Robby Villegas Died (1968 to 2010)

By Xah Lee. Date:

Am deeply touched to have learned today, that one of my very few friend, a best friend, a world's top expert of Mathematica, Robert Villegas, died, in 2010-10.

Am still not sure what's the cause or story. I have not been in touch with Robby since 2007. On Robby's site, i found this tribute from Stephen Wolfram (

With the tragic death of Robby Villegas, the world has lost an exceptional mind, and one of the great scholars and guardians of the Mathematica language. It was June 6, 1992, on a pleasant sunny day, just after an honorary degree ceremony at Knox College in Galesberg, Illinois. An eager young man who had just received his own degree came up to me, keen to tell me that he thought that the design of the function Outer[] in Mathematica was inadequate, and needed to be enhanced. We talked for quite a while. And eventually I said, “So what are you doing now that you’ve graduated? We’re hiring people at our company to work on Mathematica; you should come and join us.” And so it was that on June 29, 1992, Robby Villegas came to join Wolfram Research.

In the 15 years that followed, my email archive records more than 10,000 messages that include his name, with the number peaking in 1995. The syntax and semantics of a zillion functions. Ideas for extending, generalizing, clarifying features in Mathematica. A vast amount of work concerned with getting things in Mathematica just right. In making everything as clean and logical as it could be. In many ways, Robby Villegas was the first full-time design analyst for Mathematica. I think he personally knew every function in the system—its character, and its quirks.

And pretty soon when people were discussing some abstruse (or not so abstruse) potential feature of some new Mathematica function, I would just say, “Ask Robby; he’ll be able to figure it out.”

Robby Villegas contributed a great many ideas to Mathematica. To list manipulation and functional programming operations. And to mathematical typesetting, and the MathML web standard.

We have been lucky enough with Mathematica to be able to build a very pure and robust intellectual structure, that we can progressively add to over the years. Robby Villegas was the architect of some of the most demanding and elegant sections of this structure.

I remember one day when we were discussing some function or another, and someone was saying that we should do something in a particular way, because that's how some other function in Mathematica worked. And Robby Villegas said that perhaps that precedent was not so good, because that other function was designed very early in the history of Mathematica, when designs were rougher.

And in that moment I realized that Robby Villegas had become the first true scholar of the Mathematica language. With an understanding not only of its current structure, but also the whole arc of its history. With his eagerness, he seemed in many ways so young. But yet he brought to his judgment about Mathematica a certain seasoned wisdom.

Over the years, I worked on many projects with Robby Villegas. From all sorts of detailed pieces of Mathematica design, to the emergency need to produce Mathematica code for notation for numbers and polynomials from antiquity (code that lives on for example in Wolfram|Alpha).

In later years, there were times when it could take a while to hear from Robby Villegas. But always the responses were careful, clear, and creative. And profoundly committed to making sure that the Mathematica language that we have all created remained as elegant and unified as possible.

There are countless specific functions in Mathematica that owe their structure and syntax to Robby Villegas. And as the system grows, these functions become the cornerstones of yet more development—building on the legacy of Robby Villegas.

Every day, around the world, people use those functions that Robby Villegas designed. And though all will benefit from it, few will pause to admire the elegance of the design. Or know about the wonderful human being who put so much effort into creating and ensuring that elegance: Robby Villegas, a great scholar and guardian of the Mathematica language, and its first true design analyst.

It is a sorrow to have learned about his death. Robby and me are the same age. I'm still not sure how or what's up. I'll be updating this page in the coming days as i learn more, and perhaps writes some personal detail of our friendship.

Robby is truly the most humble guy. And as Stephen Wolfram expressed, he's got the deepest analytical abilities on programing languages (at least on Mathematica). He taught me many things about Mathematica while i was a intern at Wolfram Research in 1995. Stephen's description of him, in particular, “(one of) great scholars and guardians of the Mathematica language”, is no exaggeration. (I'm not sure about the “one of”, i'd rather say “the one”, but Stephen knows about perhaps 1000 times more Mathematica programers than me.) Robby is certainly a language design type of guy. But he is the most humble, innately, earnestly, and has no ambitions, and is one of the most confidence-lacking, engineer-geek , socially inept, type of person.

I was rather surprised Stephan Wolfram wrote so highly of him and published it, though, i couldn't find it on Wolfram Research's blog or his personal blog. Perhaps it's circulated within his company.

I met Robby in 1995 when i went to intern at Wolfram. Before that, i have exchanged several letters with him in the Mathematica forum “comp.soft-sys.math.mathematica” or email, on technical matters. (will dig these emails from my archive later)

While at Wolfram Research Inc (wri) in Champaign, Illinois, he is my best personal friend, who is my personal guide to the company, to the town, as well teaching me a ton of Mathematica. We certainly share many personality traits, in looking for elegance in computer language, in analyzing language constructs, in philosophizing, of interest in math and sciences, in chatting about picking up girls. He is also into Asian culture, Chinese food, and has a weak spot for Asian girls.

