Obituary: R. S. Cohen

From HPST&ST list:

On June 19 2017, Robert Sonné Cohen passed away at age 94.  His death warrants an exception to the ‘restricted monthly-only usage’ rule for this list.

Bob studied physics at Wesleyan University, and completed his PhD at Yale.  From 1959 he was professor of physics and philosophy at Boston University.  An obituary penned by Don Howard (Philosophy, Notre Dame) and Alisa Bokulich (Philosophy, Boston University) is available, with pics, on Boston University’s Centre for Philosophy and History of Science web site.

The seventeenth century philosopher-theologian-priest Marin Mersenne was the great ‘networker’ of his age.  With a mail list of 140, and by constant letter writing and exchanging communications he kept the diverse and scattered community of natural philosophers, astronomers, theologians and mathematicians in contact with each other, and informed about the progress of each other’s work.  He defended Galileo and a number of other ‘progressive’ thinkers of the time.  This informal grouping of scholars led, soon after his death, to the more formal Académie des Sciences in Paris and the Royal Society in London.  Four hundred years later, in a transformed world, Bob Cohen might be thought of as a latter-day Mersenne.  His authorship of so many papers and books, his editorship of 100s of collections, his convening of countless small and large meetings, his unfailing generosity and support of progressive and humanistic causes are all Mersenne-like.

Bob’s address at the 50th anniversary of the BU Centre for HPS is on Youtube.  Along with so much else, it nicely catches his unrivalled enabling role in modern HPS studies.

Bob had a long interest in education, both broadly as a vehicle for social and cultural enhancement, and more specifically in supporting a more informed, authentic and responsible science education.  The former concern is elaborated in his:

Cohen, R.S.: 1955, ‘On the Marxist Philosophy of Education’.  In N.B. Henry (ed.) Modern Philosophies and Education: The 54th Yearbook of the National Association for the Study of Education, NSSE, Chicago, pp.175-214.

The latter concern in his:

Cohen, R.S.: 1964, 'Individuality and Common Purpose: The Philosophy of Science', The Science Teacher31(4).

This paper was initially given as a plenary address to a meeting of the US Science Teachers Association:  ‘The largest audience I have ever had in my life’, is how he described the occasion.  The paper is reproduced as the third of the ‘Golden Oldies’ series in Science & Education, 1994, 3(4), 393-407.  Understandably his education concerns and location in Boston led him, with his life-long friend Gerald Holton, to engagement in the writing and trialling of the Harvard Project Physics course.  Additionally, while writing and editing HPS tomes, he published an excellent university textbook for General Science:

Cohen, R.S.: 1975, Physical Science, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York.

These educational endeavours manifest Bob’s basic Enlightenment commitment that science and philosophy need to be conducted together and learn from each other, and both need engage and dialogue with cultural beliefs and worldviews of their time and situation.

A personal note: When I went to Boston University forty years ago, in 1978 on my first sabbatical leave from the School of Education at UNSW, I had no reputation, no publications and no PhD.  The only point of contact was a letter of recommendation written by my philosophy teacher, Wallis Suchting, who Bob knew.  Bob typed and posted long and detailed letters to me in Australia about how to organise housing, banking and everything else to make my arrival and early days easy.  I had no profile at all, but was invited to Centre dinners and functions; Bob went out of his way to introduce me to guest speakers and visitors to the Centre.  This hospitality extended to being invited to visit Robyn and himself at their summer house on Cape Cod.  Needless to say, in doing all this there was absolutely nothing in it for him.  This was not special behaviour, he supported everyone in the same manner.  It is a carelessly used word, but he was a great mentor for me, as he assuredly was for so many others all around the world.

Michael Matthews