In Memoriam: Michael Benjamin Cohen (1992-2017)

Michael Benjamin Cohen, an incredible mathematician and beloved son, brother and friend, passed away suddenly from natural causes in September at age 25. He attended the Magnet Program at Takoma Park Middle School and at Montgomery Blair High School, graduating in 2010. Afterwards he went to MIT for his B.S. in mathematics (2014), interspersed with a year interning at Facebook, then stayed on at MIT for a Ph.D. program in computer science. He spent this summer at Microsoft Research, and was visiting the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at UC Berkeley when he passed away.

A lot has been written already by his colleagues in theoretical computer science about an intellectual brilliance and energy beautifully matched by an effusive desire to both share his knowledge and to learn from others. Scott Aaronson, a former professor from MIT, remembered how Michael could be "oblivious to all niceties," but "somehow, that social obliviousness didn’t stop him from accumulating a huge circle of friends." Sébastien Bubeck of Microsoft Research, recalled "a typical Michael story" where "a seemingly innocuous question (at a perhaps inopportune time) turned out to be extremely deep and interesting," and Microsoft colleagues remembered Michael for "for his infectious smile and his larger-than-life personality." Luca Trevisan, a professor at UC-Berkeley, remembered Michael as "a unique person, who gave a lot to our community and had touched several lives." Lance Fortnow, a professor at Georgia Tech, recognized Michael as a tragic loss to the computer science community. Dick Lipton, a professor at Georgia Tech, and Ken Regan, a professor at SUNY Buffalo, wrote about Michael's "wizardry with special kinds of matrices." Michael was recognized in an official statement from MIT, noting that his fellow students described him as “energetic, fun, and supportive,” and admired his irrepressible spirit of “exuberance and generosity.” MIT's student newspaper, The Tech, quoted Cameron Musco, a fellow gradaute student who said, “It was impossible to ignore his energy, wonder, and excitement for research, current events, and everything in between.” UC-Berkeley's student newspaper, The Daily Californian, quoted Jonathan Kelner, Michael's doctoral co-adviser, saying that Michael brought “light and energy” to the research community at MIT.

The Cohen family has identified as a good choice to make a donation in Michael's memory, because it was a cause that Michael had recommended.

Update (January 2018): The Cohen family has shared the news that Michael's death was the result of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), a complication of diabetes. Although he was not diagnosed until after his death, Michael likely had Type 1 diabetes, which can develop in adults or children, as recently reported by NPR. The Cohen family is hoping to spread awareness of Type 1 diabetes and DKA through the DKA Campaign coordinated by Beyond Type 1.

Members of the Blair community have also shared their memories of Mikey, and we invite you to share below:

Mary Ann Dvorsky, computer science teacher: Michael was one of the most memorable students I taught in a 45+ year teaching career. He was in my classes as a freshman, a sophomore, and a senior. His mind was sharp and inquiring, though he had taught himself much about computer science and mathematics on his own. He was always eager — sometimes a little too eager — to share his knowledge and opinions. He was honest and without a mean bone in his body!

When informed of his successes at Facebook after interning there following his freshman year at college, I was impressed but not the least surprised. His exhibited intelligence and the ability to explore unique paths to solve problems. And though I was not a close follower of his career, I was so impressed by the words written online by the researchers who knew and worked with him.

I was in shock, and extremely saddened, to learn of his passing a few weeks ago. The world has lost a great mind and a good person.

Xinyi Zhou, Class of 2010: When we started talking online in middle school, I knew Mikey was much better at computer science than I was, but I didn’t really grasp the depth of his intellect. Sure, he helped me out with my Linux setup and my programming homework, but he was also proud that he was good with languages (of the non-programming variety) and we had long talks on pedagogy and were equally outraged about budget cuts to the Magnet program. But at Mikey’s memorial service in Berkeley, listening to all the stories from his recent colleagues, it was clear to me that I had grown up with the same person they had known, all his joy and all his quirks, the way he absorbed knowledge and talked and talked and was so loud. How he was always, always willing to explain things and never thought any less of us.

James Schafer, physics teacher: Michael was a student with a brilliant mind and a true passion for learning. The enthusiasm he showed in class was so unfiltered and genuine that at times it was hard to contain, but it was always clear that he had a deep desire simply to “know”. He was never afraid of intellectual challenges. In fact, he seemed to relish the opportunity to work hard and, on rare occasions, to be stumped – only to then work his way to a solution. Michael was unique and a student I will always remember for his intellect, his interest, his volume and his humor. I will miss him greatly.

David Stein, math teacher: Mikey was one of those kids that you never forget. He had both an intellect and an enthusiasm for learning that were truly remarkable. His mind raced a mile a minute. As a teacher, it could be a challenge sometimes to slow it down but, honestly, it was racing to extraordinary places. He brought the class, and the teacher along with him. But boy could it be exhausting! We will miss Mikey greatly – it is a tragic loss.

Michael Forbes, Class of 2005: I graduated Blair before Michael even arrived, but we overlapped at MIT when I was a PhD student, and when he was doing his undergrad/grad degrees. My first impression of Michael came from his freshman year, when Jon Kelner (later one of Michael's PhD advisors) gave a talk about a breakthrough algorithmic result in MIT's weekly theoretical computer science seminar. The room was at twice its normal attendance, with people standing at the back. While questions were usually held until the end, Michael's enthusiastic curiosity was evident when he asked an insightful question mid-lecture. I was only further impressed upon learning that he was still a freshman! Later interactions with Michael only confirmed my high opinion of him. He will be missed.