continued for a time during university with a weekly chess lesson. As a friend of Sam, I felt often that I took a lot more than I gave- took of his knowledge, his ideas and even sponged off his never-ending positive energy and good nature. With the chessboard between us, I remember being both proud and grateful to be able to teach something in return to him.

    I have been trying to make sense of the circumstances of his passing, and found your board by chance. There were some incredibly offensive comments after one of the press reports, so finding these honest words written by his colleagues was truly welcome. Goodbye friend.

  5. Corina Linden says:

    Thank you for writing this. Sam was a dear friend of our family and we are all so, so sad. He was a sweet, funny, brilliant man.

    I will remember him best as he was when I saw him in the Lake District, carefree and lolling on the lawn with friends on a golden afternoon.

  6. Winsome Brown says:

    I am glad to have found your site and to be able to see Sam giving his remarkable, coherent, respectful, humorous, and deeply intelligent lectures. I know that many of his friends will be glad to witness him in this professional capacity. Thank you for the site, and thank you for your thoughtful remarks about Sam Roweis. We will all miss him.

  7. Greg Linden says:

    A beautiful tribute, John, and exactly how I remember Sam, “a combination of enthusiastic and thoughtful, with a great ability to phrase a problem so it’s solution must be understood.” Sam was brilliant and insightful, warmly wrapped in humor, patience, and remarkable modesty. My heart aches from this sorrowful goodbye.

  8. Ilana Rubel says:

    I echo the sentiments here – my head was going to explode at the hateful garbage being spewed elsewhere. I had the locker beside Sam’s for six years in high school, and I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that his brilliance will shine on us all no longer.

  9. tina zafreen alam says:

    thank you for your post.

    i hear of sam’s passing earlier today after being contacted by a reporter. after that i started searching for more information, and as others have expressed, encountered some incredibly callous and offensive remarks.

    sam was my older brother’s best friend and i am shocked and deeply saddened by the news of his passing.

    i always knew sam was brilliant, but it was how amazing of a person he was that really touched me.

    he will be greatly missed and my sincere condolences go out to all his friends, family and colleagues.

  10. Tom Dietterich says:

    Let me add my sorrow and condolences. I felt great joy — both intellectual and personal — from knowing Sam, from reading his papers, from attending his talks. I feel great sadness and sympathy for his family and friends.

  11. I knew Sam as a teacher and a mentor as an undergraduate at Toronto. I had the privilege of taking two courses with him, and even now find myself occasionally referring to his course notes. His enthusiasm was infectious, his facility with mathematics unmatched. He was one of the most gifted educators I have ever had the privilege of knowing, and as his peers here well know, his research record is one of distinction. I once told a room full of people that I had gained more of an intuition for linear algebra from reading a 4 page tutorial written by Sam than from an entire course on the subject; I wasn’t exaggerating. Despite his hectic schedule his door was always open to a wayward student seeking advice, academic or personal.

    I have fond memories of his enthusiasm and razor sharp intellect on display at the weekly seminars and tea time. He still has many friends and admirers here, and that room will now always seem emptier knowing his voice will never again fill it. I’m deeply saddened by his passing and frustrated by the circumstances, and that he apparently couldn’t see any other way out. My sympathies to everyone who has felt this loss.

  12. Angela Yu says:

    I just found out about Sam an hour ago, and I’m still in tears. I first came across Sam’s thesis work while doing a summer internship at Caltech, and he was one of the inspirations that prompted me to make the rather unusual transatlantic move to do a PhD at Gatsby. He is one of my favorite people in the world, funny, sweet, brilliant, as everyone already said. He gave incredible lectures — he had an unusual knack to explain complex concepts in a lucid way that made you think you understood everything perfectly, intuitively (even when you may not have), and you can follow him effortlessly. Ever since then, I have aspired to achieve something like that kind of subjective lucidity in my own lectures. I still use his linear algebra and Gaussian distribution notes as references in my classes. I haven’t seen him in a few years, and always meant to write and catch up, and now… I can still hear his voice, see his smile and the wink in his eyes, in my mind. I can’t believe he is gone!

  13. Dragos Margineantu says:

    My heartfelt condolences to Sam’s family. Words cannot express the sadness I feel. The machine learning community has lost one of its best and most generous.