Also, he seems to be a perpetual bleeding-heart. Always concerned about blacks, women's rights, the underprivileged, or abhor those in power and manipulators. I think being ridiculed as a unattractive “geek” is one of his psychological wound.

I stayed at wri for 6 months. I was asked to stay to become a regular employee, but due to my own personal psychological problems i wasn't sure i should abandon school in getting a degree. Robby was one of the person i consulted, and partly due to his advice, i did not stay. In fact, the “decline offer” letter i sent to Stephen Wolfram was drafted by Robby. (in the end, i never got a degree neither.)

In 2007, i went to wri for a interview. The day before, i called Robby but didn't got in touch. Then, while at Champaign, i asked to see Robby and was told he was no longer with the company. Apparently, he quit or was fired. It was kind of a shock. I knew that Robby has developed health problems. He always had problems with insomnia, and he is not very good dealing with stress.

I haven't contacted Robby since. I felt sorry that i did not contact Robby earlier before my interview and got this rather embarrassing news in the company. And i feel sorry that i did not contact him since neither. (I haven't contacted Robby also because my personality, similar to him — a sort of perpetual procrastination, that sometimes shuts out all closest friends.)

Just this month, i thought about Robby. And today, while on the social network i went to see his profile and about to write a “hello”, and saw a “RIP” message. This is when i learned of his death.

Here is some Robby's sites:

Robby Villegas
Robby Villegas. This is his daily appearance.

Robby Jumped Off a Building

Apparently, Robby killed himself. He jumped off a building. (that's painful! Robby.) Here's a local news story. Man's death on campus an apparent suicide By Mary Schenk. At Quote:

CHAMPAIGN — University of Illinois police and the Champaign County coroner's office are investigating the apparent suicide of a man found on campus Saturday morning.

UI Lt. Roy Acree said a passer-by found the body of a man on the west side of the parking garage located in the 800 block of South Sixth Street shortly before 11 a.m.

Acree said the man apparently jumped from the top level of the deck. His car was found on the top, and it's believed he left a suicide note.

Police estimate the death occurred sometime after 8 a.m. Saturday because the man's body was fairly dry and it had been raining before then, Acree said.

Acree said the man was from Champaign.

Robby's Goodbye Note

There's this memorial page posted by Robby's friends on his site at: Reading it, i came across several Wolfram employees i remember having met, some i recognize as Robby's good friends. In it, there's this post, apparently Robby's goodbye note.

Robby via Christina Szabo Says:
October 7th, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Robby wanted to “give some explanation to people in general” and asked
me to post this, which he wrote. -Christina

Subject: the end is important in all things

Robby Villegas October 2 at 7:17am

Depression, and even more so, physical exhaustion, continues to claim more and more of my life, to render a larger percentage of each day either unusable, or a sloggin, dragging fight to keep myself upright just to get through the basics of my day. On top of fatigue, a few years ago I began to develop a tendency toward anxiety, which gradually became more frequent and of faster onset, throwing a specter of borderline panic attacks over many of my activities. Eventually, I was taking partial doses of my prescription sleep medication *preemptively* before simple activities like skating class, meeting friends at a bar, going to a theater, or spending an evening studying at a cafe.

The sleep and exhaustion problems that forced me to suddenly quit working in January 2007 have gradually worsened, and I have run out of means at this point.

More important than financial means, though: the ratio of quality of life to pained struggling has passed a threshold. Eventually, I’ll forget what it even felt like to be happy, the memories of what I was will fade further, I won't be able to appreciate any of the good parts of life, and I’ll be bitter, not even a shadow of my self.

This must not happen. For many years, I have felt that some day I'd have to make that call that it's time to go; that most of the good stuff was past, and the proportion of hope and new joy to the pain and effort that goes into rallying would fall too low I want to go out while I can still reflect on the good things, and go out really feeling and believing “I lived.”

Worse than the death of the body is the death of pieces of the self while still alive, and the memories that provide conviction that there was a lot worth being here for, while it lasted.

In retrospect, I probably should have made this call last winter, or at the very latest, early summer, given that the last few months have had a marked dulling effect on me. But, two decades of fighting depression, rallying through many dozens of life-hating and self-hating episodes ranging from bad patches to truly close calls, and being thankful I did each time I got a “new lease on life” that was followed by more of the worthwhile stuff of life … two decades of that makes it *intensely* difficult to make that final call.

