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August 29, 2002

OBITUARY: Rob Clifton

As a committed Christian and a scholar whose interests included quantum theory and the philosophy of physics, Rob Clifton was fascinated by the interface between science and faith.

"He was a fan of C.S. Lewis and liked to examine how the scientific greats — Newton, Einstein — regarded faith," said his wife, Marilyn. "He also liked to teach philosophy of religion. Without telling students where he stood, all term he'd argue hard for theism and just as hard for atheism. At the end of the term, he'd have the students articulate their positions and he would make his own position clear as well."

Clifton, an associate professor in Pitt's philosophy department with a secondary appointment in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, died on July 31, 2002, of colon cancer. He was 38.

One of Clifton's former doctoral students, Hans Halvorson, remembered him as a successful, passionate and prolific researcher and teacher who nonetheless managed to set aside time for his family. "I remember one of my brainstorming sessions with Rob because of its being combined with parental duties. We met at the Schenley ice rink so that he could work with me and take his child skating all at once."

Halvorson, currently an assistant professor of philosophy at Princeton University, added: "Rob will always be remembered in philosophical circles for his predilection for collaborative work. Most of his papers were written with one or more co-authors. What is less well known is that, more often than not, Rob did most of the work on these papers.

"Being a co-author with Rob was like receiving an honorary degree. It was less a reflection of your work done than of Rob's desire to share honor with you."

Halvorson recalled that when he was feeling discouraged this summer about his own career, Clifton — even as he lay in a bed in Shadyside Hospital — e-mailed him: "PLEASE don't get so down about your, or our, work (or its motivation). You've chosen an absolutely exciting career, mate."

Clifton's religious faith helped to sustain him through his final illness, said his friend, William Rued, whom Clifton named as his "spiritual adviser" this summer to help him prepare for death. "Rob had a very high regard for the authority of scripture, and he believed that God intervened in human affairs. He prayed for, and asked others to pray for, a miracle of healing for himself right up to the end," said Rued, who was active for the last several years with Clifton at the Church of the Ascension in Oakland.

"As one friend put it, Rob was ready to die, he just didn't want to," said Marilyn Clifton.

A Canadian citizen born in Ft. Erie, Ontario, Clifton received a bachelor of science degree in theoretical physics from the University of Waterloo in 1986 and a Ph.D. in history and philosophy of science from Cambridge University in 1991. He worked at Christ's College and the University of Western Ontario before joining Pitt's philosophy department in 1997.

Besides serving as an associate professor here in the departments of philosophy and the history and philosophy of science, Clifton was associate director of Pitt's Center for Philosophy of Science. He also was editor-in-chief of the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics.

Among the courses that Clifton taught here were "Introductory Logic," "Philosophy of 20th Century Physics" and "Advanced Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics."

In addition to his wife, Marilyn, Clifton is survived by his son Ben, 9, and daughter Clare, 6.

Memorial contributions can be made to "Marilyn Clifton in trust for Ben and Clare Clifton" c/o Jack Walsh, 268 Maple Ave., Pittsburgh, Pa. 15218.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 35 Issue 1

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