Seth Roberts R.I.P

Last week, Levitt eulogized Gary Becker, who died at age 83. After bringing an entirely new set of ideas to his discipline, for which he was occasionally ridiculed or marginalized, Becker was ultimately rewarded with nearly universal acclaim (and a Nobel Prize).

A couple weeks earlier, Seth Roberts died. He too brought an entirely new set of ideas to his discipline — he was a psychologist who delighted in self-experimentation — for which he too was occasionally ridiculed or marginalized. He didn’t receive the universal acclaim Becker did, and Seth died far too young, in his early sixties.

But Seth had a huge impact on the people who were lucky enough to know his work or, even better, know him. Levitt and I wrote about him back in 2005, taken by the diligence and creativity with which be tackled topics like diet, personal health, sleep, and even acne.

We met him just after Freakonomics had come out. We were on book tour in northern California; he taught at Berkeley. The day before we were set to visit him in Berkeley, he asked if he could tag along on our tour stops. Sure, we said. If I recall correctly, this included a visit to Yahoo! headquarters, Google headquarters, a Japanese restaurant (for lunch), and a board-game company.

At each stop, Seth hung back from the main action and observed what was going on. He was nearly invisible. But then afterward, in the car, he’d talk about what he saw — the different responses, interactions, and oddities of each meeting or presentation. He was like a human microscope, taking note of minute inflections or phrases and then interpreting them with shattering aplomb. He was also very comfortable being the observer. As good as Seth was at what he did, I don’t believe I ever saw him shoulder his way to the front of a conversation; I never heard him brag, or speak in a tone that even resembled braggadocio.

We kept in touch over the years and he occasionally wrote for this blog. Of all the things that impressed me about Seth — his curiosity, his gentleness, his appetite for new experience — it was his desire to help others that I found most unusual. His book The Shangri-La Diet was perhaps the most obvious manifestation of that desire, but it ran deep.

I will miss Seth and so will a lot of other people, even if they never know it.