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William Kossler

Passed Away: December 9, 2021

Dr. William John Kossler (Jack) died in his sleep in the early morning hours of December 9, 2021, leaving behind three sons, two grandchildren, a new great-grandchild and many good friends who looked up to him.

Jack was a scientist, teacher, tinkerer, family man, sailor, swimmer, tennis player and good friend to many. He taught physics at the College of William and Mary for 43 years. He was quiet, thoughtful and kind. He was father of three, grandfather of two and a recent great-grandfather.

Jack was born on March 26, 1937 in Charleston, South Carolina to William John and Lois Gordon Kossler.

He earned a bachelors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1959 then received his doctorate in physics from Princeton University in 1964. After serving as an assistant professor at MIT for three years, he moved to Williamsburg, where he taught physics at the College of William and Mary from 1969 to 2012.

As an experimental physicist, he traveled the world to work and test hypotheses at different particle accelerators. In 1977, the whole family moved to Switzerland for a year while he worked at the Swiss Institute for Nuclear Research, (Schweizerisches Institut fuer Nuklearforschung), enrolling his sons in local public schools. The experience instilled in his sons a love of travel and an appreciation for other cultures.

He loved sailing since learning to sail as a teenager living in Belle Haven, Alexandria and attending Fishburne Military Academy. Jack took his family out on Mobjack Bay on many a summer weekend for the past half century, on a series of small sailboats of varying degrees of repair.

He was proud of his father, who helped to adapt the emerging  helicopter for Coast Guard rescue work and to this day the Coast Guard gives the Captain William J. Kossler every year for the greatest achievement in the practical application or operation of a vertical flight aircraft.

In retirement, he remained involved with the university’s physics department, volunteered his time to help with the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program and served on doctoral candidates’ dissertation committees. He volunteered his time to tutor high school students in Venice, Florida and in Virginia.

In his spare time, he swam, played tennis and was always tinkering with several projects at a time. He had lenses custom ground and used them to build a telescope functionally identical to the one Galileo first built. This played a role in a recent OSHER lecture on the role of accidental discoveries in the history of science.

Just recently he was working on a computer program designed to transform a large volume of historic data in legacy formats into a form usable with current technology.

Jack’s distinguished career was unusual, in that he straddled two subfields of physics: One concerned with the particles that make up the universe, and the other with the properties of solid matter. Most of the world around us is made up of three particles: the proton, the neutron, and the electron. In 1936, physicists were surprised by the discovery of a new member of the particle family: the muon, designated by the Greek letter μ (pronounced mu, as in the word music). At the time, the witty Nobel laureate Isidor Rabi exclaimed: “Who ordered that?” Jack’s work, for which he earned the honorific “Fellow of the American Physical Society”, was devoted to answering that question.

Unlike its three fairly indestructible cousins, the muon lives only a couple of microseconds before it decays spontaneously into fragments. If you want to study it, you need to be nimble. Particle physicists pursue this work at a handful of the large particle accelerators that are capable of producing muons. It took thirty years before a practical use was found for muons in a different, older branch of physics – the study of solids, such as metals and crystals. Since particle physicists differ from solid state physicists about as much as plumbers differ from electricians, it is a testament to Jack’s remarkable creativity and versatility that he became one of the pioneers of a hybrid branch of physics called Muon Spin Rotation (μSR).

In this technique, muons are injected into the interiors of a solid where their motion is affected by internal magnetic fields. Their decay fragments escape the solid and are detected, carrying with them important clues about those inaccessible fields. Mapping these fields inside solids has aided greatly in our understanding of superconductors. In search of suitable sources of muons, Jack had to travel to far-flung places such as Brookhaven NY, Vancouver, British Columbia, and Brugg, Switzerland.

Today μSR is a thriving niche of physics, with its own journals, conferences, and textbooks. The μSR community will mourn and remember Jack as one of its trailblazers.

He has been listed as a noteworthy Physics educator by Marquis Who’s Who, and has 161 papers, journal articles and other publications in his name.

His wife, Margaret O’Neil Kossler, preceded him in death in 2018. He is survived by his three sons: Neil, of Fairfax County VA, Bill and Paul of Richmond VA, Bill’s wife Shari, grandchildren Spenser Kossler and Brittney Smoot of Loudoun County, and great granddaughter Margaret. Lois Manes, a dear family friend of many years, was especially close with Jack these last few years.

His spirit and love of the pursuit of knowledge lives on in the memories of all who knew him.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, January 15, at 1 p.m. at Williamsburg United Methodist Church, 500 Jamestown Rd, Williamsburg, VA 23185. To watch the live stream click here

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