I was deeply saddened to learn that Seth Roberts suddenly passed away. Many people knew Seth better or longer than I did, but I’d like to share a few thoughts.

I met Seth a few years ago at a conference. We ended up walking and talking at that conference, walking and talking at other conferences, walking and talking in NYC. Many people who knew Seth have fond memories of walking and talking with him. Seth was hiking when he died.

Let’s celebrate Seth Roberts for what he was: an idiosyncratic and peculiar man.

  • He drank unflavored sugar water to lose weight
  • He looked at digital faces each morning to improve his mood the following day
  • He stood on one foot until exhaustion (then did it again on the other foot)
  • He timed himself on simple math problems to test his brain function

These are not things that “normal” people do.

Seth didn’t care. He was unconcerned about looking weird or low status.

Even though Seth didn’t care what people thought, he cared an awful lot about what you thought. He was an excellent listener. He gave people his full attention. And, as Ben Casnocha recalls, Seth was a master of appreciative thinking – searching for and finding the value in what a person is saying.

Seth will be remembered for his work in self-experimentation. More than just his quirky findings – faces on TV, honey at bed, flaxseed oil – Seth taught that anyone can be a scientist.

This wasn’t simply the saccharine sentiment that every child has the potential to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (organic chem is hard enough).

This wasn’t based on the false notion that science is easy (quite the opposite: good science is so difficult that the professionals often get it wrong).

Seth showed that there are parts of the scientific method where everyone can participate, where everyone should participate. He demonstrated the value of amateurish self-experimentation to both scientific progress and personal improvement.

Self-experimentation doesn’t just bring science out of the laboratory; it turns your world into a laboratory.

Unfortunately, formal education often teaches the opposite: that science requires beakers and Bunsen burners; agar plates and AP Calc; expensive degrees and exceptional test scores. As every scientific field has grown increasingly technical and specialized, there is a sense that science is a pursuit best left to professionals. The notion of “Science” itself has morphed into something incomprehensible and irreproachable; mighty and magical — a distant deity that dictates true and false, right and wrong from an unassailable position of authority.

Seth brought science down to earth. Even as he publicly attacked professionals who published papers containing falsified data, Seth empowered amateurs. He showed that science is messy and practical and fun. Ever-curious, he was always tinkering and hacking, breaking and building.

Self-experimentation holds an eminent place in the history of science, and Seth Roberts unassumingly continued that great tradition. Long before fitness trackers and wearables, genomic sequencing and personalized medicine, biohacking and Quantified Self, Seth was quietly taking notes with pencil and paper.

Seth Roberts was an idiosyncratic and peculiar man.

That’s what made him one a kind.

He will be missed.


11 Responses to “Seth Roberts”

  1. Tucker Max says:

    Very well said.

    I just can’t believe he’s gone. It’s hard to process.

  2. Katherine says:

    Thanks, John. I’m still reeling from the news and find great comfort in the perspective and memories offered by others who also knew him. His singular curiosity and intellectual integrity made him one of a kind. He is missed.

  3. Jazi ZIlber says:

    Very well said. I too, cannot process his demise.

  4. [...] him more intimately than I did, have already penned, quite eloquently, why he will be missed.  See John, Tucker, Ryan, and [...]

  5. Thank you, John, for making it not just about the loss of a good life, but about the loss of a peculiar life.

    Far too few peculiar people, and now we’ve gone and lost one.

  6. Well said, and I know he really appreciated you and your work.

  7. Mat Herold says:

    I didn’t know much about Seth until I read the post about his death. Just from browsing his blog for a few hours I can tell he was a remarkable human being. I’m with Richard that there are too few peculiar people. Perhaps there are plenty more, but not all with the courage like Seth to embrace and express it, especially when it was for the benefit of others.

  8. Shant says:

    And Seth encouraged others to be comfortable in their peculiarity. He was a one man support group. A coach for radical thinking. He drew out and encouraged people’s odd and unpopular ideas, because he knew that it was the only way we’d make any progress.

  9. Tom says:

    I applaud anyone who thinks for themselves rather than taking the views of “experts” as gospel. It’s pretty clear that without the contribution of people like Seth we are worse off in the world.

  10. [...] John Durant [...]

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