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Jeffrey Willick

Jeffrey Willick

Deceased Faculty
Oct 8 1959 to Jun 18 2000

Memorial Resolution: Jeffrey Alan Willick

Jeffrey Alan Willick, Assistant Professor of Physics, was fatally struck by a car crashing through a window at a Starbucks coffee shop in Englewood, New Jersey on June 18, 2000. He was 40 years old. He had taken his two children to visit his parents, Martin and Nancy Willick, in his hometown of nearby Teaneck. His wife Ellen, a family practice physician, had stayed at Stanford to work in preparation for her upcoming maternity leave.

Jeff had been seated near the window, working on his laptop and drinking coffee, when the accident occurred. His children were with his parents at the time. Jeff spent an early morning hour of most workdays at Stanford in that way, before taking his children to school. He found it a useful environment for thinking and writing papers at other times as well. Jeff was a very warm human being, a deep thinker who probed the structure of the universe, and a wonderful husband and father.

Willick received bachelor's degrees in chemistry and physics from Harvard, where he was elected into Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year and graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1981. He received a Master's degree in 1983 in physics from the University of California, Berkeley. From 1983 to 1984, he taught physics at Dwight Englewood High School in Englewood, New Jersey. He returned to the University of California, Berkeley, for his doctoral work in physics, supporting himself as a teaching assistant in physics and as a research assistant in astrophysics. He received his doctorate in 1991, and was granted a Fullam/Dudley Award. His thesis provided a clear demonstration of the existence of large-scale low-amplitude density fluctuations in the universe.

He was offered a Hubble Postdoctoral Fellowship in 1991, but declined it to accept the prestigious Carnegie Postdoctoral Fellowship in astronomy at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, where he carried out research from 1991 to 1995. Willick had been an assistant professor of physics at Stanford since 1995, where he produced 21 scientific publications. In 1998, he was awarded both a Cottrell Scholarship from the Research Corporation and a Terman Fellowship from Stanford University in support of his research.

Jeff was an observational cosmologist who did groundbreaking work in mapping peculiar velocities, the component of a galaxy's motion above and beyond that due to the uniform expansion of the universe. This requires the technically challenging direct measurement of galaxy distances. Jeff was a world expert in the development of both observational techniques and mathematical formalisms to extract unbiased statistics about the large-scale peculiar velocity field.

He had always been fascinated by the question of the coherence scale of the cosmic velocity field. This velocity field is generated by the gravitational effects of the density of matter (both visible and dark). Its coherence length is directly related to the mean density of the universe and the distribution of the largest cosmological structures, yielding important constraints on cosmological models for the formation of these structures. In collaboration with David Burstein, Stephane Courteau, Avishai Dekel, Sandra Faber, Michael Strauss and others, Jeff combined peculiar velocity data from a variety of surveys, including his own, to produce a single unified data set with which to explore the large-scale velocity field. He also undertook two new, uniform all-sky surveys, one by himself, and the other in collaboration with Courteau, Strauss, Marc Postman and David Schlegel. The latter showed conclusively that the velocity field has a coherence length of less than 60 megaparsecs (2% of the radius of the visible universe), a result which is in accord with currently popular cosmological models. He developed statistically rigorous techniques for quantitatively comparing the peculiar velocity data with large-scale surveys of the redshifts of galaxies. This yielded perhaps the best determination of the density of nonrelativistic matter in the universe.

At the time of his death, Jeff was leading a vibrant group of undergraduate students, graduate students Puneet Batra, Michael Dorris, and David Sowards-Emmerd, and postdoctoral fellows Ben Mathiesen and Keith Thompson. They were involved in a variety of exciting projects in cosmology, from the determination of the Hubble Constant (the present expansion rate of the universe) to a major new survey for high-redshift clusters of galaxies. As Jeff had shown in a theoretical paper published shortly before his death, the evolution of the number density of clusters is a powerful probe of both the density of the past universe and the distribution of density fluctuations generated in the primeval universe. He and his group were the major Stanford users of the very large Hobby-Eberly telescope, owned and operated by Stanford and four partner institutions.

His work was receiving wide attention in the cosmology community. Those who were lucky enough to collaborate with Jeff were impressed by his broad knowledge of physics and astronomy, his keen intuition, his uncompromising attention to detail, and his desire to do things right from the beginning. He was a source of clear and original thinking about various fundamental problems.

Jeff had also a keen interest in undergraduate education and in the public's understanding of science and its influence on the environment and on society. This was reflected in his stack of bedtime reading, encompassing a remarkable range of interests and expertise. In only a few years at Stanford, he had inspired many undergraduate and graduate students with his scientific abilities, his excitement for astronomy, his compassion and his integrity. He was particularly committed to involving undergraduates in research, and had supervised six in independent research and honors thesis projects. He had also established a distinguished teaching and advising record, and was highly valued as a dynamic and compassionate academic mentor. Jeff was a caring and conscientious classroom teacher. He taught a variety of undergraduate and graduate physics and astronomy courses, including the popular nontechnical course for undergraduates, "The Nature of the Universe."

His wife Ellen Schneider, son Jason, and two daughters, Emily and Julia survive Jeff; as well as his parents, sister Karen, and brothers Gary and Stuart. Julia was born after his death. The Jeffrey Willick Memorial Fund has been established in his memory. It will support an annual award to be given to an outstanding student in the field of astronomy. We all miss Jeff greatly; his untimely death is a great personal loss and a professional loss to the world of astronomy.

Committee:

Robert V. Wagoner, chair

Sarah E. Church

Roger W. Romani

CAREER HISTORY

  • B.A. Chemistry & Physics (magna cum laude), Harvard University 1981 
  • M.A. Physics, University of California, Berkeley 1983 
  • Ph.D. Physics, University of California, Berkeley 1991 
  • Physics teacher, Dwight Englewood High School, Englewood, NJ 1983-1984 
  • Teaching Assistant, U.C. Berkeley 1984-1985 
  • Research Assistant, U.C. Berkeley 1985-1991 
  • Postdoctoral Fellow in Astronomy, Carnegie Observatories 1991-1995 
  • Assistant Professor of Physics, Stanford University, 1995-present