Michael Hawley, a former MIT professor recognized worldwide as a modern-day Renaissance man, died Wednesday, June 24 at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after battling a long illness. He was 58 years old.
Hawley will be remembered for his extraordinary range of interests and talents, which spanned the fields of human-machine interfaces and sensing, musical performance and audio signal processing, digital cinema and libraries, documentary photography, exploration and entrepreneurship. He will also be remembered as a deeply devoted father. Parenthood came late for Hawley and his wife, Nina You, who recently wrote, âWe spent 15 years trying to have our son, Tycho. Mike’s cancer was discovered on his first Father’s Day last year; Tycho is now 18 months old and was the joy of Mike’s life. He has placed being a father at the top of all his contributions to the world. “
Hawley has been involved in some of the great digital breakthroughs of the past 40 years, from writing UNIX code at Bell Labs as a teenager, to his pioneering work in digital cinema and sound technology at LucasFilm, to his innovation in large-scale digital photo systems, which led to the 2003 publication of “Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom”, measuring 5 ‘x 7’ and weighing over 150 pounds, which gives it the distinction of be documented as the world’s largest published book in the “Guinness Book of World Record.”
Long before arriving at MIT in 1986 as a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering as well as the newly established program in Media Arts and Sciences, Hawley had already secured an impressive resume. After earning undergraduate degrees in music and computer science at Yale University in 1983, his research first led him to Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM in Paris, where he developed one of the first graphic systems for displaying and editing sheet music, then to Lucasfilm in San Rafael, Calif., where he helped develop SoundDroid, among other technologies. He then helped Steve Jobs start NeXT, working with Jobs to develop the first generation of digital books, including the writings of Charles Darwin and William Shakespeare, as well as the first digital dictionary (Merriam-Webster). âAt the center of this digital library was one of the very first search algorithms, designed by Mike and his team to bridge the gap between human curiosity and technology,â says Kate Smith, a member of the original team at the digital library at NeXT.
Examining Hawley’s candidacy for graduate school at MIT before meeting him, Professor Emeritus Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder and former director of the Media Lab, recalls his competition to keep him away from Steve Jobs. “If I remember correctly,” says Negroponte, “my bait was Marvin Minsky.”
After completing his doctoral thesis, “Structure out of Sound”, under the supervision of Minsky (for which he created technologies to transform historic piano rolls from the turn of the 20th century into digital instructions for cutting-edge robotic pianos) , Hawley accepted a professorship in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, where he held the new Licklider Career Development Chair, named JCR Licklider, a pioneer in the field of human-machine interfaces. In 1995, Hawley was appointed to the Alexander W. Dreyfoos, Jr. ’54 Chair in Media Arts and Sciences as a faculty member of the Media Arts and Sciences program.
Like Minsky, Hawley shared a passion for music and was a gifted pianist and organist. Tod Machover, composer and Muriel R. Cooper professor of music and media at the MIT Media Lab, states that âMike lived and breathed music. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the unusual repertoire from Bach to Bernstein and Bolcom (including Busoni’s little-known transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies), exhibited a stunning ease on the keyboard that enabled him to sight-read just about anything, and communicated through his piano with the same frankness, insight and warmth that made him one of the greatest orators in the world.
This natural performing talent won Hawley’s first place (tied with Victoria Bragin) at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in 2002. He has given numerous solo recitals, chamber concerts and as a soloist with large orchestras, and had the distinction of accompanying world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma at Bill Nye’s wedding (“The Science Guy”). It also featured prominently in the 2010 documentary “Bach & Friends”.
At the Media Lab, Hawley led the Personal Information Architecture research group and was a co-founder of the Toys of Tomorrow and Things That Think consortia, the latter of which provided a first glimpse into the myriad of ways digital technologies would soon be integrated seamlessly. integrated into the physical atoms of our everyday world. In 1995, Hawley predicted the seismic societal change that was looming. “These are absolutely pivotal times,” he said, “We are moving from a world where none of our everyday things communicate, to a world where all of us will.” He envisioned the not-so-distant future where we could send bitstreams into almost anything, even the body.
