Jeffrey Locke Elman

January 22, 1948June 28, 2018
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July 29, 2018 Jeffrey Locke Elman was born on January 22, 1948 in Burbank, California to Mildred Mae McDaniel and Irving Stanton Elman, whom he called Tex and Irv. Along with brother Cory, Jeff traversed the country 20 times with his family before the age of 16, living in New York City and Palisades, New York before finally settling in Pacific Palisades, California. Tex and Irv wrote and produced for television, movies, and the theater, providing for a colorful, and at times unconventional, childhood. Jeff graduated from Palisades High School in 1965 (made famous by Time Magazine’s cover story ‘Today’s Teenagers’ and the book “What Really Happened to the Class of ‘65?”). He spent the summer before college living with a local family in Uganda through an American Field Service program. Jeff attended Harvard University and graduated in 1969 with an AB in Social Relations and phone hacking, which brought him to the attention of the FBI. After college he worked as a computer programmer and bilingual high school teacher with a sideline in political activism. In 1970, Jeff met his wife Margaret Ravel in Cambridge . They married in 1972 and moved to Austin, Texas where they both attended the University of Texas at Austin for graduate school. Their daughter, Emily Luz Elman, was born in Austin in 1975. Jeff received his Ph.D. in Linguistics in 1977 and later that year, joined the faculty of the University of California, San Diego in the Linguistics Department. Son, Jeremy Andrew Elman, was born in San Diego in 1981. While at UCSD, Jeff co-founded the world’s first Department of Cognitive Science in 1986. In 1990, he introduced the simple recurrent neural network, also known as the 'Elman network', which is capable of processing sequentially ordered stimuli, and has since become widely used. Between 2006 and 2014, Jeff served as the Dean of the Division of Social Sciences and most recently, he and Rajesh Gupta co-founded the UCSD Halicioğlu Data Science Institute. In October 2016 Jeff was was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in recognition of his life’s work. Jeff and Ray Eller met in 1995 and registered as Domestic Partners in 2001 until they were married in 2016. Together, Jeff and Ray shared a very happy life filled with family, close friends, and two of the best dogs in the world, Billy and Jasper. Jeff was a passionate naturalist and photographer. He and Ray volunteered as docents at Torrey Pines State Reserve. Jeff was also an active fund raiser for causes he held close including the IRC, Yalla, Torrey Pines, and he was in the beginnings of a role to raise funds and awareness for the Ornish program at UCSD’s Cardiac Rehab Unit. Jeff found joy in his grandchildren, Stella Mae and Oliver Locke, children of Emily Elman and her husband Nate Flansburgh, and Henry Jacob and Elise Marie Austen, children of Jeremy Elman and his wife Erin Clevenger Elman. As with his children, he had a unique ability to spark a sense of wonder in his grandchildren, creating special worlds out of crafts and art and storytelling. His singular gift was his ability to listen, with complete focus and without judgment. Jeff will be remembered in the hearts of all who met him for his humility, gentleness, kindness and the love he freely gave to all.


Jeffrey Locke Elman

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Janet Wiles

January 25, 2019

@Jeff, This week was your birthday, as Ken McRae reminded me. I’ve been rereading our email correspondence over a quarter of a century, remembering the good times, and they were so very good. Elsewhere I will write about our research together, and that amazing feeling you fostered – that with simple tools we could unlock the universe. Here I want to remember the fun and the friendship. I loved the messages you sent me on my birthday over the years!

Hi Janet,
Happy Birthday! I was going to write tomorrow—but just realized that today here is tomorrow there. So I hope today you have a good tomorrow. Or maybe vice versa. (Where is that White Rabbit when you need him??) In any case, have a very Happy Birthday!

Do you remember the year you were in Brisbane on my birthday? I think you were on your way to Heron Island with Ray. We ate at a bush tucker restaurant with friends, dining on alligator and emu, with a panoply of Australian wines (what’s the collective term for glasses of wine? I need a linguist to tell me). That was the year that the running joke started – that you would agree to serve on any Australian research centre board provided it promised to hold a workshop on Heron Isl. You reminded me when the Centre of Excellence started and you agreed to serve on the advisory board. There are so many more memories - thank you for them all.
My condolences to Ray and family. I am honoured to have known Jeff, and like the wider community of friends and researchers, to have been touched by his friendship, generosity, and wisdom.

