William Burke was a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz. I described him once (in PoemingAround (23 Feb 2002)) as a "physicist, outdoorsman, and creative genius". He died a few years ago in a car accident, in the midst of doing what he loved to do.

In the 1970s I met Bill Burke when he visited Caltech, where I was a grad student. Bill was a big fuzzy bear of a man --- quick to laugh, but infinitely patient in his explanations of complex phenomena to naïve junior colleagues. We hiked together in the canyons of the San Gabriel mountains above the Los Angeles basin. Our paths crossed again in Yosemite at a Tuolome Meadows astrophysics gathering, and again in Seattle at a Battelle-sponsored research conference.

In his professional work, as in his wilderness expeditions, Bill paid scant attention to artificial boundaries. He happily climbed over fences between traditional disciplines when his instincts told him that a new topic was worth closer inspection. From general relativity, to astrophysics, to the mathematics of chaos (or rather, quasi-chaotic behavior of deterministic systems), to differential geometry, Bill ranged wide and free. His eyes lit up as he talked over breakfast about the patterns of light focused at the bottom of a swimming pool --- "caustics", he said they were, a type of "catastrophe". His hands gestured as he described "strange attractors" and his experiments to simulate them using electrical circuits. He saw subtle connections between things, often years ahead of everybody else in the field.

At a physics departmental picnic one time I asked if I could take a picture of him lounging on the grass. "Sure, the photons are bouncing off me anyway," he replied. Then he tipped his head and grinned for my camera, and gave me one of the best shots I ever took. Thanks, Bill.

TopicPersonalHistory - 2002-04-26

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