Aaron Clarke and I met in 2007 at NDSU, during our Ph.D. work. Aaron was immediate. Bright, funny, goofy – and smart as hell. On top of that, he was imaginative and warm – rare in frozen Fargo, North Dakota, where we wintered. It became obvious that Aaron outclassed his classmates. He would become a great scientist.
Aaron had a truly outsized desire to teach. He took me under his wing and explained everything from pre-calc to Fourier transforms (I did not deserve any of it – all pearls before swine). He loved to share (and overshare) his interests, knowledge, and fascination with everything about vision and the brain. We would often joke about “cracking the brain code”. We would often just joke – Aaron loved to laugh. To know Aaron was to know the sound of his laughter.
Grad school was horrible for me, the ugly stuff started right away. In my first year, the bathroom above my desk broke open and leaked sewage over my books and things. It was Aaron that called – not any of the other students present. He also went out of his way to save my camera from that shitstorm. Here’s that voicemail:
That’s just how Aaron was. He cared and he always showed up (and not just for me). When my tooth was rotting out of my head, and I couldn’t afford to fix it, Aaron was there. When I needed to move equipment out of a flooded basement, Aaron was there. When my elbow was broken and I could no longer afford to live in my cheap apartment, Aaron helped me move.
We went through a lot of shit in grad school; most people do. Aaron, time and again, looked for any opportunity to help. He had a huge heart and really deeply cared for other people. I was sick a lot and had no health insurance – there was a time when I didn’t show up for a few days straight. Aaron never failed to call:
More than anybody else, Aaron made me feel a welcome part of the vision science community. Aaron enthusiastically introduced me to numerous friends and labmates from around the world. Even since leaving the Dakotas and the vision science community, I have found him famous and infamous among vision scientists, known as a bright and high-energy guy. Hell, even when Minard Hall collapsed on our labs and lives, he seemed unfazed and continued to produce great research.
The guy was unstoppable.
He was also hungry. Man, Aaron could eat. And we were both poor so we shared a lot of food. Someone gave me a broken pizza oven, and I fixed it. We’d go to this grody awful grocery store called Sun Mart (right next to his apartment and walking distance to the lab):
…and buy $1.99 frozen pizzas and dress them up with white vinegar and mealy tomatoes, and bake them in that oven. I remember when he introduced me to information theory and Claude Shannon. And we’d sit there learning about encoding and information transmission over our pizza, working the problems, reading the papers.
Later, I pulled a grill off the curb. A new Asian market had opened up in town, and had a loss leader deal – $5/lb ribeye steaks. We ate a LOT of those. I always let Aaron know when I was going there, and he always wanted some. And we fished in the Red River, too. And ate it for breakfast. From our email about it, Aaron said: “P.S. We absolutely have to do that again. It was awesome.” We said that about a lot of the things we did.
You might notice that many of the images in this post are the two of us working together. And that’s because we worked together often. We built book scanning machines, stereo cameras, display alignment systems (Johnny Lee-style), and a bunch of other stuff. The book scanner in this picture was “Aaron’s Scanner” – I built him this scanner in exchange for PageBuilder, the first DIY Book Scanner software package. Which, of course, he wrote in Matlab. In a weekend. Here’s the original announcement.
Without Aaron, I would not have won the Instructables contest and built a huge community. And I wouldn’t have had so much fun doing it:
Today I sit in my workshop in Los Angeles, California. Workin’ on a Sunday, like Aaron and I used to do. And I have this life and this job in no small part because I met Aaron Clarke – because of his hard work and sharp mind, sure, but also because of the way he shared his time. You see, winning that Instructables contest (and the laser cutter) changed my life and got me out of the Dakotas and that ill-fated grad program. And when it came time to drop out and go, Aaron helped me pack my car, and sent the laser with me.
We both went on to work in vision related fields – myself in display research and development, and Aaron in Turkey doing vision science, and more recently joining Magic Leap. We’d have had a lot to talk about, if I’d ever called.
Aaron passed away in his home Saturday, November 24, 2018. I would say Rest In Peace but that’s ridiculous if you knew the guy, he wouldn’t want me to talk like that.
So, Rock On In Peace, Aaron “The Man” Clarke. You are the man. I miss you terribly. I am so sorry for not reaching out for 4 straight years. Thank you for helping me. I am proud of what we created.
If you have a story or something to share about Aaron, please post it here.
Update: Yuliya S. shared a video (via Eugenie) in which you can hear Aaron laughing and enjoying fireworks – it really brought a smile to my face: