In Memory of




Obituary for Henry D.I. Abarbanel

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Henry Don Isaac Abarbanel
May 31, 1943 – May 26, 2023
Del Mar Community Leader & UC San Diego Professor of Physics

It is with deep sadness that we report that former Del Mar Mayor and UC San Diego physicist Henry Abarbanel passed away on May 26, 2023, at the age of 79. Abarbanel, who was known for his groundbreaking work on nonlinear dynamics in physical and biological systems, was a Distinguished Professor of Physics in the School of Physical Sciences and a research physicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Marine Physical Laboratory at UCSD. He was also the founding director of UC San Diego’s Institute for Nonlinear Science, and at the Jacobs School of Engineering he was a founding faculty member of the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute, and co-founder and associate director of the Center for Engineered Natural Intelligence.

A pioneer in chaos theory and nonlinear systems neuroscience, Abarbanel made key contributions to a wide range of scientific inquiry, including machine learning, geophysics and regional weather forecasting, electrical signals in the heart and their role in heart disease, odor recognition in insects, oceanic gravity waves, and fluid dynamics. For the past 25 years, he was an instructor-of-record for graduate courses in neurodynamics, and served as a kind and patient mentor to numerous graduate students at UC San Diego. Abarbanel championed diversity and inclusion in science, and mentored many female students and early career scientists over the years.

Abarbanel will always be remembered for his leadership, dedication and mentorship. He is described by his peers and students as “incredibly intelligent,” “joyously creative” and “endlessly generous.”

“Henry Abarbanel’s research journey has been truly awe-inspiring, encompassing a vast array of disciplines, including high energy physics, nonlinear dynamics, chaos theory, neuroscience and machine learning,” stated UCSD Department of Physics Chair Oleg Shpyrko. “However, his legacy extends well beyond his impressive academic achievements. He will forever be cherished as a compassionate educator and the champion of aspiring early career scientists, especially the many generations of physics Ph.D. students and postdocs he nurtured, guided and mentored over the past four decades at UC San Diego. His profound influence and spirit will continue to flourish within the hearts and minds of the scientists he so diligently trained.”

Before joining UC San Diego in 1982, Abarbanel was on the faculty at Northwestern University and Princeton University, and was a visiting professor at Stanford University and UC Santa Cruz. He also worked as a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. While first and foremost, he was a preeminent scientist, scholar, and professor known worldwide for his groundbreaking work in theoretical physics, Abarbanel somehow found time to make a significant local impact. A few years after moving to Del Mar, CA in 1983 with his wife, Beth Levine, he was appointed to the Del Mar Planning Commission. Subsequently, he was elected to serve three terms on the Del Mar City Council, including serving as mayor.
Abarbanel also 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 entities, including the SANDAG Energy Working Group, for which he served as co-chair. In 2011, he was appointed by Governor Brown to the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, where he served as chair for seven years. Abarbanel remained an active member of his local community until his last days, serving on the boards of the Del Mar Community Alliance, the Del Mar Foundation and Planned Parenthood of San Diego. He also helped found The Del Mar Sandpiper, a community journal.
Abarbanel contributed to numerous organizations and received multiple awards for his work over the years. He was an early member of JASON, the national scientific advisory group, and co-led a study on the climate effects of carbon dioxide. He was also a fellow of the American Physical Society, an Honorary Woodrow Wilson Fellow, a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow and a Sloan Research Fellow. Abarbanel held visiting professorships across the globe, including the Institute of Neuroinformatics in Switzerland, the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Germany, and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. He received his B.Sc in physics from the California Institute of Technology and his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton at the age of 22.
Abarbanel is survived by his wife of 40 years, Beth Levine; daughter Brett Abarbanel and her husband Jared Okun; and daughter Sara Abarbanel, her husband Jonathan Feinberg and their daughter Joanna Feinberg.

If you wish to make a donation in Henry's memory, the family suggests:

Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest
1075 Camino del Rio South
San Diego, CA 92108
Phone: 619-881-4500

Sierra Club Foundation
2101 WEBSTER ST STE 1250
Oakland CA 94612-3050
Phone 415-995-1780