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William Mathews

Obituary of William George Mathews

William Mathews, a respected astrophysicist, enthusiastic musician, engaged citizen and beloved family member, passed peacefully and gracefully at Stanford Hospital on Sept. 24, 2021, surrounded by his family. Bill died from an aggressive abdominal tumor, similar to one he had overcome eight years ago. He was himself right up to the end: kind, curious, funny, intellectually alive, and especially grateful for those “extra” eight years. Bill was born in Baltimore, MD on Mar. 21, 1937 to William E. “Slim” Mathews, an electrical engineer originally from rural North Carolina, and Sarah Mary “Sally” Fearon Mathews, from an extended Irish Catholic family in Brooklyn. He was their only child, much loved. The big themes of Bill's life emerged early with lifelong interests and talents in science and music. His academic path included earning a BS in physics at the University of Washington (1959), a Master’s degree at the University of Chicago/Yerkes Observatory (1960), and a PhD in Astronomy at UC Berkeley (1964). Bill thrived in the scientific and cultural environment of Berkeley in the early 60s; he loved it! A chance meeting while in line for a Shakespeare film put Bill in the orbit of the love of his life, Berkeley undergrad Cynthia Smith. With many mutual interests including independent and foreign films, a shared esthetic and exploring the Bay Area, they soon fell in love, and married on Sept. 7, 1964. The couple moved to Pasadena for Bill’s post-doc at Cal Tech, then on to UC San Diego for additional post-doc work, leading to an assistant professorship. Living and working in La Jolla from 1965-1970 was an idyllic time when Bill had the chance to work with distinguished cutting-edge astronomers, and Cynthia began her lifelong work focused on reproductive rights. In 1970, Bill and Cynthia welcomed their first child, Jeremy Alan Mathews. Around that time, the new UC Santa Cruz campus was expanding its Astronomy and Astrophysics department, and Bill jumped at the invitation to join the highly regarded team. Bill and Cynthia were thrilled to move to Santa Cruz in late 1970, making this their permanent home. Their daughter Amey was born in 1973, and the family was complete. Bill was a loving husband and father who was so happy to have his children and grandchildren living nearby. He delighted in supporting their activities and interests, and celebrating holidays and special occasions together. An exceptional astrophysicist, Bill contributed fundamental knowledge to our understanding of some of the most energetic phenomena in the Universe. He employed atomic physics and hydrodynamics to understand luminous interstellar gas clouds—glowing nebulae—that formed because of phenomena such as the remnants of dying stars in the galaxy and quasars expelling energetic gases. His early work focused on how dust forms in galactic gas clouds, and by the 1970s his work advanced our fundamental understanding of various types of glowing nebulae. Bill wrote the leading paper showing how supernovae—stellar explosions—fuel the heating and expulsion of gas from elliptical galaxies. For the last two decades, often with long-time collaborator Fabrizio Brighenti, he worked to achieve a complete understanding of the superheated, x-ray emitting gas that is found around large galaxies and groups of galaxies. His legacy includes more than 200 publications in professional journals and conference proceedings. Bill also influenced nuclear policy through his paper that showed how little plutonium was needed to build a bomb, and advocated forcefully for greater security requirements for the transportation of plutonium. Bill was endlessly and intensely drawn to new astrophysical questions to explore, and at times could be positively impatient in his desire to keep the momentum going. If the family brunch had gone on too long, and it was time to get back to his calculations, he would stand near the door and jingle his keys restlessly in his pocket -- the hint to get back to work! Ignoring the concept of retirement, he continued his active research as Professor Emeritus right up to the end; his most recent paper was accepted for publication just a few months ago, and he was working on his next one up to his final day. Along with Bill's capacity for advanced mathematical and scientific thought, he had an infectious appetite for silliness, irreverence, and goofiness. His laughter, even at his own cleverness, was a joy to behold; his many wonderful, sweet, and playful qualities endeared him to so many. Bill loved and adored his wife Cynthia. He had immense pride in and respect for her and was endlessly supportive of her work in civic government, community projects and with Planned Parenthood. Cynthia and Bill were together for 57 years and found a key to success was their many shared interests and values combined with great passion for their individual pursuits. They lived in downtown Santa Cruz and enjoyed walking to movies, lunch dates, Bookshop Santa Cruz, and cultural events together. Throughout his life Bill also found great enjoyment in music, especially jazz and early music. His family moved often during his childhood, and music was the social glue that helped Bill forge new friendships along the way. He played clarinet in a small town community band as a kid, then later in his high school marching, dance and jazz bands. In San Diego he joined The Festival Consort, performing early music at the Old Globe Theater, Renaissance Faires, and concerts. Combining both his interests, he also taught a popular UCSC undergraduate class on the Physics of Music. Soon after moving to Santa Cruz Bill established The Antiquarian Funks, a group dedicated to performing Renaissance and early Baroque music with authentic instruments, including sackbut, krumhorn, cornetto and many more. Over a span of more than forty years, the Funks were known for original performances of rarely-heard works, with creative themes like "Where's Gesualdo?," “500 years of Chicken Music,” and “Baroque Obama," a fundraiser for Obama's first presidential campaign. Bill loved key lime pie; he was a collector of quirky toys; he valued being informed on national and global issues, and was a devout reader of the New York Times (using post-its to mark articles for Cynthia to read); he was a sentimentalist who enjoyed tradition – but also delighted in irreverent spins. Bill's life, from his birth on the vernal equinox to his death near the fall equinox, was a brilliant arc of passionate work, contribution, and inspiration to the field of astronomy and to his family and friends. He is survived by his wife Cynthia, their children Jeremy Mathews (Jennifer Casey) and Amey Mathews (Matt Mustapick), grandsons John Mathews and Christopher Mathews, step-grandchildren Nick and Lauryn Casey, sisters­-in-law Laura Smith and Sara Wood Smith, and niece Lisa Tripp, all of Santa Cruz. We all feel so lucky to have had him in our lives. Bill loved being alive. He always saw a new horizon to explore and now he is released into the cosmos! A celebration of life is planned for later this year. Contributions in Bill’s memory can be made to the Bill Mathews Fund for Excellence in Astronomy and Astrophysics c/o UCSC Foundation, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz, CA 95064.
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