  14. Nathaniel Daw says:

    I have long deeply admired Sam both personally and professionally. Most recently, I had been enjoying his guidance and support for parenthood instead of academia, but as with everything else, with this, he was a gentleman: generous, kind, and brilliant.

  15. Dave Andre says:

    I am deeply saddened by this. I liked and respected Sam greatly — he was what my undergrad advisor called a “live wire”. My deepest condolences to his family.

  16. Ursula Hendel says:

    Sam was my close friend in high school. I was with him when his mom died, also tragically young, from leukemia. Same offered me his shoulder and his understanding later in our lives when my own mother died. Yes he was brilliant, but he was also funny, tender and the gentlest, sweetest soul I knew. I will never forget him.

  17. Joelle Pineau says:

    Thanks John for finding the words to express the sadness I feel today. Many of us still had so much to learn from Sam, both the researcher and the person. He will be deeply missed.

  18. Justin Boyan says:

    Unbelievably sad. If only, if only, if only…

  19. Claire M says:

    Shocking and sad. He was so brilliant, friendly, and generous.

  20. Doina Precup says:

    Sam was an awesome researcher, speaker and colleague. There was so much positive energy and enthusiasm in his talks, I cannot bring myself to believe this… My thoughts and prayers are with his family.

  21. Karolina Buchner says:

    John, thank you for your post. As a student of the machine learning group at Toronto, I really looked up to Sam and am greatly saddened by this news. He was a wonderful person and amazing teacher.

  22. Claire Quinn says:

    I knew Sam as a friend, in fact as a friend of a friend through Sara. We were kids having fun and I have mountains of memories of him, sitting on the dock at Sara’s cottage on lazy summer afternoons, playing scrabble, putting together puzzles. Sam was a very unique person. He had a very deep understanding of people and was keenly aware of being helpful, including everyone and making everything fun. I never knew Sam academically and I sort of like it that way, he was my pal and friend.

    I find it very difficult to write anything at all, because all I really want is for this to not have happened. I want Sam to be standing in Sara’s living room the next time I visit her so I can give him a hug and hear about all of the great adventures he’s been having.

    Sam was supposed to outlive and outshine us all and we were supposed to stand behind him and cheer and now everything has gone so wrong. To say that I am heart broken is not be enough.

  23. Aaron says:

    Sam was an amazing individual. Even though I didn’t know him as well as many, he still had a big influence on me; I learned a lot just from being around him. I feel really lucky to have collaborated with him. This was really shocking. Your words about it straining credibility ring very true.

  24. Jennifer Linden says:

    A memorial site has now been set up for Sam, to share memories of him and to celebrate his life. Please, we would be grateful if you would all repost your memories, loving thoughts and thoughtful comments there.

    http://samroweis1972-2010.blogspot.com/

  25. Tijmen says:

    Of course all the things that I might want to say have already been said by people who knew Sam better. Still, I might as well say it again: Sam was a wonderful teacher, with a great ability to combine the practical, the theoretical, the serious, the funny, the ability to think around problems, and the ability to go straight through them. He was always a good person to have in the group meetings, both because of his general optimistic influence and because of his sharp insights. And I’m sure he was much more than I mentioned, in situations where I wasn’t around.

    I’m very sorry to see him leaving our world.

  26. PZ says:

    Sam’s beacon-like presence was one of the reasons I thought everything would work out in the end. There was such tremendous goodness in him.

  27. Thanks, John for posting this.

    Sam was a very close friend and I miss him deeply and painfully. We worked closely for many years, we learned together, taught together and grew up academically together. He was a shining star and I wanted to claim to be a mentor but in truth I learned more from him than he did from me, and we were colleagues, almost brothers, curious to figure things out and share them with others. His joyful energy and creativity were truly infectious in a way that nobody can match. He was charming, open and approachable… you really wanted to be around him, bask in his glow, absorb his energy. It’s hard for me to accept that he’s gone. I don’t have the right words — I’ll never have the right words — to fill the gap that he leaves.

    http://samroweis1972-2010.blogspot.com/

  28. Sham Kakade says:

    With John, I also met Sam through the same course (Hopfield’s course) at Caltech. Due to Sam’s dedication to TAing, he was a big factor in me switching into machine learning and going the Gatsby unit. Then we overlapped in London for his postdoc where he was both a great colleague professionally and a close friend personally. His level of energy was fantastic — when we were climbing, skiing, jamming on problems, (even when he was TAing), he could help push me to my limit like few others. It’s this level of energy combined with his positivity that were inspiring to me and all who new him.

