Remembering JR Minkel

A charcoal drawing of JR by his Aunt Nancy.

Exactly a year ago, I lost a close friend. JR was among the most brilliant, most engaging, and most enigmatic people I’ve met in my life. Though we were friends for only four years and change, he had a profound effect on my worldview—as he did on most people who spent any time exchanging ideas with him.

I wasn’t really able to write about JR initially after he passed. In fact, it was an email from me that informed several of his friends that he’d taken his own life last winter. Obviously, losing a friend is traumatic, but being the bearer of such awful news was among one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I spent a lot of time, especially early last year thinking and talking about JR, but I couldn’t really focus my thoughts long enough to write anything about my friend.

In late-November, a colleague of mine forwarded me an email from an editor at NPR’s This American Life. The producers of the radio show were going to curate The New York Times Magazine‘s “The Lives They Lived” issue and wanted it to focus not on the most famous people who passed, but on “people who haven’t gotten a lot of press attention but have extraordinary stories nonetheless.” My colleague thought JR qualified and suggested I submit something. So, I thought about it throughout Thanksgiving and cobbled something together, largely in JR’s words (which are far superior to my own).

As it turns out, they were actually looking for well known people, just maybe not Amy Winehouse-level well known. (No matter, the piece I submitted was way too long for their purposes anyway.) Still, the exercise was greatly beneficial for me. I got to spend a lot of time thinking about my friend. I got to spend a lot of time reading his thoughts, via his brainy, extemporaneous blog A Fistful of Science. I got to know JR better.

Below is what I submitted to the editors for their consideration.

Upon his passing, JR Minkel left behind an outsized hole in several places, from Nashville to New York to the science writing community within which the blog Boing Boing anointed him a “rising star.”

A longtime secular humanist, and erstwhile liberal/borderline libertarian, he was an idea fetishist. His unlimited curiosity, enduring skepticism, and intermittently confrontational persona made him a first class arbiter of breakthrough versus hype.

“I am about bullshit — mine, yours and anyone else’s who’s vying for our eyeballs,” he once wrote on his studious and lyrical blog A Fistful of Science. Throughout nearly a decade of writing, mostly about physics and cosmology, Minkel’s work appeared in New Scientist, Popular Science, Discover, and Scientific American, where he spent two years as an online news reporter. He was also the author of The Instant Egghead Guide: The Universe.

In the wake of his father’s passing in late 2008, Minkel left New York for his hometown of Nashville. He reconnected with his mother and younger brother and eventually took a job as a technician at a Vanderbilt University lab studying zebrafish genetics.

His time spent on campus dovetailed with a sharp turn in his worldview. As he described it on his blog, he “largely traded [his] Science hat for [his] Postmodernism hat,” which led him, on topics such as the differences between the genders, “to come down hard on the side of culture over biology.”

He also discovered the political and cultural war surrounding climate change. The debate radicalized him, leading to one of the last and proudest successes of his brief time on earth: galvanizing a small group of friends and family to donate to the campaign that helped strike down California Proposition 23, an initiative sponsored by energy interests that sought to suspend the state’s laws controlling air pollution.

It’s a shame that JR didn’t live to see the Occupy Wall Street protests. They would have fascinated (and possibly frustrated) him—he had applied to graduate schools with the intent of studying the transformation of a person from a largely apolitical being to an activist. It was the same change he himself had just undergone. 

Here, in his own words, is a glimpse into JR’s transformation from wearer of data-driven science hat to wearer of a postmodern activist hat:

A Fistful of Science, April 28, 2009:

There’s a real danger I think of browbeating people like myself who are on the margin — i.e., I don’t have strong opinions about climate change policy — into accepting the fact/value bundle that anyone who voices disagreement about how and whether to address climate change is somehow part of The Problem.

A Fistful of Science, July 3, 2009:

Personally — and I admit I’m probably in the minority of science writers, if not the larger public — all I really know is that the words “climate change” make some otherwise calm hairless apes I know want to fling their shit at a wall, and because I respect these particular apes, I want to know the score.

A Fistful of Science, July 23, 2010:

Please keep in mind too that 2010 is on pace to be the warmest year since record keeping began in 1880. Surely the wise leaders of business and industry who foresaw the implosion of the housing bubble will save us from choking on our own emissions, right? Oh, wait. No. This week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) officially ruled out the possibility of a carbon cap, saying, “we know we don’t have the votes.”

JR guest posting on Zpfanman.com, July 27, 2010:

I’ve become increasingly interested over the past year in playing a more active role in my community. The big watershed for me was the death of Pops Minkel (my dad) in 2008. … [F]aced with the prospect of turning to “shit and dust,” I decided I wanted to spend my remaining days on Earth making as much of a difference as I could. I’ve since come to realize that being the change I want to see is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

A Fistful of Science, Aug. 10, 2010:

People, forgive me for interrupting our regularly scheduled programming on sex differences, but shit is out of whack in the world right now.

