Vale Norman Foo (1943-2015)

On July 23rd, while on vacation in Canada with my family, I received a brief email from an old friend informing me that Norman Foo, Professor Emeritus at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia, had passed away. Norman had been diagnosed with lung cancer–he was a non-smoker–early in 2012. His response to his diagnosis and prognosis had been magnificent, and he had ‘battled’ the disease as bravely, and with as much good humor as any human could ever be capable of. He was kind enough to continue to inform his friends about his treatments with progress reports about his condition that were leavened with humor and scientific curiosity about the processes at play in his body. But his cancer had finally caught up with him, and his struggles and suffering had come to an end. He will be deeply missed by all those he left behind: his family and his friends, many of whom were part of his extended academic family.

Norman was my academic supervisor during the two years I spent at UNSW as an Australian Research Council post-doctoral fellow; he was the best ‘boss’ I ever had. The scare quotes are there because there was nothing bossy about him. His research group, the Knowledge Systems Group (KSG), dedicated to devising logics for artificial intelligence–in areas such belief revision, knowledge representation, reasoning about actions–saw him as a friend, a mentor, and an avuncular and paternal figure rolled into one. This relationship meant that our group enjoyed strong interpersonal ties off-campus too; it didn’t feel like an extension of work, rather ‘work’ was where a group of friends gathered during the day too. Our camaraderie was, I daresay, a well-known fact in the global logics for artificial intelligence research community; once, at an academic conference, a fellow researcher said to me with some admiration, “You guys don’t have a research group, you have a support group!”

Norman was an academic manager too, of course; he made sure everyone in his charge–his undergraduates, his doctoral students, his post-docs–had all the resources, academic, infrastructural, financial, they needed to get their work done. There was no breathing down our necks; we worked on what we were most interested in, at our pace, in our style. He encouraged collaboration and urged us to submit co-authored papers to conferences and journals. Small wonder that those two years in Sydney were among the most productive I have ever had; my hunt for an academic tenure-track position was greatly facilitated by my stint there.

I had come to know of Norman and the KSG while finishing my doctoral dissertation. I noticed many important papers in my chosen field–belief revision–were published by members of his group, and encouragingly enough for a field that straddled philosophy, mathematics, and computer science, it included a philosopher as well. Even before I completed my PhD I had resolved a post-doctoral stint with his group would do me much good; I could be assured my application would be reviewed sympathetically. This was because Norman, despite an exclusively scientific education in engineering, mathematics, and computer science, took keen interest in the philosophical foundations of his field. He was an autodidact in this domain; he prided himself on not being one of those ignorant scientistic types that so frequently embarrass the scientific community with their disdain for philosophy.

I first met Norman at the International Joint Conference for Artificial Intelligence in 1999. I was nervous and diffident, in awe of the many high-powered academics who floated past me, too busy catching up with their equally well-placed colleagues and collaborators. But Norman and his group instantly took me in; they were friendly and welcoming, and made me feel instantly at home among them. One night, at dinner, after finding out I had not yet received any financial support for my trip to the conference, members of his group took up a collection at the table and picked up my tab. I think Norman had something to do with the spirit of generosity on display. A day later, Norman and his group took me along to an impromptu workshop at nearby Uppsala University. It was a blessing; I was able to present my doctoral work in a sympathetic and intimate atmosphere and make an implicit case for inclusion in his group. A couple of days later, over beers in Stockholm, I asked him if there were any openings for post-docs; he said he would send me the job notice if any came about. A couple of months later, I received an email from him. It was on; I should apply. I did so and was successful in securing the fellowship, thus launching my academic career.

Norman’s politics were straightforwardly progressive; he was a member of Australian Greens, and loathed the Liberals. (He thought Labor had sold out.) When I was working in Sydney (2000-2002), John Howard and Phil Ruddock ruled the roost and he despised both of them, accusing them of working to turn Australia into a reactionary bastion of xenophobia, US-directed sycophancy in foreign policy, and neoliberalism. Norman had a taste for the risqué and delighted in telling off-color jokes; he delighted too, in skewering the hypocrisy of sexual prudes and the overly religious. After his cancer diagnosis, he went on a tear in social media, posting links and comments that mocked one pompous, hypocritical, political and religious ass after another.

I have many fond memories of Norman, but a simple one, I think, shows off his personal qualities the best. The day I arrived in Sydney at the UNSW campus, Norman took me over to my new office and introduced me to my office mates, a pair of post-doctoral fellows. Shortly thereafter, he took me on a guided tour of campus, helping me with my administrative and logistical needs, showing me the various offices that would be of most importance in my work on campus. In each case, he personally introduced me to the relevant staff. Later, stepping off campus, he showed me local shopping spots in case I decided to live close to campus. I remember feeling some amazement as we walked all over and around campus. This was a senior professor, in charge of a research group; he had many academic responsibilities; he could so easily have directed one of his ‘minions’ to help me out, and returned to his many pressing commitments. Instead, with no ego and little pretension, he had chosen to personally orient me, to make me feel at home as well as he could. He succeeded.

It is one of my deepest regrets I was not able to travel to Australia and meet him in the years following his diagnosis. But thanks to oft-derided social media, we were able to stay in contact; he liked some of my blog posts and often linked to them, or commented. I was glad I was able to make him laugh a few times, and perhaps also snort in outraged agreement.

Norman was unique; I will miss him. As will all of those who he supported on many, many personal and academic fronts.

Onya Norman. You were a champ. RIP.

3 comments on “Vale Norman Foo (1943-2015)

  1. Lovely tribute. How fortunate that you were able to work with someone like Professor Foo.

  2. […] and Greece. By the end of the summer, I was a little more comfortable in my skin at these spaces. One such attendance almost certainly helped secure me a post-doctoral fellowship. (Yet another saw me lost again among mathematical […]

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