I just learned that my long-time mentor and collaborator Wirt Atmar passed away this morning (5 Feb 2009) at the age of 63 from a heart attack. Wirt was breezingly one of the smartest people I've ever met and coupled that relentless intelligence with a caring, considerate, personal integrity that was unique in my experience. Ever honest, Wirt recommended me for my present position with a letter declaring "In his approach to science, Bruce is persistent, persisting to the point of doggedness..." Happily, I got the job anyway.
Wirt was an engineer at heart and was most satisfied by building things--models, equipment, ideas, and people. He subscribed to the belief that you didn't really understand something unless you could reconstruct it, preferably from first principles. His abstract, process-driven view of science translated into a simplified landscape in which environmental stimuli triggered organismal responses and caused them to alter their states-of-being. He amazed my cohort of grad students with the rich array of biological patterns that could be elicited from so-starkly-rendered a causal engine. During the 7-8 years he was an Adjunct Professor in Biology at New Mexico State University, three of us (Andy Price, David Fogel and me) chose Wirt to be our dissertation advisers and many others selected him for their graduate committees. It was a choice requiring a bit of verve (he was both an electrical engineer and an adjunct, after all) but one richly repaying each of us.
I'm chuckling now with the thought that I never disagreed more often, and about a wider array of phenomena, with anyone that I liked nearly so much! And I never learned more exploring our differences. At the heart of our collaboration, which lasted more than 30 years, was Wirt's striving to reduce Nature to the barest of essentials as I continually conjured up the biological realism that couldn't be deleted from an accurate portrait. We worked together on the research behind my most influential papers, so my debt to his insights and energy are very clear--I wouldn't be a scientist even remotely resembling myself without his guidance. His death leaves me with an intellectual debt I can't repay.
To contemplate the many remaining thickets of scientific ignorance and misunderstanding without Wirt's potential for resolving them is like being deep in the forest without headlamp, compass, or boots. To say he will be missed is an understatement.