FORMAN S. ACTON
A COOL AND RIGHTEOUS DUDE
1920-2014

     We lost Forman S. Acton on 2014 February 18. He was born 1920 August 10 and had nearly a century of satisfying, productive life. I was privileged to be his friend for thirty-nine of his ninety-three years.

     There was a movie a few years back called "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension" where the hero was a neurosurgeon during the day, played in a rock-and-roll band at night, drove hypersonic cars on weekends for his hobby, and still found time to save the planet (and a young Ellen Barkin) from insidious alien invaders. That's the kind of person I'd like to be and that's the kind of person my friend was for ninety-three years. He did numerical-computing science, teaching, reading, swimming, art, music, mild food, spicy food, good beer, the best wine, and travel and still found time for a broad circle of family and friends.

     There are biographies on line that have the details of my friend's professional life and his most-famous book is available online, so I'll stick to my own experiences with him.

     Forman Acton was a pioneer in computing science when the frontier was rugged and untamed. He knew and worked with many of my heroes. (John von Neumann, John Tukey, Al Tucker, Grace Hopper, Dick Feynman, Jim Wilkinson, Claude Shannon, John Backus, and John Nash come to mind as I write this, but there were plenty more. It was easier for him to recall the two he didn't know, he didn't know Albert Einstein, but once he sat next to him at a talk in McCosh Hall at Princeton, and never met Alan Turing at all. Jim Wilkinson worked extensively with Turing, however.) I met him taking his course (Electrical Engineering in those days, EE 309) at Princeton University in 1975. He explained musical meaning to me one time in my dorm room (the bouncy theme from Saint-Saëns' "Danse macabre" as I recall) and we would spend many afternoons sharing Philadelphia-Orchestra concerts on Friday afternoons and recalled his subscription concerts with Leopold Stokowski at the conducting podium around 1938 and 1939. We shared many fine meals and even a few decent wines. He came to visit me in Atlanta and Fort Worth so we could see traveling art exhibits when I lived in these places.

     Forman was extraordinarily well traveled. He went to India the first of many times in his early forties, the same age as my first trip there. He spent much time in Bangkok and other Asian countries and he was familiar with much of Europe, especially England and Germany. When I told him I was going to Uganda, he told me about his trip to Entebbe and Kampala fifty years ago.

 
     He introduced me to Zion National Park in conversation, especially recommending Angels Landing, now my favorite hike there after dozens of trips.

I was lucky enough to make contact with other members of the Acton family in New Jersey in 2014, so I could chat with him 2014 February 8. Since I wrote this piece, I have made contact with some of his friends that I have only heard about for the last several decades.
     He told stories of the atomic-bomb work at Oak Ridge and other work he did over the years. Besides learning my craft of numerical computing in his classroom in college, I remember one moment when he and I were sitting in a restaurant and he explained the nuances of a method called a "heapsort" on a napkin. I had computer code that I could run, but I wanted a better understanding of how it worked. He drew pictures of binary trees with branches and roots and showed me how the method worked, why it worked, and why it was often better than some methods and sometimes worse than others.

     Forman had advice to offer on many occasions from job interviews to my first trip to India. He was the second reader of my college thesis (after my adviser Steve Maurer) and he wrote letters of recommendation for jobs I applied for. I told him stories of my numerical-computing adventures in my various jobs, he listened attentively, and he even offered well-thought-out comments from time to time.

     I assumed he had a large community of former students as regular friends. He told of encounters with them in England, Germany, India, and even Uganda. Only recently did I find out how especially lucky I was that we stayed close and saw each other regularly for almost four decades. I'll miss his conversation and his company

     Funny thing. I met Forman as an older fellow, in his mid-fifties. I was eighteen, so that seemed old to me. Now that I'm fifty-seven, that doesn't seem so old, does it?

    

    

    

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