UC Berkeley research fellow Michael Cohen, rising star in computer science, dies at 25


Michael Cohen, a rising star in the computer science field and a research fellow at the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing, died last week in Berkeley at the age of 25. Berkeley police said he died of natural causes, but the specific cause of death is still pending.

During Cohen’s time as a graduate student studying computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he developed fast algorithms for analyzing high-dimensional data, breaking barriers in the field that had been in place since the 1970s. Cohen also co-authored at least 30 published papers in the past three years.

Jonathan Kelner, Cohen’s doctoral co-adviser and associate professor of applied mathematics at MIT, described Cohen’s research as “spectacular.”

“He had already established himself as a world leader in his work. … He really was a star,” Kelner said. “He was as talented a person in his stage as somebody who had been in his field for 30 years.”

Lance Fortnow, chair of the School of Computer Science at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said that although he did not know Cohen personally, he became familiar with Cohen’s work because of their common research interests.

“Who knows what he could have done if he had stayed with us,” Fortnow said. “He helped make other people better. He would have been a great teacher.”

Kelner added that Cohen brought “light and energy” to the research community at MIT. According to Kelner, at an informal memorial for Cohen held at MIT last week, many said they owed their doctoral degrees, research or theses to Cohen.

“His level of talent was something you only see a couple of times in a generation,” said Ludwig Schmidt, who studied computer science alongside Cohen at MIT.

When trying to understand mathematical proofs, instead of writing down steps on a whiteboard or paper, Cohen was known to walk around humming to himself while visualizing the problem in his mind. According to UC Berkeley professor of computer science Luca Trevisan, Cohen was often seen pacing the circular hallways of the Simons Institute building.

Schmidt emphasized Cohen’s unique curiosity and incredibly broad knowledge. He said he once had a conversation with Cohen in a computer science building at MIT that lasted from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. and that Cohen continued to excitedly text him about his progress on a computer science problem after Schmidt went to sleep. Schmidt said that in addition to Cohen’s brilliance, he was also humble, kind and a “source of life” in the office.

“(He) sat in the front (of my class) and loudly interrupted me every minute, stream-of-consciousness style, so that my ‘lectures’ often turned into dialogues with him,said Scott Aaronson, a theoretical computer scientist who taught Cohen at MIT, in a blog post. “(His) musings were always on point, constantly catching me in errors or unjustified claims.”

According to Kelner, members of the computer science graduate program at MIT are considering naming one of the university’s common spaces after Cohen to commemorate how present he was on the campus.

The “absolute joy” that Cohen found in the computer science research community is a source of comfort for both of his parents, according to his father, Tom Cohen.

“His over-the-top exuberance … might have made dealing with him difficult. Instead of being put off by this, the community really embraced him and he became completely part of a world that he longed to be part of,” Tom Cohen said in a blog post.

Contact Hannah Piette at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Hannah_PietteDC.

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    That is real tragic, very sad.,

  • ExChgoGal

    His early, tragic passing after displaying such brilliance brings Mozart to my mind. We can only wonder at what they could have accomplished while giving thanks for what they did.

  • flashsteve

    There is an implication of mental health issues here (constant pacing, stream of consciousness outbursts in a classroom, etc.), so the writer has sown the seeds for readers to conclude how he passed, without verifying it.

    • s randall

      I’m not trying to be funny, but if you’ve ever been around computer people, you wouldn’t think that was atypical behavior.

      • flashsteve

        That is a bit of a generalization, for sure, but I get your point. Usually, they rein it in a bit when in class (interrupting every minute?). I guess I was overreacting at bit to his age; because usage of the terminology ‘natural causes’ usually refers to disease. I should have waited for more info.

        • RefriedBeans

          “That is a bit of a generalization, for sure”

          Maybe claiming that someone who was passionate and eccentric and died young must have died of unnatural causes is a bit of generalization?

    • BerCaley

      His father is saying undiagnosed type-1 diabetes.