Alfred Hübler - In Memoriam

By DSWeb Staff
Alfred Hübler - In Memoriam

Professor Alfred Hübler, a teacher and a physicist, passed away Saturday, January 27, at the age of 60. Alfred was well known for his experiments in complex systems and will always be remembered as passionate teacher. He was the professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 1989 as well as a long-time external faculty member of New Mexico's Santa Fe Institute.

Alfred touched many lives and was adored by both students and collaborators. The enormous loss to scientific community is best described by the people who were fortunate enough to work with Alfred. Professor Elizabeth Bradley says “Alfred was so amazingly full of life. His zest for physics was outstripped only by his love of teaching. I will deeply miss his infectious (and sometimes mischievous) grin, his enthusiasm, and his warmth."

Professor James P. Crutchfield knew Alfred since the early 1980s: “Alfred and I go way back. We met in the summer of 1981, when as a grad student I traveled around Europe giving talks on chaos, attractor reconstruction, and information measures. At a summer school in the French Alps (the famous Les Houches school, right at the base of Mont Blanc) Alfred invited me to visit his wife Marietta and he in Munich. Arriving many weeks later, rather scruffy, they generously hosted me for a week. My most indelible memory occurred as Alfred toured me around his lab at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. (Yes, that's what they called that MPI.) I immediately realized what a consummate experimentalist he was. His level of creativity in complex systems experiments was and will remain unparalleled.

"Years later I lured Alfred from Germany to the Physics Department at Urbana-Champaign, where he spent the rest of his Physics career. This was at the time that Stephen Wolfram, myself, and a gaggle of others were establishing the Center for Complex Systems Research there. I myself never took the job offered, staying at Berkeley, but the UIUC Center flourished under Alfred’s guidance.

"A decade or so ago I introduced Alfred to SFI, having convinced the summer school organizers that Alfred should run an experimental lab. His demonstrations were always a high point of each summer school, reifying what otherwise would be abstract notions.

"I miss Alfred a lot. We lost an original thinker, a master experimenter, a unique personality."

Alfred spent his summer at Santa Fe Institute teaching at the Complex Systems Summer School. John Paul Gonzales is SFI’s summer school coordinator and Alfred’s lab assistant in Santa Fe: "I had the pleasure of working with Alfred at SFI's Complex Systems Summer School for a solid decade, and I'll say that he was the singular most enthusiastic individual I've ever had the pleasure of interacting with in the pedagogy of complex systems science.

"Alfred was my introduction to thinking about complex systems in a concrete and relatable way. I remember my first encounter in his lab back in 2008, playing around with things like frictionless powder vibrated on a plate and a television tuned to a live stream of itself, and I was mesmerized. A lot of talk about complexity tends to remain solidly in the realm of theoretical and abstract, so being able to get into the lab and play around ("experiment") with some hands-on material helps the mind understand what is going on, beyond the wrapper of scientific jargon. He was fond of saying that he gets to play for a living, and it showed in the enthusiasm which he approached his field.

"Pedagogically, he would bring in the same level of experiential simplicity to advanced topics -- looking at normal things like traffic, and then applying the "what makes this complex" question. And what made things complex, in his view, was "ramping up the throughput until something spectacular happens!" That view, with systems being held between the dynamic of low-energy and simplicity, or static and overloaded, has become a core tenant of how I approach the explanation of most of the "interesting" questions about the world. I'll attest that the time spent in his lab and being able to explore the behavior of systems as one modulates something and then watch as things go from simple to the "edge of chaos" or "complexity regime" where behavior is chaotic, fractal-like, sensitive to perturbation yet robust in dynamics (and undoubtably other core concepts from complexity), has deeply and profoundly affected my view of how to think about the complexity pedagogically, experimentally, and experientially. I believe we live solidly within that regime of spectacular. I believe that view it is true for many others who have gone through his labs.

"His real gift was making incredibly complex topics come together in a way that became intuitive, while also being able to explore and explain the deep mathematical concepts behind the phenomena that we were looking at, in ways that only someone with a lifetime of experience and a sharp intellect is able. We would run experiments with students from middle school all the way up through our graduate workshops and visitors from industry, and I was always appreciative of how he could field questions from each group with ease.

"Alfred had a healthy aura of "mad scientist" which made him eminently popular with students. His signature experiment involved running 50,000 volts through a petri dish filled with castor oil and ball bearings, which would then self organize into various tree-and-branch patterns that could be interpreted as synthetic neurons. That, coupled with his thick German accent, really piqued interest and was just plain entertaining to watch and listen. He had a bit of a cult following and students would use quotes of his ("Ramp up the throughput!") on t-shirts and reference them throughout the program. One memorable summer when a student of his was in the program, she talked about how he was equally fun back at Urbana-Champaign, and somehow the conversation brought up the fact that a hobby of his was wrestling alligators. This was so out of the range of what we would expect that we came up with other unlikely-but-possible things Alfred could do, including being able to solve NP-hard problems. Sure enough, photographic evidence surfaced of his alligator wrestling hobby. His being able to solve NP-hard problems will have to remain rumor.

"Alfred was a core of the culture of our program, and he'll be missed.”

Dr. Juniper Lovato who is herself the Director of Outreach for Complex Systems at The Vermont Complex Systems Center shared her thoughts on Alfred: “Alfred Hübler was so many things, he was a rock star scientist, a family man, a mentor, and a dedicated friend. In all of his worlds, he was a force of pure joy, he infected everyone around him with happiness. I got to know Alfred well, he ran the physics labs at the SFI Complex Systems Summer School. He was a dedicated mentor to many students that went through SFI's various educational programs. In his labs, he looked a bit like the caricature of a mad scientist, and he inspired lots of belly laughs and enthusiastic research from his students. Everyone left his lab with a smile on their face. He, often took on an almost legendary presence in the program, regaling students about his passion for alligator wrestling while he hovered over a petri dish full of metal ball bearings that he was shooting 20,000 Volts of electricity into. He knew how to draw you in, get you hooked on curiosity, and see the fun and playfulness that naturally exists in scientific research. He was the type of leader that knew how to inspire just about anyone. It is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to our dear friend, a cherished member of the complex systems community. Alfred embodied a unique mix intellectual rigor and kindness, a truly rare talent. This is the legacy that I hope we all remember to carry on in his honor. “

DSWeb would like to offer sincere condolences to Alfred’s family, many friends, and all the students who got a chance to interact with this amazing individual.

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