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Popular UC San Diego astronomer Andy Friedman dies at 41

Andy Friedman is pictured with his wife, Kristen Keerma Friedman.
Andy Friedman, a UC San Diego astronomer known for his insights about supernovas and the expansion of the universe, is pictured with his wife, Kristen Keerma Friedman.
(Courtesy)

Andy Friedman, a UC San Diego astronomer known for his insights about supernovas and the expansion of the universe and for explaining them to the public in places like Astronomy magazine and San Diego Comic-Con, died July 10 in San Diego. He was 41.

Friedman, who spoke with the joy and zest of Carl Sagan, one of his childhood heroes, succumbed to a rare form of cancer, according to his wife, Kristen Keerma Friedman.

He became the third prominent figure from UCSD to die in recent weeks. The campus also is mourning the loss of mathematician Ron Graham and virologist Flossie Wong-Staal, who co-discovered the cause of AIDS.

Friedman had suffered health problems over the years. But news of his death stunned friends and colleagues, including UCSD physicist Brian Keating, who recruited him to La Jolla, and physicist-science fiction author David Brin.

The trio made up “The Three Physicists,” an informal group that periodically met to give public talks on science and philosophy.

“Andy had opportunities to work with luminaries at other places, like MIT and Harvard, but he came here and we were so glad to have him,” Keating said.

“He had a relentless curiosity, unparalleled mathematic ability and a humanitarian soul. He could communicate with people, and his passion was infectious when he talked about things like quasars and the cosmos.”

Brin said: “I’ve never known anybody who enjoyed a wider variety of ways to be alive. He was a scientist whose other interests extended to sculpture and painting and music and dabbling in science fiction. He had an epic rock and fossil collection. His passions included poking away at God by exploring the universe.”

Friedman was born April 7, 1979, at Mercy Hospital in San Diego. He was the son of a cardiologist and a producer of Jewish musicals.

“He was raised in a home that loved science fiction and documentaries and books,” his wife said.

Friedman earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy at UC Berkeley and a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics at Harvard. He went on to do research at MIT, working with renowned physicists David Kaiser and Alan Guth.

Friedman joined the UCSD research faculty in 2019, partly because of the opportunities in La Jolla and his desire to be close to his family.

His specialty was quantum mechanics, which is used to explain how the universe works at scales so small they’re hard to conceive, and supernova, an explosion known as the “last hurrah” of a star.

With Brin and Keating, he also dove into esoterica, tackling subjects such as the physics of free will.

“Did you all come here today of your own free will or was your interest somehow programmed into the universe all the way back to the Big Bang?” Friedman asked at the start of a talk in 2015.

“I really do believe we have free will. So my approach is to ask: ‘Do the laws of physics permit it? And if not, what ingredients might be missing?’”

Friedman is survived by his wife, his parents, his wife’s parents and her sister. ◆