‘Legendary’ cognitive scientist Daniel Osherson, ‘rarely talented scientist’ and ‘excellent and caring mentor’, dies at 73


Daniel Osherson, of Princeton Henry R. Luce Professor of Information Technology, Consciousness and Culture, Emeritus, and Emeritus Professor of Psychology, died at his home in Princeton on September 4 of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 73 years old.

One of the world’s leading experts in cognitive science, Osherson has done seminal work on reasoning, epistemology, inductive logic, probabilistic thinking, concepts, and categories. He has published two textbooks, “Sentential Logic for Psychologists” and “An Invitation to Cognitive Science”.

Dan was a valued colleague and a legendary figure in cognitive science, said Ken Norman, chair of the Department of Psychology and Princeton Huo Professor of Computational and Theoretical Neuroscience. He made important contributions to an incredibly diverse range of questions about human thought, from how we reason about probability to how concepts are represented in the brain. He will be missed terribly.

Osherson’s passion for learning spanned several areas of expertise. I found him to be a wonderful collaborator, very patient with my lack of knowledge of his field and very quick to grasp mine,” said former Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, H. Vincent Poor.

Poor and Osherson has collaborated several times. “These projects have also involved some of my graduate students, and he has been an excellent and caring mentor to them as well,” said Poor, a professor at Michael Henry Strater University in Princeton and acting chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering and computer science. “I was dean of the engineering department at the time and he was very generous with his time working with these students when I wasn’t able to give them the attention they needed. I’m sure I won’t be the only one to say this, but he was a wonderful colleague, a valuable asset to Princeton faculty and students across multiple disciplines, and he will certainly be missed by many.

“Dan had a wide range of interests in psychology, computer science, machine learning, and philosophy,” said Sanjeev Kulkarni, former dean of the faculty and William R. Kenan, Jr., professor of electrical engineering and IT and operational and financial research. Engineering. “I have very fond memories of Dan and our collaborations.”

osherson joined the faculty at Princeton in July 2003 after a career spanning academia and industry in Europe and several US states. He became emeritus in July 2017.

Never limited to one discipline, Osherson studied jazz piano performance, linguistics and computer programming in addition to receiving his degrees in psychology. He received his BA from the University of Chicago in 1970 and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1973. He has taught at Stanford University, UPenn, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan, and Rice University. He also has spent four years directing the Institute of Artificial Intelligence in Martigny, Switzerland, before coming at Princeton in 2003.

Noam Chomsky, a colleague at MIT, said knowing Osherson was “a rare privilege”.

“Dan was a close personal friend for many years, a wonderful human being,” Chomsky wrote in an email. “A scientist of rare talent, exploring many fields with insight and original ideas, always demanding the highest level of intellectual integrity and consistently meeting his high standards in his own creative and often innovative contributions. It’s a cliché to say of someone that there is none like him. Sometimes that’s actually true.

At Princeton, Osherson was known for his interdisciplinary research projects, which led him to collaborate closely with colleagues at the University.

Dan and I were good friends for many years,” said renowned mathematical physicist Elliot Lieb, Eugene Higgins Professor Emeritus of Physics and Emeritus Professor of Mathematical Physics. “Although we come from very different fields, we also collaborated on two scientific papers on concepts from neither. Our collaborations have opened up mathematical perspectives that I would not see otherwise and for which I am truly grateful.

Dan was a great friend, a wonderful person and a brilliant scientist, said Alexander Todorov, a former Princeton professor now at the University of Chicago. In terms of science, he was interested in so many different subjects, never losing his curiosity and always thinking outside the box.

Osherson trained a number of influential psychologists and cognitive scientists during his career. A former graduate student turned prominent psychology researcher, Jiaying Zhao, described Osherson as his “intellectual father.”

“His mind was extremely sharp and he could spot the most critical flaw in any research within seconds,” said Zhao, who has completed his doctorate. in 2013 and is now an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. “As a result, it has made our work infinitely more rigorous. Ever since I started my lab at UBC, I’ve often wondered, ‘What would Dan think?’ as a means of channeling his criticisms to improve my work.

“Dan was also incredibly supportive and warm to me as a supervisor,” Zhao said. “When I first came to Princeton from overseas, he brought me a landline phone so I could make and receive phone calls. We met almost daily for five years to discuss work, life or something else.

