Jeff Elman, a UC San Diego cognitive scientist whose insights into how people think, speak and behave have benefited everyone from kindergarten teachers to the designers of driverless cars, died Thursday on campus. He was 70.
Elman had a heart condition and passed away from natural causes, according to Margaret Elman, his ex-wife.
His body was discovered near the Faculty Club, causing shock on a campus where Elman was known for his warmth and his skill at sussing out the details of how humans acquire and process language.
“He thought deeply, quickly, and in non-traditional ways and wore many different hats; they all fit,” said Marta Kutas, director of UC San Diego’s Center for Research in Language.
Elman was also remembered Thursday for the way he responded when fellow UC San Diego language professor Carol Padden was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010.
“I only now saw this, minutes after bidding you good-bye at the elevator,” Elman told Padden in a moment captured in a university news release.
“If I’d known I would have danced you around the roof! I’m delighted and pleased and proud and…what else can I say?! Very happy for you (and for us). This is fantastic news.”
Elman, who joined the faculty in 1977, also was well known for teaching, particularly in the way he connected with students. When he met a class of undergraduates for the first time, he would always ask them to imagine a world in which language did not exist among humans.
“It takes a while for the students to fully grasp what I mean by ‘no language’, and then to realize the implications,” Elman said in an essay he wrote in 2015 essay for the Union-Tribune.
“The first response is often, ‘Well, then I guess we have to pass each other notes.’ My answer, ‘No. That’s cheating. Writing is language.’ Then they’ll say, ‘OK, so we’ll all have to learn to sign.’ My answer, ‘You’re still cheating. Sign language is language. When I say ‘No language’ I really mean NO LANGUAGE!”
Elman went to high school in Pacific Palisades, near Santa Monica, then on to Harvard, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1969. Eight years later, he earned a doctorate in linguistics at the University of Texas in Austin, then joined the faculty at UC San Diego.
Elman specialized in cognitive science, which broadly refers to the study of how people acquire and use language, how they perceive and remember things, and how they think and reason.
UC San Diego become a hotbed of “cogsci” research, leading the campus to create the world’s first Department of Cognitive Science in 1986. Elman helped make the department famous, partly through his study of so-called artificial neural networks (ANN). That’s the term used to describe computer systems that mimic the way the brain takes in and analyzes data. That work has advanced artificial intelligence, which in turn has led to things like Apple’s digital assistant Siri and guidance system of driverless cars.
In addition to his research, Elman served as dean of the Division of Social Sciences from 2006-14, overseeing one of the university’s largest programs.
“Jeff was the kindest, but also the most effective leader I know,” said Padden, the current dean of Social Sciences.
“He is the example of a leader that understands the power of dialogue, empathy and consensus to advance difficult and ambitious agendas. If he thought an apology was needed, he would give one because for him, apologizing is not weakness or capitulation, but acknowledging that humans can misunderstand or misjudge …
“I had never thought of joining the upper levels of administration until Jeff asked me to be his associate dean in 2008. I honestly didn't know whether I qualified for such a job. Jeff told me I was good at articulating reasons for doing important things. I only thought I could do this because I needed to for my survival as a deaf academic, but I realize Jeff saw something I hadn't even seen in myself.
“I'm forever grateful to him for this gift.”