Carol Nickerson

Nick Brown informed me that Carol Nickerson passed away. Nick writes:

Carol was unemployed for the last five years of her life. She had been associate/adjunct faculty at UIUC for some time, but when I got to know her she was being let go after she refused to do something unethical for the person who signed off on her contracts. Still, she went along to the UIUC library every day to do research. When she lost her library privileges too, she switched to the Champaign Public Library. . . .

She had a tremendous eye for detail. . . . She printed out the whole of my [Nick’s] 2014 translation of Diederik Stapel’s book (http://nick.brown.free.fr/stapel ), annotated every page by hand for typos or incorrect American usage, then scanned them & mailed them back to me. . . .

Nick also mentions that he and Carol had exchanged 10,000 emails, which sounded like a lot—but then I checked my own mailbox and found approximately 1000 from Carol (not just to me; these were part of threads with many participants). So I guess emails just pile up, and they can easily run into the four or five figures.

The news of Carol’s passing is very sad. Like Nick, I’d never met Carol in person, but she had many thoughtful things to say over email. Our last interactions were in 2018, summarized here and here. In both cases, she put a lot of effort into tracking down details of some things that arguably weren’t worth her effort. She wanted to get to the bottom of things.

It’s also poignant to think of Carol in light of our recent discussions of the problems with the “great man” or “heroic mode” of science reporting, where we some pathbreaking genius tells us how he broke the rules and revolutionized how we think about the world. Carol was the opposite of this, in that she put her 10,000 hours into getting the details right. And she deserves our thanks for that.