Several Osherson students have spoken of his blend of scientific rigor and warmth.

Matt Weber, who has completed his Ph.D. with Osherson in 2009 and is now the Deputy Chief Data Officer of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Officewrote, “Dan taught me the value of repeatable data analysis, the importance of standing up for subordinates, a healthy skepticism for machine learning, and the joys of observation just terse enough to get the reader working a little.

He continued: “He was generally funny, sometimes sarcastic and always kind, and while I will never forget the grueling Saturdays in his dark office arguing over minute wording details in an article, I will also never forget that he threw me a hard-sounding question in my defense that he knew I knew the answer to. Or the terror that his index finger inspired in a generation of graduate students – it would rise, solo, if he had a question about your speech, and more often than not the question would hit (in the nicest way possible) straight to the heart of what you were doing and why, and then you could tell your friends that you had been “left out”.

Eldar Shafir, who was Osherson’s Ph.D. student at MIT and is now Princeton’s Class of 1987 Professor of Behavioral Science and Public Policy, wrote: “Dan was a brilliant man; an original and independent thinker, with a dry sense of humor and acute moral sensitivity. A lifelong student, he cultivated so many interests – from the theory of learning, child development, thinking and decision-making, and perception, to theoretical computer science, to biology and global affairs. Dan approached all of this with startling intensity and an innovative and often inspired touch. I remember as a graduate student I first met this august figure who had a reputation for being scary and smart. To my surprise, I found a warm, funny, quirky Renaissance man in an office whose walls he kept perfectly bare. Dan would become my teacher, my mentor and my dear friend. He lived the examined life, and those of us who felt close to him benefited from his intelligence, humor and warmth. I will miss him deeply.

Scott Weinstein of the Class of 1969, a frequent collaborator and close friend since they were young professors together at UPenn, praised the breadth of Osherson’s work in the many subdisciplines of cognitive science, studies in the laboratory on the effects of traumatic brain injury on cognition, to the mathematical foundations of inductive machine inference. “Throughout this work, his creativity in defining research problems – and his energy and enthusiasm for pursuing their resolution – inspired the efforts of many students and colleagues as collaborators,” he said. .

“Among my many treasured memories of Dan as a collaborator and friend, the one that stands out now is our mile-long walks around Manhattan,” said Weinstein, now director of the Logic, Information, and Computation program at UPenn. . “Dan had a deep interest in history and culture, and he would bring to life the landscape and the midst of the neighborhoods we passed through decades and centuries earlier. Memories of Dan’s enormous thirst for life, of his commanding intelligence, extraordinary openness and generosity of spirit bring joy to my heart, even in the midst of my grief at his passing.

Michael Miller, then a graduate student in politics, was one of Osherson’s first collaborators at Princeton. “In a university full of world-class scholars, Dan was a legend among graduate students, who someone spoke of in amazement and surprise at the range of his interests and his mastery of it all,” said Miller, who completed his doctorate. .D. in 2011 and is now an associate professor of political science at George Washington University. “I had the chance to co-write with him when I started as a student, and it transformed my approach to research. Dan didn’t talk about writing papers like it was work; he spoke of it as a discovery, a chance to discover knowledge long buried or never known.

Joseph Blasi, director of the Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing at Rutgers and a former visiting professor at Princeton, first encountered Osherson when they were both at Cambridge in the 1970s; for the past ten years, they have been neighbors in Princeton.

“Dan was the nicest of co-workers and the most tolerant of others throughout those many years,” Blasi said.

Their 50-year friendship included a little-known chapter in Osherson’s life: “Many of Dan’s recent colleagues are unaware of his deep and energetic involvement in the 1970s to found a liberal arts college focused on cooperative principles called Cooperative College Community”. said Blasi. “College came very close to reality. After he moved next door to my house in Princeton, we often chatted and analyzed those days, in typical Dan fashion! »

Osherson is survived by his wife, Yolande, and their three children: Marc, his wife Neetu Agrawal and their daughter Adele; Anne and her partner Carlos Monino; and Benjamin.

Donations can be made to any foundation working on Parkinson’s disease research.

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