  29. Anon says:

    I just wanted to express my deepest condolences… this is very sad indeed. As someone who is intimately familiar with this field, working in it myself, I understand both the joys and intense pressures that come with being in academia. The joys are second-to-none, but the pressures and the feeling that you might just lose to the ever-increasing demands are at times intense. It is funny how for at least some of us (myself at once an instance and a recovering, I hope, instance of this) it can truly feel like that to-do list consumes your life. You lay awake at night wondering how you can ever get caught up, how you’ll ever escape to have a life. And yet your life is full of joyful times, too.

    I hope that this will spur those who have felt such dark inclinations before to seek help, and to spend that valuable time with your friends, family, and with yourself. The world, academic or otherwise, will not end if you take the night to do something fun. Apply the same commitment to fun and family, and I think you will find peace.

    I’ll let you know how it goes.

    Be at peace, dear Sam.

  30. Natalia Hernandez Gardiol says:

    Thank you, John, for the post. I can only express my deepest sorrow alongside those who’ve already written here. Sam was an amazingly generous friend and truly inspiring colleague. The world will be much dimmer without him; this is such an unbelievable loss.

  31. Sasha Kraus says:

    I knew Sam from the climbing gym in Toronto. My deepest condolences to his family.
    zichrono livracha

  32. John,

    Thanks for posting this, I came to your site in the hope that there’d be something. You didn’t let me down. I’ve posted my memories of Sam on the site Zoubin linked.

    Neil

  33. This is shocking news to me. Though I never met Prof. Roweis, I had watched the videos of his teaching Machine Learning many times, and I admire him as a leading researcher in this field.
    I really can’t accept this news. May God bless him!

  34. Gorden says:

    It really is sad to lose such a great mind and, as many have echoed here, a great personality. I never met Sam but learned quite a lot from his work. May his soul rest in peace.

  35. Sumod says:

    I never met him, just knew him from his lectures online and his papers. His energy and his glow (as Zoubin rightly put it), along with his humor was incredibly infectious and it really crossed all boundaries. I just can’t make myself believe this news. Very sorry to hear this..

  36. Adel Shalaby says:

    Sam was my youngest cousin. I remember his birth in 1972, his early years in Toronto’s Danforth area; his loss of his mom after they left High-Park area; and after a long gap: his marriage to Meridith.

    I was shocked by his premature death, and understand how stress can mount. I wish I was able to help.

    Sam’s birth name was Sinuhe. The ancient word for doctor or physician from the root word “swn” meaning to suffer pain.

    Sinuhe was the royal physician who told the story of Akhenaten, the first monotheistic ruler in the world.

    I’m sure Sam has added to our recorded history, science, relationships, and memories. Take it easy now Sam.

    Adel Shalaby

  37. Donna Levy & Danny Quinn says:

    I worked with Meredith and met Sam a few times climbing. Truly an incredible mind and athlete. Meredith and family. We are all thinking of you. You are in our hearts and prayers.

    Donna Levy & Daniel Quinn

  38. Jamal says:

    I am just a student of Machine Learning from Indonesia. I don’t know Sam Roweis personnaly and never met him. But I saw few of his lectures from http://www.videolecture.net and was shocked with the news how such energetic and great teacher could do such act. My condolance to his family.

    Jamal

  39. Raissa says:

    I am a PhD student in Paris, France. I don’t know Sam Roweis personally and I never met. I just watched on videolectures.net a few of his lectures. He was soo enthusiastic about what he was teaching, that his enthusiam was contagious, even through a PC screen. He’s made my learning of ML soo easy for me, and I am grateful for that. I saw the new of his death on one of the comments on his lectures. It has shocked me very much. It is still hard to believe. My great condolences to his family. I wish I met you Sam. Thank you. You and your family are in my heart and prayers. RIP.

  40. Tim Sears says:

    Sam taught at the Machine Learning Summer School in Canberra a few years ago. He stood out as a clear and thoughtful speaker with a gift for teaching as well as research. He was very approachable and friendly. Because of that, he is easily remembered and will be greatly missed.

    Let us be grateful that we knew him and his work. Let us be angry that we have been robbed of more years. Let us resolve to reach out and help others in distress, whenever possible.

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