Professor Stanley Wojcicki has died at age 86

Stanley G. Wojcicki died on May 31, 2023, at his condo in Los Altos at age 86. He still maintained his home on the Stanford campus.

Stan was an experimental particle physicist who in the 1960s took part in the explosive phase of the field, when many new particles were discovered and the structure of the Standard Model of elementary particles was established. In much more recent times, Stan played an essential role in modern neutrino oscillation experiments using high energy beams.

Born Stanislaw Jerzy Wojcicki in 1937 in Warsaw, Poland, Stan came to the US at age 13 with his mother and brother, fleeing the communist takeover of Poland. He received an AB from Harvard in 1957 and a PhD in physics from UC Berkeley, remaining associated with the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory from 1961 until 1974. In the same period, he also held visiting positions at CERN (Geneva) and College de France (Paris). This was the time when particle accelerators produced copious amounts of new particles, which were then interpreted as excited states of combinations of quarks. Stan was right in the middle of this, using large bubble chambers and electronic detectors.

In 1966 Stan joined the physics department at Stanford as an assistant professor, “probably the best experimental high energy physicist of his age group in the country,” as one recommendation letter stated.  Among other things, he then started a long love story with Kaons, particles made of two quarks, including one of the “strange” variety. The study of their properties eventually led him to a series of experiments at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, further consolidating our understanding of the Standard Model.

After more stints at CERN, Stan returned to Stanford as a full professor, serving as department chair from 1982 to 1985. He then became interested in the design of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) and took a substantial period of leave to cross the Bay back to Berkeley, where he was deputy director of the “Central Design Group” (of the SSC). On that subject he professed being “very optimistic” but added, “I have learned long ago not to assume that any government action will occur until it actually happens.” That was, unfortunately, a prescient thought, and when the SSC was finally canceled by Congress in 1993, Stan devoted the rest of his scientific career to the study of neutrinos. The experiment he led, MINOS, was based on a beam of neutrinos produced by an accelerator at Fermilab, in Batavia, Illinois, traveling about 1000 km underground, and being detected by a large apparatus assembled in a decommissioned iron mine in Minnesota. MINOS was one of the experiments that verified the phenomenon of neutrino oscillations, revealing, among other things, that neutrinos have a finite, albeit minuscule, mass. Stan was physics department chair a second time, from 2004 to 2007.

Throughout his career in physics and academia, Stan was known for his unassuming and warm personality. He was both a great physicist and a wise leader.

Stan met his wife Esther Hochman at UC Berkeley at the University Students’ Cooperative Dorm, Sherman Hall, where he was a boarder and she was a resident. They originally connected because he spoke Polish and some Russian and she spoke Russian and was taking Russian classes, so she practiced with him. They loved riding on his Vespa motor scooter all over the Bay Area since they had no access to a car. They married in Berkeley in 1961, just after Esther got her BA degree and just prior to his PhD.

In 1966, they moved to Stanford and in 1968 their first daughter, Susan, was born. Two other daughters followed: Janet in 1970 and Anne in 1973. Stan loved being a father and spent time helping to teach his daughters to play soccer and coaching their AYSO soccer teams. They also were swimmers and he spent countless hours and summers at Stanford Campus Recreation Center cheering them on. He also loved traveling and the family took many trips to Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Southeast Asia.  He took each daughter on a special trip: Susan to hike in Hawaii, Janet to Brazil, and Anne to Poland.

He taught them the importance of independent thinking, not being afraid to tell things as they are, and sticking to a project no matter how hard it was. He was an exceptionally disciplined athlete and ran every morning for miles even when he was traveling. He only slowed down in his 80s when he was no longer able to run and later walk. He was disciplined about everything in life, and it served him and his family well.

He was very proud of his daughters and their chosen professions: Susan as CEO of YouTube, Janet as professor of pediatrics at UCSF Medical School and Anne as founder and CEO of 23andMe. He was also proud of his wife and her Media Arts Program that she founded at Palo Alto High School and her best-selling book "How to Raise Successful People". He often joked about how they had swapped roles: He used to travel the world talking about physics, and now she was traveling the world talking about education.

He was also proud of his ten grandchildren, who range in age from 4 to 23, the oldest of whom just graduated from Stan's alma mater, Harvard, in computer science in June of 2023. One of his grandchildren, a granddaughter, is now a sophomore at Stanford studying biology. Another of his grandsons will be studying math at UC Berkeley, and a fourth will be studying math at Harvard. The love that Stan felt for math and the sciences has been handed down to the next generation, which brought him joy.

In lieu of flowers, contributions in Stanley Wojcicki's memory can be made to the Exploratorium.

The Palo Alto Weekly has also published an obituary here.