Art Rosenfeld: Brilliance and Benevolence

JANUARY 27, 2017

I met Art as a wide-eyed student in his "Physics of Efficient Energy Use" class in 1982. He was immediately disarming, engaging, and inspiring. I soon went to work with him and was forever folded into the LBNL community. Later, when he went to work in Washington under the first Clinton administration, I had the privelege of assuming his post as leader of the Center for Building Science at LBNL. Art was a friend and my most valued colleague. He manifested a rare mix of brilliance and benevolence. We lost him today.

Art was a mentor in the true sense of the word. Few people value and take the time and effort to serve in that role any more. His door was always open to eager students. He readily took aspiring young energy scientists under his wing. It was not a rare thing to work on projects until two in the morning, shoulder to shoulder, at his big 1950s desk with a dated "Lawrence Radiation Laboratory" sticker on it.

He reveled in opening doors for others.

He modeled many essential things for his protoges, most notably the notion of grasping and running with your ideas, perhaps even with the audacious aspiration of creating entirely new fields of study. Much like Cousteau, Goodall, and Sagan--not to mention his own mentor Fermi--a hallmark of Rosenfeld’s work and impact was his ability to translate specialized and sometimes arcane science into a compelling call to action that the public, industry, and policymakers can grasp. More to the point, Art was among the early vanguard of pure scientists who helped dispel the taboo on linking science and public policy. He worked tirelessly to share his infectious love of energy efficiency with legislators while defending federal budgets for research during times of acute adversity. His passion for the cause and palpable sense of urgency about energy and environmental issues inspired me and a whole a generation (actually two generations) of practitioners.

Art always brought the technical discussion back to why it matters and who should do what about it. He respected power but wasn’t a shrinking violet when it came to engaging it, whether that be with a highly-placed politician or the CEO of a large company. He was gentle, yet unflappable.

He was also a master at dispelling myths and misinformation. Chief among these was that the wise use of energy (rather than energy in and of itself) was what truly powered economic growth. Thus, as he relished saying, each dollar spent on more energy efficient light bulbs provided more benefit at a lower cost than a dollar spent on new power plants. He set a great example of those of us under his tutelage.

Art had an uncanny ability to look at a cloud of numbers and tease out the embedded meaning, and visualize it in a technically correct but also compelling way. His intellectual breadth was unparalleled, spanning physics, materials, modeling, and economics. As a mentor he emphasized the equal importance of being numerate and literate, and, above all else, cross-disciplinary. He was a non-pompous communicator and would not tolerate indulgent, long-winded prose. He stripped away jargon and did not shy away from making definitive statements. Taking a queue from Fermi, he emphasized the use of analogies to help policymakers and the general public grasp the scale or relevance of things that could easily otherwise cause anyone to glaze over. He was a master of this and I find myself routinely gravitating towards that same method of communication in my own work.

Art was the antithesis of the stereotypical territorial academic. He routinely went out of his way to be inclusive and weave others into his vast professional networks, literally pulling cards out of his Rolodex and copying them for people. And he would readily share credit and authorship with young scientists he mentored.

His brilliance and benevolence did not go unnoticed. He received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from then President Obama in 2013.

We worked on scores of projects together. Some of the most meaningful involved calculating and making the case for how much energy efficiency was saving economy-wide. Among other things, this fed into Congressional testimony demonstrating the high return on taxpayer investment in publicly funded energy efficiency R&D. Back in 1996 we collaborated on the then un-named field of "non-energy benefits", which has since blossomed into a large area of study. Later, my own branch of "NEBs" work was to look at how the world's largest industry -- insurance -- can benefit from improved energy efficiency and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions.

Art had a special place in his mind and heart for issues facing those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. When I began probing the idea of providing affordable solar-LED lighting for the 1.2 billion people on earth without electricity, Art immediately jumped in to bat around ideas and help secure the funding needed to move forward, in fact seeding the work with a prize he had recently won -- The Fermi Award.

~ Evan Mills

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