In 1997, Hawley and his students did just that. That year, Hawley (along with two of his students) ran his first Boston Marathon, wired “inside and out” with their new microelectronic monitoring devices, to transmit data on their vital signs and their position during the race. As with many new experiences, there were a few issues. Data transmission did not work in real time, and the weight of the devices also took its toll: only Hawley managed to transport the material to the finish line. But this so-called âblack boxâ project was pioneering in its ability to monitor the human body under extreme physical conditions, as well as provide situational information based on context and location.
Building on the breakthrough of the Boston Marathon, Hawley and his group created one of the first mainstream heart rate monitors, in the form of a $ 500,000 red pulsating diamond pin developed in collaboration with Harry Winston Jewelers.
Hawley’s experimentation took him to all corners of the world, including leading one of the first major scientific expeditions to Mount Everest, which involved the group developing new systems for monitoring geological and ecological phenomena. Other expeditionary research included dog sledding in Norway, plant biology in Hawaii, and reef ecology in Indonesia, all to study new technological ways to sense the environment and better understand human performance in the world that surrounds us and their effects on them.
Robert Poor, Hawley’s first doctoral student at the Media Lab and a participant in the Everest Expedition, says: âMike has broken and often broke physical and societal rules, playfully disrupting normal life and putting it back on a new basis. In doing so, he coaxed many of us students to follow his example: to think bigger and have the courage to push our own limits.
The eclectic nature of Hawley’s interests always went far beyond his academic pursuits. He was formerly Duncan yo-yo champion, luger and member of the American Bobsleigh Federation. At the Media Lab, he also developed software for a computerized sewing machine that allowed him to translate images into thread, then used this technology to make sweatshirts for the Media Lab’s ice hockey team and to wire antennas for the cyborgs in the lab.
In 2002, Hawley became director of special projects at the Media Lab and in 2008 left MIT to become director of the EG (Entertainment Gathering) conference. Held annually in Monterey, California, EG brings together a wide range of visionaries and inventors, thinkers and creators from virtually every creative field, retaining the enthusiasm and deep interdisciplinarity of the Media Lab.
âOne of the qualities I cherished most in Mike was the extraordinary breadth of his talents and intellect, which were always fully on display at his EG conference,â said Laurene Powell Jobs, founder of Emerson Collective. âHe had this incredible ability to look at the world in all its complexity, all its mess, and make connections – of people, of ideas – that so many of us might otherwise have missed. He was also fiercely passionate about our democracy, always urging action, always full of ideas on what to do. Mike has enriched the lives of everyone he touched.
Architect Moshe Safdie, who developed a close friendship with Hawley, remembers him as deeply humanistic and overflowing with compassion. âMichael has always been the great connector, bringing us knowledge, understanding and pleasure,â says Safdie.
Hawley was honored as the first recipient of the Jack Kilby International Award for Scientific Innovation in 1990. He was a member and trustee of Jonathan Edwards College at Yale University and served on the boards of the Rutgers Jazz Institute , the Vanguard Group and several leading companies, including Kodak.
Artificial intelligence pioneer Danny Hillis remembers Hawley as “a true polymath who constantly sought out great ideas in the fields of art, music, culture and science, and shared. happily with his friends.
Echoing this sentiment, Robert Millard, president of the MIT Corporation, remembers Hawley “as a true artist – not just a craftsman – in everything he touched.” He attained beauty in life by rigorously seeking it, living it, absorbing it, improving it, transforming it. We will miss him, but we will always have him.
In late April, Millard and 16 other colleagues and friends took part in an online festival hosted by the Media Lab and hosted by Peter Sagal of NPR to pay tribute to Hawley.
Along with his wife Nina and son Tycho, Hawley is survived by his father, George Hawley, and two brothers, Patrick and Stephen.
Michael Hawley’s ideas and communities will be celebrated in various forms and at various times to be announced.