College of Science & Engineering Alumni Newsletter

Spring 1997

MARIO SAVIO: A Personal Remembrance

"There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gear and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to indicate to the people who own it that unless you're free, the machines will be prevented from working at all." -Mario Savio, 1964

Voice of the Free Speech Movement

Mario Savio (BA, 1984, MS, 1989, Physics and Astronomy), the philosophy student who became the passionate voice of the Free Speech Movement and inspiring a generation of youth and counterculture rebellion, died November 6 at a Sonoma County hospital. Mr. Savio, 53, had been in a coma and on life support since suffering a heart attack November 2nd.

His political activism started during the Civil Rights Movement and continued through the recent unsuccessful fight against Proposition 209. At the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1960s, he forever changed campus life by leading a protest against a university ban of student political action. Savio lead one of the first sit-ins, where students held hundreds of police officers at bay for thirty-two hours. During other protests that fall, hundreds of students, including Savio, were arrested. That December, under pressure from the faculty and student protests, the Board of Regents agreed to drop the restriction on student political activity, and the era of student protest began.

He was, then, and remained until his death, the conscience of the movement. He did not participate in political action because he enjoyed it or hoped to benefit from it. In fact, it cost him dearly. He was a man who felt that he had a personal, inescapable moral obligation to defend those who were oppressed.

A Brilliant Mind

A deeper part of Mario's character had very little to do with politics. He was a scholar in the oldest sense. Mario passed through several academic disciplines, philosophy, physics, literature. In each, he astounded the professors. He certainly took our breath away here at the SFSU Physics and Astronomy Department. Several of us have Mario stories, things he did that we couldn't believe. In my graduate Classical Mechanics course he proved what I now call "Savio's Theorem": That the laws of momentum and angular momentum are adequate to prove that the forces of rigid body constraint do no virtual work.

He was a brilliant physics student. He got his Bachelor's degree Magna cum Laude, and was selected the "Hood recipient," the outstanding student from the College of Science at commencement when he got his Master's degree. But these were just honors. The fact behind the honors is that he was so talented, so severely honest, so penetrating in his investigations, that the only adequate word would be to call him a genius. He could have been a research physicist of the very first rank. He was that good. He was just brilliant.

It caused him great sadness that, after getting his MS in physics in 1989, he decided that he could not continue for the Ph.D. degree. In spite of his brilliance, he was too frail; the tension would have destroyed him. It was particularly hard because we knew, and he must have known, that he was intellectually far superior to many who enjoy successful research careers. After he left SFSU, Mario taught at Sonoma State University. He took graduate courses in literature at SFSU and developed courses like "The Nature of Time" and "Literature and Physics". He was continuing on his own intellectual trajectory, always curious and open to new ideas.

Moral Politics

I've always thought that one secret of Mario's gift of oratory was that when he spoke, he always had a lesson to impart, something he had found out that we needed to know, so that we could defend ourselves and make good decisions. His mind informed his passion when he spoke, a marvelous fusion. I wish that I could hear the speeches that Mario might have made in ten or twenty years, summing it all up for us, patiently, clearly, with great love. But he is gone, so we have to do it for ourselves. Dear Mario, I am so sorry you couldn't stay with us. We miss you.

Oliver Johns

Physics & Astronomy

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Updated by Lannie Nguyen-Tang on August 3rd, 2000