RIP Aaron M. Clarke

Aaron Clarke and I met in 2007 at NDSU, during our Ph.D. work. Aaron was immediate. Bright, funny, goofy – and smart as hell. On top of that, he was imaginative and warm – rare in frozen Fargo, North Dakota, where we wintered. It became obvious that Aaron outclassed his classmates. He would become a great scientist.

Aaron had a truly outsized desire to teach. He took me under his wing and explained everything from pre-calc to Fourier transforms (I did not deserve any of it – all pearls before swine). He loved to share (and overshare) his interests, knowledge, and fascination with everything about vision and the brain. We would often joke about “cracking the brain code”.  We would often just joke – Aaron loved to laugh. To know Aaron was to know the sound of his laughter.

Grad school was horrible for me, the ugly stuff started right away. In my first year, the bathroom above my desk broke open and leaked sewage over my books and things. It was Aaron that called – not any of the other students present. He also went out of his way to save my camera from that shitstorm. Here’s that voicemail:

That’s just how Aaron was. He cared and he always showed up (and not just for me). When my tooth was rotting out of my head, and I couldn’t afford to fix it, Aaron was there. When I needed to move equipment out of a flooded basement, Aaron was there. When my elbow was broken and I could no longer afford to live in my cheap apartment, Aaron helped me move.

We went through a lot of shit in grad school; most people do. Aaron, time and again, looked for any opportunity to help. He had a huge heart and really deeply cared for other people. I was sick a lot and had no health insurance – there was a time when I didn’t show up for a few days straight.  Aaron never failed to call:

More than anybody else, Aaron made me feel a welcome part of the vision science community. Aaron enthusiastically introduced me to numerous friends and labmates from around the world. Even since leaving the Dakotas and the vision science community, I have found him famous and infamous among vision scientists, known as a bright and high-energy guy. Hell, even when Minard Hall collapsed on our labs and lives, he seemed unfazed and continued to produce great research.

The guy was unstoppable.

He was also hungry. Man, Aaron could eat. And we were both poor so we shared a lot of food. Someone gave me a broken pizza oven, and I fixed it. We’d go to this grody awful grocery store called Sun Mart (right next to his apartment and walking distance to the lab):

…and buy $1.99 frozen pizzas and dress them up with white vinegar and mealy tomatoes, and bake them in that oven. I remember when he introduced me to information theory and Claude Shannon. And we’d sit there learning about encoding and information transmission over our pizza, working the problems, reading the papers.

Later, I pulled a grill off the curb. A new Asian market had opened up in town, and had a loss leader deal – $5/lb ribeye steaks. We ate a LOT of those. I always let Aaron know when I was going there, and he always wanted some. And we fished in the Red River, too. And ate it for breakfast. From our email about it, Aaron said: “P.S.  We absolutely have to do that again.  It was awesome.” We said that about a lot of the things we did.

You might notice that many of the images in this post are the two of us working together. And that’s because we worked together often. We built book scanning machines, stereo cameras, display alignment systems (Johnny Lee-style), and a bunch of other stuff.  The book scanner in this picture was “Aaron’s Scanner” – I built him this scanner in exchange for PageBuilder, the first DIY Book Scanner software package. Which, of course, he wrote in Matlab. In a weekend. Here’s the original announcement.


Without Aaron, I would not have won the Instructables contest and built a huge community. And I wouldn’t have had so much fun doing it:

Today I sit in my workshop in Los Angeles, California. Workin’ on a Sunday, like Aaron and I used to do. And I have this life and this job in no small part because I met Aaron Clarke – because of his hard work and sharp mind, sure, but also because of the way he shared his time. You see, winning that Instructables contest (and the laser cutter) changed my life and got me out of the Dakotas and that ill-fated grad program. And when it came time to drop out and go, Aaron helped me pack my car, and sent the laser with me.

We both went on to work in vision related fields – myself in display research and development, and Aaron in Turkey doing vision science, and more recently joining Magic Leap. We’d have had a lot to talk about, if I’d ever called.

Aaron passed away in his home Saturday, November 24, 2018. I would say Rest In Peace but that’s ridiculous if you knew the guy, he wouldn’t want me to talk like that.

So, Rock On In Peace, Aaron “The Man” Clarke. You are the man. I miss you terribly. I am so sorry for not reaching out for 4 straight years. Thank you for helping me. I am proud of what we created.

If you have a story or something to share about Aaron, please post it here.

Update: Yuliya S. shared a video (via Eugenie) in which you can hear Aaron laughing and enjoying fireworks – it really brought a smile to my face:



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14 Responses to RIP Aaron M. Clarke

  1. Mark says:

    Thanks for sharing this blog, Dan! I met Aaron in Switzerland where we did our postdoc together. Other side of the ocean and different stage of his life, but the exact same funny, kind, and sharing person as you are describing.

    Wish you all the best and strength in dealing with this loss.


  2. Suzan Rebekah Farris says:

    “To know Aaron was to know the sound of his laughter.”


