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January 13, 2004

William Reynolds, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering, dies

William Craig Reynolds, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering whose 53 years at Stanford were marked by relentless innovation and a contagious zeal for teaching, died of a malignant brain tumor Jan. 3 in his Los Altos home. He was 70.

"His knowledge was deep, his ability to explain the most difficult topics was uncanny and his passion was legendary," said Jeffrey Koseff, a professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Born in 1933 in Berkeley, Reynolds entered Stanford as an undergraduate and never left. He completed his bachelor's (1954), master's (1955) and doctoral (1957) degrees at Stanford, after which he joined the faculty, focusing on fluid mechanics. Reynolds chaired the Department of Mechanical Engineering from 1972 to 1982 and from 1989 to 1992.

An expert in turbulence modeling and control, Reynolds brought esoteric concepts to life in the classroom. Koseff, who had Reynolds as an instructor for two graduate courses he took at Stanford more than 20 years ago, will never forget Reynolds' shameless rendition of fluid behavior at a turbulent boundary layer.

"Here was Bill standing in front of the class, chalk dust all over his sweater and pants, arms extended in front of him furiously rotating, his oversized glasses sliding down his nose and his voice gaining a half octave or so with every motion," Koseff said. "Unforgettable and incredibly effective!"

Reynolds won teaching awards from the American Society of Engineering Education and the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society, and his dramatic style lives on through those he inspired. Koseff, for example, now incorporates similar theatrics into his own courses, for which students give rave reviews.

One of Reynolds' former doctoral students, mechanical engineering Professor Parviz Moin, described him as "a classic do-it-yourself person." Reynolds designed and installed the air-conditioning system for the Center for Turbulence Research and wrote an early computer program used by the Department of Mechanical Engineering to sort graduate student applications. He also designed and built his Los Altos home and re-engineered it after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

In response to the ban on traditional cannons in Stanford Stadium after a 1970 misfiring accident, Reynolds and one of his graduate students built the "impulse horn" for the 1971 Rose Bowl game to sound after every Stanford score and at the appropriate moment during "The Star-Spangled Banner." Reynolds' innovation still reverberates through the stadium today.

A member of the faculty group that helped recruit Stanford football players, Reynolds was so invigorated after a Saturday brunch with the recruits that he brought two of them to his lab and nudged Koseff into showing them a few demonstrations.

"So there we were in the lab -- turning on open channel flows, making jets of water and splashing around. I think the recruits were stunned," Koseff said. "But they came to Stanford."

Reynolds helped found and manage the Center for Turbulence Research, a joint research consortium between NASA and Stanford. He also spearheaded the establishment of the Institute for Energy Studies and the Department of Energy's Center for Integrated Turbulence Simulations.

Reynolds' textbooks, Thermodynamics and Engineering Thermodynamics, and his chemical equilibrium analysis software, STANJAN, are used in engineering education and research worldwide.

A pioneer in the development of turbulent flow control strategies that can help improve engine fuel efficiency and reduce the aerodynamic drag on cars and commercial airplanes, Reynolds was elected to the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and of the American Physical Society.

"His research covered the entire spectrum, from deep mathematical analysis to building and testing the devices that his mathematical models were to represent," said Moin.

Among Reynolds' scientific contributions, one seemed to bring him particular joy. Having generated some incredible images of "blooming jets" during a 1984 sabbatical at the California Institute of Technology, Reynolds was eager to show them to the legendary Caltech physicist Richard Feynman. Reynolds was told that if Feynman were bored, the meeting would dissolve quickly, but if impressed, he would utter the words "Hot dog!"

"Bill loved to tell the story of how soon after he showed Feynman the pictures of the blooming jets, the words 'Hot dog!' were heard in the room," Koseff said.

Carlos Langer, one of Reynolds' graduate students who was completing his thesis and preparing it for publication as a technical report just weeks before Reynolds died, said he is "in awe that even through his last few months, [Reynolds] dedicated himself to his last two students."

Reynolds and his wife, Janice, celebrated their 50th anniversary last fall. He is survived by her as well as son and daughter-in-law Russell and Anita Reynolds of Union City, Calif.; son and daughter-in-law Peter and Mary Reynolds of Whitefish Bay, Wis.; daughter Margery Reynolds of Tahoe City, Calif.; brother Gerald Reynolds of Payson, Ariz.; half-sister Judy Van Evera of San Anselmo, Calif.; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held Jan. 20 at 3 p.m. in Memorial Church. Donations may be sent to the National Brain Tumor Foundation, 414 13th St., Suite 700, Oakland, CA 94612-2603, or online to (specify GBM fund).


Esther Landhuis is a science writing intern at Stanford News Service.

Editor Note:

This release was written by science writing intern Esther Landhuis. A photo of Reynolds is available on the web at



Dawn Levy, News Service: (650) 725-1944,


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