It is with heavy hearts that we note the passing of William (Bill) J. Willis, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics, Emeritus, at his home in Dobbs Ferry, NY on Thursday, November 1st at the age of 80. He is survived by his wife Lindsey Willis, his daughter Catherine Willis Gildor (San Francisco, CA), his sons Christopher Willis (Bangkok, Thailand), Thomas Willis(New York, NY), Andrew Jay Willis (Boulder, CO), and David Willis (New York, NY), and four grandchildren.
Bill was a towering presence in the development of particle physics, with a career encompassing nearly the entire history of the field. His contributions ranged from pioneering studies of parity violation at the Brookhaven Cosmotron in 1957 to this year's discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). He is the author of 357 publications, but that impressive output does not begin to measure his impact, for he was a true renaissance figure who influenced the development of particle physics, nuclear physics and accelerator physics.
Bill received both his undergraduate (1954) and graduate (1958) degrees from Yale University. He worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) before joining the Yale faculty in 1964. In 1973 Bill moved to CERN, where he worked for 17 years before coming to Columbia as the Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics. He was also head of the Center for Accelerator Physics (1990-1991) and an Assistant Director (1994-2010) at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
Bill's work was characterized by deep insight into both the outstanding scientific questions of the day and the advances in instrumentation necessary to investigate them. A particular example was his early and prescient advocacy of hermetic detectors relying in precision electromagnetic and hadronic calorimeters. Early efforts in this direction led to the first observations of jets at the CERN ISR in 1983. His continuous involvement in the intervening years led to the development of the ATLAS experiment at the LHC, one of the most sophisticated and powerful scientific experiments ever built, which shared in the discovery of the Higgs boson in July of this year.
In addition to these fundamental advances in particle physics, Bill made seminal contributions to nuclear physics, specifically in establishing the case for and the methods to investigate collisions of heavy nuclei at relativistic energies as a means of searching for new forms of matter. He worked with Columbia University Professor and Nobel Laureate T.D. Lee to promote this new field of physics, both in early investigations at Brookhaven and CERN, and in building the case for the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), which began operations at BNL in 2000. The discovery in 2005 of a new form of matter at RHIC, the strongly-coupled quark-gluon plasma, is directly traceable to Bill's vision and scientific guidance as chair of the RHIC Technical Committee in the 1980's.
Bill's scientific leadership extended far beyond his uniquely creative technical advances and physics accomplishments. He formed lifelong collaborations with colleagues around the globe, guiding their career development, suggesting new paths to follow and providing encouragement. His advice was especially valuable in overcoming setbacks and in viewing them as new opportunities. Bill's calm and reflective understanding that progress need not be monotonic played a major role in the evolution of the cancelled Superconducting Super Collider and the associated Willis-led GEM experiment into the U.S. participation in the LHC program. Similarly, Bill helped transform the termination of the Isabelle project at BNL into the RHIC facility, and of late he had been instrumental in finding a path forward for neutrino physics at Fermilab in light of the funding uncertainties for the Deep Underground Science Laboratory by using the liquid argon detector technologies he helped pioneer.
Bill's expertise was recognized and his counsel valued by the world-wide community of particle physicists. He twice served on the U.S. High Energy Physics Advisory Panel, was a member of the Panel on Particle Physics of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and a Member of the Scientific Policy Committee of the Russian Ministry of Science. In 1993 he was elected to the American Academy of Science. Bill received the W.K.H. Panofsky Prize of the American Physical Society in 2003 "For his leading role in the development and exploitation of innovative techniques now widely adopted in particle physics, including liquid argon calorimetry, electron identification by detection of transition radiation, and hyperon beams." Bill was a valued colleague whose wisdom will be sorely missed. He leaves behind both an extraordinary scientific legacy and a devoted world-wide network of collaborators who will carry forward his many contributions to modern particle, accelerator and nuclear physics.
For those who wish to make a donation in his memory, the family has suggested two organizations which were important to him: Student Advocacy and Phelps Hospice.
(If giving to Phelps, please indicate in the "Additional Comments" section that you would like your donation to be made to "Hospice - Tree of Lights")