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Marius Stan

A very memorable line in an elegiac piece by Borges goes, "one day the last eyes that had seen Jesus closed forever." That's how I felt when Gideon Manning told me about Noel's passing. There won't be another one like him for a century or more; fortunately for us, when his history of Renaissance astronomy comes out, we won't need another one for a century or more. Based on what I've seen, it'll be better than Delambre and Dreyer combined.

Noel had started out as a grad student in history of Medieval musicology, I believed. Hence his talent for chamber music, which he loved to play at the end of parties at his house. Maybe that early background was the secret to his uncanny talent for seeing patterns -- the music of the spheres -- deep behind tables of declination and right ascension, from Ptolemy and al-Battani to the Rudolphine Tables. A mind equally adept at synthesizing from historical context and analyzing data, of various quality, ranging from the Maragha School to Tycho.

Two small, but telling testaments to the quality of his character. During my years at Caltech, he never once told me that he had single-handedly revolutionized our understanding of Copernicus. While barely out of grad school, Noel had figured out that Copernicus' three-circle planetary model had been anticipated -- in every respect but the heliocentric choice of frame -- by ibn al-Shatir, over a century before Copernicus, in Syria. And, he was an animal lover, and outstanding dog dad. A decade ago, when I was down the hallway from him, I'd always see him in the coffee lounge with his sweet dog, Ariel, who loved him to bits, and would never leave his side. Requiescat in pacem.

Stephen Menn

Wow. I was there at the encounter with Moti Feingold, and still remember it vividly. That was a very long time ago.

I'm very sorry to hear about Noel. I never took one of his courses, although my grad school girlfriend Heather Blair did and I kibitzed. But I saw him in the History of Disciplines workshop and in lots of other events. I had some good conversations with him over the years, and I was inspired by a lot of his writing, especially The Babylonian Theory of the Planets, also the Copernicus work. I'm very glad his colleagues will see his Renaissance astronomy book to publication--it's what all of us hope for ourselves. I'll miss him.

Stephen Menn

Another Noel memory. Sometime in the early or mid-80's there was a lecture series of visiting scholars talking about the sciences and the humanities. There would be two speakers per afternoon, in the big lecture hall on the first floor of Swift. There was a good speaker who Noel, and a bunch of us, wanted to hear, but if you went to one talk you were there for both of the afternoon's talks. The other speaker's talk was bemoaning the gap between the Two Cultures, and at one point he wanted to project on the screen a bunch of old photos of famous late-19th-century scientists playing the violin, which was supposed to demonstrate that the Two Cultures had not yet diverged at that time. The speaker asked someone to turn off the light so that he could show these photographs. Noel protested, very loudly, "*some* of us are trying to *work*"--in such a way that those of us who *weren't* trying to work through the talk, and *didn't* protest against turning off the lights, felt ashamed of ourselves.

Pierre Paquette

I never had the chance to meet Pr. Swerdlow, but in reading his book Mathematical Astronomy in Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus and trying to make a computer model out of it, I had a few questions, so I googled him and found his email address at the University of Chicago. I thought “why not?” and wrote to him.

We only exchanged a few messages, but they gave me an impression that was confirmed by reading this post and the comments on it: that he was sometimes “rough,“ but deep inside, a very nice man.

It’s when I had a few more questions about the book, a few months later and just a few days ago, and that I googled again for published errata to it (which I didn’t remember if I had found online or not), that I found out he had passed away. The news shook me despite the fact that I didn’t know him personally…

The email exchange I had with him was in early June, about a month and a half before he passed away. His reply to my first message did mention that he “might be dying soon.”

I really wish I could follow his path, despite being almost 50, but I can’t find any “History of astronomy” online university class (except one at the University of Toronto, but it lasts only two hours, so I probably know everything from its curriculum already)…

Marius Stan

Yeah, well, Noel was the last person who could teach a history of mathematical astronomy. So, now that he's passed, the world is left without one.

Nadia Swerdlow

Hello Everyone: This is Nadia Swerdlow, Noel's wife. Someone ent me this page, and I so enjoyed reading your memories of him. I held a memorial for him last month, and will have a recording of it. Mike Turner from the University of Chicago spoke at it, as did Anthony Grafton and Jed Buchwald. If you would like to watch the memorial, please send me your email to [email protected]. Again, I so much enjoy reading remembrances of my husband. Nadia Swerdlow

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Here's a link to my past blogging (and discussions involving me) at: New APPS.


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