Alan Friedman leaves behind a legacy of shaping almost every aspect of informal science education, both within the United States and internationally. His knowledge, wisdom, and joyful approach to science will be missed. | Danielle Kraus Tarka
The scientific community lost one of its leaders in public engagement and experts in informal science education with the passing of physicist Alan Friedman from pancreatic cancer on May 4. He was 71.
Friedman's early career was characteristic of a typical academic scientist. He earned a Ph.D. from Florida State University in 1970 and moved to an assistant professorship at Ohio's Hiram College. However, the breadth of his interests and his passion for making science accessible to the public soon led him in a different direction.
In 1972, he accepted a Younger Humanist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. This supported him as a research fellow in the English department at UC Berkeley, where he studied the links between science and literature. The following year, he elected to stay in California as the Director of Astronomy and Physics at the Lawrence Hall of Science, a public-science center associated with UC Berkeley.
He will perhaps best be remembered as the scientist who revitalized the New York Hall of Science. His leadership there from 1984 to 2006 took an institution that had recently come through a troubled renovation project and turned it into a pioneer of the hands-on museum movement.
The hands-on approach was emblematic of Friedman's view of science education—that the best way to get people to understand science is to get them to do it. "Alan understood that sometimes when you're enjoying something is when you're actually going to remember it and learn it," explained David Burns, executive director of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement.
His approach proved highly effective in attracting the public. In 2006, the year Friedman retired, approximately 450,000 people visited the New York Hall of Science. His reach across the globe also can be measured through his extensive work on exhibitions, museum planning, media and other projects.
When speaking of him, Friedman's friends frequently use the word "wisdom." He earned widespread respect among his colleagues. Burns noted that Friedman gave the impression of being the "adult" in the conversation. "He was the kind of guy that when he spoke, it was solid and quiet and you had to take it seriously."
Ann Bowers, chair of the board for the Noyce Foundation, where Friedman served as a trustee and "science guru" for more than a decade, noted that Friedman remained modest and open throughout his career. "Alan was not given to being the center of attention," she said, "even though he might be the most knowledgeable person in the room."
Among his honors, he won the AAAS Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology in 1996 and the AAAS Science Journalism Award in 1998. Friedman became a AAAS Fellow in 1997.
Friedman leaves behind a legacy of shaping almost every aspect of informal science education, both within the United States and internationally. His knowledge, wisdom, and joyful approach to science will be missed.
"He was a gentleman and a scholar in the truest sense of those two words," Bowers said. "There aren't too many of those around."
Friedman is survived by his wife, the novelist Mickey Friedman, and a sister, June Entman.
Watch Friedman's presentation, "Challenges and opportunities for scientists in after school settings," from the 2013 Annual Meeting: