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Michael Hawley, whose talents soared as an MIT professor and a pianist, dies at 58

Dr. Hawley, at his home.
Dr. Hawley, at his home.Ryan, David L Globe Staff

Michael Hawley was so good at so many things that job titles and even a lifetime of accolades could at times feel superfluous for someone whose real role was being Michael Hawley.

“I’m in the illumination business,” he told the Globe in 2002. “Exploring, understanding, inventing, and teaching. The pattern in my career has been using computer technologies to probe and understand really interesting things — what makes music tick, how plants grow, how your body works, how movies are made, what makes a great toy.”

Dr. Hawley was only 58 when he died in his East Cambridge home of colon cancer on Wednesday, The New York Times reported.

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His accomplishments had reached into the upper echelons of computer science and piano performance — teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and tying for first place in the 2002 Van Cliburn International Competition for Outstanding Amateurs.

In the years after graduating from Yale University, he had worked for George Lucas, helping to pioneer digital cinema technology, and he had roomed with his friend Steve Jobs in California, helping the Apple cofounder launch NeXT computers.

Dr. Hawley also helped create the world’s largest book and worked on programs to educate young students in developing nations. He was scientific director on an expedition to Mount Everest and he ran the Boston Marathon — recording data from his own body with every step.

“His contributions are demonstrative, visceral, and instructive,” Andrew Lippman, associate director of the MIT Media Lab, said during a recent Festschrift that was held online in deference to the pandemic and Dr. Hawley’s fragile health.

A Festschrift typically is a gathering of writings to honor a scholar, but instead, colleagues, friends, and even Dr. Hawley’s father, George, gathered in an emotional, Zoom-face by Zoom-face tribute.

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“Mike’s role is to change the way one thinks by actions, words, and stories,” Lippman added, and by the accounts of those who spoke during the Festschrift — hosted by Peter Sagal of NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” — Dr. Hawley did just that.

A virtuosic public speaker, Dr. Hawley seamlessly mixed conversational anecdotes and technical talk, somber observations and dazzling humor.

He did so in venues like the EG Conference in California, which he directed and which annually brings together constellations of creative talent — scientists and artists, educators and engineers, inventors and magicians.

Even in such eclectic gatherings, Dr. Hawley surely was the only one with a prestigious piano award and a Duncan Yo-Yo championship on his resume, the only who had directed the Things That Think and Toys of Tomorrow projects at the MIT Media Lab, and the only one who had been a luge racer.

“I really think the act of making and doing things is the salvation of our crumbling society,” he once said in a TEDx talk.

Such salvation, he believed, could best be found in collaborations among colleagues, among students and teachers feeding off each other’s ideas, among friends old and new, and even in the interplay between a performer and an audience.

At the end of the online Festschrift, with emotional strength that rose above his failing health, Dr. Hawley spoke about how his favorite place to play piano had always been in small gatherings of perhaps 15 people.

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“And what I’ve wondered is, ‘Where is the music, really?’ It’s not in the piano. Someone has to bang the piano to bring it out. It’s not really in the score. It’s not even in the pianist,” he said. “The music is in the people in the room. And that’s what makes those memories so potent and so beautiful.”

Born on Nov. 18, 1961, at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base near Oceanside, Calif., Michael Jerome Hawley was a son of George Hawley, an electrical engineer, and Mary Kay Dixon, a pianist to whom Dr. Hawley attributed his inspiration to pursue the arts — she “was a very natural musician,” he once wrote.

While growing up in New Jersey, Dr. Hawley landed a high school job at Bell Labs, where his father worked.

Auditioning on piano for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Dr. Hawley didn’t make the cut. “Yale was his backup,” his father noted in the Festschrift.

"What I’ve wondered is, ‘Where is the music, really?’ It’s not in the piano. Someone has to bang the piano to bring it out. It’s not really in the score. It’s not even in the pianist,” Dr. Hawley said. “The music is in the people in the room. And that’s what makes those memories so potent and so beautiful.”
"What I’ve wondered is, ‘Where is the music, really?’ It’s not in the piano. Someone has to bang the piano to bring it out. It’s not really in the score. It’s not even in the pianist,” Dr. Hawley said. “The music is in the people in the room. And that’s what makes those memories so potent and so beautiful.”Ryan, David L Globe Staff

He graduated from Yale with degrees in music and computer science, and then did research in Paris at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, where bridges are forged between technology and music.

Returning to the United States, he landed the California gigs with Lucas and Jobs — building one of the first digital libraries along the way — before finishing a doctorate at MIT.

At MIT, he impressed all he encountered.

“He just comes into your life from different directions. It’s sort of emblematic of his renaissance nature,” Robert B. Millard, chairman of MIT Corporation, said during the Festschrift. “Because at the heart of it, Mike is just a curious kid — wicked smart and he loves life.”

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In 2003, Dr. Hawley published “Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Himalayan Kingdom.” He had visited the country on his 1998 travels to Mount Everest and that part of the world.

The large version of the book — a Guinness World Record-holder — was 5 feet tall and weighed 133 pounds.

“I called Jeff Bezos when we produced it and I said, ‘Jeff, I think you really can be the world’s largest book seller,’ " Dr. Hawley said, during his TEDx talk, referring to Amazon’s founder. “And he said, ‘I already am.’ I said, ‘No, no, no. I mean literally.’ ”

Proceeds from smaller versions of the book went to charity.

After the trip to Everest, Dr. Hawley also became involved in a project that builds schools in Southeast Asia.

“Things have to change and there’s always room to make life better,” he once said in an NPR interview.

During the Festschrift, Millard said that “the whole enterprise of Mike is really a beautiful thing that’s changed the world and meant so much to all of us.” He added: “You’ve really made everybody’s life better.”

Dr. Hawley had married Nina You in a seventh-century Bhutanese temple. Along with her and his father, Dr. Hawley leaves a son, Tycho; a daughter, Choki Lhamo; and two brothers, Stephen and Patrick, according to The New York Times.

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Information about a memorial service wasn’t immediately available.

“Mike was consistently way, way out ahead, showing all of us what could be — in fact, would be,” Tod Machover, a professor of music and media at MIT’s Media Lab, said in the Festschrift.

When George Hawley spoke, he recalled moments from his son’s life that ranged from how, as a teenager, he essentially recreated Henry David Thoreau’s long-ago canoe and hiking trip in Maine as a father-son voyage, and how, during a piano performance to commemorate Johann Sebastian Bach’s 300th birthday, Dr. Hawley wove the “Happy Birthday” tune into a Bach piano piece.

“That’s typical of Michael,” George said. “He innovates, he goes big, and he goes all in.”

At the end of the Festschrift, Dr. Hawley spoke of how the interaction among like-minded curious souls drew him to teach at a college campus, where a kind of universal music is ever present.

“It’s in the hubbub and the nutty, noisy conversations that occur among all the students and researchers and explorers and adventurers,” he said. “And to me, that’s really the music of civilization.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.