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Stanford Report, June 28, 2000

Service set for Jeffrey Willick, assistant professor of physics


A memorial service will be held Sunday, July 9, for Jeffrey Alan Willick, 40, an assistant professor of physics, who was fatally struck by a sports car that crashed through a glass window at a Starbucks coffee shop in Englewood, N.J., on June 18.

Willick had been visiting his father, psychiatrist and Columbia University lecturer Martin Willick of Teaneck, N.J., for Father's Day. In keeping with his custom of catching up on work while traveling, Willick had been seated alone at a table for four near the window, working on his laptop computer, reading and sipping coffee when the accident occurred.

Joseph A. Santiglia, 53, of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., traveled eastbound on Route 4 before losing control of his red 2000 Mustang GT in the Starbucks parking lot and crashing into the coffee shop, according to John Higgins, assistant prosecutor for the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office in New Jersey.

Rescue workers removed Santiglia, uninjured, from his car. Willick was pinned against the car's grille. The Englewood Ambulance Squad took him to Hackensack University Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

Englewood police issued Santiglia a summons accusing him of driving while intoxicated, Higgins says. Santiglia had exhibited slurred speech and unsteadiness on his feet, although police did not detect the odor of alcohol, Higgins says. Authorities also cannot rule out mechanical failure at this time. A blood test is pending to determine if alcohol or drugs played a role. Results are expected in two to three weeks. In the meantime, a criminal investigation is under way.

"Jeff was a caring and conscientious classroom teacher," says Steve Chu, chairman of the Department of Physics. "He was particularly committed to involving undergraduates in research and had sponsored a half dozen undergraduates in either independent research or honors thesis projects. He was also well respected and liked by his graduate students. His research, the measurement of 'peculiar' (local) velocities of distant galaxies as a tool for probing important questions in cosmology, was adding substantial contributions to the field due to his careful analysis."

"Jeff was an active and enthusiastic member of the Stanford astrophysics group," says Roger Romani, associate professor of physics. "His work, characterized by uncompromising attention to detail, was receiving wide attention in the cosmology community. He was very excited about the ongoing revolution in cosmology and the contributions that his group was making. Even more fundamental results were expected as he worked with the Hobby-Eberly telescope and other modern instruments. To his students, he was a dynamic and compassionate mentor. To his colleagues, he was a source of clear and original thinking on fundamental problems. This is a great loss to astrophysics in general and the Stanford community in particular."

Born on Oct. 8, 1959, 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, N.J. 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.

Also that year, Willick won a Fullam/Dudley Award in astronomy. He was offered a Hubble Postdoctoral Fellowship in 1991, but he declined it to take a postdoctoral fellowship in astronomy at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, where he performed research from 1991 to 1995.

Since 1995, Willick had been an assistant professor of physics at Stanford, where he produced 21 scientific articles.

In 1998, he was awarded both a Cottrell Scholarship from the Research Corporation and a Terman Fellowship from Stanford in support of his research in observational cosmology.

As a member of the Physics Department faculty, Willick taught a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses, including the popular class, "The Nature of the Universe."

His primary research interests were cosmology and the formation of structure in the universe. He focused on big questions: Is the universe flat? Is there a nonzero cosmological constant? Did structure in the contemporary universe emerge from the very nearly uniform primordial distribution of matter solely via the process of gravitational instability? What is the nature of dark matter, believed to constitute 90 percent of the total mass of the universe?

"I pursue these questions by observing the distribution and peculiar velocities of galaxies," he wrote on his website. "The methodology is primarily observational; I maintain and analyze data from large optical and infrared ground-based telescopes."

Willick, who was a resident of Stanford, is survived by his wife, Ellen, and young children Jason and Emily and other family members and friends.

"This is not only a professional loss because of Jeff's excellence in cosmology, but a personal loss based on the community and given the children," says physics Professor Blas Cabrera, who lives a block away from the Willicks. "It is going to take us a while to make some rhyme or reason of this."

Associate Professor Patricia Burchat was a colleague and friend of Jeff Willick. They were both hired at Stanford around the same time and shared a strong interest in teaching and in the "big questions" in physics. "I will really miss the opportunity to discuss these issues," she says.

Burchat and her husband, Tony Norcia, and their two young children also live next door to the Willicks. "In this close-knit community, the loss of Jeff and the impact on his family is very deeply felt," Burchat says. "The neighborhood has been drawn even closer together as we try to plan how to best offer our support to Ellen and the children now and over the longer term."

A memorial service was held June 21 in New Jersey. The July 9 service for the Stanford community will take place at noon at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills. Donations to the family can be made to the Jeffrey Willick Memorial Fund, c/o Stanford Federal Credit Union, P.O. Box 10690, Palo Alto, CA 94303. SR