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Michael Charles Williams
In Memoriam

Michael Charles Williams

Professor of Chemical Engineering, Emeritus

UC Berkeley

Michael Charles Williams was born June 11, 1937 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and grew up there. He received his Bachelor’s (1959), Master’s (1960) and Doctoral (1964) degrees from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, all in Chemical Engineering. His doctoral advisor was R. Byron Bird, lead author of a noted textbook, Transport Phenomena, which was a major influence in transforming chemical engineering education to a more fundamental basis. Following a postdoctoral year with Marshall Fixman at the University of Oregon’s Institute for Theoretical Science, he joined the Department of Chemical Engineering at Berkeley in 1965 as, successively, Assistant, Associate, and full Professor.

In his PhD research, Williams investigated the rheology of polymeric liquids in solution and in melts. His interest in the molecular and continuum underpinnings of nonlinear fluid flow continued throughout his career. At Berkeley, Williams’ early work pioneered rheometric experiments on polymer solutions characterizing their viscoelastic, normal-stress, and elongational properties and explaining them theoretically. In the late 1960s, Williams initiated an effort lasting more than two decades on shear-induced hemolysis of blood, including the roles of material chemistry, surface roughness, aging, blood-storage temperature, and protein and polymer protectants. He gave a departmental seminar at that time with the tongue-in-cheek title “Blood Bath at Berkeley,” thereby causing considerable commotion in the media.

Williams continued to branch from his fundamental rheological studies, tackling drag reduction by aqueous polymer additives that dampen hydrodynamic fluctuations. In a faculty collaboration with Edward Grens, he extended the drag-reduction effort to consider polymer additives that minimize aviation-fuel explosions by preventing misting. Later, Williams and his faculty colleague Simon Goren studied deposition of aerosols on plant leaves to reduce water evaporation and improve crop yields. During the 1980s in response to interest in coal liquefaction, Williams investigated the rheology of aqueous coal suspensions including, in particular, the role of particle asphericity. In all of these studies, Williams launched fields that remain active today.

Throughout his career, Williams maintained his strong interest in the fundamentals of polymer rheology. He became fascinated by the molecular behavior of polymer melts and in the possibility that they might segregate into microphases even when molten. After moving from Berkeley to the University of Alberta in 1990, he pursued this question for several decades using rheology, differential scanning calorimetry, electron microscopy, and molecular dynamics. Over his academic career at Berkeley and UA, Williams published over 170 research publications. His work is characterized by inventiveness, thoroughness, and most of all, painstaking attention to detail.

Mike was a dedicated and greatly appreciated teacher of both undergraduate and graduate courses. Appropriately, he received the Distinguished Teaching Award of the Berkeley campus in 1988. In the arena of service, Mike would dive wholeheartedly into a project and deal with it exhaustively in detail. He was legendary for composing long, handwritten notes on how to improve departmental teaching and procedures. His most distinctive contribution was the Gilman Hall Newsletter, which he started in 1976 and edited through 1981. The GHN, published twice a year, was intended for alumni, faculty, and friends of the department and was full of news of current departmental events, faculty and alumni doings, and interesting data. It remains the definitive chronicle of what happened in and around the Berkeley chemical engineering department in those times.

Mike was fully dedicated to the well-being of the department in many ways. In the early 1970s when undergraduate enrollments in chemical engineering started to decline, he organized a series of Saturday visits to the department for Bay Area high school students, so that they could get a sense of the research being done by the faculty and see its relevance to societal needs. These visits also included a brief description of the undergraduate program. In a related effort, he organized connections between faculty members and various community colleges so as to encourage and facilitate transfer. These programs were very well received and did, in fact, lead to some of the students deciding to choose chemical engineering as their major. And in the late 1980s, when the department undertook a long examination of its undergraduate program in response to “Frontiers in Chemical Engineering: Research Needs and Opportunities” (the “Amundsen” Report released by the National Research Council in 1988), Mike actively led the discussions concerning the teaching of transport phenomena.

Williams’ first Berkeley PhD student, K. S. Gandhi, subsequently a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur and the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore, notes: “He gave his research students utmost freedom to pursue their paths. He was gentle and never pressured us though I am sure he was straining to find funds to support us and facing pressures as he was an assistant professor waiting to be tenured when I joined. I had this urge to take a lot of courses since I wanted to learn a whole lot in the class room. I took courses almost into my fourth year, and he never objected. He gave me full freedom. It was not just about academics.”

As already noted, Mike moved to the University of Alberta in 1990, where he continued his research program. His accomplishments were recognized by the Stanley Mason Award of the Canadian Society of Rheology in 2000. He retired in 2002 and remained in Edmonton for the rest of his life.

Mike was an inveterate sports fan, following professional sports, the Cal Bears, and intramural campus sports, wherein he was a valued participant in college and departmental softball teams. He also served as faculty representative for the Cal women’s softball team. He attended many Cal games with his children, providing them with some glorious memories, including “The Play” from the 1982 Stanford football game.

Mike passed away on January 2, 2021. Surviving family members are daughters, Marie Williams and Elizabeth Hughes; sons, David and Stephen Williams; former wife, Judith Zimmerman Williams; close friend from the Alberta years, Monica Molina; grandchildren Payson, Chase and Sierra Williams and Ashley Littman; and great-grandchildren Gavin and Makayla Littman.

Judson King
Alexis T. Bell
Clayton J. Radke