    Dan, this is a perfect representation of the man and the friend that was Aaron Clarke. I share the same regrets about not calling him just to catch up over these past few years – he helped keep me afloat in Fargo, too. (Jesus that place was awful. I am just not meant for the cold.)

    All we can do now is honor his memory – have some adventures, be kind to others, and laugh.

  3. Eugenie Roudaia says:

    Thanks Dan for writing this and putting in words & voice and images what we are all trying to remember these days.

    Grad school and academia come with dark days for many people. It’s people like Aaron – who show care and who bring optimism, excitement, and laughter – that make academia feel more exciting and less lonely.

    I met Aaron at VSS back in 2007 and soon met lots of great people thanks to him. I can still hear him happily shouting “Hey Eugenie!” and of course shortly thereafter there would be some mildly inappropriate joke or overshare to get a laugh. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say anything negative about anyone or anything.

    I remember a couple years ago at VSS, he was hands down the most excited poster presenter at the whole conference when he was explaining to me this new illusion he discovered. I couldnt see it though:))

    So long Aaron, I’m glad our paths intersected.

  4. danreetz says:

    Thanks all for sharing. Nice to meet you, Mark, and great to see you again Suzy. Been a long time.

    Zhenia, I have to agree, Aaron actually lived by the principle of not talking behind people’s backs, even when it would have been totally justified. He just wouldn’t go there. That was another welcome feature in grad school, where it was easy to dwell on poor behavior or personalize and dramatize something situational or inevitable.

    I had a Guinness and a ribeye steak last night to celebrate our friendship. Felt right.

  5. Steve Prime says:

    Aaron was a lovely guy. Super kind, super smart. We were graduate students together at York U (Toronto). We would continue to met up at VSS each year. I will truly miss him.

  6. Monica says:

    Does anyone have a recording of Aaron’s laugh ?

  7. Omid Jahromi says:

    Hello Dan,

    Thank you very much for sharing your stories about Aaron. I knew him from years that we were both residents at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto (around 2000 to 2003 maybe). At that time Aaron was an undergrad and I was a PhD student. I always found him smiling and super energetic. He and his sister Amy were among the nicest persons at our residence. It is so sad he passed away. I will always remember him.

    On another note, very nice meeting you! Your interests in optics and your experience in rapid prototyping are very very fascinating. Do you still live in Los Angeles? If yes, then let’s chat.


  8. Janice Hanson says:

    Hi Dan! So wonderful to see your pictures, hear your stories and listen to Aaron’s voice once more. You said it so well. You two had a very special bond. I am so sad with the news of the passing of sweet, kind, funny and super smart, Aaron. To know him was to love him.

    It’s so nice to see you again, Dan, and I hope you are doing well.

    Janice Hanson

  9. danreetz says:

    Omid, I’m still in LA. I’m in a bit of a crunch at the moment but I’d love to chat when things settle down.

    Janice, I miss ya! Great to see you here. I’m well! Things are going great. Wishing the same for you and yours.

  10. Cathy Faye says:

    Thank you for this. I loved reading it. My experience with Aaron resonates with everything written here and in the comments. I showed up at grad school in Toronto knowing absolutely no one, far from home, pretty sure I didn’t belong there. On the first day of my first class, Aaron sat down next to me, started talking my ear off, and created a “stats study group” that became my first group of friends in grad school. His kindness and excitement were something I looked forward to every day after that. Simply put, he was one of the best people I’ve ever known.

  11. Eugenie says:

    Copy/pasting from FB, in case someone here wants to contribute:

    All those who wish to make a donation to honour Aaron Clarke’s memory are invited to visit two charities (see links below) that embody Aaron’s work with troubled youth and his love of science:
    – The Dam (Develop, Assist, and Mentor) – a youth partnership and outreach program in Mississauga (Canada) that Aaron helped build:

    – The Canadian Museum of Nature – donations will help fund ongoing science and outreach activities and will fund an engraved memorial pavement stone to Aaron’s memory in the museum’s gardens (Ottawa, Canada):

  12. Steve Lindaas says:

    As always you evoke images that transcend and transport one to a special place and understanding. It is my loss that I never got to interact and learn with Aaron.

  13. John says:

    I didn’t know Aaron, but I but I believe that his sister just past away this past week about an hour north west of Ottawa in Pembroke Ontario Canada.

    My sincerest condolences to the family.

  14. Selcuk Aslan says:

    I knew him from his years in Ankara. He was a assist. professor and lecturer in Bilkent University, Psychology department, around 2016-2017, We made a collaboration for one study about memory of schizophrenic patients. We invite him to Gazi university for a seminar on memory and brain. Then I heard that he left Bilkent went Back to Canada, and a year later I learned of his death. I m so sad, sometimes I remember his memories in Bilkent, his productiveness, and positive energy . It’s hard to believe in he was dead. I wish good health to the family and loved ones. Rest in peace Aaron.

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