Albeit more weary and dull than I’ve ever been, I am thankful that there's enough left of me to look back (even with difficulty) and appreciate all the good people, activities, and interests that made My Life worth living during that time. So it is perhaps not too late to exit while there's a reasonable amount left of Me.

Yours in truth,
Robby “R. Scott”

Not sure what to say.

Robby has told me in around 2004 to 2005, our last big exchange, that he has serious insomnia problems. But i don't recall any serious depression. Actually, i remember now he has told me that he had depression episodes, which i did too, and we chatted our experiences. But i recall it's all past tense, and this chat was in 1995. (depression is hard to define) But i didn't know it was getting to the point of killing himself, but again, for certain type of persons who are not emotionally responsive (i.e. cold, lone, type, who hide their emotions or unable to express it), it could happen on any seemingly good day. Robby is extremely sensitive to stress and pressure. He's the type of nice guy who find it hard to say no, and when he actually had to, it's after huge mental struggle.

So i guess, for a personality as lone as me and Robby, i can't say i feel particular regret or inappropriateness on Robby's act of killing himself. He didn't feel worthwhile to live on, so he had to go. I certainly wished things could be different, and wished that we'd have communicated about his situation. I believe, if i told him of my personal situation, he'd feel better. We certainly would have great conversations about the pros and cons on methods of suicide, in fact i believe we had such a conversation before. I missed a friend, who is one of the greatest unsung expert of Mathematica, of which, i could certainly use some help, and as a alley in the war on computer languages.

In the future, i'll dig up some of Robby's emails and post here.

The world has 6.5 billions of people. Due to the incredible advances of communication tech, especially the internet, we the masses get to see all sort of weirdos and behaviors directly. (For example, shown in shock sites, 4chan, etc.) In many ways, they are not weird, they are just us normal human animals going about our daily lives that was unseen under mainstream before. And, in the past 5 years, we greatly see many suicides (on facebook et al), and in many cases, literally watched thru online video someone killing himself.

Am not sure where am going with this, but i guess let's open even more communication. Legalize suicide. Stop censorship of all sorts except things like how to make nuclear bomb. We don't like pain, and we don't want to see our friends to choose to end their life. But we don't want whatever problems that leads to that path. Hiding and banning is not going to help. More open info, more communication, we can have more understanding of us the human animals, and more happiness with us and our friends. Maybe Robby had biologically rooted psychogical problems. But am sure, whatever his suffering of depression, can be helped better if whatever caused his stress, socially induced self-loathing, closet inhibitions (such as gay people), parental or family problems, can be reduced. Tolerate, and appreciate, your friends, co-workers, or strangers, while they are alive.

It's kinda sad that many of my math friends, died in recent years. Perhaps it just means am getting old.


The following is posted to

I'm very saddened to hear this.

Robby is one of my best friend, if not the closest who we exchange deep personal feelings.

i met Robby face to face when i was intern at Wolfram in 1995. Before that, we are acquaintances on comp.soft-sys.math.mathematica. He became my personal friend, as well as being my guide to the company, the town, and taught me a huge amount of Mathematica.

after 1995, we have kept in touch most of the time. Last major exchange happened during 2004 to 2005, when we were exploring the social networking and IM chatting on and yahoo etc.

in ~2005, he told me about his insomnia problems and stress. Though, i never guessed he's got depression problems back and so bad. I never have guessed he'd take his life.

Robby is extremely sensitive to stress and pressure. He's the type of nice guy who find it hard to say no, and when he actually had to, it's after huge mental struggle.

gosh… what to say, you are dead Robby. We could've chatted about language design, porn, problems of life, and so much more. What about your studies of C? and the desire to know more math?

though, i guess after reading robby's goodbye note “the end is important in all things”, am not sure what to say. Such a engineer attitude. I guess i couldn't help but repeat “the end is important in all things” too, as Andre puts it “Robby did the math”. Yeah, the ending is important, but this ending doesn't seem to be a good one.

thanks to robby's family and friends for this page. I miss robby very much.


The following was posted to comp.lang.lisp newsgroup.

… so, apparently, he killed himself.

not lisp related, but i thought it is interesting to many here, because Robby is very interested in computer languages, and share with many of us being ubberly socially inept and frustrated.

he's not a emacs user. Occasionally uses vi. I think he's main editor is NEdit (if he hasn't changed since 1990s). Yes he's a linux user. Became a Redhat linux user as his main machine in late 1990s. Before that, his main machine was NeXT.

You could find many of his writings in comp.soft-sys.math.mathematica, but i believe they all dates in the mid 1990s. He's a extremely keep-to-himself guy. He's also the first computer programer that i got to know in real meat space, who hates Windows and Microsoft.