Henry Abarbanel, 1943-2023

An Appreciation of Henry Abarbanel: Del Mar’s Own Renaissance Man

May 31, 1943 – May 26, 2023

Beth Levine and Henry Abarbanel

With the sudden passing of Henry Abarbanel, Del Mar lost one of its most notable and devoted citizens. Shock rippled through the community. How could that be? Henry was so vital, so active, so full of life, so full of plans and action. He was laid to rest on May 30th in a moving service led by Alexis Berk, Senior Rabbi of Temple Solel, for a large group of Henry’s family, friends, fellow faculty, students, and admirers. On May 31st, he would have turned 80, and in those decades of life, he had an impact that will never be forgotten. Always a brilliant student, Henry Don Isaac Abarbanel received his B.S. in physics from Caltech and his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University at the age of 22. He served on the faculties of Princeton, Stanford, Northwestern, the University of Chicago, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz and, since 1982, at UC San Diego. He held appointments as Distinguished Professor of Physics at UCSD and Research Physicist at the Marine Physical Laboratory, Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The range of his intellect was extraordinary, and his contributions to science were legion. One mark of his distinction was his 50-year membership in JASON, a select, independent group of elite biologists, chemists, oceanographers, mathematicians, computer scientists, and physicists whose charge is to advise the U.S. government on matters of science and technology, often of a classified nature.


While first and foremost Henry was a preeminent scientist, scholar, writer, and UCSD professor known worldwide for brilliant, groundbreaking work in theoretical physics, he somehow found time to make an enormous local impact, too. With his wife Beth Levine, he moved to Del Mar in 1983, and the family grew with the arrival of daughters Brett and Sara. In 1989, Henry was appointed to the Del Mar Planning Commission and went on to be elected to the Del Mar City Council from 1992 to 2000 (serving as Mayor, 1995-1996) and elected again to the Council from 2004 to 2008. In his civic role, he served on numerous regional bodies concerned with energy, wastewater, infrastructure, and quality of life in the San Diego region, bringing Del Mar’s expertise to the table for many critical regional bodies including the SANDAG Energy Working Group, for which he served as co-chair. He was appointed by Governor Brown to the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board in 2011. 


Twenty-five years ago, Henry was part of a small group of Del Mar citizens who founded The Sandpiper, knowing that it was vital to have a local journal to keep an eye on government and help bind the community together. At his death, he was serving as a member of the Del Mar Community Alliance Board but had also served on the Boards of the Del Mar Foundation and Planned Parenthood and managed his daughter’s soccer teams, all the while presenting lectures around the world on theoretical physics subjects of breathtaking range and complexity. And still, he was teaching, advising students, conducting research, and otherwise tackling some of the most vexing challenges of the modern world. One wonders if Henry ever had time to sleep (though daughter Brett proclaimed him a world-class napper).


For all his public accomplishments and academic accolades, Henry Abarbanel is remembered most by his Del Mar friends as the “pathological optimist” – someone who was always a positive force in the community. As a friend remarked, Henry believed in a Del Mar that truly reflected the Community Plan, that was filled with citizens interested in preserving the environment and the shared values of fellowship and community spirit. He fought hard against the onslaught of avaricious developers who sought to buy elected officials and monetize the natural resources and assets of his town. Henry was ever vigilant in ensuring a competent government, and he served ably on the City Council during some of Del Mar’s most challenging times. As his friend Harold Feder said, Henry was a true “happy warrior” who loved campaigning and governing. Walking the neighborhoods, meeting new people, talking to them, hearing their concerns, finding solutions to their problems – such efforts brought him immense joy.


As word spread of his untimely death, many paid tribute. Former students proclaimed the lifelong impact he had on them, professionally and personally. One colleague, Steven Block, said, “He tended to reject cynicism in favor of direct action, even when it seemed that he was just tilting at windmills. Henry was indefatigable.” From Gert Cauwenberghs: “Henry was a giant in nonlinear systems neuroscience and has inspired several generations of scientists and engineers to think out of the box and transcend boundaries between disciplines.” Gabriel Silva, who knew him more than 20 years, described how “Over the years, and over many, many shared conversations, students, and projects, some of my very fondest and most cherished professional memories were discussing, brainstorming, and arguing with Henry about the brain, physics, and mathematics. His intellect, heart, and passion will never be forgotten. His genuineness touched everyone who knew him.” But for all his academic accolades, the things that gave him the greatest pride and pleasure were found at home, with his beloved family. Perhaps Eve Armstrong summed it up best. “Beth, Brett, Sara – Henry shepherded me through my early career; I owe my life (which I love) to him. Henry was a joyously creative scientist and endlessly generous human being. One can only be those things if one is deeply happy. Thank you for making him happy.”


Del Mar is not the same place without Henry Abarbanel among us, but we will try to carry on in his spirit – fighting the good fights, supporting good and responsible governance where we find it, and working as hard as we can to preserve the natural resources and community spirit of this very special place on the Earth that Henry loved so much.