Physicist Bennett dies

William R. Bennett Jr., former Yale professor, master of Silliman College and groundbreaking physicist, died June 29 of esophageal cancer at his home in Haverford, Pennsylvania. He was 78.

“The human body is like a machine,” Bennett’s son William remembered his pragmatic father saying many years ago. “Parts wear out.”

Bennett was born January 30, 1930 in Jersey City, New Jersey to physicist William Bennett and Viola Schreiber.

Bennett and his wife of nearly 56 years, Frances, were members of the Yale community for 38 of them. He became a tenured professor in 1962, and was Silliman’s master from 1981 to 1987. He taught popular courses on the physics of music and the computer as a research tool, for which he was named one of Yale’s top ten professors for many years in a row. He and his wife retired to Pennsylvania in 2000 to be closer to his eldest daughter Jean and her family.

Bennett, the C. Baldwin Sawyer Professor Emeritus of Engineering and Applied Science and Physics, may be best known for his pioneering role in the invention of the first gas laser in 1960 at Bell Laboratories. Although this first laser used helium and neon, Bennett’s research on spectroscopy and collisions of the second kind continued with other noble gases such as argon, krypton and xenon.

Bennett has left a far-reaching legacy, one visible in everything from CD players to grocery store scanners to nearly every fight sequence in Star Wars.

His argon laser provided the first and, to this day, most effective prevention of blindness in diabetes and is still the most widely used laser in all eye surgeries. Bennett himself benefited from his invention when an argon laser was used to repair his detached retina.

On Saturday, friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances braved the rain to fill the Silliman Common Room in a memorial service dedicated to the prolific physicist. They did not gather to laud his scientific achievements, as impressive as they were. Instead the crowd came to listen to heartwarming, often humorous stories about a beloved husband and father, an amiable and charismatic man.

Bennett’s son, also William, said jokingly to a standing room-only crowd before the start of the service, “We had no idea Dad had so many friends.”

“He had a lot more than this,” someone in the crowd replied.

“Well it’s a good thing we had bad weather,” William quipped.

Most of those who spoke at the gathering touched upon Bennett’s passion for music. Eugene Commins, Frances Bennett’s brother, read a letter sent from Bennett’s younger sister Carol Ann Bennett Valles, who was unable to attend the ceremony. In it, she wrote that she still remembers the sound of applause after a clarinet solo he performed as an undergraduate at Princeton.

“He could have been a professional musician,” she wrote. “But maybe it’s better for physics that he was not.”

Music was always a great passion of Bennett’s.

“Music was my dad’s religion,” said son William, now the principal oboist in the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

The family recounted numerous stories of the role it played in their lives, from chamber music sessions in the living room, to a harsh dinnertime critique of a confiscated copy of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” to his first “organ transplant,” when he installed a full pipe organ in the summer home he built in Colrain, Massachusetts.

At the time of his death, Bennett had completed around one thousand pages — 75 percent — of a new manuscript entitled “The Science of Musical Sound.” Commins, who together with Bennett was a graduate student in the physics department at Columbia in the early 1950s, said upon reviewing the hundreds of equations in the text, he could not find a single error.

Robert von Gutfeld, a senior research scientist in the chemical engineering department, often accompanied Bennett on cello.

“He was an icon of everything the world could possibly want,” he said.

At the end of the memorial service, William played a crackly recording of that Princeton solo, Mozart’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A Major.

Those in the crowded common room Saturday hung on every note, remembering a teacher and friend.

Bennett is survived by his wife Frances, children Jean, William, and Nancy, sister Carol Ann, five grandchildren and a German shepherd named Bartok.

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