Alec Johnson was born December 18, 1974, and died December 23, 2014, five days after his 40th birthday. He was an astrophysicist working in fields so technically specialized that it was hard for his friends, even those with a science background, to grasp what he was up to. He had math going around in his head from grade school on through St. Olaf College and his graduation from UW Madison with a PhD in Applied Mathematics in 2011. Math was Alec’s gift and it could have been his ticket to a comfortable life at a prestigious university but along with his keen intelligence he held a radical belief in the Christian obligation to the poor. He took literally Jesus’s statement, “What you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.” And so Alec led a rather unusual life.
At UW Madison, while refining a program for solving nonlinear differential equations and creating mathematical models of the interaction of high-speed ions (bare atoms) moving fast through magnetic fields, he befriended the handicapped and the poor. He got interested in the plight of poor children in Haiti. After his colleague, Dr. Tonghai Yang, established the Hometown Education Foundation to support school children in rural China, Alec not only supported children financially, but wrote them individual letters and then visited them in person. For a year Alec lived as a homeless person in Madison in order to better understand their lives. He learned how to sleep on bare floors without blanket or mattress. He learned to live with the bare minimum of possessions.
A long-time friend of Alec’s in Madison said, “Alec had the mind of Christ with a depth and obedience I've never seen. It was not something he 'put on' in situations. It permeated all his being, whether worshipping or at a baseball game. He showed me how to be a true friend to people we might think of as projects—lonely people to whom we might feel a duty.”
His career led him to Belgium and the Catholic University of Leuven, where he did important groundwork useful in the design of nuclear-fusion containment vessels—one of humankind's hopes for clean energy—and also used to predict the effects of the material ejected from solar flares (from “sunspots”) on the earth's magnetic fields. Strong solar flares can damage satellites, computers, and the electrical power grid. Predicting whether they will hit the earth, and if so, when and how strongly, allows equipment to be shut down to decrease damage.
In Belgium, he worked with the DEEP and DEEP-ER supercomputer projects of the European Union to speed up programs running on “grids” made up of thousands of computers. At the same time, he developed ties to the poor of Uganda, made numerous trips there, and gave most of his income to provide scholarships to Ugandan students and to promote sustainable farming.
He traveled the world with only a tablet and a small backpack. He made friends whom he deeply cared for including Anywarach Joshua Carter with whom he collaborated on care for Ugandan orphans, and enjoyed long conversations about health, agriculture, community development, and education.
Out of his own pocket, Alec funded scholarships for about 60 students from grade school into college who could not have otherwise attended school. He paid for school gardens, tree nurseries, and donated the land for a coffee nursery that last year gave out 360,000 seedlings to the poor. He planned to buy land for a high school for the needy, with enough acreage to permit farming. His plan at his death was to teach university mathematics in Uganda.
Alec was willing to be taken advantage of—once. After that, he always had work that the person could do to earn more. “They reveal themselves,” he said wryly. He began a goat project in Uganda, requiring that when the goat had a kid, it was to be given to another family to grow the project naturally.
In the DEEP project, Alec was leading work on a really hard and important problem. “He was doing great work,” said his supervisor, Dr. Giovanni Lapenta, “and we will be lost without him.” The DEEP final report included a kind tribute from his colleagues: “We all have come to know Alec as an extremely passionate, inspiring and hard-working colleague and scientist. But he was missed in the project most of all for his kind, friendly and caring personality.”
The day before Alec died, one of his Ugandan friends had a dream that Alec visited the St. Augustine community in Uganda and wished them farewell, saying he had now assigned someone else to take over. Alec's family will use gifts in Alec's memory to continue his commitments around the world, working to build leaders with character, to provide sustainability and accountability in education and agriculture.