Hatte Blejer

October 9, 2018

Jeff and I were graduate students in the same class in the linguistics department at the University of Texas in Austin. I also knew Jeff in his family setting and remember when Emily was born. Our families were part of the small Jewish community in Austin. We were in touch also after he moved to UCSD because our careers took a somewhat parallel path, mine being in natural language processing and related A.I. disciplines and for many years I ran R&D in those areas for my company. Coincidentally, one of my friends and former employees went on to graduate school in linguistics and ended up interviewing with and joining Jeff at UCSD years later.

The three memories I have of Jeff are vivid and lasting -- his keen intelligence in our phonology class with Dr. Royal Skousen, his love of family, and how he had the kindest and most innocent heart of all of our class. We were a special group. I have kept in touch with many of our classmates, but Jeff stands out as such a good man, that upon hearing of his death nearly four decades later, I was saddened and wanted his memory to endure and his friends and family to know that all of us appreciated him. You are missed Jeff.

Gary Cottrell

October 7, 2018

I’ve known Jeff for at least 33 years, since I moved to San Diego in 1985 and began attending PDP group meetings. I was there in the PDP group meeting when he first presented his simple recurrent networks. I said “I don’t believe it!” - how could it remember further back in time by only learning from the previous time step? Obviously, I was wrong. I immediately started playing with them, and they figured in about 10 of my papers (including one with Jeff).

Not many people have network architectures named after them by the community - I can only think of two - Jordan nets and Elman nets. I recall at one PDP meeting he was having trouble getting a net to learn a complex task, and I suggested a hidden layer before the recurrent layer - I was hoping it would be called “the Cottrell layer” ;-), but it did allow the net to learn.

Jeff’s incredible skill was to boil down an issue to as simple a demonstration as possible, but no simpler. This clarity of mind led to Finding Structure in Time. It was a tour-de-force, and it’s no wonder it’s been cited well over 9500 times.

Once, Liz Bates sent a message to a local mailing list about how her competition model was a connectionist model. I disagreed, because there was no implementation. After some further altercation about how I didn’t get to decide who was in the “connectionist club,” Jeff came to my defense, stating that ever since he “jumped on a cop,” he had inserted himself into such altercations! He managed to calm things down, and it all ended when I sent Liz an ascii “Connectionist Club Membership Card.”

Jeff always exuded a kind of eagerness, excitement, and enthusiasm for everything he was interested in. He encouraged me to become a docent at Torrey Pines state park, too!

I will miss Jeff terribly, but his spirit will live on at UCSD in the many people whose lives he touched here and around the world. Rest in peace, Jeff. You deserve a rest after all that you have done to change the world.

Michelle K Gross

October 4, 2018

I am grateful that Jeff took the time to correspond with me in 2012 about the time I spent studying linguistics under him in the 1980's. We also had a good laugh over the phone about his successful role (in partnership with RB) in stopping the Morris worm from using the San Diego ARPAnet configuration.
To teachers, Jeff was a teacher; to linguists, a linguist; to programmers, a programmar; and to cog sci'ers, a cognitive scienist. But to his family, he was everything: He shared with his students his hesitancy in disrupting his family's lives when venturing to the Planck Institite.
My condolences.

Grant Goodall

October 4, 2018

Today's event was a beautiful way to remember Jeff and the impact he had on so many people. I first met him in 1979, when I was a beginning grad student and he was my phonetics teacher. Shortly thereafter, he supervised the project that became my first journal publication. I later went off in different directions, literally and figuratively, but when I returned to UCSD as a faculty member in 2003, Jeff was there to offer a big welcome. His intellectual depth and rigor, together with his genuine warmth and seemingly unending energy, made a huge impression on me, as they did on so many. I am very lucky to have known him.

Elena Lieven

August 7, 2018

I have known Jeff for many years as a friend and highly valued colleague. He came to the inaugural workshop for the Language acquisition group which I organised at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig in 2000 and remained a close friend ever since. I am heartbroken at his death. More recently, he became an international co-investigator in our LuCiD Centre (the UK-ESRC International Centre for Language and Communicative Development). He was a source of great support in shaping our plans for LuCiD which started in 2014. As well as being an intellectual giant, pioneering research on artificial neural networks and language processing and co-authoring one of the most thought-provoking books on language development to appear in the last 40 years (Rethinking Innateness), he was an incredibly kind man and enormously generous with his time. He visited the Centre in September 2017 and met with early career researchers at all three of our partner sites. He spent time with each of them, learning about their research and their plans for the future, and offering invaluable suggestions. We will all miss him very much and we offer deep sympathy and condolence to his partner and family.

Ping Li

August 6, 2018

Coming back from a long summer trip abroad to learn Jeff’s passing away is deep sadness added onto a tiring body. This also brings back the saddest feelings from 2003 when my other UCSD mentor Liz Bates was gone. Back in April this year, I sent Jeff a congratulatory note on the new UCSD Halicioglu Data Science Institute, and at the same time I heard Jeff suffered from a heart attack but I believed that he would recover with his good spirit, life style, and sense of humor. I hadn't received his reply but I had hope he would get well soon, until this news now. Jeff was a mentor, a model scientist, a friend, and above all, he was such a nice guy. I’m sad to have to use his own words (when he described Liz Bates) but there is no better way other than saying, “Jeff is larger than life”…

Zhuowen Tu

July 29, 2018

So many times, either in the morning or in the afternoon, I have seen Jeff walking by the Social Science Research Building and we would exchange pleasantries with each other. That meant so much to me.

Jeff and his hallmark smile will forever be remembered.

Rest in peace, Jeff.


July 26, 2018

May God bless and comfort you and your family during this difficult period, please accept my sincere condolences

Jeff Elman your actions inspired others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you were a true leader and a wonderful friend! Everyone in the Division of Social Sciences will miss his ready smile, creative brain and helpful attitude. The Dean Elman I knew was always giving compliments or giving a helping hand to his staff. When I joined the Division of Social Sciences I struggled the first week in my new job, Jeff told me "you're a rockstar"! I will remember that conversation forever, it sure gave me the courage and confidence I needed to tackle the challenges of a Division Business Manager's job! Jeff always made sure we knew we were appreciated and we will truly miss his kind ways and friendship. You have my deepest sympathy.

Always in our hearts never forgotten,
Barb Fager

Mark Johnson

July 26, 2018

I first met Jeff when I joined Annette (Karmiloff-Smith) while she was doing the PDP summer camp in UCSD under Jeff’s leadership in 1991. Annette and Jeff were already firm friends, and over some conversations the idea for the book “Rethinking Innateness” (RI) was born. RI was very much Jeff’s baby. Given that several of the co-authors were passionately committed to their own particular views, developing a consensus statement required Jeff’s full range of diplomatic and leadership skills! I can think of no-one other than Jeff that could have pulled off leading this multi-author book, with his consistency of purpose, ability to cajole people to produce what was agreed (not necessarily what they wanted!), and gentle positive energy that kept it moving forward. The book was a great success, influential and has been highly cited.

After we moved back to London, Jeff (later joined by Ray) became a regular visitor. During one visit we almost persuaded him to take a job in London, but his ties to California were strong. On another visit they borrowed our flat in the centre of town only to apprehend a burglar trying to enter through a window during the night (or more strictly speaking they apprehend the leg of the burglar, while the rest of him hung outside!). With calm unflappability Jeff waited until the next morning to call us and relay the events of the previous night, and their interesting conversation with the London Bobby (policemen) that had come to their aid.

Even a couple of years ago, when I was considering taking on a new job with significant managerial responsibilities, it was Jeff’s calm but person-centred analysis of the pro’s and con’s that I turned to (and that helped me take the leap). And, of course, I will never forget Jeff and Ray’s unstinting support during Annette’s terminal illness. I already miss him badly, and my thoughts are with Ray and the family.