You’ve heard that Russia is in the grip of a monster heave wave that may have killed 15,000 people already? That wildfires are possibly kicking up radioactive smoke from Chernobyl? That the country has banned wheat exports for the rest of the year? You’ve heard that in Pakistan, intense seasonal monsoons have left 1,600 dead and 2 million homeless in what they’re calling “Pakistan’s Katrina“? You’ve read about the landslide in China that killed 700? (Make that 1,100.)

It’s all connected, my friends.

A Fistful of Science, Aug. 20, 2010:

I finished George Lakoff’s book Whose Freedom? this week, and I have to ask: why aren’t climate activists talking left, right and center about freedom?

I’m coming late to the framing game, but I don’t see why climate advocates shouldn’t cash in on the power of freedom. Clean energy is about preserving our freedoms. The freedom to enjoy the outdoors without dying of heat stroke. The freedom to live in a United States where the Southwest has not been turned into a permanent dust bowl, where food is affordable and where cities are not submerged under rising seas, flooded by torrential rains or threatened by wildfires. I know I sound like a frustrated speechwriter, but honestly, why not frame it this way? Freedom is such a potent concept.

You want to make climate change a priority concern? You want a rallying cry? You want to mobilize people to get out the vote? This is America. We have to think like Americans do. And I say we start talking about freedom.

Email, Aug. 23, 2010:

I’ll keep this brief. Joe Romm the climate blogger tells me it’s extremely important that Californians vote down Prop 23 in November…. Romm says that if Prop 23 passes, you can kiss goodbye any significant action by other states to address their own greenhouse emissions.

“But JR, I’m only one person. What can I do?” I’m glad you asked. I just donated $25, or roughly 1% of my monthly income, to a group that is working to defeat Prop 23. All I ask is that five of you make a similar donation. Please decide amongst yourselves who will bite the bullet on this one.

I am JR and I approve this message.

A Fistful of Science, Aug. 25, 2010:

What concerns me, as always, is climate change, which I believe to be the most important problem of our time. If you don’t agree with me, then we’re not going to see eye to eye on much else.

Email, Aug. 26, 2010:

Today was a breakthrough day!* Two among you ponied up $25 each to the

No to 23 campaign. In addition, another four (!) have pledged to make $25 donations.

Now that we’ve achieved some momentum, I want to see if I can get a total of 10 donations from you all.

Needless to say, if I haven’t already given you the hard sell, chances are good you will hear from me soon.

XXOO

JR

*The activist handbook told me to say that.

Email, Sept. 1, 2010:

Hello again urrbody,

We did it!! Hugs and kisses to [redacted] and [redacted], who have both agreed to pledge $25 to the No to 23 campaign. That brings us to 11 (!) total pledges or donations by you all — one more than my goal of 10!! Including my original donation, that means we will have contributed $300 to the fight against evil oil companies. And don’t think it’s anything other than a fight against evil…

Thank you so much for putting up with my repeated emails. Those of you who’ve contributed, I’ll keep you updated on where Prop 23 stands. Those of you who’ve stayed mum, you get hugs and kisses too. And you have until November to do the right thing. :)

Either way, let’s talk soon!!!

JR

A Fistful of Science, Sept. 1, 2010:

As I see it, science and postmodernism are not fundamentally at odds, because postmodernism is not fundamentally about casting doubt on knowledge per se. It’s much more about giving voice to marginalized groups so that a better, more inclusive society can emerge. Which means unmasking ways that certain groups are silenced, marginalized and oppressed.

In short, we all need to be activists. And until I find my way of being a race activist and a gender activist, I’m going to look at a lot of science and find it wanting…. I don’t care what human nature is. I want to know what human nature might be.

Email, Nov. 3, 2010:

Prop 23 lost!

Thank you for allowing me to feel a sense of control over some small piece of this screwed up world we live in. It meant a lot to me. And we actually helped do something good. Now, on to the next battle…

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3 thoughts on “Remembering JR Minkel”

  1. This is coming very late. JR was my coworker for a semester, maybe more, at NYU’s Bobst library in the interlibrary loan department, in…2004? I had completely lost touch with him but I thought I’d just check to see if he was still writing about science, and have discovered that he died more than 2 years ago. I’m not sure exactly how to describe how one feels when you find out so belatedly of someone’s passing. I’m shocked and saddened, and I suspect the latter will last a lot longer than the former. I really didn’t know much about JR, but he and I and a few other co-workers would go for lunch together, and JR and I had gotten together for a drink once much later to catch up on what we were up to. Here’s what I remember about him: JR had a sardonic, poker-faced, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. It was a heck of a lot of fun working with him, and a real pleasure to talk to him. RIP JR.

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