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1924 Dr. Alan 2023

Dr. Alan Hugh Schoen

December 11, 1924 — July 26, 2023

Dr. Alan Hugh Schoen, Professor Emeritus at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, passed away on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. Schoen, a physicist and computer scientist, is best known professionally for his discovery of the gyroid. He is remembered among his family and friends for being an energetic storyteller, creative puzzle inventor, and a mind filled with science, literature, history, music, and art. His nephew John Schoen said he was “one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever known.” All his life, he loved crafting geometric models by hand, wood-working to make puzzles, and inventing new puzzles, including Rombix and Starbix.


For many decades, a passerby in Carbondale might spot the exceptionally outgoing, extroverted Schoen in any number of places - playing his violin in the farmer’s market, sharing a joke with students and staff on campus, or chatting with a new friend after a concert (Schoen was known for making friends wherever he went). Alan Schoen loved to meet and interact with new people.


Schoen was born on December 11, 1924, in Mt. Vernon, New York to Charles John Schoen and Elizabeth Olga Dietz. He attended public school there with his brothers Donald and Homer and his sister Alice. His passion for music started early, and during his elementary school years he played both the violin and the oboe.


During WWII, Schoen participated in the US Navy V12 program at Yale University. He served as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy School of Oriental Languages at the University of Colorado where he became fluent in Japanese. Schoen continued to serve his country in Japan after the war was over. He worked as military government civilian staff for the U.S. War Department in Japan. Schoen would return to Japan 43 years later to work on SIU-C’s Nakajo campus, during which time he met his loving wife of 31 years, Reiko.


Following his education at Yale, University of Chicago, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he worked as a research physicist for aerospace companies and as a freelance solid-state physics consultant for ten years. NASA hired Schoen in 1967. He worked as a senior scientist at their Electronics Research Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts doing geometry research and working on expandable space frames.


NASA was where Schoen made his most important discovery, the gyroid. The gyroid is a minimal surface structure which can be found in soap bubbles, star formations, cancer cells, human mitochondria, plastics, and the structure of butterfly wings. The gyroid even shows up in one of Schoen’s favorite flavors, ketchup. Schoen’s contributions to minimal surface research have been widely recognized and he was a speaker at multiple international minimal surface conferences.


Following his tenure at NASA, Schoen became known as a passionate educator at both California Institute of the Arts and Southern Illinois University/Carbondale. Tony Lee, one of his college students, said that Schoen’s “wild-eyed enthusiasm for design…set me on my path.” Another student, Jim Hooker called Schoen “an inspiration…for my studies, work, and free-time interests.”


Though Schoen retired from academia in 1996, his curiosity and desire for learning didn’t stagnate: He published scientific papers, edited books on geometric images and puzzles, and developed a popular website, The Geometry Garret. Most importantly, perhaps, Schoen mentored a new generation of mathematicians and scientists.


Mathematician Gerd Schroeder-Turk called Schoen a “scientific giant… I’m not exaggerating when I say that I owe my scientific career to Alan. I will forever be humbled by the wonderful guidance of his discoveries.”


Dr. Schoen is survived by his wife Reiko Schoen, his children Cathy Schoen, Andrew Schoen, and Alison (Lanter) Schoen, son-in-law Brad Lanter, his grandchildren Rae Schoen, Jamison Schoen, Natasha Stone, Alexandra Stone, Emily Lanter, Joseph Lanter and two great-grandchildren, Sawyer Bushnell and Conlan Scholtz.


Schoen donated his body to scientific research and his remains were given to the SIU School of Medicine. Memorials can be made to the SIU School of Medicine or Southern Illinois University’s Morris Library. A celebration of life in Carbondale will be announced at a later date.


To learn more about Dr. Schoen’s legacy, you can visit the Morris Library Rotunda, third floor. A beautiful sculpture called the “Yellow Moon Gyroid” is permanently displayed there to honor Schoen’s work. You can also visit his comprehensive website, https://schoengeometry.com.


A memorial gathering hosted by the family and the SIU Honors Program will be held at 3:00pm on Saturday, August 19, 2023 in the Rotunda on the 3rd Floor in Morris Library. 


Funds given to Morris Library, in memory of Dr. Schoen, can be directed to the “Morris Library Excellence Fund” made payable to the SIU Foundation 1235 Douglas Dr., Carbondale, Illinois.


A tax-deductible memorial donation can be made payable to the SIU Foundation and be sent to Anatomical Donation Coordinator, 600 Agriculture Drive, MC 6503, Lindegren Hall, Room 307C, Carbondale, Illinois 62901. Proceeds from the donations will be used directly by the School of Medicine to assist with the program needs of the anatomical lab and the students in their pursuit of anatomical studies.


Meredith Funeral Home in Carbondale assisted the family with arrangements. To leave a story or memory of Dr. Schoen, visit www.meredithfh.com

To order memorial trees in memory of Dr. Alan Hugh Schoen, please visit our tree store.

Service Schedule

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Memorial Gathering

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Starts at 3:00 pm (Eastern time)

Memorial gathering will be held in the Rotunda on the 3rd Floor in Morris Library hosted by the family and SIU Honors Program.

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