‘Cheerleader for everybody’: UC Berkeley professor emeritus, author Gene Rochlin dies at 80

Dave Rochlin /Courtesy

Gene Rochlin, a professor emeritus in the UC Berkeley Energy and Resources Group, or ERG, died Nov. 25 of stroke complications. He is remembered for his work in a variety of fields, his caring mentorship of students and his excellent storytelling.

Rochlin studied physics at the University of Chicago before teaching physics at UC Berkeley for eight years. He later studied political science as an advanced postdoctoral scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, and married the late Anne Middleton, the Florence Green Bixby Professor Emerita of English at UC Berkeley.

“He was an amazing adviser because he was able to inspire his students and give just the right amount of direction without pushing too hard and really letting students blossom with their own creativity,” said Alexandra “Sascha” von Meier, a UC Berkeley adjunct professor of electrical engineering and computer science who worked with Rochlin as a doctoral student.

Rochlin brought his skepticism about technology into his research, according to von Meier, and wanted to assess how new technologies “interrelate with the way that humans actually use them.”

Rochlin believed that technology should be used to serve people rather than the other way around, according to ERG chair Daniel Kammen, who added that Rochlin was proud of teaching generations of students to not only to be smart innovators but also to think proactively about the downsides of technology.

“I think Gene liked to avoid falling into convenient assumptions of how technology will make our lives better,” von Meier said. “He was in no way anti-technology, but he encouraged people to ask hard questions about what unintended consequences technology may have.”

Rochlin’s novel “Trapped in the Net” presents the ways in which social media and email could better serve people. He also wrote a children’s book that has not yet been published, according to his son, Dave Rochlin.

Despite his father’s “interesting posture” toward technology, Dave Rochlin recalled that his father was “hooked” on his iPhone. Though Gene Rochlin did not use any social media platforms, he loved sharing stories and posts with his family on WhatsApp.

“We could make a batch of chili and tell stories for a bunch of hours,” Dave Rochlin said.

Dave Rochlin added that his father’s other passions included gardening and his science fiction collection.

Gene Rochlin was focused on rigorously preparing his doctoral students for the outside world and was delighted to be back teaching at UC Berkeley, according to Dave Rochlin, who referred to his father as a “cheerleader for everybody.”

“He really, really found it a special place in terms of how independent faculty can be … and just how exceptional the place is,” Dave Rochlin said. “He wanted to encourage this exceptionality of Berkeley.”

Contact Isabella Sabri at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @isabella_sabri.