Goodbye Professor Tombrello

This morning I awoke to the horrible news that Caltech Physics Professor Tom Tombrello had passed away. Professor Tombrello was my undergraduate advisor, my research advisor, a mentor, and, most importantly a friend. His impact on me, from my career to the way I try to live my life, was profound.
Because life is surreal, just a few days ago I wrote this post that describes the event that led Professor Tombrello and I down entwined paths, my enrollment in his class Physics 11. Physics 11 was a class about how to create value in the world, disguised as a class about how to do “physics” research as an undergraduate. Indeed, in my own life, Professor Tombrello’s roll was to make me think really really hard about what it meant to create. Sometimes this creation was in research, trying to figure out a new approach or even a new problem. Sometimes this creation was in a new career, moving to Google to be given the opportunity to build high impact creations. I might even say that this creation extends into the far reaches of Washington state, where we helped bring about the creation of a house most unusual.
There are many stories I remember about Professor Tombrello. From the slightly amusing like the time after the Northridge earthquake when an aftershock shook our class while he was practicing his own special brand of teach, and we all just sort of sat still until we heard this assistant, Michelle, shout out “That’s it! I’m outta here!” and go storming out. To the time I talked with him following the loss of one of his family members, and could see the profound sadness even in a man who push optimistically forward at full speed.
Some portraits:

After one visit to Professor Tombrello, I actually recorded my thoughts on our conversation:

This blog post is for me, not for you. Brought to you by a trip down memory lane visiting my adviser at Caltech.
Do something new. Do something exciting. Excel. Whether the path follows your momentum is not relevant.
Don’t dwell. Don’t get stuck. Don’t put blinders on.
Consider how the problem will be solved, not how you are going to solve it.
Remember Feynman: solve problems.
Nothing is not interesting, but some things are boring.
Dyson’s driving lesson: forced intense conversation to learn what the other has to say.
Avoid confirmatory sources of news, except as a reminder of the base. Keep your ear close to the brains: their hushed obsessions are the next big news.
Learn something new everyday but also remember to forget the things not worth knowing.
Technically they can do it or they can’t, but you can sure help them do it better when they can.
Create. Create. Create.
Write a book, listen to Sandra Tsing Loh, investigate Willow Garage, and watch Jeff Bezos to understand how to be a merchant.
Create. Create. Create.

So tonight, I’ll have a glass of red wine to remember my professor, think of his family, and the students to whom he meant so much. And tomorrow I’ll pick myself up, and try to figure out just what I can create next.

5 Replies to “Goodbye Professor Tombrello”

  1. Sorry to hear this news. I never met him but knew a lot of classmates who liked him a lot. Love the notes you took from your conversation with him – very inspiring (and I’m really not a physicist!) Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Such a lovely tribute. My dad loved teaching and was so inspired by his students, their creativity and curiosity. Heartfelt appreciation from the Tombrello family.

  3. Dear Dave, Tom spoke of you so often. And your post is so meaningful–for didn’t all of us hear him reflect in just those ways. so it brings back his voice. Again, for those associated with Physics 11, I want you to know how much each and every one of you meant to Tom. He never was tired of sharing his joy in you. You made his life better every day, no matter how many other challenges he was facing. And I loved being able to introduce him to Skype so he could be in touch, even from Kauai. Tom knew that you would take the Phys 11 ambiance into the future. Fondly, Stephanie

  4. Hey Dave – thanks for sharing your memories of Professor Tombrello. You were closer to him than most in our class of Phys 11. I remember you co-wrote that sliding rocks on La Playa paper with him. I loved how enthusiastic he was coming up with those puzzles for us to think about. He was a great person – his loss has been and will continue to be deeply felt.
    I hope you are well.

  5. I didn’t intend to re-read your wonderful post but was led to it. It continues to be a balm on a never-healing wound. But as you knew, Tom was a move-forward person, and we try to emulate him, especially when it is hard. If you can, visit the redwood dedicated to him and Kerstin Arusha.

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