Eulogy for Philip Coppens (1930-2017)
Philip Coppens was a force of nature, an irresistible force and an immovable object all in one. He was like a massive star that hurls through the universe with unrestrainable momentum and irrepressible energy affecting the course of everything in its orbit. He was guided by his own light from a very early age, partly from necessity and partly by force of personality. Emerging from the Holocaust in the Netherlands with only his sister Nettie and the protective support of the Dutch Christian families that had secured their survival, Philip was an independent-minded young teenager. He persisted in that mode through his last moments a few days ago on the campus of SUNY Buffalo, where he had just spent a day on home base with his chemistry department colleagues, pushing against the boundaries of scientific knowledge.
After meeting Mom, Marguerite, at the University of Amsterdam, Dad decided to pursue his doctoral research at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, where all three of us sons were born. He had found his calling in the rapidly emerging science of Crystallography. He caught and then helped drive a wave that brought him from Weizmann to the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island to the University in Buffalo to a sabbatical year in Grenoble France, family always in tow, defining our life experiences and our very identities as Euro-Israeli-Jewish-Western New Yorker American global citizens. It was life at an academic rhythm, with long summers mixing work and travel, often including a scientific conference or two at one or another idyllic destination. Family dinners were mini-symposiums, a mixed discussion of current events, history, and other non-trivial matters. The bar was high, but always implicit. His reflection is imprinted on the three brothers. Alon, with his encyclopedic knowledge of and reverence for nature in all its forms, Dan with his creative and fiercely independent entrepreneurial drive - a polyphonic jazz riff at the intersection of material science and radiation physics, and my attempted escape of Dad’s orbital gravity into the field of business and finance. Well, not quite, because Dad was a stock market dabbling science professor who read the Wall Street Journal and the Economist, and such publications were always scattered on the kitchen table to be absorbed. I remember visiting our cousin Micha in my twenties in Amsterdam, staying a few days with him in his apartment. Micha, who’s now a doctor in Holland and Israel, showed me the photograph of my father’s face on the wall above his study desk. Whenever his scholarly motivation faltered, Micha told me, he would look into those piercing grey-blue eyes, know what was expected of him, put his head down, and get back to work. That’s when I understood that we weren’t the only ones. Talia, Alex, and Ben know what I’m talking about too.
In a short professional memoir summarizing his life’s work for the American Crystallographic Association, Dad wrote, “I was attracted by the beauty of crystals and their periodic arrangement, the mathematical aspects and the fact that crystallography – unlike some other physical methods – could produce unambiguous results.” As a boy, Dad’s life was upended by war, persecution, and the loss of his parents to the Nazis. Perhaps he found stability in science’s unchanging order, whose secrets would be revealed by applying the intellect. For him, no boundary existed between his professional universe and life itself, and that’s probably what made him such a dedicated, effective, and prolific researcher who would set an example for others in his field to emulate. Integrity, a values forward way of approaching life, placing the high ideals in their rightful position of authority when humans and their transient institutions were so prone to failure. Purity in ideals, pure science, distrust of human authority, loyalty to the international scientific community, concern for the individual, freedom of thought and conscience, and a dry, irreverent humor, defined Philip Coppens. He wore white sneakers with his suit to my Wharton MBA graduation. Pompous displays and pretension were not his style!
The outpouring of sentiments expressed in the scores of emails we’ve received in the past few days from Dad’s globally dispersed colleagues describe, in their words, a giant of a man in both his foundational scientific contributions and leadership and in the deeply humanistic example that he set. His influence was apparently life altering for them too. They cite his warmth, compassion, and deep interest in their careers and lives, because for him science was a part of life and he wanted others to understand things that way too.
Our dear friend Pierre Becker, a French colleague, wrote, “You are the person who played the strongest role in both my scientific and social life. You were able to immediately make me discover my potential complementary skills towards joint innovative research. And as soon as we wrote publications or participated in conferences, you put my name first. This had a fantastic effect on the opening of my scientific life. And I noticed you had this attitude with all your collaborators…At the occasion of the two dramatic events which occurred to Monique’s grandmother and to my father, you managed to give us the strength to positively behave. In particular, at the death of my father, you convinced me that putting full priority on the work would be the best sign of love for him. Every time we met you and Marguerite, for work or friendly events, the sun rose over me and my family. You have physically left us, but you remain so strongly present in our life. And this is true for all my colleagues in France with whom you were interacting…I cannot interact with students and colleagues without thinking how you would behave in similar situations. I am sure God highly appreciates your life where you helped so many persons to discover and strengthen professional and human life.”
I want to say a few words about our Mom, Marguerite, and her lifelong partnership with Dad. A few years ago, as the three of us drove to the Cattaraugus Creek for a hike (referred to by one colleague as Coppens Creek), it occurred to me to ask Dad in Mom’s presence what it was about her that appealed to him in the first place…potentially a cringe-worthy question, but I was already in my 50s and beginning to see them as people. Dad said he liked the fact that she could hold her own in a conversation - in a word, she was smart enough and interesting enough to engage him fully. She was also very pretty. Anna Makal, a Polish colleague, wrote to Mom in an email received Friday, “I have always been impressed by that unique connection between you and Philip, built no doubt by years of shared values, experience and true friendship. I admired your understanding, sometimes forbearance and a subtle sense of humor towards Philip, indicating that deep relationship between you.” Nailed it. Dad acknowledged that Mom was his most severe critic, she understood scientific society, she could keep him grounded, and made him a better man.
Dad retired a few years ago, he “retired” that is. He stopped taking a salary, but the “work which wasn’t work” continued until the end. He continued to live life strictly on his terms, traveling to Israel to speak at the Weizmann Institute earlier this year and participating in scientific meetings in Maryland just a few weeks ago, and then we were hit with the sudden news the other day that he had simply left us in mid-course. Driven, contributing to science, inspiring others, leading by example, and positively impacting the lives of those around him.
Philip Coppens, of Blessed Memory, May You Rest in Peace.