The death of a skeptic

By Phil Plait | May 4, 2011 5:34 pm

[Note: there have been some connection issues to the pages linked here. There are cache links in the comments.]

I received an email last night. It was from Slau, a musician friend of mine (I met him through George Hrab) who’s also a skeptic and all-around good guy. Slau was asking me a favor, a small one, really, but with terrible gravitas: he had a friend, Derek Miller, who was dying of cancer. He only had a few weeks, maybe days, to live. Derek was a fan of mine, Slau told me, and asked if I could tweet about his site, or blog about it. Slau knew Derek would get a kick out of it.

Of course I’d do it, I thought. I went to Derek’s site, and immediately got a jolt: I recognized his avatar; he commonly retweeted stuff I posted, or sent me notes. OK, I thought, I’ll tweet something — but by then it was pretty late, so I figured better to wait until morning when more people will see it.

When morning came, I got on my computer and was ready to write something when I got the news from Slau: Derek had died the night before.

Damn, damn, damn.

I didn’t know Derek. I wish I had. Reading his posts, he was clearly a man of great courage and a sharp mind. He was a true skeptic, accepting what was happening to him and understanding what his non-belief meant as he slowly succumbed to cancer. He remained steadfast in his convictions right up to the end.

I am saddened by this, and struck by the loss to all of us by Derek’s death.

But do yourself this favor: go read his last post. Then read his magnificent article on how he faced his own impending death. Then go and peruse his other work. Through this maybe you’ll get to know him better.

Two points: one is that, as trite as it is, seize the moment. As Slau said to me earlier today (quoting Warren Zevon), "Enjoy every sandwich." How much time does any of us have? Not enough, I’d wager. As it happens, even had I written something last night, Derek probably still wouldn’t have seen it. It’s a fact of life (and death) that sometimes even immediacy isn’t enough. But do what you can while and when you can.

And second, I’ve seen — and I’m sure many of you have seen — far too much death these past few years. Friends, family, acquaintances, scientists, some people I knew well and others I had only briefly met. I’ve found that all we have after we die is our legacy, who we’ve touched, whose lives we’ve enriched.

It’s too bad I only found out about Derek’s writing when it was too late to talk to him about it, but I can show it to you. Let your life be enriched as well.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Skepticism
MORE ABOUT: Derek Miller, Slau

Comments (35)

  1. Daniel J. Andrews

    Phil…the link about how he faced his own impending death doesn’t work. Has it been taken down already? I get the Oops! Google Chrome could not connect to type error.

  2. Thank you Phil. I’ve bookmarked this post, and will check out the links later this evening. This is something we must all face, skeptics and non-skeptics alike.

  3. Uh oh, 404. Hope someone can get his site up and running again.

  4. steviepeas

    didnt even know the guy but his final post made me cry my eyes out

    a great loss to the world

  5. Nick M

    “I’ve found that all we have after we die is our legacy, who we’ve touched, whose lives we’ve enriched.”

    This is the most beautiful statement I think you’ve ever written, Phil. So simple and elegant, and yet so profound…right on par with Sagan’s “star stuff.”

    Well said, sir. And to Derek, a fond adieu to a mind I never met. If you could only see now how your actions inspired Phil to those fine words above. Legacy, indeed.

  6. Lasse Andersen

    Sad to hear :-(

    The links are down now, do you have alternative links?

  7. Gary Ansorge

    Hmm,,,it’s time. methinks, for a good, old fashioned wake. I’ll be raising a full one to you tonight, laddie.

    My Son lost a good friend to a heart attack a few years ago. The friend was only 39. It suddenly brought home to Sean, how fleeting and in determinant life can be. As a Jewish friend once said “When you die, you go back to being whatever you were, before you were born.” Well, now he’s back to being star dust.

    Life! What a trip,,,


    Gary 7
    (For a real hoot, see Timothy Leary is Dying. Now, there was a guy who knew how to live,,,and die, in style).

  8. Matthew Saunders

    You are a generous and kind man, Phil :)

  9. josie

    true words phil. I put the top down on my car every sunny day, I stop to enjoy the smell of gardenias in the landscaping at work, I tell my sister I love her at the end of every phone conversation.

  10. stjobe

    @4. steviepeas: You and me both, you and me both.

    As an aside, the site seems to work fine now.

  11. msosa

    Read Derek’s final post. Inspirational, sobering and moving. How wonderful he came to experience deep love. This is exactly what I hope for above all else. How interesting that this deep love he experienced was the final thought. Farewell Derek Miller. Thank you for this Phil. -mts

  12. Truckle

    The only mistake I made in reading this was doing it at work…

    I’m now struggling to hold it together, trying to be all manly etc.

    That was beautifully written, so poigniant and thoughtful. It makes me sad that the first time I hear of him, he is already dead.

    Thanks for bringing it to our attention Phil.

  13. MHS

    His reflection on life and death is truly magnificent. I don’t generally bookmark pages, but for this one I made an exception. I can only wish to be that brave facing such circumstances…

  14. stjobe

    Derek’s writings reminded me of a quote from my long-ago philosophy classes, it’s from Epicurus and has served me well when faced with my own mortality as well as that of my loved ones:
    “Death […] is nothing to us, since when we are, death is absent, and, when death is present, we are not any more.”

  15. Pretty weird to me that John Gruber posted about this as well today (I have is blog in my RSS reader as well).

    John posted about Derek four years ago when Derek found out he had cancer (back then I didn’t read John’s blog).

