Bill Williams — memoir

William Lee Williams   (1937-1986)

Bill Williams, professor of physics and associate dean for Research in LS&A, was at the peak of his career as scientist and administrator when he died at the age of 49 in the aftermath of an airplane accident on 11 November, 1986.

He received his undergraduate education at Rice University (1959), his M.S. at Dartmouth College (1961), and his Ph.D. from Yale(1965). Bill, whose dissertation research on the isotropy of gravitational mass has been recognized by a prize from the Gravity Foundation, joined the Michigan faculty in 1965.

His academic career was spent at The University of Michigan, where he arrived as an instructor in 1965. He advanced to assistant professor in 1966, associate professor in 1969, and professor in 1976. He was also guest professor at Heidelberg in 1972-1973, as a Humboldt Foundation senior fellow. He served as associate chairman of the Physics Department, and was, from 1985 until the time of his death, the associate dean for Research in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

Bill Williams, 1968

At Michigan he started an ambitious series of experiments to measure the fundamental properties of atomic hydrogen and helium, experiments that culminated in a major undertaking to measure the effects of parity violation in atomic hydrogen. He had also done astrophysical research on the polarization of light from white dwarf stars, and he was just starting a new collaboration in a particle physics experiment.His published work included 27 papers and 9 invited addresses at conferences. His “Doktorfamilie” contained 11 students, and he influenced a large number of students in his teaching career.

He had a wide range of interest outside of physics. As a person with an understanding of history and a strong sense of fairness, he spoke clearly on social justice and on arms control. As an eclectic musician he played chamber music and had a fondness for opera that led him to learn Italian; he also played folk guitar, notably as lead in an old-time gospel quartet, with an authenticity derived from his childhood years in Oklahoma. As an athlete he was known for his ferocious game of squash and for his skill as a sailor. As an aviator and enthusiastic leader in the Michigan Flyers, Bill was generous in sharing his love of the sky with countless others.

Above all, Bill had a remarkable talent for warm relationships with people. To work with him was to be drawn into a circle of friendship that included distinguished professors, younger faculty colleagues, graduate students, instrument makers, secretaries, pilots, and many others. We are fortunate to have had him on our faculty for 21 of his 49 years.

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