March 21, 1921 — July 7, 2013
William Jordan Knox of Davis took his insatiable curiosity with him when he passed away at home on July 7 at the age of 92.
Knox, an emeritus professor of physics at the University of California, Davis, was a witty and generous polymath. He read everything, from Patrick O’Brien sea stories to the densest philosophy, with equal relish. He was always ready to explain the phenomena of the cosmos in colorful and accessible terms, from the molecular to the galactic in scale; one Japanese colleague translated his name into characters that meant, loosely, “he who considers the very great and the very small.” Knox loved being outdoors, whether body surfing in the ocean, hiking his beloved Sierra in search of the elusive Washington lily, or tinkering to achieve the hottest chiles, the sweetest melons and the biggest pumpkins in his prodigious gardens.
Descended from settlers who came to California with Father Serra and subsequent expeditions, Knox was born in Pomona when it was a farm community among orange and walnut groves. He attended UC Berkeley, and while still an undergraduate in chemistry was selected by Glenn Seaborg to become a member of the secret Manhattan Project team tasked with creating the atomic bomb. Throughout World War II, Knox shuttled among sites including Fermi Laboratory in Chicago; Hanford, Washington; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, working on production and separation of plutonium, which was used in the first atomic bomb tested in New Mexico. He was proud to have been one of the Manhattan Project scientists to sign a letter urging President Truman to detonate the bomb at sea as a demonstration of its might rather than to drop it on a city. After the war, Knox received his Ph.D. in physics from UC Berkeley, worked at the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington on peaceful uses for nuclear energy, and was an assistant professor at Yale University before moving to Davis in 1960. At UC Davis, he helped develop the physics program, serving as chairman, while the department grew rapidly through the 1960s and 1970s. For many years, he also served in the University of California Academic Senate.
Knox met his wife, Barbara, and many of his lifelong friends, while living at International House at UC Berkeley; friends remember him bouncing up and down the I-House steps on a pogo stick, wearing a beanie cap with a propeller on it. He was an accomplished pianist, who also sang and played guitar with friends. He and Barbara married in Southampton, England, in 1948. During their 65-year marriage, they continued to travel, entertain, and host foreign students and professors. They spent summers in a cabin at Echo Lake — sailing, hiking, swimming and watching the Perseid meteor showers.
Knox was among the first in Davis to protest the war in Vietnam in 1963, and he took his four children to peace marches in San Francisco. He was an early and active supporter of the civil rights movement, and was active in local politics, including serving as treasurer for Dick Holdstock’s City Council campaign in 1972.
Friends and family will miss his deadpan sense of humor and lopsided smile. He is survived by Barbara; daughters Margaret (Dan Baum) and Sarah (David Zander); sons William Jr. (Kate Markey) and Reggie (Michelle Jarnagin); grandchildren Alan Knox, Adele Markey, Rosa Baum, Paul Zander, Isaac Mirzadegan, Tomás Jarnagin-Cleary and Genevieve Jarnagin Knox; and brother Edgar Knox (Louisiana).