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Opinion: Remembering Michael Hawley, Remarkable Polymath And Exceptional Friend

Michael Hawley told me he had cancer a few months ago but didn't have a bucket list of things to do. "Just friends I want to see," he said.

I was blessed — a word Michael used generously, even as a scientist — to be among them.

Michael Hawleydied this week at the age of 58, after a life packed with feats and friendships.

He led a scientific expedition on Mount Everest. He tied for first place in the Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition and played at a wedding alongside Yo-Yo Ma. He designed video games for George Lucas and digitized The Complete Works of Shakespeare. He wrote electronic music in Paris. He accompanied the great soprano, Charity Tillemann-Dick and aided her though her own terminal illness. He helped Steve Jobs launch NeXT Computers, and taught at the MIT Media Lab, where his Things That Think and Toys of Tomorrowprojects prophesied so much of the ways in which our world would become digitally connected — which, Michael would sometimes remind those who sounded rhapsodic over the prospect, had alarming implications, too.

He organized an annual conference of ideas called EG, for Entertainment Gathering, which welcomed musicians, comedians, astronauts, programmers, doctors, actors and magicians — because he felt scientists, artists, engineers and entertainers ought to appreciate one another.

Michael Hawley collected friends. He didn't compile names, or network as a verb. He met people, learned from them and tried to nourish them all with new ideas and friendships. I'd see an email from Michael, time-stamped after midnight, and wonder if he was up late at home in Cambridge, or on a mountain in Kyrgyzstan. "I just learned something," he'd start out. "Let me introduce you to..."

When Michael got his cancer diagnosis, he told me he wanted to write a short, urgent book, dedicated to his wife, Nina, and their infant son, Tycho. He shared some thoughts. As I read, I realized that Michael didn't want to write a memoir about famed names and stellar accomplishments, but raise a clear call from the heart of a husband and father about what he'd learned was truly vital.

"Great gifts and great sacrifices go hand in hand," Michael Hawley wrote. "So I try to regard my cancer as a gift. It isn't easy. (But) It has brought me empathy that no amount of imagination or secondhand experience can impart. It forces me to focus on the people I love and the moments that matter most in the brief time we are blessed to have."

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Corrected: June 26, 2020 at 9:00 PM MST
A previous version of this story mistakenly said Michael Hawley won the Van Cliburn Piano Competition. In fact, he tied for first place in the Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition.