Remembering Riki Kuklick

Yesterday I found out that one of my mentors from college and graduate school, Henrika Kuklick, died.

Riki was one of the professors who got me hooked on the history of science, and along with Rob Kohler helped make me who I am. In the fall of my freshman year I had taken a seminar with Tom Hughes, mainly because it sounded interesting and he had a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, and then in the spring had a class with Hughes and Rob, who would go on to be my undergraduate and graduate advisor. In my sophomore year I took Riki’s sociology of science class, and from then on hardly a semester went by when I wasn’t taking something with her.

Riki was a kind of intellectual performer I’d never encountered before. I never knew anyone who could keep track of so many thoughts: I marveled at how she could start a sentence, divert herself, then go off on something else, but then work her way back up and finish the sentence 20 minutes later. She had a kind of unreserved enthusiasm for life and ideas that really resonated with me; my decision to work on Victorian science was influenced in no small part by her description of living in England and working in the archives there. When I was a bit older and had more of a critical sensibility, I found her scholarship to be really outstanding, erudite without being purposely complicated: I taught her Great Zimbabwe Ruins article in several of my classes, and it always went over well.

She was also a great person and teacher, always supportive and generous, great at helping you think through arguments. Not the closest reader, though; lots of chapters came back with “Good work” scrawled at the end, and little more. (That’s why you needed Rob Kohler on your committee. That man could line edit a diffraction grating.)

There are lots of people who can hardly remember classes from college, or the professors they had. Riki, in contrast, introduced to me a set of questions about the ways people, ideas, and technologies interact that I’m still dealing with. It’s why I dedicated my first book to her and Rob. And I think I’ll spend the rest of my life working on things that we talked about. Fortunately they’re very big questions.

I find as I close in on 50, I don’t particularly notice my age: I’ve had some grey hair since I was in graduate school (it’ll do that to you), and aside from bifocals, I’m not in worse physical shape (though that’s not the highest bar ever set), and more important, I’m a better writer and thinker than I’ve ever been in my life. But what I can’t comprehend is other people getting older, too: my parents are in their 70s, which I find weird, and Riki was 70, which to me is inconceivable: my memory of her was fixed in the 1980s.

It’s one of life’s ironies that the gap a person leaves when they’re gone is as large as the impact they made when they were alive. By that standard, Riki’s passing leaves a very large gap indeed.

3 thoughts on “Remembering Riki Kuklick

  1. Michael Dennis says:

    Thanks for such a lovely remembrance of someone who affected me as well.

  2. Joshua Buhs says:

    Thanks for this, Alex. I still remember reading the Great Zimbabwe ruins article in your class.

  3. James Capshew says:

    Well-said, Alex. Those were golden times in the HSS department at Penn in the 1980s.


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