    It just shows me that I seem to gravitate towards people who are skeptic. Heck before January when Phil was on the SGU podcast I didn’t even know about the SGU. So to be honest I think I live my life the way I would live it this way or the other. Always curious to find new things, new people, more entertaining things to listen to or read on the net from people who are skeptics (and maybe atheists and interested in astronomy).

    On the other hand it reminds me that I seem to get my information mainly from the same type of people. Maybe I should do something wild. Problem is, I don’t know that that might be ^^;

    Oh and Derek’s last post reminded me that I have had his state of mind since I was maybe 16 or something, and that his dealing with death isn’t new to me. The only difference between him and me is that I don’t have a wife, no children, and that I don’t know WHEN I’m going to die. But reading his first post about his cancer

    I can say that what he wrote there is what I also already have behind me. Feeling sad that I have to die. Crying. Eating something good. Talk to my friends about it.

    My “problem” seems to be that I don’t know WHEN it’s going to be over and that it’s hard to focus on life when you have to push those thoughts aside, no matter if you have cancer or not.

    And what he reminded me of the most is my fear of seing my family die before I die. I am not “afraid” of being dead. I am afraid of having to live through dying and seeing people die and missing them and missing life. *sigh*

  16. I have read few things more profound. Thanks for posting that, Phil. I’ve bookmarked that. It’s a great testimony from someone meeting the end of their existence with grace, dignity, and acceptance.

  17. Great… a grown man at my desk on the verge of tears. I’m going to send this to my wife BUT I’m going to have her read it at home. She’ll be far too weepy to be able to work.

    That was beautiful and I never even heard of him until 20 minutes ago. Now to attempt some work… I’m going to have to blast some high energy feel good music so I can appear to be normal. Thanks for posting this, Phil.

    Also, well said; seize the moment.

  18. PdlJmpr

    Sadness. Love. Regrets. Loss. Re-evaluation. Grief. We each experience death differently. Celebrating a life and honoring a legacy are comforting and positive for the soul. I think the saddest thing of all is what is missing here. Hope. It makes all the difference to me to believe in a completely un-scientific and unprovable hereafter and sometimes believing is all the proof one needs.

  19. Ian

    Holy wow that was emotional. It makes me appreciate my life so much more. Thankyou for posting.

  20. Ross

    Never read this man’s blog before but the last 2 lines almost made me cry. I hope that when I die, whenever that may be, I can have this attitude.

  21. I only spoke to Derek once, about a year ago. He and I talked for over an hour about digital legacy, identity and technology. We pledged to speak again then life, now death, got in the way. I posted the unedited interview in its entirety to my blog today. It’s a wonderful glimpse into the mind of a highly intelligent and articulate man who loved technology and life passionately.

  22. James

    Beautiful. Thanks very much Phil.

    I think what moved me so much, and what I found so unique, was that he was able to focus on the known, very real aspects of his death, without spending his precious final thoughts thinking about what might come next for his soul.

    There was absolutely nothing selfish about that letter. No subtle pleas for pity. He wanted to write the most meaningful, grounded, and useful words that he could. And he did an amazing job.

  23. joshuaTree


    Thanks for posting the link to Mr Millers amazing final post.

    I visit your site regularly to remind myself that other skeptics are out there.

    This is the first time I’ve decided to post (I think), due largely to the eloquence of Mr Miller’s post and, also, to your kind introduction.

    Thanks for being a light for, both, humanity and skepticism.

  24. Chris Winter

    One of the finest epitaphs I ever read comes from Heinlein’s Time for the Stars:

    “He ate what was put before him.”

    That applies here. Derek Miller must have been a great guy.

  25. George Martin

    Chris @28

    One of the finest epitaphs I ever read comes from Heinlein’s Time for the Stars:

    “He ate what was put before him.”

    Actually, I think that quote comes from his novel Starman Jones


  26. Chris Winter

    I’ve gotten quotes wrong here before. But I’m pretty sure I’m right on this one. Let me set the scene as I remember it: There’s a kid (a relative novice at warp astrogation, but he has the tables memorized.) During one jump, he says the others’ calculations are off but is overruled. They wind up way off course, arrive at an uncharted water world. The native life proves hostile, at one point downing a chopper with a jet of water “so hard and bright it looked like steel.”

    The epitaph is for the chopper pilot.

  27. David J.

    This is a very touching post and I appreciate the links to Derek’s personal words. Though a private affair for his family and friends to deal with it give me, a fellow non-believer, great inspiration that Derek lived and died as he did, as honest about his beliefs as he could be and as loving an father, husband and friend as he could be. People die throughout the world every day and without a touching reminder it can be hard to realize the humanity in it all, this is one such reminder. I wouldn’t have found this if it were not for your post. Thank you.

  28. George Martin

    Chris @30

    Well up to the last sentence and a half above, you were pretty much describing Starman Jones. It’s possible that from … “arrive at an uncharted water world ….” could be from Time for the Stars. It’s been much longer since I last read the latter.

    After the astrogation mistake in Starman Jones they land on a world inhabited by centaur like creatures. They killed Max’s friend, Sam, who got Max into space in the first place using Max’s money and photographic memory. It was that death which elicited the epitaph. It is Max’s photographic memory of his uncle’s astrogation tables which get the back into know space.
    See for the plot summary.


  29. Greg James

    Thanks, I think, in no small part to Phil, Derek’s last post has gone viral, and is now being reported in mainstream news sites:

    I too found the last post and blog to be moving: I hunted through the archive to find the crushing day when the re-diagnosis turned the stage 1 cancer into stage 4, changing Derek’s prognosis and future. I thought the blog was wonderfully written and insightful. Thanks, Phil, for pointing me there.


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