Jack Cohen (1933-2019)

Jack Cohen

By Jonathan Cowie: Sad news about a colleague who was one of the few to straddle my biological science and SF worlds. I was pleased to be paid to work with him professionally, and to drink with him socially at con bars. Dr Jack Cohen, biologist, author, SF author and SF fan, has passed.

Jack, as many of the older generation of biologists will know, was an active member of the Institute of Biology (IoB) and its W. Midlands Branch, as well as IoB Mission Control. He served a couple of terms on its Biomedical Science Committee (including when serviced by myself) as well as its Council.  Among many things, he helped draft the IoB’s (now adopted by the RSB) Royal Charter.

He was for much of his career based at Birmingham University where he was a whole-organism biologist specialising in reproductive biology as well as human biomedical aspects. Jack could talk sex.

Later in his career he moved to Warwick University.

He was known for a number of television appearances, and his image (uncaptioned) was even used to illustrate geniuses in a round of BBC’s Stephen Fry’s QI.  And he was the author of several popular science books.

As many older Brit SF fans will be aware, he was also active within the UK Science Fiction community and in the 1970s-1990s regularly gave talks at Birmingham’s annual Novacons and the UK national Eastercons.

Along with myself he was a special guest at the 1994 Eurocon in Timisoara, Romania, a few years after the Iron Curtain lifted.

He co-wrote a couple of SF novels with Warwick U.’s mathematician Ian Stewart FRS as well as a series of quirky and entertaining, non-fiction Science of Discworld books again with Ian and also Terry Pratchett.

Some further links:

7 thoughts on “Jack Cohen (1933-2019)

  1. I don’t know who started using it, but I first encountered Jack Cohen through this quote in sig lines in various Perl mailing lists:

    There is this special biologist word we use for “stable”. It is “dead”.

    I’ve seen it phrased a variety of ways; I’ve phrased it a variety of ways myself. Considering the sentiment, that I don’t have a stable version of it seems fitting.

  2. I met him at WorldCon 1995 after he’d done a talk about designing aliens for the Sector General stories, IIRC, based on really weird Earth critters, where he was wearing an … interesting … sweater.

  3. Jack Cohen helped create the aliens in Legacy of Heorot by Niven, Pournelle and Barnes (and I half-recall a story about Cohen’s address (which was apparently a double entendre related to Cohen’s scientific interest in reproduction) that Pournelle told).

  4. He was part of the Contact Conference group, a conference that uses SF to discuss and teach anthropology.

  5. A throwaway comment he made in conversation at a Boskone when I was in my early twenties has stuck with me ever since, and has affected how I look at life in general.
    He said, “if you are succeeding at more than eighty percent of the things you’re trying, you should be trying harder things.”
    Absolutely blew my mind, and re-contextualized what “failure” means. Massively useful for anybody who grew up as a really smart kid in elementary school and high school, then hit the wall in college, since they had never encountered anything challenging before and didn’t know how to deal with something they didn’t immediately know how to do, and is terrified to fail, since they’ve never had any experience with it. I’ve shared it often.

  6. Lovely man, fascinated by everything and with a no-nonsense logic of incredible focus. Anne McCaffrey introduced us sometime around 1980, I think, though as a physics undergraduate in the 1970s in Birmingham, I’d heard stories about this enormously entertaining biologist. I shared a few private conversations about complexity theory, data vs logic in the genome and an awful lot more, accompanied by 100% dark chocolate and a sip of whiskey. It was a privilege.

  7. I did my PhD with Jack. It was the most stimulating experience I could have wished for. He was an inspiration although I didn’t always see it that way!

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