Stanley George Wojcicki, a preeminent physicist, Stanford University professor emeritus and inspirational father to three accomplished daughters, died of congestive heart failure at home in Los Altos on May 31, his wife, Esther Wojcicki, said. He was 86.
Wojcicki was a leading figure in the field of experimental particle physics, said Giorgio Gratta, chair of the physics department at Stanford University, where Wojcicki was a professor for 44 years before his retirement in 2010.
Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1937, at the cusp of World War II, Wojcicki’s childhood was shaped by political upheaval.
“Stan led a dramatic life,” Esther Wojcicki said.
During the war, his father, Franciszek Wójcicki, was exiled in London, while his mother, Janina Wanda Wójcicka, remained in Poland with their two young sons. Wojcicki’s father returned to Poland when the war ended, but the family reunification was short-lived.
Wojcicki, his mother and brother escaped Poland when Communists came into power; they hid in a coal bin on a ship bound for Sweden in 1949, according to a SF Gate article. They eventually made it to the United States, but his father never joined them. Instead, he was imprisoned for five years for his opposition to the ruling party in Poland.
Despite not having much money, Wojcicki’s mother prioritized her children’s education. Wojcicki demonstrated a strong aptitude for mathematics and graduated from Gonzaga College High School at the age of 16. He received a scholarship from Harvard University and graduated Phi Beta Kappa when he was 20 years old.
Wojcicki initially thought he would pursue a career in engineering or medicine. But his interest in experimental particle physics launched with Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite.
“I was already studying physics, but Sputnik steered me toward space, cosmology, the Big Bang and elementary particles," Wojcicki said in the SF Gate story.
By then, it was 1957 and Wojcicki had started his doctoral studies at UC Berkeley. It also was during this time that physics was undergoing an explosive growth of new discoveries. At Berkeley’s Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, Wojcicki was studying particles called K-mesons, which are made up of subatomic particles or quarks.
“He was spending his time devising and executing experiments, trying to elucidate how fundamental forces make fundamental particles interact with each other,” Gratta said.
“One of them has the whimsical name of ‘strange’ quark,” Gratta continued. “Stan was one of the people pioneering some of the experiments that led to explaining how those things work and to what extent they are strange, like what does it mean for them to actually behave strangely?”
It also was during this time that Wojcicki met his wife, Esther Hochman, another UC Berkeley student. They married in 1961, the same year he obtained his doctorate.
In 1964, Wojcicki received a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship and took a position as a visiting scientist at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva, which was followed by a visiting position at the Collège de France in Paris. In subsequent years, Wojcicki received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Senior Scientist award that brought him back to CERN.
Wojcicki returned to Berkeley’s Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in 1965 and a year later accepted a position in the physics department at Stanford University, serving as the department chair twice and earning numerous teaching and research awards that continued even after his retirement in 2010. For instance, Wojcicki received the prestigious Bruno Pontecorvo Prize in 2011 and Panofsky Prize in 2015, both of which recognized his invaluable contributions to the field of experimental particle physics.
Humbled by these awards, Wojcicki was quick to point out the contributions of his colleagues at different institutions where, as a visiting scientist, he cultivated lifelong collaborations.
“He was not only a great scientist but also a very good leader who could put together experiments that needed very large groups of people and keep the thing together,” Gratta said, comparing Wojcicki to an orchestra director who created a harmonious whole out of many different moving parts.
Wojcicki’s dedication to science was not always easy though. From 1985 to 1989, he took a leave from Stanford University to work on a federal project known as the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) that was being built in Texas. Designed as the largest and most powerful particle accelerator in the world, the construction of the SSC was cut short by Congress in 1993 because of funding concerns.
Well-aware of this possibility, Wojcicki wrote a letter describing his hopes for the SSC while also recognizing – through his longstanding advisory roles with government agencies – that nothing should be taken for granted.
“He said something like, ‘I'm very optimistic at this point that we're done. But for a long time, I found that with the government, nothing is done until it's really done,’” Gratta said.
Wojcicki at home and in the community
Despite these setbacks, Wojcicki never lost faith in the power of the scientific method to make the world a better place, something that he championed at home too, Esther Wojcicki said. At the dinner table, he always asked his daughters for proof about what they were talking about.
“I would say that he really influenced them to seek the truth, the scientific truth, and then to persist. Whatever it was you did, you wanted to make sure that it really happened and you didn't give up,” she said, crediting this mindset to her children’s professional success as well. (Susan Wojcicki is the former CEO of YouTube, Janet Wojcicki is an epidemiologist and professor of pediatrics at UCSF and Anne Wojcicki is the founder and CEO of 23andMe.)
Wojcicki was invested in the broader Stanford and Palo Alto community too. He volunteered as a coach for each of his daughter’s soccer teams, and he and his wife hosted an annual barbeque swim party at their Stanford home for 20 years.
“We did a lot of entertaining,” Esther Wojcicki said, laughing at the memory of so many physicists swimming in their pool.
Gratta similarly described the warm generosity of Wojcicki: “He was a wonderful colleague, very generous with his time and willing to help,” something that Gratta particularly appreciated as they had overlapping research interests.
Wojcicki continued to pioneer new experiments in the 2000s, turning his attention to elementary particles called neutrinos. He projected them through a particle accelerator, detecting different kinds of transmutations, Gratta said.
“By the time you detect the beam of neutrinos, some of them turned into some other type of neutrino. … And this had a number of implications for general fundamental physics,” he added.
Wojcicki’s research took him to laboratories – like the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago and Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island – so often that he gained the reputation as the department’s most frequent flier.
“Stan logged more airline miles than anybody I know,” Gratta laughed. “We also traveled quite a bit, but Stan was a class of his own.”
The traveling paid off; his experiments with neutrino oscillations led to a number of discoveries that contributed to a more complex understanding of the Standard Model of Particle Physics, a scientific theory that describes the basic building blocks of the universe.
“He actually saw this entire arc in the field of physics, and he participated in all of it,” Gratta said, referring to the totality of Wojcicki’s career in experimental particle physics.
Wojcicki is survived by his wife, Esther; daughters Susan Wojcicki (Dennis Troper), Janet Wojcicki and Anne Wojcicki; and 10 grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at Stanford University in September. Donations in Wojcicki’s memory can be made to the San Francisco Exploratorium, exploratorium.edu/support/give.